“Urbanization”

Like many U.S. communities large or small, there’s a debate afoot in Newton, MA about the merits of “development” and “growth,” as has occurred every decade without fail, probably since the earliest second ship landed in an American community after a first ship already had.

Below is an excerpt from one of a number of rather frustrating recent local commentaries against urbanization and densification of Newton, Massachusetts. I wanted to link to the long one published this week, but it wasn’t online yet — and this one will do for my purposes, as the specific people involved are less relevant to my analysis than the sentiments expressed:

Newton is the home we cherish. We value its character, history and scale. Newton residents are deeply invested in their community, both economically and emotionally. Whether they have been living here for decades or recently moved here, most residents chose Newton precisely for its suburban qualities, not because they hope to see it grow ever more urban.
[…]
All discussion of “smart growth,” “transit-oriented development,” and “right-sizing” is misdirected because Newton is already “right-sized.” Newton is not yet overcrowded, but risks becoming so.

[…]
In truth, Newton is a suburb, not a city, so imbued with the character of its 13 villages that it has little in common with a typical urban environment. Newton has benefited from transit-oriented development for more than a century, as businessmen who worked in Boston found that the railroad and later the trolley could bring them to work in Boston each morning in half an hour, then home again in the evening, allowing them to live with their families in an environment of clean air, tree-shaded streets and yards, and wide lawns. Remarkably, all these years later, we still enjoy the same advantages. And most residents would probably agree that neither biking, jogging, or walking is improved by denser development.

 
It takes a certain amount of self-absorption and myopia to genuinely believe that these suburban locales (which, I can verify after knocking on doors for campaigns in several states, all basically look identical) are somehow unique snowflakes, with incomparable community values, visual aesthetic, and appeal to home buyers. It takes an additional dash of naivete to genuinely believe that a community one is about to move into will remain unchanged forever.

A certain attitude

The attitude captured above — generally coming from any place’s “longtime residents,” who in Newton’s case lord that status over everyone despite almost universally having moved into the area half a century or more after my own family — is fairly typical of most communities like this. It boils down to “develop this far, and no further.”

It’s a view that says it was ok that everything changed hugely right up until my arrival, after which it must freeze in place and never, ever change again, even as the population grows and societies become more complex. It’s pulling the ladder up behind one’s self and slamming the door shut. I don’t think it’s as much NIMBYism as a reactionary fear of the unknown and fear of change. It’s gatekeeping via arbitrary construction limits to prevent new residences, thus obviating the need to become an actual gated community.

Sometimes I want to tell suburbanites complaining about “urbanization” and “pro-density” policies that the existence of their houses in the once-undivided miles of fields behind the house I grew up in is affecting my hay production for the local horse-drawn carriage industry. And the ice man is having trouble keeping up with the growing population’s ice box needs.
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In Mass., Goldman wants in on prison profit stream

new-york-stock-exchange-200Recently, in some states, Goldman Sachs has been issuing “social impact bonds,” a new financial instrument that purports to help cure social ills with Wall Street’s “help.”

In this case, they’re loaning $9 million to the state of Massachusetts to help support a Boston organization that tries to help young offenders from bouncing back into prison. (Reducing young recidivism is a good social goal, obviously, and would have a ripple effect on crime prevention.)

If the effort reduces the number of days past inmate spend back in prison — which would save the state money — the savings would go back to Goldman Sachs, up to a million dollars. If the effort really pays off (above and beyond the bond repayment terms), then the state would get to keep the money. Of course, if the effort doesn’t hit the minimum targets needed to generate enough savings, Goldman Sachs would still get interest payments on the bond, but would lose the principal loan ($9 million or however much of it couldn’t be repaid due to insufficient savings).

As private investments in the prison industry go, it’s not the worst thing in the world. At least the profit incentive is toward rehabilitation rather than toward further imprisonment in the way privatized prisons are. But the question is why is it even necessary to involve the private sector middleman in the first place?

The state could pay for the upfront cost of the program through tax revenues (if it were willing to raise taxes, of course), instead of taking a loan, it would keep all the money and not end up paying Wall Street no matter how things turn out. That money could be reinvested into expanding the successful efforts even more, thus benefiting all taxpayers.

In my opinion, the job of corrections and the rehabilitation of young offenders is part of the role of government. The private sector is free to help, but it should be an add-on to the process, not a redundant profit diversion mechanism in the middle.

Moreover, Goldman Sachs has a pretty notorious history of cooking the books (BBC video) to make money while temporarily making their loan recipient governments look like a success story until Goldman’s gotten all its money back.

And that’s not a good track record to have, going into this plan.

 
h/t Universal Hub

State of the Governors’ Races in 2014 (with charts & maps!)

There are a huge number of races for governor up for election this year (which is true of any midterm year since most states adopted four-year terms aligned with the non-presidential cycle). 36 states — almost three-quarters of the states — will be electing or re-electing governors in November of this year, as you can see on the map below:

U.S. state governorships by party (red=R, blue=D). Asterisks mark 2014 races (not capitals!)

U.S. state governorships by party (red=R, blue=D). Asterisks mark 2014 races (not capitals!)

That’s a lot to take in. All of New England, most of the Mountain West and the Plains States, and so on. 36 states are on the board, and Republicans won a lot of them in the 2010 wave, which puts them in a good position overall, given the power of incumbency. But how do we analyze the state of the races more logically and clearly?

In the chart below, I’ve broken it down in an easy-to-read list form, with the states listed in either the Democratic or Republican column, based on current occupant (there are currently no independents in the state governorships). There are boxes around the retiring or term-limited current governors.
governor-states-list

In that graphic, I’ve also put in italics the states that are most likely to be within reach. It’s not exhaustive, of course, just the likeliest. I based that determination — since I confess to being unable to keep up with all 36 races closely — on a) incumbent favorability from a year ago in the last Fivethirtyeight analysis I could find on the governors, and b) whether the voters have a solid preference for one party or the other in the governorship of their state.

In other words:

  • a very popular incumbent is very likely to be re-elected (if running)
  • a reasonably popular incumbent is pretty likely to be re-elected, even in a swing state
  • a very unpopular incumbent is relatively likely to lose if running even in a solid state and could flip the office by negative association even if not running
  • a state with a strong preference for one party in the governorship will likely not flip it to the other party whether or not the incumbent is running, even if quite unpopular
  • but a state with a tendency to swing (or to elect a governor opposite to its overall preference) is somewhat more likely to flip an open seat to the other party

It’s a bit subjective and un-statistical, but it’s a good way to break down the problem when there are 36 races to analyze and too much data to crunch without being Fivethirtyeight or the like.

Using that assessment system, I concluded that there is a relatively narrow set of races that are fairly likely to be competitive come November.

Democrats’ biggest vulnerabilities — in my eyes — are Illinois, Massachusetts, and Arkansas. Let’s take those one at a time.

  • Illinois: Gov. Pat Quinn (D) was an accidental governor elevated during the Blagojevich scandal. He won a very hard-fought race in 2010 to hold onto the office for his own full term. Now he is even more unpopular than he was in 2010, when he survived the Republican wave, and I don’t think the race is going well. That said, there’s very little recent data, and he’s come back from the brink once before.
  • Massachusetts: Democrat Deval Patrick hung on in a 3-way race in 2010 but is retiring. Runner-up Charlie Baker (R) has generally been campaigning strongly in his repeat effort, while Democrats have fragmented between terrible, uninspiring, and unheard-of candidates. On top of this, Massachusetts has had a string of moderate Republicans between Dukakis and Patrick, with voters often seeming to prefer the office to counterbalance the single-party rule of the Democratic legislature. Dems may still hang on — indeed, leading contender Martha Coakley is currently polling well ahead of Charlie Baker (which means very little given her past track record and sketchy Bay State polling histories) — but the seat is very vulnerable.
  • Arkansas: The state has Republican supermajorities in the legislature, has a term-limited Democratic Governor, Mike Beebe, who recently often seemed like the last Democratic oak standing in a Southern desert. The other windswept tree in the state, Sen. Mark Pryor, is in the political fight of his life right now. (I don’t have a good sense of how the Senate race will affect the governor’s race, if at all.) Dems seem to have a recruited a solid candidate to try to save the governorship, but it will be difficult. The RCP average has a close race, but the PPP poll within that average shows an 8 point advantage for the Republican.

Republicans’ biggest vulnerabilities — in my eyes — are Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And now let’s take those one at a time:

  • Florida: Rick Scott (R) is a terrible and very unpopular governor. Republican-turned-Democratic former Gov. Charlie Crist, his opponent, is far more popular and is polling relatively far ahead. Maybe Scott turns this around, but probably not.
  • Maine: Paul LePage (R) is also a terrible and very unpopular governor, who is also (ideologically) a crazy person. He was only elected in a 3-way race in 2010, where the sane people made the mistake of splitting their votes between the other two candidates. Maine isn’t planning to repeat that mistake this year. Haha, just kidding: It’ll be a 3-way race again and probably a nail-biter to the end, between LePage and Congressman Mike Michaud (D). LePage is doing better (somehow) in polls more recently than he was for most of last year.
  • Michigan: I am of the opinion that Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been a horrendous governor for Michigan. He was, last year, almost as unpopular as LePage was in Maine. Democrats have coalesced behind a solid recruit, a U.S. Congressman, Mark Schauer. Nevertheless, Snyder seems to be a good campaigner with a lot of powerful friends (i.e. interest groups) and a ruthless agenda that the tea partiers love. He’s doing well in the polling, unfortunately.
  • Pennsylvania: 2010 was a great year for Pennsylvania Republicans. However, Gov. Tom Corbett has been such a bad governor (and was dragged down further by the Penn State scandal) that he will probably be the first governor since the state allowed multiple terms in 1970 to lose re-election to a second term. These “unbroken precedents” in U.S. politics — most of which date back only as far as the 1970s — always tend get broken right after they’re declared ironclad. While researching this post, I saw some posts arguing that he will actually win. (Good fundraiser, incumbency precedent, his past big victories, past popularity before it tanked, etc.) But he’s trailing by high single digits in most polls at minimum and by double digits against several candidates in a lot of polls.

So there are about seven seats to watch right now. It might expand to 10 or drop to 5 as we get closer to November. My guess is that Republicans will lose a few of these seats — which isn’t surprising given how many they are defending — but will retain an overall edge and even pick up at least a couple. That basically means it’s probably going to be roughly a wash overall, without changing much nationally. I think that may be echoed in many of the other contests this year: Republicans will end up in about the same position they were when they started, but still ahead by a bit.

Massachusetts Republicans are a fringe party

While I recognize that state party platforms are often pretty meaningless and individual candidates often don’t agree with them anymore, I think it’s still worth noting — nay, stopping still to stare in open-mouthed amazement at — the fact that the Massachusetts Republicans’ 2014 platform is, drumroll please…

  • opposed to same-sex marriage
  • opposed to abortion rights

Let’s check in on where folks in Massachusetts stand on that:

a September poll [in 2013] found that 85% of Massachusetts voters saw a positive or little to no impact from gay marriages in the commonwealth. In the poll, voters in the state support legalizing gay marriage 60% to 29%.

 
In the same poll, if you go to the crosstabs, you find

  • 78% of Democrats say same-sex marriage should be allowed
  • 53% of independents agree

The platform is actually consistent with the 60% of Massachusetts Republicans saying they do not think same-sex marriage should be allowed…but that’s in large part because everyone else became independents or Democrats to escape the crazy, leaving the Republican Party to be a mirror opposite of state opinion.

And more importantly, identifying with the 29% of overall voters who oppose same-sex marriage — in a state where 85% say it’s been a positive or had no impact a decade after legalization — is not a good way to get Republicans elected in the state. Without significant support from Massachusetts independents, who tend to be fiscally conservative but socially indifferent, Republicans remain a tiny majority out of power.

It seems kind of needlessly self-destructive too, including that in the platform, considering even 61% of Republicans in that poll admitted same-sex marriage had had no impact on their lives.
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Letter: Discrimination in St. Patrick’s Day parade

ireland-flagI submitted this letter to the editor of the Boston Globe last week — I don’t think they published it — regarding this story, which has been brewing for quite some time.

It’s absurd in 2014 that the organizers of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade are still trying to block open LGBTQ participation. The day is an annual cultural and community tradition, and one certainly long-separated from any religious aspect. The parade aims to celebrate one of Boston’s communities – Irish-Americans – that, like every ethnic community, has LGBTQ members within it. The organizers are telling their own community that not everyone is welcome to be proud of their ethnic heritage. LGBTQ people have always been with us and aren’t going away. Every poll indicates that’s ok with about 9 in 10 Bay Staters. Rather than representing an integral part of Boston, the parade organizers have proven themselves deeply unrepresentative. (As an Irish-American, I certainly don’t feel represented by them.) Instead, they prattle on about “wrong messages” like it’s 1980. Get with the times. If you’re going to host a public parade on city streets, with city facilitation, then no discriminating against any of the city’s residents. The organizers should be ashamed of themselves.

 
While it’s perhaps not my primary self-identity, I am, in fact, old-school Irish-American. Pre-Potato Famine. My first Irish ancestor arrived during the American Revolution to help fight the British, who were still repressively occupying Ireland at the time. He fought in the Battle of Bennington in upstate New York. I don’t take kindly to people trying to suppress other people’s freedoms and identities, particularly when it’s coming from Irish-Americans, who’ve faced their share of terrible discrimination and should do better.

Boston gun control billboard updated

Many folks from the greater Boston area are quite familiar with the huge anti-gun-violence billboard that’s been up in Boston for nearly two decades, outside Fenway Park along the Mass Pike. It’s reportedly the largest billboard in America.

Every so often, the Stop Handgun Violence group responsible for it, changes the specific message, though its focus is usually related to gun deaths of children. They have just updated it with a counter showing the number of gun deaths in the United States since the Sandy Hook massacre a year ago. You can read their press release here.

Credit: Anne Mostue of WGBH Boston.

Credit: Anne Mostue of WGBH Boston.

Meanwhile, even today there was another school shooting, just miles from Columbine High School. In a separate incident, a young mother was shot when she tried to take a handgun away from a 23 month old baby, who was playing it with it. Over five hundred children are killed every year in America due to gun accidents in the home and other gunshot incidents.

The Boston Globe published a front page story on Thursday, entitled:
Newtown far from a catalyst for gun control: In a year since school shootings, many states loosen their laws

President Obama […] made it his personal mission: “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

Much of the politics, in the end, turned against him. Today, it is easier, not harder, to carry a gun in many parts of the nation than it was before the Newtown massacre last Dec. 14.

More than 1,500 bills were filed in state legislatures amid a chorus of grieving voices from shattered families. And while several reliably blue states enacted major reforms, far more states, more than two dozen, passed laws that weakened gun control. Many expanded the number of places where concealed weapons are permitted.

The federal effort, championed by Obama, failed in April in the face of Senate opposition to expanded background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and limits on ammunition magazines. In Colorado, two state senators were recalled by voters for supporting tougher gun restrictions in the wake of horrific killings at a movie theater in Aurora. A third state senator resigned rather than face a recall.

Yes, more states rolled back controls than those who expanded them.

Recall in Rhode Island

Just next door to both Massachusetts and Connecticut, the little town of Exeter Rhode Island has exploded in vitriol as gun advocates campaign to recall four town council members who dared to try to move concealed-carry permitting from the overwhelmed and under-resourced town clerk’s office to the state attorney general’s office, which used to handle it anyway as recently as 2011.

Under Rhode Island law, it’s much easier to get a local permit than a state permit, so many gun owners get theirs through the local authorities who are less free to refuse permits. What’s the distinction?

State law mandates that local authorities “shall” grant the permit to a qualified applicant — but the attorney general “may” issue a permit, giving that office more discretion.

In general, Rhode Island towns and cities do local licensing through their police force, but the town of Exeter is too small to have its own police force. So a few years ago, a town council member who also happens to own a gun store, insisted the town clerk had to start issuing the licenses instead, even though they were not adequately prepared to handle the task.

Shortly thereafter, the other council members decided that they should actually probably hand it off to the state attorney general’s office, which could do more thorough checks on applicants but who also had more authority to deny permits. The (now-former) town councilman who owns a gun store has led a nasty recall election campaign against the four members (out of five) who pragmatically and for safety reasons thought the matter should be referred to professionals (though it would require a state legislative act to codify the exemption and thus hasn’t even taken effect yet).

This is literally the smallest possible measure of gun control possible — restoring the situation to how it was two years ago with a one word distinction in the level of permit availability — and yet the gun advocates are trying to run everyone out of office. (In a particularly bizarre twist, the recall process there stipulates that offices recalled are filled by the losing candidate in the previous election.)

The campaign has been extremely vicious and filled with lots of big cash from the wider gun rights movement, as well as allegations that during the petition phase the pro-gun side told senior citizens the council members were secretly trying to raise their property taxes.

Voters there will head to the polls tomorrow.

Scott Brown still Scottbrowning around, in NH now

scott-brownLast seen as an incumbent losing a general election by 8 points in the next state over (Massachusetts), Scott Brown is not only will-he-won’t-he shadow campaigning for Senate in New Hampshire but is already playing the ever-absurd “not-ruling-out-running-for-president” game. That has even involved going to Iowa to find out, as he put it to the local papers, “whether there’s an interest in my brand of leadership and Republicanism.” Ridiculous cart before the ridiculous horse.

Money quote:

“Scott Brown has always been in love with himself, and this is just a vanity tour,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

I wish he would just go away quietly for a while. I’m honestly surprised the New Hampshire Republicans are even entertaining, perhaps even welcoming, such blatant carpetbagging.