A recent guest blog post in the Christian Science Monitor suggests that I become poor to help lower America’s carbon footprint. Generally speaking, I try to avoid doing things that make me poor – even if it is for a good cause. In all fairness, the blog post was based on a paper which did not strictly advocate me being poor – So my problem is more with the CSM article than the paper, which is published through the National Bureau of Economic Research, and is available on Harvard’s website. I will note, however, that the paper and and the blog post were written by the same person.
UCLA economics professor Matthew Kahn suggests that people should move out of brown cities, such as Houston and Las Vegas, in order to live in green cities (namely San Francisco), which have stricter environmental regulations. He even says it again on his own blog. Although I’m a huge advocate for reducing our overall energy usage, even I have to say that this is an academic argument at best.
Let me ask these questions – What are the economics of moving to San Francisco? To make a significant dent to the carbon footprint in these dirty cities, a significant percentage of the population would need to be moved. What are the environmental impacts for moving, say, half the Houston and Las Vegas populations to San Francisco? What are the infrastructure impacts to San Francisco with the addition of 4 million people? What will that do to the price of an average bay area home in an already-absurd housing market? Finally, why would you move to a nearly bankrupt state?
The reality is that there is an absurd difference in the cost of living that few people are willing to accept. Who would trade their 2000+ square foot home in Houston, which they probably bought for under $200,000, for a 1,500 square foot house that costs $500,000? If you want something in San Fransisco – even a foreclosure – then get ready to sign your life away. Like many cities on the east and west coasts, the lifestyle there is definitely pay-to-play – especially for new-arrivals. Taking this argument to it’s logical conclusion, it would mean leaving huge swaths of the country almost empty, and instead having people living in an urban environment, stacked vertically. For all the urbanites who think this is the way most people should live, I’ve got some bad news – I like my square footage, I like my yard, and I like my garage – and I like what I paid for it all. I’m guessing millions of other people do too. People aren’t going to move away from an area just because it’s hot. In fact, recent data shows that people are actually doing the opposite. So we need to work with the reality that 1,000 people a day are moving to Texas. People are moving to the southwest in droves and so we must find acceptable ways to work within the present structure of these ‘brown’ cities and make them green – without taxing the hell out of people, or turning them into the unaffordable DINK mecca of San Francisco, where the probability of a young person actually owning a home is very low.
Criticisms aside, I believe the original paper’s data is correct. As the blog post mentions, Houston has a reputation as filthy city, and I really can’t disagree – It’s huge, auto-centric, and is a major oil refining location – some days you can smell it. While I love most things about Houston, it’s definitely not easy to get around in on foot, unless you live in the Heights, or in Rice Village.
I have a better solution than mass migration – why not make Houston and Las Vegas green cities? Would it not be cheaper than moving millions of people??
Since I live here, I will focus on Texas/Houston, although some of these recommendations can be applied to Las Vegas as well. Here’s my top ten list for making Texas and Houston Green (in increasing order of cost):
- Create an ongoing campaign to give away programmable thermostats and vampire power strips. Negotiate with Centerpoint Energy (or your local Energy Manager) to have technicians deliver and install the devices during a resident’s future meter read.
- Invalidate any Homeowners Association (HOA) policies regarding prohibitions on solar water heaters, photovoltaic cells, and wind turbines (as long as there is an agreed-to maximum height).
- Work with local universities to create degree programs for green technology. Establish a scholarship fund for students to encourage enrollment. Build or actively encourage the building of a green research and development park nearby.
- Subsidize low(er) cost green technologies. We have more sun than we can handle. Houston needs to encourage solar as much as possible. Start with very generous subsidies for solar water heaters, reflective attic foil, and attic insulation.
- Make electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids more appealing from an economic standpoint: Make all parking meters and public parking garages free for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Install electric charging stations throughout parking garages in and around the city. Eliminate the yearly registration and inspection fees for owning such vehicles via tax credit.
- Take control of the Houston Metro. Purchase more buses that run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Add strict oversight to contractors. Expand the system to include more routes. (Read the Houston Press’ recent article regarding Metro’s current status; pay close attention to pages 6 and 7 for details on the bus system.)
- Retrofit public buildings for LEED certification. Flat-topped roofs can be covered with soil, grass and other vegetation. This would add park space for employees, reduce the electric bill, and beautify the downtown. Cisterns could be added to capture rainwater, which could then be used to water the vegetation, and provide grey-water for toilets. Solar panels and wind turbines could offset some of the building’s electricity costs.
- Install an electric commuter rail from Galveston to downtown, and one from Katy to downtown. Build some of the commuter rail stations along Galveston Road and adjacent to the Katy Freeway.
- Create lots of semi-transparent canopied green space between buildings à la Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Make allowances for the future installation of solar panels and wind turbines. Entire sections of open parks can be shaded from direct sunlight with a series of high-arched semi-transparent canopies. Like large overlapping curved fins, they could catch the wind and funnel it to turbines. This would be an attractive (albeit initially expensive) way to tell the world that Houston is environmentally-conscious. Feed the power generated into the city grid. This could be an essential source of power for emergency responders following a hurricane.
- Install a monorail transit system in and around the loops of the city. With the high water table, and the amount of torrential rain Houston gets, an underground subway would be out of the question (there is an underground shopping and business area in downtown which flooded during Tropical Storm Allison). Give people a reason to walk by placing the stations a reasonable distance apart. Elevating the rail system would solve the absurdly high number of car-train accidents, protect it from flooded roads, and it would help store owners who’s businesses have seen a decline in sales as a result of light rail tracks six feet from their front doors.
I believe the key to Houston’s (and Texas’) success has been its business-friendly environment, its lack of a state tax, and its friendly people. San Francisco, although very beautiful, is in a state that has high taxes and a high level of public services – however the services have been costing more than even the taxes can pay for. There are financially sensible ways to pay for each and every one of the above-mentioned items – some of them can be realized through gained efficiencies such as lower cost electricity bills, less road use, etc. I have no problem with privatized bus routes and train lines, as long as there is strict oversight and it’s cheaper than what the city could operate it for. I doesn’t matter to me if every solar panel and wind turbine owned by the city is a private company, just as long as it is financially sound for the tax payer.