Tag Archives: war on the poor

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.


Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

City Commissioners Vote to Starve Poor Children and to Lower Real Estate Prices

The big roll out of the 2016-7 budget occurred last evening, six hours of it. I voted “no” twice, once on a proposal to hire a new rental property inspector and the second time against the entire budget in part because of the inspector issue.

The pitch was that the city could help control crime and shiftlessness by improving the housing in which renters lived. Therefore the city should increase the inspection of these properties so forcing correction of perceived deficiencies. The city would do well by doing good!

I differed. The sociology here is dubious and the economics is even worse.

Sociologically, there are data showing that hooligans don’t own their apartments but rent. I’d intuit that these lowlifes don’t have much money, live in shabbier and cheaper quarters and are likely beat property up more than their more civilized contemporaries. But none of this supports the notion that living in a self created fleabag causes bad behavior. Correlation is not causation. Crime, poverty and laziness are not treatable by “improving” housing. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The economic implications of increased inspections are actually more ominous especially here in “Rentwood.” Nearby Grand Rapids increased inspections in 2011 and drove rental costs up by about $100 per unit.  Inspections cost landlords a average of $5,000 per unit which, capitalized, might have supported a $50 dollar a month increase But landlords had to come up with lots of money rapidly, they were uncertain about what other fantasies that the GR city fathers harborred and facing risk, doubled the rent increases. The knock on effect was that fewer renters could afford the new fare, so they moved back in with parents or doubled up in existing units so the demand for rental units faltered.  Marginal landlords were forced to exit the industry, they sold or abandoned their properties and so lowered real estate prices. Decrepit areas of Grand Rapids became more threadbare, not that you’d notice.

Well, say the reformers who wanted to improve the lives of the poor by improving the housing in which they live, it only costs each renter an extra $100 dollars a month to live in housing that we approve of. True enough, except that for many a $100 dollars is  a $100 dollars and spending it for rent means that they can’t afford peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids, so they go hungry and, at best stare listlessly at the well fed reformers who arranged the original inspections and “improvement” of their quarters; at worst the urchins slit the throats of their oppressors.

If renters are unhappy with the cleanliness, safety or cost of their apartments they can easily move to others that they can afford that satisfy their wants. Governmental intrusion intended to make folks better by forcing them to live in more expensive housing than what they prefer comes at huge costs both socially and economically that dwarf the minor costs to the city of hiring another inspector.

Doesn’t anyone pay any attention to theory of unintended consequences anymore?

Saul Alinsky and my Comments in the Economist.

So I played in the municipal sand box last eve in my role as Kentwood city commissioner. The topic of the forthcoming plebiscite to pass an increased 1% in our Michigan sales tax came up; statewide it aspires to raise 2 billion from 10 million Michiganders, 200 dollars for each man woman and child.I have not hidden any peas in some putative shell game, have I?

The commissioners are in a frenzy to get this passed because our city would get 2 million, plus some angel dust, back. This was presented as just the solution to relieve our (relative) fiscal niggardliness.
Our city of 50k, ordinary working folks, would contribute 10 million. I, the resident skeptic, enquired about the missing 8 million, and was rewarded with scowls.
A commission member, who I respect highly, insisted that the only taxes that would leave Kentwood would be the portion that our generally mid and lower class residents paid in direct taxes. He admitted that the sales taxes would be levied on all sorts of purchases by our local service infrastructure, on building materials in new construction and that folks on fixed incomes/public assistance would demand more from the public teat, so causing the tax increases to be embedded in virtually all the prices confronting our citizens. “But if you don’t to the new sports stadium, you won’t have to pay those taxes; I just don’t believe that our citizens will pay 200 per person per year!”
The member is an engineer, and not without mathematical sensibilities. (I on the other hand have a business degree and can’t imagine a balance sheet or income statement in which numbers disappear into the mystical cloud of “I don’t believe.”)
The tax increase of 2 billion distributed over 10 million, allocated to 50k and yielding a 10 million for Kentwood’s population is a simple and irrefutable accounting of what we will pay. Pointing out our return of 2 million back is dramatic and memorable. Folks can understand this exaction, and they will also understand the affront of our getting only a tiny percent back. It requires only a few well chosen words.
On the other hand, try to explain to voters why they won’t be paying the 200 per person because arcane forces will spare them, play the “I believe” shell game, and you soon find yourself talking gibberish and sounding ever more scary. As I repeated the basic “200 dollars, 10 million, puny return” I forced ever more technically complex and confused counter examples that would turn voters and taxpayers off.
Those who would argue for tax understanding by individuals and politicians would do well to study Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals; personalize the tax exaction, fix it, go outside the expertise…..
Great fun.

In the Economist blog

Is it my Duty to be Skeptical? Cassandra Spouting in the Gravel Piles on Breton.

The big Kentwood budget annual was held last eve, and I objected to our spending money on planning and zoning. I thought my comments were appropriate but alas! were not well received. My doubts on engineering other people’s lives are long standing and based in part on my being the victim of urban planning, but that’s grist for another blog.

I confronted the following this morning and it does indeed allow me to expound on my distaste for attempts at altering the human protoplasm. Governmental processes cannot be used to “improve people’s lives,”  since we have not uncovered a workable basis for doing so, city hall not withstanding. 

I commented on an M-live article (modified)

I have personally published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and on the other hand, resigned my Fellowship in the American College of Physicians (publisher of the Annals) in part because of a wildly irresponsible article that they published 35 years ago; nevertheless.

I was not at the symposium, but I know a physician who was. The symposium was excellent, and disturbing. It seems that the Annals, which is one of the 5 fairly reputable general medical mags, has hundreds of articles submitted for publication and sends most out for peer review. Many are graded as worthy by these “experts” in the fields which the article addresses.

These vetted articles are then sent out for statistical analysis, just routine number crunching to be sure that the research was relevant and valid. NINETY-SIX percent are rejected as being “underpowered” and/or as having other scientific irregularities. Only 4% get published in the Annals, but 80% of the rest show up in other journals, so the medical literature is overburdened by this flotsam.

These rejected articles often involve novel treatments (probably few are likely to cause harm, but….) on patients done as part of “research” but are so poorly designed that they will add not one Iota of insight into clinical problems.

One of the main points brought out last evening at the symposium was that there is a lot of junk science out there in the medical wasteland that includes useless and even possibly harmful research.

The reason why I obsess over this “scientific” blather is my increasing recognition that “there is a lot more known than is necessarily true.” If we in medicine can’t design good experiments and our “experts” can’t recognize garbage when they see it, how much confidence can we place in the copious outpourings of the “social sciences” like sociology, political science, economics, psychology, drug rehab, anthropology and the like?

The hard science of physics and chemistry have reproducible, boring experiments that allow for engineering of stuff like bridges, computers and gasoline.

The biological sciences are a step down from the hard sciences, the material is a lot harder to quantify and results are a lot less predictable. If we try to apply biology, as we do in medicine, the reproducible is much harder to achieve which is why physicians, especially recently trained ones get a thorough grounding in statistics and the scientific method. Nevertheless, a lot of nonsense and superstition creeps into medical practice.

You’ll notice that hard sciences are boring, and that the semi-hard ones like biology and medicine are often discussed. It seems to me that humans find nonsense to be much more entertaining and so lulled into belief.

The soft sciences as detailed above are part of the daily conversations on the streets and workplaces yet they rely on “surveys” “scholarly opinion” and armchair reasoning; no basis at all to command our allegiance. Yet we use these to structure our government programs, to make things happen, stuff that’s often tragic for a lot of people.

Sociologists told us that we needed a welfare program, and then seem puzzled that the African American family and more recently the white family disappears. Educational experts deemed more education as a cure for economic malaise, and then seem mystified when college grads and even Ph.Ds work at jobs where they wear paper hats. The geniuses at our Congress, Federal Reserve and Treasury “managed” the economy into the unpleasantness of 2008-10, and then plotted a sure-footed way out of that morass.  Political and Military scientists sent my young butt to the Central Highlands.

So, the point of that excellent symposium funded by the Devos family is not some blather about the internet, but rather that we should be skeptical about the whole “scientific” jape, especially when it’s our money and security that we give up.

Other Economist article on Regulating Land Use. For Adults Only as Content will upset Immature Central Nervous Systems

This is the other article from the Economist; the comments are sometimes helpful. I have a subscription and so it opens up for me; maybe not for those who do not subscribe. Tell me if it doesn’t; I’ll try to summarize this article if not otherwise accessible.