April 9, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking City

According to recently released U.S. Census data, the population of the city of Saint Louis has once again decreased. In 2014, Saint Louis’ population dropped to 317,419, a decline of 1,946 people since the 2010 Census. Although the drop is only 0.6 percent, the trend of a declining population continues for Saint Louis. In fact, ever since the 1950s, Saint Louis City’s population has been sinking.

In 1950 Saint Louis was the eighth largest city in the United States with a population of 856,796. According to the 2014 Census estimate, Saint Louis has two-thirds fewer people than in 1950.

St. Louis population table

Such a dramatic decrease in population has major effects on local government. As the population declines, taxable income and sales leave the area and revenue declines with it. Lower population levels exacerbate other issues such as abandoned buildings, lower property values, and, as a result, fewer funds for public schools.

Saint Louis is a city that has much to offer. So why are people continuing to leave? What should the city do to halt the deflating population?

April 2, 2015

Bag Ban Ban—Not a Tongue Twister, a Proposed Law

rrrI like plastic bags. I use them for groceries, crafts, wet swimsuits, small trash can liners, and more. As far as the “reuse” part of the triple-R-cycle goes, I’m covered. Still, cities across the country are pushing to reduce plastic bag use by instituting bans.

In March, the Columbia City Council withdrew a plan to ban plastic bags at “groceries, convenient stores, and pharmacies.” The proposal would have mandated that stores charge 10 cents per plastic bag. While supporters said the new policy would reduce waste and benefit the environment, it took a lot of heat from constituents and was withdrawn a month later.

A legislator said we are likely to see more municipalities pursuing plastic bag bans as they have become more popular nationwide, which is why lawmakers are considering legislation that would ban plastic bag bans. House Bill 722 would allow businesses a choice on what type of bag they provide customers.

Bag bans are meant to incentivize the use of other types of shopping bags such as reusable bags, but research regarding the use of reusable bags over plastic bags is mixed. In cities that have instituted plastic bag bans, people began to use more paper bags. Unlike plastic bags, paper bags are not often recycled or reused and come with their own set of environmental consequences.

While I believe that Missouri should promote environmentally responsible behavior, it’s unclear whether or not policies like the one Columbia proposed would actually help the environment. Though some might argue that a statewide ban on bans limits the power of local governments, the proposed legislation actually protects the rights of individuals.

November 5, 2014

Thoughts on Gov. Nixon’s Rams Press Conference

With the Rams poised to do a power run out of town, are public officials planning to blitz unwary taxpayers and their pocketbooks? Earlier today, Gov. Nixon huddled with the press discussing his game plan on how to keep the Rams in Saint Louis. Due to an arbitrator’s ruling, the Rams are allowed to shift to a year-to-year lease on their current stadium in 2015 since it is not “top-tier.” During the press conference, Gov. Nixon announced that he would be appointing former A-B executive Dave Peacock and Clayton attorney Bob Blitz to research options designed to keep the Rams in Saint Louis.

Details on any proposal are light, but Gov. Nixon did say that Saint Louis will remain an NFL city and that “we’re going to be partners here” in regards to upgrading the stadium. He mentioned that current funding streams will be available once payments on the original dome expire. Presently, the city, county, and state spend a combined $24 million annually on paying off the debt accrued in building the Edward Jones Dome. Gov. Nixon also was quick to point out economic benefits that having a sports team would bring.

I agree with Gov. Nixon’s desire to keep the Rams in Saint Louis. I too hope they stay, but if taxpayers are going to approve further public subsidies to the Rams, they should do so with their eyes wide open. It’s one thing if people want to pay to keep the Rams in Saint Louis because of a desire for increased civic pride or prestige. It’s another thing to claim that subsidizing construction will lead to economic growth for the area. In fact, public financing of a new stadium will not lead to increased economic growth. A study conducted by Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson found that “Researchers who have gone back and looked at economic data for localities that have hosted mega-events, attracted new franchises, or built new sports facilities have almost invariably found little or no economic benefits from spectator sports.”

Again, I want the Rams to stay in Saint Louis, but I don’t want my tax dollars to be used to keep them here. New stadiums in New York and San Francisco are both 100 percent privately financed. Why should the Rams be treated any better?

November 3, 2014

Where Is Kansas City’s Recovery?

Whither Kansas City? According to local media outlets, the city is clearly on this rise. Millennials are moving downtown, residential developments are multiplying, and new sources of employment are entering the city. Capping it all, the Royals had a fantastic season, which was enough for the Kansas City Star to roundly praise past public subsidies for Kauffman Stadium. The story is clearly growth.

But census data paints a different picture of the metropolitan area and the city itself; a picture of falling income, rising poverty, and slow population growth. Kansas City was hit hard by the recent recession, and simply put, the city has not seen a recovery in terms of income.

Census data shows that employment is increasing in Kansas City since the recession, but total employment is still significantly below prerecession levels. That may be partially explained by lower labor force participation and fewer households. The income data is more troubling. The median household income from 2010 to 2013 is still almost $3,000 lower than it was from 2007 to 2009, not accounting for inflation. When that adjustment is made, real income has been on a continuous decline in the city since 2009.


A similar trend exists in Johnson County and the metropolitan area as a whole.

The recession caused poverty levels in Kansas City and surrounding areas to spike, and they have yet to significantly recede. Poverty levels were actually higher from 2011 to 2013 than they were from 2009 to 2011 (which includes the recession). As with income, Kansas City has yet to see anything that could be described as a healthy recovery. The following chart demonstrates recent trends:


There’s plenty of excitement and optimism in Kansas City, and that’s no bad thing. But much of the excitement seems to be for prestige projects, entertainment venues, and young people in the downtown area. If that attitude allows people to forget that for most people in Kansas City there really has not been a recovery, much less a renaissance, then the optimism may be counterproductive.

October 8, 2012

Show-Me Institute In The News

We had a very busy first week of October for op-eds at the Show-Me Institute. The Missouri Record ran a piece on lessons for Missouri from the Chicago Teacher’s Strike by James Shuls and Andrew Wilson. The Sedalia Democrat and the Southeast Missourian both ran a commentary by Mike Rathbone about tax incentives for Ballpark Village. Finally, Lake News Online carried an op-ed by David Stokes (a.k.a., me) on the controversial Transportation Development District (TDD) and parking dispute near the Shady Gators and Camden on the Lake.

Listen in at 9:30 a.m. this Wednesday when I discuss the Ozark TDD on the Morning Magazine with Manny Haley on KRMS radio in Osage Beach.

December 19, 2011

What’s Next? Indefinite Detention Of People Who Text And Drive?

Just in time for holiday travel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended banning the use of cell phones while driving. The news came when the NTSB completed its investigation of a tragic accident that occurred in Missouri in which two people died and another 38 were injured.

This provides the perfect narrative for what some might consider to be very compelling and policy-minded journalism: A tragedy has occurred and a cell phone was involved. Shouldn’t there be a law against that?

Consider this line from the New York Times’ series of articles on the subject: “With virtually every American owning a cellphone, distracted driving has become a threat on the nation’s roads.” Indeed, in September 2009, the newspaper wrote that it was time to crack down, saying that “…texting at the wheel is a national hazard that calls for a firm federal response.”

This weekend, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Matt Richtel, the author of several Times articles regarding the dangers of cell phone use while driving, discussing whether he considered himself to be an advocate. Richtel provided the standard journalist line, saying that he just thinks it is important to ask tough questions.

Well, here are two more.

1. Traffic fatalities, crashes, accidents, etc. have declined dramatically. If driving is safer than ever, why is there such concern?

The argument I hear again and again (most recently when I sat in on Donnybrook) is that banning cell phones while driving is about safety. However, Missourinet reports that this year, traffic fatalities are headed for a 62-year low. The same trend is seen on the national level. Fatality, injury, and crash rates have all declined substantially since 1990.

If fatalities, crashes, and injuries are down, then I hardly think that we are experiencing a “national hazardthat warrants an outright ban on cell phone use while driving. Of course, there have been accidents where cell phones were clearly the cause. However, with traffic accidents and fatalities down during the same time period that cell phones became popular, cell phone use is clearly not as dangerous as some fear.

And, even if an action comes with a small amount of risk, that does not mean we should pass a law to ban it. In fact, driving with children in the car may be more distracting than those pesky cell phones. Should we ban driving with children? Are we in the midst of a national driving-with-children epidemic?

2. How could this possibly be enforced? And, do we really want to create another vague reason to stop and question citizens?

How on earth could a ban on cell phone use be enforced? Would a police officer be able to pull you over if you look down briefly while driving? How could the officer discern whether you are talking on a hands-free phone or merely singing along to the radio?

The New York Times should know better than to advocate for additional vague ways for police to stop and question individuals. After all, the Times did an excellent study of a “stop, question, and frisk” policing policy. The newspaper found that after a drastic decline in violent crimes in New York City, the number of stops the police made increased dramatically.

Knowing that police officers can sometimes abuse their ability to stop, question, search, and detain individuals, why would anyone advocate for more vague reasons to stop and question people? Driving dangerously is already illegal. What more do cell phone ban advocates need?

Indeed, the last thing I want to see after the passage of federal legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil is another vague reason that police can use to stop and search citizens.

The solution is not to ban cell phones.

I do not condone texting while driving. I also am not a fan of eating while driving, or letting your adorable pet distract you while driving. Though it would make an excellent point and is legal, I do not recommend that you hold a banana to your ear and pretend to talk to it while driving.

I was in a nearly fatal car accident when my family first moved to Michigan. The culprit? Ice. Should driving in Michigan be banned from October through April? Obviously not. Instead, I support independent groups working to inform drivers about dangerous winter driving conditions. Similarly, efforts to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving may end up saving lives.

But an outright ban? It is an overreaction to a tragedy.

December 14, 2011

The Gateway City, The ‘Possibility City,’ And Hope For The Future

The guard is changing at Saint Louis’ regional chamber of commerce, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA).

Dick Fleming, the group’s longtime head, is stepping down from the organization he has helmed since 1994, and his replacement will come from a city just a short drive east on I-64: Louisville, Ky., also known as the “Gateway to the South.” Joe Reagan moves to Saint Louis from Louisville’s equivalent of the RCGA, the Greater Louisville Inc., or GLI. Marketed during Reagan’s tenure as “Possibility City,” Louisville will have to find a new chamber head for the first time since 2005. Louisville is already writing the postscript to Reagan’s legacy.

But the fact of the matter is that no man, or government, or organization, or even coalition of organizations, can plan an economy, or at least plan it well. That is an incredibly important point to highlight and probably the fairest thing that can be said as Reagan joins the Saint Louis community; it also is probably one of the most damaging points one can raise about how the RCGA and organizations like it behave.

Our local chamber loves to get the pat on the back for positive economic news and to pump “public-private partnerships,” oftentimes fueled with tax credits, that fail to substantively move the economic needle in the region’s favor. Meddling in the economy, local or national, destroys wealth more often than it creates it, leaving taxpayers with the promise of prosperity but little else. And it is no secret that Saint Louis city has languished for decades under one failed economic plan after another, compounded by the exodus of residents into nearby counties and driven by the continued intransigence of the city’s political class to step away from its cronyistic tendencies. In short, the economic development status quo is not a blueprint for a prosperous future for this region, and has not been for some time.

Which is why I hope that Reagan’s arrival in Saint Louis is not just more of the same. More precisely, I hope that Saint Louis — and Kansas City, and the state of Missouri — at least return to some sense of regional economic normalcy, if not runaway growth in the coming year. That is a Christmas wish of sorts, I suppose, but a wish that the RCGA, GLI, or any similar organization has limited or no power to bring to fruition.

Maybe a New Year’s resolution for the state and the city is in order instead: To simply let the market work. It does not matter if it is Saint Louis’ chamber hawking Aerotropolis, or Moberly’s chamber hawking Mamtek, or a political class increasingly disconnected from the electorate hawking Solyndra. There are no easy, centralized solutions to our economic woes. Acting like there is in Saint Louis only prolongs the municipal pain. Like all taxpayers, Saint Louisans cannot depend on a small group of decision-makers to make their lives better.

Free markets make genuine and sustainable economic growth possible, and if there is going to be a “Possibility City” in this region, let it be more than just another marketing slogan with another cartridge of development silver bullets as its driving force. Reduce taxes and regulation, get out of the way, and let the free market flourish. May RCGA’s new administration regain its faith in that formulation.

July 8, 2011

“Felt Like Winning the Lottery!”

It’s the stuff every ticket owner dreams of — winning a heap of cash. And that’s exactly how co-director Joe Anderson felt when he was awarded Missouri film production incentives. This is what Anderson said in a published interview:

One of those investors also went a bit further and loaned us funds against a film incentive program from Missouri that allowed a 50% tax credit for every dime we spent in their State. It worked out quite well and I would love to do that again! Felt like winning the lottery!

The movie, Albino Farm, received over $193,000 in tax credits. Enjoy the trailer — your tax dollars helped pay for it.

December 21, 2010

“But It’s the Thought That Counts, Right?”

Last week, Freakonomics radio interviewed Steven Dubner about avoiding unwanted gifts and deadweight loss. He contends that when individuals give gifts just for the sake of giving gifts, they tend to destroy wealth and aggregate utility in the economy. Individuals are often focused more on the fact that they bought something (anything) for somebody else, and less on whether the gift will generate any real utility for the recipient. I bring this up because it’s a topic that we’ve previously discussed on Show-Me Daily. From the interview:

RYSSDAL: So anyway, it’s called “deadweight loss.” It’s that thing where my wife’s great-grandma buys me a sweater at $85 and to me it’s worth like $1.50. Because I don’t like it.

Most people enjoy finding gifts for others. I suspect that this negates a nonzero amount of dead-weight loss. However, this only occurs when the gift is well-fitted to the preferences of the recipient. Value is not added when you give your friend something that she hates. Additionally, she may have to endure the costs of storing and loathing the gift.

The act of searching for presents takes a lot of time and energy, and this increases their cost because individuals could be spending their time engaged in other activities. I’m one of those “clickers and gifters” described in the interview. Although I still experience high search costs, I find efficiency gains elsewhere (e.g., avoiding the mall).

Our staff recently did a Secret Santa exchange, and we instituted a $10 cap. I gave Jim a $10 bill. I find utility in the fact that I didn’t destroy any wealth in that transaction. I suspect that Jim finds utility in the fact that he may buy something that he actually wants.

December 14, 2010

I Love Arbitrash!

Arbitrage, in economics, is when someone trades commodities in such a way as to realize a profit from the price differences within or between markets. Arbitrage involves, essentially, taking advantage of opportunities for profit with little risk. This might be seen as sneaky or underhanded, but arbitrage actually helps stabilize prices across a market, by neutralizing any glaring price inconsistencies. Arbitrage is great, because it demonstrates a wonderful market niche that derives maximum efficiency from the available resources.

When wealth in the form of goods, such as clothing, appliances, or furniture, is obtained basically for free, because it has been deemed useless by a previous owner, I call that “Arbitrash.” It may be trashy, but it sure can be profitable in the form of physical wealth obtained for little or no money. Examples of arbitrash include thrift stores (whose primary merchandise consists of old clothes that people wanted to throw away), money paid for cans at a recycling plant, getting furniture or scrap metal out of the trash (or next to the trash), Dumpster diving, and hand-me-down clothes.

Especially when many people are worrying about their financial futures, arbitrage begins to look better and better, because it entails being resourceful and paying attention to sources of wealth that are being ignored. In the days of the Great Depression, people were forced to adopt this mindset, and they summarized it with a popular saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I have to admit that I love this little poem, because it makes me feel like I can go shopping for free! You may have surmised from this point that I am quite a tightwad. As a youth, I loved reading the The Tightwad Gazette, a newsletter published by Amy Dacyczyn, the Frugal Zealot. Amy’s creative, miserly wisdom is just the thing to help folks with recently shaky finances make the most of their resources — and, more importantly, to prepare for a future of miserly, financially responsible spending.

As an example of how Americans might be more open to accepting the idea of arbitrage, the online marketplace Etsy sells handmade items, many of which are clearly made from trash (and don’t try to hide it). They even have a word for this: “upcycled.” The term implies that what was once just trash becomes something better and useful, or beautiful. In other words, wealth created from waste. This listing even advertises:

Be prepared for the uncertain future while keeping waste out of our landfills! This item is 100% made in the USA.

This listing says it more concisely:

Sustainable is the new classy!

Some of the worst items marketed on Etsy are recycled as digital arbitrash in the form of Regretsy, a blog highlighting hilarious handmade products. The blog not only entertains readers and pays the bills for April Winchell, its author, but it also raises money to fight childhood cancer, and increases Etsy’s web traffic by way of many links to items for sale. In fact, many Etsy crafts featured on Regretsy sell for high prices, because so many people want to own the item, sometimes made out of trash, that was mocked by Winchell. Regretsy aside, I’m not making fun of the Etsy sellers for making stuff out of trash; instead, I am applauding the wealth creation that occurs when people are allowed to dream up their own market niches.

The wonderful thing about arbitrage is that it takes waste and transforms it into wealth. For example, from The Myth of the Robber Barons, the Show-Me Institute’s book club learned that when Benjamin Silliman, Jr., refined crude oil into kerosene as a substitute for the whale oil commonly used to light lamps, he also created paraffin and gasoline as by-products. I guess he wasn’t such a SillyMan after all.

October 6, 2010

Would Prop B Really Help Puppies?

You may have noticed the statewide hubbub about the so-called “Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act.” I’m starting to wonder how many people — on either side of the debate — have actually read either the proposed statute or the current law on the subject. To help clarify the conversation, I thought I’d offer the following comparison between the law currently on the books and the actual text of Prop B.

Current Law: Prop B:
Animals must be fed at least once every 12 hours. “The food must be uncontaminated, wholesome, palatable and of sufficient quantity and nutritive value to maintain the normal condition and weight of the animal. The diet must be appropriate for the individual animal’s age and condition.” Dogs must have access to “appropriate, nutritious food at least once a day”.
Current Law: Prop B:
“If potable water is not continually available to the animals, it must be offered to the animals as often as necessary to ensure their health and well-being, but not less than once each eight (8) hours for at least one (1) hour each time, unless restricted by the attending veterinarian. Water receptacles must be kept clean and sanitized in accordance with this rule and before being used to water a different animal or social grouping of animals.” Dogs must have “continuous access to potable water that is not frozen, and is free of debris, feces, algae, and other contaminants.”
Current Law: Prop B:
Breeders must employ an attending veterinarian and must provide “daily observation of all animals to assess their health and well-being.” While this daily observation need not be made by a licensed vet, “a mechanism of direct and frequent communication is required so that timely and accurate information on problems of animal health, behavior and well-being is conveyed to the attending veterinarian.” “Necessary veterinary care means, at a minimum, examination at least once a year by a licensed veterinarian.”
Current Law: Prop B:
Each dog must be provided floor space equivalent to (animal length from tip of nose to base of tail + six inches) squared. Nursing mothers must be provided additional space as determined by the attending veterinarian. Ceilings must be at least six inches higher than the height of the tallest dog in the enclosure. All shelters “must allow each animal to sit, stand and lie in a normal manner and to turn about freely.” Dogs must have “(1) sufficient indoor space for each dog to turn in a complete circle without any impediment (including a tether); (2) enough indoor space for each dog to lie down and fully extend his or her limbs and stretch freely without touching the side of an enclosure or another dog; (3) at least one foot of headroom above the head of the tallest dog in the enclosure; and (4) at least 12 square feet of indoor floor space per each dog up to 25 inches long; at least 20 square feet of indoor floor space per each dog between 25 and 35 inches long; and at least 30 square feet of indoor floor space per each dog for dogs 35 inches and longer (with the length of the dog measured from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail).”
Current Law: Prop B:
Indoor facilities for animals must generally remain above 50 degrees, and if the temperature drops lower the animals must be provided with “dry bedding, solid resting boards or other methods of conserving body heat.” If temperatures rise above 85 degrees, animals must be provided with “fans, blowers, or air conditioning.” Dogs must have “constant and unfettered access to an indoor enclosure that has a solid floor; is not stacked or otherwise placed on top of or below another animal’s enclosure; and does not fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, or rise above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Current Law: Prop B:
Breeders must establish an exercise plan for each animal and have it approved by the attending veterinarian.

“The opportunity for exercise may be provided in a number of ways, such as
(I) Group housing in cages, pens or runs that provide at least one hundred percent (100%) of the required space for each dog if maintained separately under the minimum floor space requirements of this rule;
(II) Maintaining individually housed dogs in cages, pens or runs that provide at least twice the minimum floor space required by this rule;
(III) Providing access to a run or open area at the frequency and duration prescribed by the attending veterinarian; or
(IV) Other similar activities.”

“Regular exercise” means constant and unfettered access to an outdoor exercise area that is composed of a solid, ground level surface with adequate drainage; provides some protection against sun, wind, rain, and snow; and provides each dog at least twice the square footage of the indoor floor space provided to that dog.
Current Law: Prop B:
“Excreta and food waste must be removed from primary enclosures daily and from under primary enclosures as often as necessary to prevent an excessive accumulation of feces and food waste, to prevent soiling of the animals contained in the primary enclosures, and to reduce disease hazards, insects, pests and odors. When steam or water is used to clean the primary enclosure, whether by hosing, flushing or other methods, animals must be removed, unless the enclosure is large enough to ensure the animals would not be harmed, wetted or distressed in the process. Standing water must be removed from the primary enclosure and adjacent areas. Animals in other primary enclosures must be protected from being contaminated with water and other wastes during the cleaning. The pans under primary enclosures with grill-type floors and the ground areas under raised runs with wire or slatted floors must be cleaned as often as necessary to prevent accumulation of feces and food waste and to reduce disease hazards, pests, insects and odors.” Dog shelters must be cleaned of waste at least once per day while the dog is outside the enclosure.

Prop B would certainly require some changes — for example, although it talks about the requirements for enclosures, it also seems to forbid them entirely by demanding “constant and unfettered access” to both indoor and outdoor spaces. Wouldn’t any enclosure that prevented such “constant and unfettered access” to these things violate the law?

Another interesting point is that, as you can see, some of the standards that Prop B would establish are actually lower than those in the current law. If the law currently requires that dogs be given food at least twice per day, why would you want to lower the requirement to feeding once a day? If the law currently sets the expectation that indoor facilities be kept higher than 50 degrees (and specifies the actions that must be taken to ensure the animals’ comfort if the temperature drops lower), why adopt the lower expectation of 45 degrees? Even where the standards established under the two laws are very similar, our current rules are very specific about how animals ought to be cared for. Why would it be a good idea to move from those specifics to something more general?

I am not, of course, advocating either in favor of the current law or in favor of Prop B. I just think that people should have a more thorough understanding of the proposed changes before they decide where they stand on this issue.

August 20, 2010

“What Is the Smallest Town in the State?”

Missouri State Fair

Last Friday, I travelled to the 108th Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, for my shift at the Show-Me Institute’s booth, fully prepared to engage in conversation with Missourians about how state and local governments create barriers to the free exchange of goods and services. I expected to field some tricky questions about whether the Show-Me Institute has partisan affiliations — we have none — or about pending, unaffiliated ballot initiatives, but I did not meet a single Missourian who wanted to know about either of these matters. Instead, I got tripped up by a seven-year-old’s query, “What is the smallest town in the state?”

Had the child asked which of Missouri’s 115 counties has the highest rate of tax abatement as a percentage of total real property assessed valuation, I could have provided an answer. Had he inquired about the intricacies of state supplemental tax increment financing, I would have jumped at the chance to describe its function and effects. I certainly would have had something to say about state spending for historic preservation or the myths of downtown “revitalization” in St. Louis. But I did not know the answer to the question, “What is the smallest town in the state?”

I promised my questioner that I would get back to him after consulting the Census, so, without further ado, here is the answer to the trickiest question from Sedalia:

Goss Town, population one, in Monroe County, population 9,311, is the smallest town in the state.

If you have a question for the Show-Me Institute, please feel free to stop by our booth in Sedalia for the remainder of the fair, or place a comment on the blog.

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