Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Great Water Conservation Hoax

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

OK class, put down your pencils and pick up your latest East Bay MUD bill. You may need a calculator… especially if you’re not all that good at gauging proportions. You should notice a subcategory under “Water Charges” called “Drought Surcharge.” This surcharge is assessed in “units” or 738 gallon increments. Should you be so profligate in your consumption as to “over consume” almost 1,500 gallons of water you will be dinged a whopping $4.00 on your bimonthly statement.

Further down the page you’ll see two other categories: “Wastewater Charges - EBMUD“, and “City of Oakland Sewer Service.” These two should combine to over $70.00. The City of Oakland charge is a flat fee, irrespective of water consumption. The EBMUD charge is based on your water consumption. If you flushed your toilet once a day… but had a large lawn to keep green… you’ll be paying a lot for wastewater treatment… even though you really won’t be producing much in the way of wastewater. But who said life was fair?

The big overview here is that, when you pay your “water” bill… you’re mostly paying for sewage treatment. Increases in the cost of water due to periodic droughts are insignificant as a percentage of the bill. The dirty little secret is that when there is a “water emergency” Bay Area residents conserve to such a great degree that the local sewage districts have to flush their systems with fresh water… both to move some of the heavier solids and to dilute the effluent so it can be properly processed. But, there’s an even dirtier and not so little secret about water conservation. It’s meaningless. [Oh, those right wingers… they’re so full of crap.] There’s a man named William Kahrl… and he’s no right winger… but he is a skeptic when it comes to domestic water conservation. Who is he? He’s as close as anyone has come to being a guru to California hydrology. First, he edited The California Water Atlas for the State Department of Water Resources. Then, he wrote Water and Power (mostly about the LADWP) in 1982... Which was selected by the New York Times as one of the best books of that year.

Well, about 16 years ago Mr. Kahrl had an article in California Journal about the folly of domestic water conservation. In this article he laid out the simple math: In California, agriculture uses 85% of all water that is consumed by people. Of the remaining 15%, households consume 4% of the aggregate whole. The remaining 11% is used commercially and in landscape irrigation. By being compelled to use “low-flush” toilets, “low-flow” shower heads… and who knows what else… both compulsory and voluntary… should households reduce their water consumption by 25%, then… [now the calculation]… 25% of 4% equals [tada!] one percent. A measly one percent of the total water demand is saved by all of these extreme measures combined. This could be considered to be less than the margin of error. Now, the 85-15 ratio has shifted over the years. I’m not quite sure what it is today… but urban/domestic use has increased and agricultural use has decreased. It’s probably about 80/20 now. Household water conservation is still meaningless.I asked an expert on water rights at UC Davis about Kahrl’s discounting of household water conservation. “Well,” he said, “conservation at least gets people thinking in the right way.” EXACTLY! It’s all about perpetrating frauds and hoaxes on gullible masses so the ethos will change. The environmental credo can be summed up on a simple bumper sticker:

We May Not be Able to Save the Planet

But We Can at Least Lower the Quality of Life

About the same time as Kahrl’s article appeared in California Journal, I had the opportunity to discuss with a well known climatologist the future of drought patterns in Northern California. He, Orman Granger of UCB, told me that the overlying trend was for our region to receive more rain and less snow. The implication being that snow pack would be less and less sufficient to meet our water needs and that we needed more reservoirs closer to the coast to catch local runoff. Snow pack is the ideal means of water storage… hardly any construction is needed and, as the demand for water increases with warmer weather, the snow melts faster and the creeks rise.Some Bay Area communities rely almost entirely on local runoff… such as Marin and parts of the Peninsula. The problems are more political than technical when it comes to tying all of these areas into “the grid.” But, during periods of drought they’re the first to sound the alarm… due to lack of depth in their systems.

Karl A. Wittfogel, in the mid twentieth century, coined the term “hydraulic civilization.” His theory was that early governments were invented in order to build water projects… without that requirement such a high level of social organization was not all that necessary.

[you can go to: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/DM_state.htm?CA,W …for a map of drought regions in California]

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Oakland To Lay Off 200 Cops? Go Ahead, I Say

It sounds as if Oakland's plan to play brinkmanship with the Obama administration over laying off cops may be falling on deaf ears.

From the sound of things, the federal government's willingness to pay for local cops may top out at 50 officers, far short of the 140 Oakland would like to receive. Worse yet, receiving funding for 50 officers will not meet the minimum staffing requirement to collect Measure Y, so the city may well wind up short more like 200 officers.

Meanwhile, the Oakland police officers' union has not yet indicated a willingness to accept a renegotiation of the union's contract, which still has a year of life remaining. If the union decides to try and enforce the existing contract rather than negotiating, that could put the city even further in the hole.

The whole point of threatening to lay off 140 officers, of course, was to provide the city with as strong a case as possible for receiving stimulus funds to pay for more cops.

Too bad the federal government has received more than $8 billion in requests for about $1 billion in stimulus funding.

In my opinion, the reasonable initial respose to hearing this news is concern for the city. With such a dramatic decrease in police protection, we are bound to experience an upsurge in crime of all sorts.

Worse yet, if the city can no longer collect the money from Measure Y, we'll be losing one of our regressive parcel taxes, which I view as an important component in pushing the city toward gentrification.

But when I think about this state of affairs in more depth, it occurs to me that the coming crime-and-taxation wave may yield benefits to those of us who want to see Oakland become a more livable city.

I think it's pretty obvious how a decrease in police presence would harm law-abiding citizens living in the city's lower-income neighborhoods. But, I don't find such an impact too concerning, because they can simply pick up and move to an adjacent city with a lower crime rate -- that's certainly what I would do if faced with that situation.

The areas north and east of I-580 would not be affected at all. These areas, which I like to call the "gentrification zone," already have sufficiently low rates of crime that I doubt changes in policing would make much of a difference.

Part of my reasoning here is data which suggests that, for whatever reason, criminals tend to victimize those living very close to the criminals -- even if those living further away are far wealthier. This phenomenon helps explain Piedmont's low crime rate, for example.

The criminals themselves would obviously have a field day with reduced policing. But, I expect that field day would be short-lived. As they victimize more and more inner-city residents, those residents will leave, taking their income with them, and draining the criminals of their much-needed loot.

Several cities on the east coast have experienced just this situation -- inner cities becoming so "burned out" that even the criminals eventually leave. Depending on the geographical attractiveness of the area, redevelopment can then take place unburdened by the former residents.

In a place like Detroit, this is a disaster, since the decline of the auto industry leaves no fundamental reason for people to locate there. But in places like Brooklyn and Oakland, a nearby bustling metropolis presents a great opportunity for future gentrifiers.

So, I suspect a decrease in policing in Oakland would lead to a temporary bloodbath, followed by an upsurge in gentrification that we all hope to see improve our city's livability.

My only hope would be that, somehow, the city could continue to collect the Measure Y funds, even though the police staffing requirement could not be met. In doing so, the city would accomplish the trifecta of gentrification -- regressive taxation, rising crime and poised gentrifiers.

Thankfully, I feel confident that our crooked politicans are hard at work this very minute figuring out how to keep collecting that tax. They certainly won't give up that money without a fight.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Knuckle-Dragger's Guide to Social Nuance

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

Here, in the Bay Area, it’s such a marvelous treat to be a conservative. People flock to me at parties whenever I open my mouth. George W. Bush was such a catalyst for positive change… and I’ve received so much praise for voting for him… NOT.

Can you say: Groupthink? For starters, left-liberalism is a behavioral extension of the schoolyard. Ridicule of the appearance of outsiders, fixation on the superficial… and the proffering of silly notions as if they were serious ideas… all in order to get respect and reinforcement from your homeys. Add to this the spoiled brat world view: If I break it Mommy and Daddy will buy me a new one.

Ever notice how ad hoc political discussions turn into personal denigration… at least by the party on the left… rather than into insightful explorations into cause and effect? For a good example of this just scroll down to the earlier blog about Liberalism and the Danger of First-Order Thinking (April 6, 2009)… and see how “L’Etranger” avoids any discussion of cause and effect. He jumps right into character assassination… just like a kid on the school yard. More anecdotal experience follows:

 A lady in my office, knowing that I was from a different planet than she was, came up to me and asked: “Can you explain supply side economics?” I simply told her that if people were taxed less they’d have more money to spend on themselves… increasing both standard of living and the total amount of economic activity. More economic activity leads to more tax revenue even at a lower rate. “Well, that’s just for Bush’s billionaire buddies,” she shot back. I told her that the top 5% of income earners pay over 50% of the income tax. “I don’t believe that,” she replied. “It’s not an opinion,” I said, “it’s true whether you believe it or not.” That was more than she could take, and she walked away. I’m used to that.

Casual discussions at parties often veer into the realm of public policy. “Are you a Republican?” is a common question after a few minutes of discourse… sometimes followed by “There was once a Republican who used to live down the street from me.” As if they’re aliens from outer space passing as humans. My reply is always the same: “I would be a Republican [now this pause is really important]… except they’re too liberal.” After that I get all the wine and snacks to myself.

I was visiting some dear friends… who are both pretty lefty in their approach to public policy. We came to the profound realization that we both agreed on the final outcome. It was the means to that end that was under dispute. We all wanted a middle class world… where people are educated, pragmatic, making strategic plans for their futures. Deferred gratification, industry, thrift… you know. They suggested that the work week be cut from five to four days in order to make room for more opportunities for entry into the middle class. I asked if they were ready to take a 20% cut in their income for this to happen. They were shocked at the suggestion. “Then, where’s the money supposed to come from?” They had no answer. One had a master’s in history and the other was a State Department brat… and yet unable to think through a silly scheme. I told them that our military is, by default, the only reliable path for “underclass” folks to advance up the ladder. All the other “programs” just feed the otherwise unemployed sociology majors who supervise such doomed endeavors. The beauty of the middle class is that ANYBODY CAN JOIN. It’s about behavior… not ancestry. The first we can control. The latter we can’t.

Balzac, in 1840, wrote a story called A Prince of Bohemia. It’s about an aristocrat from a country that was absorbed into the Austrian Empire. Although he was raised to be the scion of a powerful noble family… he wound up in exile and penniless. He made ends meet by giving fencing lessons while living in a Parisian garret (converted attic). He despised the middle class… the nouveaux riche… with their uncultured tastes and other bourgeois foibles. Yet, he relied on these wealthy buffoons for his livelihood. Hence our use of the term “bohemian” to describe many of our own counter-cultures (i.e. beatniks and hippies).

America is the great middle class paradise. That’s why the “tempest tossed” have come here in droves for so many years. Since the 60s we’ve seen emerging middle classes in Asia and Latin America. Africa is, unfortunately, in retrograde motion. There’s still a lot of room for improvement… but progress is inexorable. And that’s a good thing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mandela Foods Coop Alive But Empty

My efforts to bait someone involved with the Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland into a direct debate have failed miserably. But, I have had the opportunity in the past few weeks to visit the recently opened store around six times.

Each visit I've seen the same sort of scene inside the place -- enough so that I think I can authoritatively say that I have some knowledge of the store's current level of failure.

For those new to this issue, the Mandela Coop received several hundred thousand dollars in funding from the City of Oakland a few years ago. Its aim was to provide residents of the generally poor West Oakland region with organic foods.

For over a year, the store pushed back its opening date. Meanwhile, its supporters managed to force the nearby 99 Cents Only store to reduce the amount of produce it sells. The claim was this was not an effort to reduce the number of produce options for local residents. Instead, it was some sort of effort to allow Mandela to compete once it did open.

Well, the store opened a month or two ago, and I am here to report that, as expected, the prices are sky high and the number of shoppers is so low that my guess is most of the produce winds up in the garbage can.

On a recent Friday, I spent a few minutes in both the Mandala Coop and 99 Cents Only, observing shoppers and comparing prices. I noticed that there were about 30 people shopping in 99 Cents Only, including about 10 people purchasing significant amounts of produce -- lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, milk. I also noticed that the clientèle was mostly black, with a sprinkling of many other ethnicities.

Needless to say, prices at the 99 Cents Only store were excellent. It looked to me like a family could eat a nutritious meal for under $5. And, if you wanted to, you could buy something like Top Ramen for $0.29, which may not be so good for you, but it will keep you going in a pinch.

Turning to Mandela Foods, every single shopper I've seen in that store has been a middle-aged white woman. This is across six different trips, staged so as to be at different times of day. In fact, I believe I saw the same woman shopping there on two different occasions.

Each time I went to Mandela Foods, I saw exactly one shopper, as against between three and four employees manning the two cash registers, shelving products and whatnot. The employees seemed lonely, and in one case the man behind the counter tried to strike up a conversation with me. I felt almost sorry for him, as it's not really his fault that he's involved with this ridiculous venture.

The shelves at Mandela Foods were arranged very nicely -- almost as if no shoppers ever come in and move things around (that's a hint).

Prices at Mandela Foods were predictably preposterous. I'm going to try and do a comparison between them and Whole Foods at some point, but it's actually difficult to write down prices, seeing as I am usually one of only two shoppers in the store -- I don't want to draw too much attention to myself.

Generally speaking, it looks to me like a family would need to spend about $20 to buy a reasonable meal at Mandela Foods. This estimate might actually be on the low side of things, but I'm trying to be at least somewhat generous.

I suppose it's too soon to call Mandela Foods a failure, but I'm willing to do so. It just makes no sense to locate a small grocery store with prices like those at Whole Foods in the middle of a poor neighborhood right next to a completely viable discount store.

And, as expected, residents of the neighborhood are voting with their feet -- picking up goods at 99 Cents Only right and left, while they leave Mandela Foods high and dry.

I have no doubt that the Oakland city government will find some reason or another to pick up the tab for the losses that Mandela Foods must be taking. The only advantage of such a decision, as far as I can see, is that it might encourage more middle-aged upper-middle-class white women to move into the area -- a gentrifying force.