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Houston Flooding and Zoning and Development

A lot of nonsense has been written about the causes of flooding in Houston. Anti-immigration people blame immigration. Anti-development people blame development. Anti-Trump people blame Republicans.

The truth, however, is that Houston has flooded regularly since it was founded. Moreover, unlike Katrina, the flood systems have mostly worked as they are supposed to–diverting water to the highways, for example. The problem has been that there is just a lot of water.

In a superb post, Phil Magness has the details. From here on in this is Magness. I won’t indent.


We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change”… several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.

Second, the flooding we saw in Harvey is largely a result of creeks and bayous backlogging and spilling over their banks as more water rushes in from upstream. While parking lot and roadway runoff from “sprawl” certainly makes its way into these streams, it is hardly the source of the problem. The slow-moving and windy Brazos river reached record levels as a result of Harvey and spilled over its banks, despite being nowhere near the city’s “sprawl.” The mostly-rural prairie along Interstate 10 to the extreme west of the city recorded some of the worst flooding in terms of water volume due to the Brazos overflow, although fortunately property damage here will be much lower due to being rural.

Third, the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego in park acreage per capita.*

But even more telling is a 2011 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that actually measured the ratio of impervious-to-pervious land cover within the city limits (basically the amount of water-blocking concrete vs. water-absorbing green land). The study used an index scale to measure water-absorption land uses. A low score (defined as less than 2.0 on the scale) indicates a high presence of green relative to concrete. A high score (defined as greater than 5.0) indicates high concrete and low levels of greenery and other water-absorbing cover. The result are in the map below, showing the city limits. Gray corresponds to high levels of pervious surfaces (or greenery). Black corresponds to high impervious surface use (basically either concrete or lakes that collect runoff). As the map shows, over 90% of the land in the city limits is gray, indicating more greenery and higher water absorption. Although they did not measure unincorporated Harris County, it also tends to be substantially less dense than the city itself.

Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principle cause of the destruction witnessed in Harvey is purely a political move aimed at generating support for a long list of intrusive regulatory policies.

Houston’s flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl.” While steps have been taken over the years to mitigate them and reduce the severity of flooding, a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems. Harvey was one such event – certainly the highest floodwater event to hit Houston in over 80 years, and possibly the worst deluge in its recorded history. But it is entirely consistent with almost 2 centuries of recorded historical patterns. In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.

Read the whole thing for more historical background.

*  Earlier version said second which was a typo as source reports third; other sources can differ depending on year and what exactly is counted.

Forget automation and AI, are goats taking away union jobs? (Malthus! arbitrage!)

University spokeswoman Cheryl Roland said a small goat crew has been on campus this summer, but not to cut grass.

“For the second summer in a row, we’ve brought in a goat crew to clear undergrowth in a woodlot, much of it poison ivy and other vegetation that is a problem for humans to remove,” Roland said. “Not wanting to use chemicals, either, we chose the goat solution to stay environmentally friendly.

“The area is rife with poison ivy and other invasive species, and our analysis showed the goats to be a sustainable and cost-effective way of removing them,” she added.

The goats were formally introduced to the campus and local community on June 2 in parking lot 51 of the Sindecuse Health Center.

Garrett Fickle and his wife, Gina, the owners of Munchers on Hooves in Coldwater, rent out their four-footed “lawn mowers” to homeowners, commercial property owners and other clients.

…The goats are ahead of schedule, said Nicholas Gooch, a university horticulturist and the project leader.

And yet:

The 400-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance contending that the work the goats are doing in a wooded lot is taking away jobs from laid-off union workers.

“AFSCME takes protecting the jobs of its members very seriously and we have an agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement with Western Michigan,” said Union President Dennis Moore. “We expect the contract to be followed, and in circumstances where we feel it’s needed, we file a grievance.”

Here is the full story, via Rayman Mohamed.

The Ferguson Kleptocracy

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I wrote:

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

The DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department verifies this in stunning detail:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct.

… Our investigation has found overwhelming evidence of minor municipal code violations resulting in multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over. One woman, discussed above, received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541—after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions.

Predatory fining was incentivized:

FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this. FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review, and accountability…have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be “productive” in making arrests and writing citations. Where officers fail to meet productivity goals, supervisors have been instructed to alter officer assignments or impose discipline.

Excessive, illegal and sometimes criminal force was used routinely:

This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Here is one example:

In January 2013, a patrol sergeant stopped an African-American man after he saw the man talk to an individual in a truck and then walk away. The sergeant detained the man, although he did not articulate any reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. When the man declined to answer questions or submit to a frisk—which the sergeant sought to execute despite articulating no reason to believe the man was armed—the sergeant grabbed the man by the belt, drew his ECW [i.e. taser, AT], and ordered the man to comply. The man crossed his arms and objected that he had not done anything wrong. Video captured by the ECW’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movement toward the officer. The sergeant fired the ECW, applying a five-second cycle of electricity and causing the man to fall to the ground. The sergeant almost immediately applied the ECW again, which he later justified in his report by claiming that the man tried to stand up. The video makes clear, however, that the man never tried to stand—he only writhed in pain on the ground. The video also shows that the sergeant applied the ECW nearly continuously for 20 seconds, longer than represented in his report. The man was charged with Failure to Comply and Resisting Arrest, but no independent criminal violation.

Here is another, especially interesting, example:

While the record demonstrates a pattern of stops that are improper from the beginning, it also exposes encounters that start as constitutionally defensible but quickly cross the line. For example, in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code. Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.

Although the report says the initial stop was constitutionally defensible, the initial stop was also clearly bullshit. “The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code.” Deep tinting!!!

Missouri, like most states, has a window tint law which essentially requires that tinting not be so dark as to impede the ability of the driver to see out of the car. Ok. But why does Ferguson have a window tint law! What this means is that you can be fined for driving through Ferguson for window tinting which is legal in the rest of Missouri. Absurd. Correction: the code appears to be the same as the state code but passed as a municipal ordinance so fines were collected locally. The purpose of the law was simply to extract more blood:

NYTimes: Last year Ferguson drivers paid $12,400 in fines for driving cars with tinted windows. They paid another $4,905 for loud music coming out of their cars.

The abuse in Ferguson shouldn’t really surprise us–this is how most governments behave most of the time. Democracy constrains what governments do but it’s a thin constraint easily capable of being pierced when stressed.

The worst abuses of government happen when an invading gang conquer people of a different race, religion and culture. What happened in Ferguson was similar only the rulers stayed the same and the population of the ruled changed. In 1990 Ferguson was 74% white and 25% black. Just 20 years later the percentages had nearly inverted, 29% white and 67% black. The population of rulers, however, changed more slowly so white rulers found themselves overlording a population that was foreign to them. As a result, democracy broke down and government as usual, banditry and abuse, broke out.

Assorted links

1. “Wanting to be liked.”

2. Trifecta (good photos too).

3. Hobson, underconsumption, globalization, and the great stagnation, by Robert Skidelsky; uneven but interesting.  I’ve been waiting for this tradition to be rediscovered, I suppose Hilferding is next.

4. WSJ reviews the excellent Arnold Kling.

5. I am more pro-immigration than he is, but Ross Douthat is right now writing the best material on immigration reform.  It is odd for me how, in the midst of a major policy discussion of the issue, most of the people I read cover the topic but do not mention or much discuss five nights of riots in Sweden.  The economics of additional immigration work out fine in my view, and I am happy to count the well-being of foreigners without hesitation.  The real question is how much immigration a nation’s politics can handle.  Fortunately we are not at the “five nights of riots” margin in the United States, but Ross still raises the key question, namely “the kind of social solidarity that mass immigration often tends to undercut…” and the role of that solidarity in supporting a free society.  The key question is how many low-skilled immigrants a nation can take in and still keep a good politics.

6. Location-aware radio.

How will driverless cars change our cities?

From Issi Romem:

  • Cities will greatly expand, again: Faster and more efficient transportation will convert locations that are currently too remote for most users into feasible alternatives, abundant with space. Like suburban rail in the early twentieth century and the mass consumer automobile that followed, driverless cars will generate a gradual, but dramatic expansion of cities.
  • Buildings and parking will be uncoupled, freeing up valuable land: After dropping off passengers, driverless cars will independently seek parking (or their next car-share customers) and they will show up for the return ride at the tap of an app. As soon as driverless cars are common enough, the demand for adjacent parking will dwindle and parking lots in areas where land is sufficiently valuable will be ripe for conversion to other land use. As parking in high-value areas is thinned out or altogether purged, the micro-structure of cities will change – you guessed it – dramatically!

For the pointer I thank Josh Hausman.

MRU’s First Course: Development Economics

The first course from Marginal Revolution University is Development Economics and it will be taught by Tyler Cowen and myself. Development Economics will cover the sources of economic growth including geography, education, finance, and institutions. We will cover theories like the Solow and O-ring models and we will cover the empirical data on development and trade, foreign aid, industrial policy, and corruption. Development Economics will include not just theory but a wealth of historical and factual information on specific countries and topics, everything from watermelon scale economies and the clove monopoly to water privatization in Buenos Aires and cholera in Haiti. A special section in this round will examine India. There are no prerequisites for this course but neither is it dumbed down. We think there will be material in Development Economics that will be of interest to high school students in the United States and Bangladesh and also to PhDs in economics, even to those who specialize in this field.

Development Economics covers all the major topics of a sit-down class but because we have built it to be on online course from the ground up–no videos of us talking to a classroom–it will take less than half of the time of a sit-down class, plus no need to search for parking!

Our motto at MRU is “Learn, Teach, Share” so we will be inviting the world not just to learn but also to teach and share their knowledge. GMU is a very entrepreneurial university and we think we can be a world leader in online education.

Please do go to MRU and submit your email to be notified about our start date and registration which will allow you to contribute in our forums and online events. Development Economics is free to the world.

Stay tuned for more!

The Internet in Estonia

Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and has been for a decade.

Viik says you could walk 100 miles – from the pastel-coloured turrets here in medieval Tallinn to the university spires of Tartu – and never lose internet connection.

…Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.

Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.

Estonia is also at the forefront of privacy issues. Everyone in Estonia has a national ID card, which might frighten some Americans–although we already have essentially the same thing, but everyone in Estonia also knows who else has accessed their records. Thus, compared to the United States, Estonia is in many ways a more transparent society. Estonia is also on the forefront of dealing with cyber-terrorism with their own national “electronic” guard.

More at The Guardian.

Insurance markets in everything?, or try this site.

Like insurance for the very tickets that jack up your actual insurance, TF’ll cover the cost of nearly any violation you incur while driving (for a reasonable annual fee), so you can finally go too fast without getting all too furious. Current plans consist of the Mini, which exclusively covers speeding offenses; the Classic, which adds everyday scofflaw activities like light running and illegal u-turns; and the Enthusiast, which picks up the tab on parking tickets, plus miscellany like window tinting and noise violations, a necessary prophylactic for anyone playing the whistle tip game. Whoo WHOO! To recoup expenses, members simply enter their ticket info within 10 days of the court date and TF handles the rest, supplying an email confirmation when their payment goes through; if you choose to contest, they'll pay the fine in the event you lose, but should you actually win they'll cut you a check for the original ticket amount anyways (if crime truly doesn't pay, then speed drifting through the median must not be illegal, Dad).

Thrillist says it is real; is it?  For the pointer I thank Joseph Calucci.

Debtors’ prison


“I’m really scared of what could happen, because I bought property here,” said Sofia, who asked that her last name be withheld because she is still hunting for a new job. “If I can’t pay it off, I was told I could end up in debtors’ prison.”

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

I guess you can't say you were simply late in assembling the funds.  Debtors account for about forty percent of the Dubai prison population.  Here is much more information.  For the pointer I thank Chris.

Assorted links

1. Lots of opinions about lots of people, including assessments of their relative status.

2. How will Twitter make money? (a request), and more here.

3. Garett Jones: "How much have
cell phones pushed down the cash wages of tedious jobs? Labor supply
increase: parking attendant, janitor, better jobs now."

4. Kerry Howley on freedom.

5. Rules for writing non-fiction.

6. Pay as you wish, for the Goo Game: the results.

The myth of “no zoning” in Houston

I found this Michael Lewyn paper very interesting.  Here is his bottom line:

In fact, Houston regulates land use almost as intricately as cities with zoning by mandating suburban-style low densities, ordering businesses to hide their stores behind an asphalt ocean of parking, encouraging segregation of land uses, and forcing pedestrians to cross wide streets and to trudge through long, intersection-free blocks to go from one place to another. These policies have helped to make Houston as sprawling and automobile-dependent as other American cities (if not more so). By reversing such policies, Houston and other municipalities with similar policies can create an America that is both more deregulated and less sprawling.

It's a good paper.

Did highways cause suburbanization?

Via RortyBomb, that is a research paper by Nathaniel Baum-Snow.  Here is the abstract:

Between 1950 and 1990, the aggregate population of central cities in the United States declined by 17 percent despite population growth of 72 percent in metropolitan areas as a whole. This paper assesses the extent to which the construction of new limited access highways has contributed to central city population decline. Using planned portions of the interstate highway system as a source of exogenous variation, empirical estimates indicate that one new highway passing through a central city reduces its population by about 18 percent. Estimates imply that aggregate central city population would have grown by about 8 percent had the interstate highway system not been built.

You can quibble with the model specification but I accept the paper's general conclusion.  A few points:

1. I am reluctant to call this a subsidy without qualification.  Visit an old medieval city like Esternach, Luxembourg ("a formidable fortress erected by Count Siegfried in 963").  The main buildings are grouped together on a hill.  It's value-enhancing that later governments adopted policies, such as near-free trade and national defense, which eased those constraints and spread out the population.  I wouldn't say that the resulting population distribution of say Paris is best thought of as resulting from a subsidy because they're not all on top of a hill somewhere,  I would say it is the result of greater wealth and trade opportunities and law enforcement, with some element of subsidy.  So if you favor the construction of the interstate highway system, as I think most commentators do (try driving for long on Rt.1), it is a rhetorically loaded decision to invoke the word "subsidy" as the major mode of explanation.

2. Greater wealth, transport, and trade naturally cause people to seek out larger homes and greater living space.  In a world with no policy distortions this may well be the dominant effect in various long-run settings.  The rise of the suburbs is not all subsidy-driven by any means.

3. I recall the D.C. area quite well before it had either the Orange Line on the Metro (serving the Virginia suburbs) or Rt.66 going into Washington.  The construction of both enabled the suburbs to spread further westward.  But which was more important in driving this process?  Mass transit also can encourage suburbanization, especially the city has abominable public schools.  A longer and better Metro system — most of all with better parking — would have meant even more people moving to the suburbs.

4. Do not forget "white flight."  For American cities, this paper suggests that each black arrival lead to, on average, 2.7 white departures.  When it comes to DC, "black flight" has been a significant phenomenon and it is a major reason why the city has been losing population. 

5. Canada is much less suburbanized than is the United States and the greater "flight from blight" in the U.S. seems to be a major reason (see p.8 here).  When I think of U.S. suburbanization, I think of the failures of our municipal public sector as very important in this process.  In contrast, Fairfax County and Fairfax City governments are of reasonable quality.

6. For competitive Tiebout-related reasons, it is no accident that the public schools are so often better in the suburbs than in major cities.  Countries with strong social norms, such as Sweden, have this problem less.

7. One simple model (which I am not endorsing straight up) is that most American people with kids have a near-lexical preference for living in the suburbs.  Anything that enables them to do so can be called a cause of suburbanization and measured as such.  But isolating and measuring these marginal impacts, in the econometric sense, distracts us from seeing how general and how strong the underlying infra-marginal forces are and those are very often preference-based.

Conniptions from me on urban economics

Matt Yglesias, picking up from Ryan Avent, writes:

…some libertarian economists at George Mason University go so far as to
laud America’s large houses and plentiful parking specifically as
evidence of the superiority of America’s free market economic policy,
blissfully unaware that in the United States pervasive regulation
requires the construction of bigger houses and more parking spaces than
the market would provide.

Matt refers to:

…the kind of libertarians who one would expect to go into conniptions if
Fairfax County, Virginia were to propose a stringent rent control law seem surprisingly blasé
about the vast array of land use restrictions that infringe economic
liberty in that county and most other American jurisdictions.

Just for the record, I'd like to add my conniptions on the issue:

1. I would not have brought the U.S. down the path of water subsidies, many of which are pro-suburban.  (Admitted they are not always easy to repeal.)

2. I think pollution externalities should be priced in Pigouvian fashion; this would penalize many suburban developments.

3. I oppose the widening of Route 7 at Tysons Corner and I expect a disaster from the current plans.

4. I favor school choice and charter schools, which would make many U.S. cities livable again for couples with children.

5. I would price many roads for congestion, although as Bryan points out this could either help or hurt cars as a mode of transport.

6. I would allow U.S. cities to become much taller, thereby accommodating more residents.  I would weaken many urban building codes in the interests of a greener America.

7. I much preferred the time when I lived near a gas station and a 7-11.

Maybe Matt and Ryan are picking on Bryan Caplan rather than me but I suspect Bryan would agree with most of this list, maybe all of it.

If I don't throw conniptions on these issues more often, it is because I regard them as unlikely or in some cases they are simply not issues I follow closely.  Fairfax County zoning has such strong political support, most of all from the wealthy Democrats who supported Obama but from Republicans too.  If you find anyone in Fairfax screaming about the horrors of zoning, that person is likely to be a libertarian and not a blase one.  Or maybe they are a Best Buy shareholder.

But today is the day of conniptions.  I truly wish that Fairfax County were more like central Arlington or for that matter Falls Church City and I curse those who have made it otherwise.

Here is a picture of The Conniptions.  Don't forget them.  They are mine!  My conniptions.

Fairfax, by the way, did have rent control before 1973.  Oddly, my main post on rent control is a chat with Tyrone, who of course favors the idea.