Density or Exclusion: the Perils of Local Zoning

In my last post, I suggested that while we like to think of housing as an investment, it’s really more like a crappy savings plan, potentially redeemed by the fact that you can live inside the piggy bank. Land can be a profitable speculative investment, but allowing land to appreciate and drag the cost of housing upward in real terms is fundamentally incompatible with housing being affordable.

Economists (including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Paine, Henry George, Thomas Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Matt Yglesias) have highlighted the negative impacts of allowing land owners to collect monopolistic “ground rents” but nobody seems to care. So now tens of trillions of dollars worth of real estate in the US is predicated on the idea that landowners get to retain these speculative gains. Barring a glorious Georgist Revolution, this is probably the arrangement we have to work within.

Build, Baby Build!

Luckily, in a city with increasing land values, where property owners get to keep all of those unearned financial gains, there’s an All American Capitalist Solution™ of sorts, which can potentially keep housing affordable, even when land is expensive: build more housing on less land. By building densely, high land costs can be shared across more households, reducing the overall impacts of expensive land, and allowing home buyers & renters to pay primarily for housing instead of land.

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Ownership vs. Stewardship, Companies vs. Co-ops

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After more than two decades of growth and success, Fort Collins based New Belgium Brewing became 100% employee owned three years ago, with the employee stock ownership plan buying out the 59% of the company previously held by its founders.  Today it sounds like they might be putting themselves on the auction block. With around 500 employees, and a potential valuation of a billion dollars, it’s not too hard to understand the temptation.  That’s $2 million worth of company value per employee.

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A Carbon Price for Colorado

In May of 2013 I gave a talk at Clean Energy Action’s Global Warming Solutions Speaker Series in Boulder, on how we might structure a carbon pricing scheme in Colorado.  You can also download a PDF of the slides and watch an edited version of that presentation via YouTube:

What follows is a more structured written exploration of the same ideas.

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Share Everything

Share Everything: Why the Way We Consume Has Changed Forever.  Sharing material goods makes it cheaper to use high quality, durable, well designed things, and the higher utilization factor means that many fewer things need to exist to satisfy everyone’s needs.  It works especially well in urban areas where the geographic transactional overhead is small.  This is a big piece of the dematerialization of our economy, and one of the most underappreciated reasons cities are a core climate solution.

As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why

The New York Times looks at our national policy of paying to rebuild vulnerable coastal communities, no matter how ill advised their developments might be.  In effect, we’ve encouraged people to upscale their beachfront shanties into expensive vacation homes, increasing the value at risk next time a storm hits.  As the seas rise, ever more money will be sent down this gopher hole.  Instead, we should prohibit future development, map out the most vulnerable locations, and draw up buy-out offers ahead of time, so when disaster strikes, it can be used as an opportunity to re-direct investment into less risky areas.

Ripe For Retirement: The Case for Closing America’s Costliest Coal Plants

The Union of Concerned Scientists has gone through the catalog of America’s coal plants, and found hundreds of mostly small, old, polluting, inefficient generating units that just aren’t worth operating any more, even on a purely economic basis.  They looked at several different sets of assumptions, including different natural gas prices going forward, a price on carbon, whether or not the competing natural gas fired generation would need to built new, or whether it existed already with its capital costs paid off, and whether or not the production tax credit for wind ends up being renewed.  In all of the scenarios considered, they found substantial coal fired generation that should be shut down on purely economic grounds, above and beyond the 288 generating units that are already slated for retirement in the next few years.  They also found that some companies — especially those in traditionally regulated monopoly utility markets in the Southeast — are particularly reluctant to retire uneconomic plants, perhaps because they can effectively pass on their costs to ratepayers, who remain none the wiser.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

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As the entire eastern seaboard slowly recovers from its lashing by Sandy, insurance companies are bracing for the hurricane’s aftermath and the possibility of another Katrina-scale loss.  If there’s any major incumbent business with an incentive to publicly acknowledge the risks and costs of climate change, it’s the insurance industry, and especially the re-insurers — mega-corps that backstop individual insurance companies by pooling their risks globally.  These companies can do the math, and what they’ve seen over the last couple of decades is a steady upward trend in both the number of extreme weather events and the resulting insured losses that they’ve been on the hook to cover.  The situation is well summarized in a new report from Ceres, entitled Stormy Futures for U.S. Property/Casualty Insurers.  They suggest that insurers face an existential risk from climate change.

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