Let’s Minimize Parking Minimums

By Mike Koetting May 23, 2023

Most of the concern about automobiles in America centers on their carbon emissions. Today’s blog, however, focuses on a different aspect of the impact of America’s car culture–how parking spaces can become a bad use of society’s resources. It also reminds us that the fabric of our lives is shaped by an invisible, even if in plain sight, network of rules and laws that we rarely think about but that we could change.

Central Cities

I got started thinking about this issue after reading a blog by the son of a friend on the impact of laws in Chicago creating minimums for the number of parking places required as part of construction. (As a complete aside, I note there is something simultaneously disquieting and reassuring when you start seeing cogent articles from people you knew as a baby.) He argued that mandating parking space minimums imposes a meaningful drag on the real estate markets because, in many circumstances, it is leading to more spaces than necessary. Excess spaces drive up construction costs which increase rents in order to cover the excess spaces. Research in Chicago shows that in the central city, about one-third of all parking spaces in large residential buildings are empty at 4 AM, the expected point of maximum use. This is consistent with the excess rate found in several other cities. These excess spaces are estimated to add 17% to the rental costs in these buildings.

My concerns are less about the additional rental costs to those who can pay them, and more about the impact on people who can’t pay them, namely, those who would live in affordable housing—were it available. If developers aren’t going to be able to recover the cost of the required parking it becomes another disincentive and affordable projects never get built, or have fewer units than would otherwise be the case. I am sure there are other reasons not to build affordable housing, but should we be making it harder?

A number of case-studies around the Portland area show the impact of parking minimum on several affordable housing projects. For instance, one non-profit proposed a project with only .8 parking spaces per unit, based on data that car ownership was significantly lower among people meeting their income requirements than the general population. Eventually the planning commission required 1.1 spaces per unit. Although that was less than the 1.5 spaces per unit which would have been required without the variance, the added costs forced removal of 30 units from the project that would have been built as originally proposed. Subsequent counts show that a couple dozen parking spaces are empty each night., consistent with the original estimate. There is now a proposal in Oregon to allow affordable housing projects to size their own parking provisions.

After Minneapolis relaxed its mandatory parking minimums, the number of parking spaces built began to drop. Rents of studio apartments in new construction dropped from roughly $1,200 per month to just under $1,000. It was also the case that in the relaxation of parking minimums made it easier for smaller scale development projects outside the downtown area—where it doesn’t make sense to build a large residential tower with a parking ramp but land is also not cheap enough for surface lots.

One might wonder about the impact of the new construction on the parking options for residents of the existing community. So far, at least in Minneapolis, there has been no outcry. However, in Minneapolis some of potential problems may have been avoided by making this part of a larger plan that included additional public transit funding and other disincentives to driving.

Chicago has started experimenting with lowering requirements in specific Transit Oriented Districts (TODs), which are areas close to existing mass transit options. These have been very well received. In Seattle, elimination of parking requirements in designated transit oriented neighborhoods in 2012 led to 40 percent fewer spaces in new projects, saving roughly a half a billion dollars in construction costs without causing obvious problems. Reduced demand for residential central residential parking is consistent with two larger trends—the increasing concentration of young people in central cities and the reduced use of automobiles by the younger generations.

Beyond the Central City

All this raises the broader question of how should policy address parking more broadly and its impact on urban planning. Unlike required parking minimums in the central city, where the general direction policy should take seems clear, it is much less clear how to approach the rest of the metro area. The Parking Reform Network, a national organization to reduce the amount of parking spaces, has recommended eliminating all minimums. About 35 cities have done this—from large to smaller cities— mostly very recently. These changes have received mostly favorable reviews, although in Portland some minimums were restored, albeit at lower levels.

My immediate instinct is that removing all minimums, or at least lowering them, is a good idea as it removes one more barrier to varied housing approaches. But I don’t know enough about the actual dynamics of residential parking to know how to fully score it. In areas where residents now have free on-street parking, it’s likely any new construction will have fewer spaces and that would lead to more people seeking on-street parking. In most places, that might not be an immediate problem. And any adverse consequences might take a while to show up in established neighborhoods.

But if parking does tighten up, people will get upset—perhaps even at the possibility that parking might tighten up in the future. Americans are a long way from giving up their dependency on autos and the entitling assumptions that now come with it. There isn’t an obvious way to address a tightening of parking in an established residential neighborhood. There would be questions, both technical and conceptual, as to how spaces should be allocated.  For instance, how would priority for residents of newer construction built without parking compare to residents who have off-street parking but are using it for other purposes? Would second or third cars be accorded the same access as first cars? How do guests fit into whatever scheme is used.? And how would any of it be enforced? Based on Chicago’s experience with Residential Parking Permit zones, enforcement is both critical to making it work and hard to accomplish.

Whether there should be any free parking is a more fundamental question. While we have come to expect this is in many areas, both residential and commercial, maybe it’s worth a second thought. In truth, free parking is as imaginary as free lunches. Someone has to pay. In the case of “free” parking, there are many sources of payment (included in rental costs, higher priced goods, taxes to support roads, etc.) but all have the property that people who do not own cars subsidize people who do own them and everyone pays for any excess. Given the extent of car-ownership in this country, the question seems academic. But as we endeavor to reduce dependency on cars in response to environmental concerns, it may become more important. It is also the case that there are lower rates of car ownership among people with lower incomes which has its own distributional impact.

None of this addresses the issue of how to think about parking in the non-urban suburbs. There will be some relatively close in suburbs that have, or can develop, sufficient density and are connected to a functional regional transit system that they can reduce parking spots in much the same way as central cities. But those are a relatively small fraction of the suburbs. Most will continue to be car centric and, as such, will need parking. How much parking and whether we have too much will eventually need to be addressed in the suburbs. It is possible there are some quick wins there as well. But this will require some concerted, long-range planning. Over time, we need strategies to make the suburbs more environmentally sustainable since they are not going away any time soon.

On Balance

In the short term, I am pretty sure we can’t materially reduce dependency on cars by making parking more targeted and, therefore, more expensive for those who use it. But doing so will push in that direction. And reducing the number of parking spaces is probably a good idea in its own right. Every estimate I have seen suggests that, whatever it feels like when you’re looking for a parking space, the country has a material oversupply of parking spaces. These spaces add costs, per above, and create their own environmental damage. Reducing the number of unneeded spaces seems like a sooner-or-later required step as we figure out how to reframe our daily lives to fit more comfortably into a world where we do a better job of recognizing the constraints.

Knee-capping the IRS Is Apparently a Core Republican Value

By Mike Koetting May 9, 2023

The bill that Republicans (by themselves) passed to increase the debt ceiling limit is a basket of pernicious ideas, including cancelling incentives for alternative fuels that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), creating incentives to actually increase use of fossil fuel, cancelling student debt relief, and adding “work” requirements for Medicaid. But, even within this legislative rogues’ gallery, there is one that, more than any other, illustrates the disconnect between Republican rhetoric and their true motives. That is the provision to reduce the IRS budget by $71 billion. This is most of the amount of new funding that was included in the IRA to fix recognized problems in that agency.


Across the past few decades, the IRS has been continuously cut, to the point that by many measures it’s the worst-funded major federal department. It’s down to 79,000 workers, a loss of 20,000 employees since 2002 and has about the same number of employees as in 1974, when the US had 120 million fewer people and an economy a quarter of its current size. On top of these cuts, the IRS has been asked to undertake major projects during this period: implement the sweeping 2017 GOP tax code overhaul, support the ACA and create and execute programs to send out three rounds of stimulus checks. Moreover, two-thirds of the existing employees are eligible for retirement.

Source:  IRS Data Book, Table 31

Another consequence of budget starvation, the IRS computer systems—the life-and-breath of an agency that deals with every single American and every single business entity in America—are outdated, overloaded and hanging on by a fingernail. The core system has 60-year old components that are running on COBOL and, one assumes, Band-Aids. The details are actually shocking.

Between staff reduction and system obsolescence, IRS service levels have deteriorated. Millions of returns are unprocessed from previous years. Refunds are delayed indefinitely or disappear into cyberspace. Even if you file electronically, if there is any problem with your return, you might be thrown into paper processing, which is what has happened to many of the unprocessed returns. It is virtually impossible to reach the IRS by phone.

IRS Cafeteria, Austin TX, repurposed for processing.  Washington Post

A specific casualty of the war on the IRS has been auditors. The number of auditors is the lowest it’s been since 1953, when the economy was one-seventh of its current size. The attrition has been greatest among senior auditors who would ordinarily handle the most complex returns. The IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits in 2017 than it did in 2010, a drop in the audit rate of 42 percent, and it has continued to drop. The consequences are probably even worse than the drop in the number of audits because the remaining auditors are stretched so then, they’re often forced to limit their investigations and move on to the next audit as quickly as they can. This makes audits of the Earned Income Tax Credit more attractive as these audits are fairly straightforward. Audits of these taxpayers, who typically have incomes under $25,000 annually, now account for more than a third of the agency’s audits, while audits of large tax returns have plummeted.

IRS and Deficit Reduction

Given the above, one might wonder how reducing IRS funding winds up in a bill ostensibly about deficit reduction. If you do wonder this, you would not be alone. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, for instance, has said these cuts would add roughly $120 billion to the deficit over the coming decade. When pushed, Speaker McCarthy says it is necessary to “protect families and businesses from a weaponized IRS.” I don’t know what exactly he means by this, but the smell is certainly familiar.

Taxes, and the IRS, have never been a happy topic for politicians. But for a long time, there was a grudging consensus that they were a necessary evil. That consensus was buffeted in the Reagan years as he campaigned on cutting taxes and presided over the largest tax cut in history, even if some of it was fairly quickly undone because of the catastrophic effects on the deficit. But the anti-tax notions on which he campaigned stuck around, When Newt Gingrich arrived in the mid-90s, he again puffed up the attack on taxes and the IRS. Audits and overall collections fell precipitously, then climbed up gradually in the first decade of the century. However, Republicans again picked up the attack and, in another budget-standdown, essentially blackmailed the Obama administration into material cuts. Additional cuts have followed.

So, it’s clear that this anti-tax/anti-IRS sentiment is nothing new for Republicans. But one still wonders why, as it daily becomes inescapably obvious that the IRS is struggling to carry out the basic functions involved in raising revenue for the government, Republicans are so insistent on cutting the IRS budget. (The first bill passed by the current session of Congress, on a strict partisan vote, called for rolling back the IRA additions in the IRS. That bill went nowhere, so they have now incorporated the idea into their debt ceiling plan.)

Two, probably related, reasons spring to mind for this focus on undermining the IRS: they want to protect the wealth of their high-end supporters and they want to erode the ability of government to undertake social welfare expenditures.

Protect the Wealthy

The deterioration in IRS resources is a net bonus to the wealthy. For instance, audits of filers with incomes over $5M fell by 88% between 2010 and 2019. Audits for the largest corporations dropped by 54%. Analysis by the IRS from a 2021 report showed that between 2014 and 2016 the number of high income non-filers increased by 50% while 44% of the identified cases were never followed up because of lack of resources. (Three hundred of the most egregious evaders cost the federal government $10 billion in unpaid taxes during this period.)

Research undertaken by the IRS in concert with some academics illustrates the nature of the problem. It shows that non-compliance among high wealth individuals costs the government significant amounts. The large dollar areas of noncompliance are typically quite complex. They require sophisticated accounting and legal work to pull off and countering them would require equally sophisticated auditing techniques. The IRS has been increasingly challenged to bring such sophistication to the table.

Daniel Werfel, new IRS Commissioner, has outlined a plan for the IRS to use the additional money from the IRA. He pledges that all additional audits will be focused on individuals with incomes over $400,000. The Republicans insistence on retracting these funds makes it clear whose interests they consider most important.

Philosophical Antipathy to Government

While in some ways the inclusion of a deficit increasing measure in a bill portrayed as deficit reduction is counterintuitive, it is consistent with the historic perspective of the Republican Party. Over at least the last 40 years it has cared little about the size of the deficit and cared much more about opposing any tendencies of government to provide social support instead of making individuals sink or swim on their own. That this philosophy also resulted in fantastic financial returns for some individuals was probably not coincidental.

Weakening the IRS conceptually fits into this schema not only by straight out protecting the rich, but also by depriving the government of funds—which they would otherwise use to carry out programs that reflect greater social responsibility for fixing various problems, from poverty to education to infrastructure to environment. And, of course, for attacking tax fraud.

There are many pejorative things to be said about this approach, but the one I want to specifically focus on here is that this lack of funding contributes to the sense that government can’t actually fix problems, which in turn is leading to a population-wide cynicism about government. This is the breeding ground for Donald Trump and other populists. It is very unhealthy for democracy.

Lack of funding for the IRS is a poster child. Virtually everyone has to deal with the IRS. No one likes paying taxes, but as the process becomes more miserable it increases the vitriol. And the more people feel the rich are getting away with massive noncompliance, they become even less enthusiastic about paying their own taxes. America’s high level of tax compliance has always been one of the outward signs of a successful democracy. Systematic underfunding the IRS is a good way to undermine that.

In Short

The IRS is not adequately resourced to provide an effective and efficient tax collection service for a country as a large as the U.S. in the 21st century. The current condition is shameful. Republicans want to make sure it stays that way.

Their “deficit reduction” demands tied to the debt ceiling discussion are no more about reducing the deficit than the Inflation Reduction Act was about reducing inflation. Both do some of those functions, but both are primarily statements of the parties’ respective values. The Republican willingness to continue handicapping the IRS demonstrates their values are about protecting the incomes of the rich and keeping government weak and unpopular. They should be ashamed of themselves. Really.

Not Many of Us Can Worry about the Environment without Hypocrisy

By Mike Koetting April 25, 2023

Earth Day was Saturday and, as always, it’s an occasion for considering the state of the world. Literally, not figuratively.

The most recent UN report shows it’s getting worse. I’ll bet few of us are surprised.

We all know the trajectory is more or less exactly what scientists have been predicting for years and we assume not a whole lot has happened that would change that. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird. There’s this thing happening that the best scientists tell us has a high likelihood of causing material damage and we pretty much take it for granted that there is no response remotely commensurate with the problem. Why should that be?

I submit it is because we have become habituated to—indeed secretly demand—a mega-level of hypocrisy on environmental issues.

There Are No Easy Solutions

The main reason for environmental-hypocrisy is that only the tiniest sliver of us is comfortable with what the solution demands. Given current and immediately available technology, most people correctly assume that real changes will be necessary to meet any set of goals. What we would need to do to get to carbon neutral is pretty much unthinkable. Even more modest steps are a tough sell. Switching to electric cars, while desirable and useful, is only a small first step. In his sobering book, How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil shows that switching to all EVs would reduce carbon emissions materially, but not as much as typically assumed and is not close to the entire answer, even when it comes to cars. There are still carbon costs from production of cars and the creation and delivery of the electricity and from the ancillary costs of roads and parking facilities—and, eventually, from disposing of them.

And cars are only one problem. Warming and cooling our houses contributes tons of carbon, as does our entire food system—which wastes stunning amounts and is in many other ways environmentally foolish. Beef consumption alone accounts for about 7% of all global emissions, but a disproportionately smaller share of nutrition. Beef is the conspicuous consumption of protein. Even my favorite vegetarian options of almonds and cashews are not affordably sustainable because of conflicting demands on water. And this is without considering the impacts of fertilizers in terms of carbon contributions (from creation, shipping and applying) and contributions to ocean acidification. But without them, the world’s food supply would collapse until we completely redo the way the world thinks about food. Not many people in a country that goes half ballistic at the suggestion that we may need to switch from gas to electric stoves really want to meet environmental goals.

In short, while some people are more to blame for lack of honesty about environmental challenges than others, it is also true that most of us are okay with “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

I don’t believe it is hopeless. There are areas of progress; intermittent government, market and private initiatives will make a difference. We will not be limited to the technologies we currently possess; inventions will continue to make a difference, in some cases, big differences. But any honest review of the bidding suggests that the gap between what is needed and what Americans—all Americans, not just the MAGA-spere–are actually willing to do is enormous. At the very least, we wink at the hypocrisy.

Conundrum for Leaders

The performance of society’s leaders is both cause and symptom. I am not here talking about the campaigns of deflection, deception and delay that have been a consistent effort by various corporations and conservative think-tanks doing their bidding for the last fifty years. Nor the outright obstructionism exercised by many politicians with callous disregard for longer-term consequences. Heinous as they are, I’ll leave pillorying them to another day. Today, I am focusing on the inability of even well-intentioned leaders to acknowledge the extent of the issue, propose sufficient steps, and realistically report on progress.

Some experts believed the agreement of holding to a 1.5C rise at the Paris conference was too modest in terms of preventing longer-term damage. But the bigger problem is that there was never much real chance of meeting that goal. Predictably, we are blowing through it. Perhaps there is a world of theoretical models where everything could have lined-up perfectly and this goal could have been achieved. But in the real world, the odds were always vanishingly slim.

All the world’s economies are organized around carbon consumption. We haven’t changed that and there is no immediate technological alternative. And there certainly has been no world-wide political movement to reduce consumption. So, unless we expected a sudden willingness for countries to take economy-threatening risks to reduce their own carbon consumption, this outcome was inevitable.

The world leaders—at least those who cared—were in a tough spot. If their scientific advisors where honest, leaders were aware of the disconnect between likely outcomes and whatever goal they came up with. Still, they couldn’t put on this enormous summit with close to scientific unanimity that we are steaming to the Niagara Falls of the environment and then walk away saying “Ahh…it’s just too hard. Forget about it.” So they adopted the best goal they could and hoped it would somehow, maybe magically, happen.

One couldn’t imagine more robust fertilizer for hypocrisy. Americans are vaguely worried about the environmental future, perhaps the young ones a bit more. So they are glad to hear about planet-saving goals. But there is very little enthusiasm for letting our lives be impacted by steps to reach those goals, which, after all, are mostly about risks to people far away, geographically or temporally. So when it turns out these goals aren’t likely to be made, there is no major outcry. Most Americans are just as glad they won’t have to do the things that would actually be necessary to make them. What people want is environmental safety without major changes. And they don’t want leaders who will tell them this isn’t going to happen.

Responsibility Is Not Evenly Spread

I have suggested that, any outward concern about environmental issues notwithstanding, there is widespread ambivalence about how we actually want to proceed. But how exactly people get to that ambiguity—and what it means to them—varies to a large extent by circumstances.

Source: World Inequality Lab

Start with the huge disparity in how the impacts to get to carbon neutral would be felt. In North America, the top 10% of income earners were responsible for 73 tons of CO2e per capita in 2019, whereas citizens in the bottom 50% were responsible for 9.7 tons per capita. (In Europe, both the totals and the disparities were markedly lower: 29.2 tons compared to 5.1 tons per capita.) It’s not entirely fair to assume that the more carbon is incorporated into a person’s life, the more ambivalent they would be about making a big reduction. But it is not a bad bet. And it is also likely that people at the other end of the distribution would feel that anything they are being asked to give up is unfair in the light of the differential. And it is a lead pipe cinch that people at the bottom end of the distribution are particularly infuriated when they feel members of the elite are asking them to make proportionately larger sacrifices.

And whatever the national tensions around sacrifices that would be necessary to achieve environmental goals, they are a walk in the park compared to how people approach the issue globally. I don’t see how any discussion of addressing environmental issues can be anything but hypocrisy without a consideration of ameliorating existing global inequities. What conceivable moral justification is there for the developed countries, having gotten the world to the edge of crisis with their development, to argue against other countries achieving comparable standards of living. On the other hand, I am equally without clue how any kind of shorter-term global equity is politically possible. I can’t imagine a single country that will make material sacrifices to improve standards of living in some other country. Short-term mumbo jumbo and hope that we come up a longer term solution seem like the only available option.

And finally…

Today’s post has accused a lot of people of hypocrisy. Fairly so, I think. But I would also note it is very hard to avoid. These issues are extremely tough issues and the balance between technology, policy, fairness and expectations will be excruciatingly hard to achieve. Indeed, when I think about all the carbon advantages I enjoy, I sometimes wonder if my advocacy for addressing environmental issues would be quite so strident if I thought that someone was actually going to do what I recommended. As Luther warned, reason is a whore. Of course, it’s hard to imagine we’d be better off forsaking reason.

Chicago Mayoral: The Choices Weren’t Good

By Mike Koetting April 11, 2023

Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say the Chicago mayoral election run-off was one of the worst political choices I have ever faced. But this is only the second time in my life that I went to the poll to cast a blank ballot.

The national news story of progressive Brandon Johnson against moderate Paul Vallas isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t convey the choice with sufficient texture.

Vallas was “moderate” because it wasn’t clear what else to call him. He has a long record of administrative experience and an ability to discuss issues specifically and compellingly. However, opinions differ widely on whether his actual past performances have been major successes or complete disasters. He does not seem to engender nuanced assessments. Mostly he has run school systems and has a distinctive pro-charter school, anti-teachers union bias. My own position on charter schools is all over the place, but I am for sure extremely wary of walking away from a communally shared structure for public education.

My even bigger problem with Vallas was that some of the things he said—particularly prior to the first round of voting—were far to the right of “moderate’. It wasn’t just an isolated word or phrase. Several things he said suggested a specific world view that is frankly incompatible with creating a viable course for a multi-racial America. I didn’t see how a person who said some of those things could ever have sufficient respect for all the people of Chicago, regardless of his administrative experience.

So why not Johnson? For openers, he had absolutely no administrative experience and very little political experience. (He had served one-term as a member of the County Board, which is more concerned with County functions than the City of Chicago per se.) And I was uncomfortable with the fact that he was so closely aligned with, and bankrolled by, the Chicago Teachers Union. I am generally supportive of unions—but I have spent my career as management in union shops. There needs to be a healthy give and take. I am not sure this arrangement fosters such.

But what really bothered me about Johnson was that as soon as he made it into the run-offs, he stopped saying anything of tractionable substance. It was wall to wall platitudes. As Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg put it, Johnson’s position was that if you simply fixed everything—housing, education, welfare and transportation—crime would disappear. About the road from here to there: not much to say.

I guess I prefer that approach to the Paul Vallas position that you solve crime by hiring more policemen and let them do their job (whatever that means). But it sheds no light on how one would actually be mayor of Chicago. I can usually live with the lesser of two evils, but Johnson’s refusal to participate meaningfully was too much of an insult to involved voters.

In short, more than offering a choice between opposing views of the future, this election seemed to me to illustrate the reduced circumstances of our political lives.

Turnout & Race

Consistent with the last several Chicago elections, turnout was low, somewhat over one-third of the voters. This suggests an unfortunate lack of engagement in self-government. Turnout among young voters was particularly anemic, an omen of even worse to come.

On its surface, the issues around race were unsurprising. Johnson overwhelmingly won the Black vote. Valla won the White vote by equally large margins in the Wards where there are a large number of White voters middle-age or older. But Johnson was very competitive in the wards with younger and more liberal White voters. Likewise, he was able to get a respectable percentage of the Latino vote, although Hispanic turnout was particularly low. Altogether, it was enough for him to put together a two percent win.

I don’t think Johnson’s overwhelming victory in the Black wards necessarily points to an emerging commitment to progressive politics in those communities. Johnson did not get much support there in the first round, with incumbent Lori Lightfoot getting most of the Black vote. Johnson’s showing in the runoff is more likely a reflection that Blacks—like other groups—tend to vote for people from their community.

It is not entirely clear to me what to make of the fact that so many of the “established” Black leaders endorsed Vallas.  I don’t know whether they thought the Black community was more conservative than to want an outspoken progressive or they were thinking that Vallas’ focus on crime would play particularly well in the Black communities where crime is in fact a bigger problem, or they were worried about the Chicago Teachers’ Union getting too much power. But Johnson’s win certainly creates some potential for a new wave of Black leaders. It may also create some changes in the relationship between South and West Side Blacks, which does not always go smoothly. (Johnson is from the West Side.)

Vallas’ emphasis on more policeman to address crime didn’t play very well in the minority communities, even though those are places with greatest crime problems.  Not that these communities have historically shown much interest in “defunding the police”, a position Johnson bandied about a couple years ago and since walked back. In fact, Black communities have generally favored more policemen. But there was skepticism that more policemen as prescribed by Paul Vallas was really going to improve responses to their problems and treat their community with respect. Vallas had been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of the Police, the police union that had endorsed Trump and is headed by a troglodyte. It is hard to imagine a brighter flashing light for Black voters.

More About Policing

One spot for optimism is that Johnson has some latitude to make changes in how Chicago is policed that might have been harder for Vallas to make. In any event, he’ll need to give this his immediate attention because Chicago is currently without a permanent police chief and, even beyond Paul Vallas, crime was the biggest issue in the election, often, it seemed, to the exclusion of all else. Johnson needs to get this choice right; dissatisfaction from all sides with Lori Lightfoot’s police chief was a significant factor in her loss.

But, as Henry Grabar noted in Slate, the perception of crime may be more complicated than the reality. He cites a WBEZ/Sun-Times poll from last month, in which Black Chicagoans were almost twice as likely to feel unsafe (84 percent) as their White neighbors (49 percent) but that didn’t lead them to vote for Vallas. Moreover, White Chicagoans were twice as likely (61 percent) as their Black neighbors (30 percent) to say that crime was the top issue affecting the city.

Grabar argues that, while there has been an uptick in some violent crimes, it is not as widespread as the perception that society is falling apart. He suggests that considerable fuel is being added to the fire by the amount of visible “disorder”—homeless encampments, smoking on the CTA, rampantly rude driving, public drug use, and so forth. He raises the possibility that thinking separately, and clearly, about disorder and violence will allow smarter solutions in both areas. Since Johnson hasn’t painted himself into a corner by megaphone promises of more police officers, he could have opportunities to approach these problems in new ways.

Structure of Elections and the Office

One other thought from this election is how the structure of the elections themselves contribute to the outcome. Vallas was probably the most conservative candidate and Johnson was the second most progressive. To some extent these candidates ended up facing each other because the ends squeezed out the middle. I am not sure if some alternative voting procedure (e.g. ranked choice) would have led to a different outcome. But it is something that should definitely be considered.

Frankly, I think the bigger problem is that the job has become so difficult that it does not attract the kind of candidates who could both administer the city and also create some kind of coalescing vision. If, indeed, there is such a candidate. More than any other level of government, city administration requires actual delivery of services in a visible and tangible level–but is enormously constrained by forces beyond the mayor’s control, including radically incompatible desires among constituents.

Still, it’s done now and Brandon Johnson is the mayor-elect of Chicago. He will have his hands more than full—policing, massive transportation problems, lack of affordable housing and the need for a new contract for Public School teachers. He got elected, in part, by not saying too much. Whether that, along with the team that brought him, are enough to navigate the rapids ahead remains to be seen. I certainly wish him the best of luck. And, to be sure, the entire city.

The Future Requires Maintenance

By Mike Koetting March 14, 2023

A couple weeks ago, one of the twenty-year old elevators in our building began stopping at random floors unbidden. The maintenance company addressed it. Two days later, it started again. They replaced the entire control panel. That worked—for three days. They replaced the entire panel once more and that seems to have done the trick. For now.

It’s certainly fair to question the overall condition of our elevators or the competence of the maintenance company. But I wonder if there are bigger issues lurking.

Two years ago, as part of changing billing parameters, our mobile phone company stopped sending us hard copy bills. As I was working on this year’s tax return, I needed to see the details of our billing. I couldn’t figure out how to do so from the phone company’s web so I called them. I bounced around for over an hour, the last half of which was with someone who always seemed to be on the verge of getting me access to my bills. But I eventually gave up and the next day took it to one of the provider’s stores. The sales representative spent almost half-an-hour and had literally given up, complaining that he couldn’t keep up with the changing systems. Fortunately, he had one more idea and that worked.

Certainly annoying, but no risk to life or limb.

Much more consequential issues were the meltdown of Southwest Airlines just before the holidays and problems in the Federal Aeronautics Administration pilot notification system in January. Both of these events scrambled airline travel for many thousands of customers. And both of these messes were due to aging computer systems.

The ground stop called by FAA in January–the first since September 11, 2001–was a result of the failure of the system that flags potential hazards, such as impending bad weather or local system glitches. Flights were suspended for only two hours, but the resulting chaos rippled throughout the day. More than 1,300 flights were cancelled and over 11,000 were delayed.

This fragility of this system was not a surprise. As long ago as 2008, the FAA started planning to replace it. The project has sputtered over the years as funding waxed and waned. Enhancements have been made to the system, but at bottom it is fundamentally outdated technology. In the meantime, new systems were added around it. The FAA was trying to maintain a mélange of systems that been developed over 45 years. It was, and remains, a recipe for disaster.

This is similar to the situation I found when I started at the Illinois Medicaid program in 2010 with the charge of expanding eligibility to comply with the Affordable Care Act. The core eligibility system dated from the 1970s. Technologically, it was generations behind the evolution of computer technology. Keeping it running relied on an aging cohort of programmers who understood all the ways the ancient COBOL system interacted with the newer systems that had been grafted on over the years. It would have been literally impossible to complete the ACA enrollment with that system. Our initial intention was to completely replace it, but we found there was no way that could be done and comply with the statutory start-date. So, relying on the same handful of programmers, we jerry-rigged a new system for processing applications on top of the existing system. It mostly worked, but also got the agency further out on the limb.

Illinois Medicaid continued with plans to completely replace the underlying system. That was largely completed about four years later, although the actual cut-over was accompanied by a period of extended frustrations for workers and clients alike. Of course, the “new” system is now six years old, which is a lifetime on the technology scale. The State of Illinois has neither the funds nor the workforce—not to mention the stomach– to replace that again. I no longer work there, but I have to believe the patchworking has already started.

Okay, some will say, what do you expect of government agencies? Maybe. (And that doesn’t make the consequences of those decisions disappear.) In any event, the epic Southwestern Airlines meltdown shows private entities make the same mistakes. When a major snowstorm hit parts of the country just before the peak Christmas travel period, the portion of their systems that scheduled crews was completely overwhelmed. For several days around Christmas, Southwest cancelled about two-thirds of its flights and another 20% were significantly delayed. Insiders were not surprised. For some time now, analysts and unions have lamented the state of their computer systems. Parts of it were almost as old as the FAA systems; the pieces didn’t work well with each other.

Here’s the Point

While it’s true these are a random collection of computer malfeasance, they point to common warnings. For openers, as we weave computers more and more into our lives, we are more dependent on them, for things small as well as large. There are advantages to that. We can do some things that were not easily possible before. For instance, we almost all take for granted the convenience of on-line banking and ATMS. I remember when you needed humans to cash a paper check if you wanted cash—which was virtually the only way to pay for things. We also take for granted the advantages of these possibilities and construct more and more complicated systems, embroidering them into global supply chains. And we get lower prices on some things because it’s typically cheaper to replace or supplement people with computers. This creates other problems, but in the meantime, consumers are happy to take advantage of the lower prices.

But with these advantages, we get vulnerability.

We can’t completely guard against this vulnerability—a major solar flare, sure to happen sooner or later, will cause massive computer outages—but on a day-to-day basis, individual systems are better protected if they stay current. And here’s the rub. It takes a lot of resources to stay current and maintenance doesn’t have nearly the pizzaz of new technology. (“We want to spend a lot of money to keep doing what we’ve always been doing” doesn’t have a particularly inspiring ring in a world where the ”new” is what gets attention.) Nor is it just money. It requires executive focus and willingness to risk business disruptions as changes are made, even if the “change” is just to keep the same functions running.  And it not simply keeping individual systems current, but keeping an entity’s entire suite of systems working together consistently and coherently.

And that perspective is within individual entities, be they corporations or governments. Operationally, society is a tangled knot of these entities working together. Individual entities need to keep current internally, but also need to stay more or less coordinated with the other entities with which they interact. A new technology anywhere in this broader network has the potential of introducing broader disequilibrium. In one sense, the pace of technological innovation is as much a function of the slowest adopter as the quickest. (A spokesperson for the airlines commenting on the FAA problems allowed it was hard to justify airlines spending more on new technology if the FAA wasn’t keeping up.)

There are two bottom-lines here.  First, I suspect we will be beset by increasing numbers of annoying to really difficult computer failures because as technology proliferates promiscuously there were will be more and more cases where the old and new technology don’t work together. (The U.S. Navy has come to this realization, concluding that putting too much new technology into ships leads to functional disasters because they couldn’t make it all work together.)

The second implication is that we have to spend enough on unglamourous maintenance if we are going to keep our systems functioning. In truth, the systems, mostly, still function exactly as they were intended to. The problem is that so much has changed around them that the systems are no longer compatible with the on-the-ground needs. Attention to maintaining systems is particularly difficult for governmental systems. Keeping current requires funds, legislative will, and effective longer-term executive leadership for something that has little voter appeal. But corporations face similar problems.

The future might be a lot messier than we are imaging.

The Cultural Conundrum

By Mike Koetting February 28, 2923

In 2002, Ruy Teixeira, along with John Judis, wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority in which they forecast the dawn of a new progressive era—something to rival the 40-year run of neoliberal hegemony.

These days neither sees circumstances the same way. In a recent Washington Post article, Teixeira expressed concern that the Democrats are losing ground among the entire working-class, not just the White working class. He ascribes this to the Democratic party’s insensitivity on cultural issues, which are how voters assess who is really on their side and who isn’t.

While Democrats still maintain a very large percentage of the non-White working class, there is abundant evidence that a material portion of the population is alienated by what they see as excessive “wokeness” from Democrats.

I think this evidence is sufficient that we can’t flick it away as more MAGA-foolishness. There are voters who broadly agree with most policies of the Democrats, but who just feel unsympathetic to what they see as “extreme” viewpoints. Some of this, of course, is more a reaction to the way Republicans have exaggerated and twisted what was in fact said. But, either way, it’s a real problem for Democrats.

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Revised Income Tax

By Mike Koetting February 14, 2023

In my last post, I suggested that a substantial revision of America’s tax code might be a meaningful step towards bridging our national divides. Today’s post proposes one specific change in the federal income tax. There are several other critical tax issues that need to be considered, but those are for another day.

The essence of today’s proposal is to materially expand the use of the Alternative Minimum Tax against a different definition of income than is currently the case. The resulting tax laws should be able to be clearly explained and understood by most people as actually collecting higher taxes from those who are better off. More concretely, the goal is to increase the total income tax collections, with all of the additional revenue coming from people who earn more than 250% of the median income and use all the proceeds to reduce the deficit. (In 2022 a family income of $200,000 or above is roughly 250% of the median income, approximately the top 10% of incomes.)

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Can We Find Healing Power in Income Taxes?

By Mike Koetting January 31, 2023

A couple posts back, I wrote that it was hard to imagine what could bridge the divisions in our country. The issues are only occasionally, and usually incidentally, about policies. Tom Nichols, in The Atlantic, opines that there is no principle dividing the country. He contends that although people will say the issue is “liberty” or “freedom, ” those are merely smokescreens for racial and class resentments, personal grudges and a generalized paranoia that dark forces are manipulating their lives. These, I believe, have come to play such an outsized role in our politics because there has been a profound loss of societal coherence.

I don’t want to idealize a past that never was. Our society has always had warts a plenty. And some of them were generated by the foundational principle of individualist striving. The emphasis on individual freedom and the ability of people to have mastery of their own destiny made America both a unique place in the world and uniquely successful as a country. But, for individualism to work its magic, it needs to be balanced by strong local ties and a generalized sense of social solidarity. Without those guardrails, the logic of individualist striving corrodes any larger scale sense of well-being. And without that, society disintegrates. We turn into a nation of Marlboro cowboys riding the range by ourselves—carrying guns and chasing dreams that can never be realized.

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Wither Inflation?

By Mike Koetting January 17, 2023

Having neither a degree in economics nor a crystal ball, I lack the proper credentials to post a blog on inflation and the Federal Reserve Board. But the issue is very important to the well-being of the society—probably more than most of us acknowledge–so I will take my chances.

The Issue

The Federal Reserve Board has evolved the responsibility of steering the national economy between two potential disasters, runaway inflation and recession, another hell or high water situation.

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The Rail Strike That Didn’t Happen

By Mike Koetting December 18,2022

Today’s post goes deep into the reaches of the American Political Way-Back Machine. Yup, more than two weeks ago! Back then there was widespread panic about the consequences of a rail strike. Then, poof, all gone, like a very early snow.

Before it drifts completely out of our consciousness, it is worth reminding ourselves how we got to that pass and the implications therefrom.

The Clear but Inchoate Culprit

I believe this event was a nearly perfect microcosm of what is wrong with the way America organizes, to use the term somewhat loosely, its economy.

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