Month: August 2012

Banning Plastic Grocery Bags: Environmental Savior or Wasteful Eco-Fad?

By Todd Myers

From Bellingham, Seattle, and Issaquah, Washington to Portland, Oregon and parts of California (most recently, Pasadena, as of July 1), cities are joining the latest environmental trend―banning plastic grocery bags. Concerned about the amount of plastic that reaches our oceans and its impact on wildlife, communities have decided that banning the bags is a simple and environmentally responsible approach.

But is it? What does the science say?

Banning the bags actually may be a net negative for the environment, yielding little environmental benefit while increasing carbon emissions and other impacts.

Advocates of the ban cite the bags’ effect on marine life and mammals. Unfortunately, their claims are often false or misleading. For example, the Shoreline city council was told “the ecological impacts of this plastic include over a million sea-birds and 100,000 marine mammals killed by either plastic ingestions or entanglement.” In fact, this assertion has nothing to do with plastic bags.

NOAA corrected the claim, saying, “We are so far unable to find a scientific reference for this figure.” The only study NOAA can find does not deal with plastic bags or even marine debris, but “active fishing gear bycatch”―in other words, fishing nets that are used at sea, not discarded plastic bags.

A Greenpeace biologist quoted in the Times of London agreed, saying, “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags.”

Others claim plastic bags have created a “Pacific Garbage Patch,” twice the size of Texas. This is simply false. Oregon State University reports that the actual amount is less than one percent the size of Texas. Oceanography professor Angel White sent out a release last year saying: “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”

In addition, the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute found the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t increased since the 1980s.

This doesn’t mean plastic bags have no impact. When determining the environmental costs and benefits, however, we need to be honest about the science. Indeed, there are environmental risks from banning plastic grocery bags.

The most significant risk is the increase in energy use. Plastic bags are the most energy-efficient form of grocery bag. The U.K. Environment Agency compared energy use for plastic, paper, and reusable bags. It found the “global warming potential” of plastic grocery bags is one-fourth that of paper bags and 1/173rd that of a reusable cotton bag. In other words, consumers would have to use a cotton bag 173 times, or once a week for more than three years, before it matched the energy savings of plastic bags.

Ironically, many of the cities leading the charge against plastic bags are signatories to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Yet, few of these cities even attempt to assess the climate impact of switching from the least energy-intensive grocery bag to those requiring far more energy to produce.

It also should be noted that the benefit of banning plastic bags is mitigated by the fact that half of the bags are reused for other purposes, like garbage or picking up after pets. Grocery shoppers will still have to buy other bags, likely plastic, for those purposes. Those who worry about trash reaching landfills are doing little by banning plastic bags.

In the end, communities need to sincerely weigh these various environmental costs. Unfortunately, few public officials do any analysis because the political symbolism of banning the bags is powerful. It is often easier to ignore the science that indicates such bans actually may harm the environment than to make an honest effort to weigh these difficult issues.

Put simply, plastic bag bans have become more about the latest environmental fad than about environmental benefits. State and local politicians should stop trying to enact into law whatever the latest politically correct ecological trend happens to be. Instead, they should leave customers free to make environmental and conservation judgments for themselves.

Todd Myers is the environmental director at Washington Policy Center. He has more than a decade of experience in environmental policy and is the author of the book Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

 

Read Blog Detail

Creativity and Initiative Drive Our Economy

The first Labor Day was celebrated 130 years ago in September 1882. Labor Day was created by labor unions as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

What began with organized labor is now a celebration of Americans in all sectors of the economy, whose individual initiative is what drives economic innovation and success. There is no economy without millions of people bringing to the marketplace their particular gifts of human creativity, intelligence, initiative, and effort.

Human work is more than just performing tasks or exchanging services. Persons are more than machines, and the things we create to make our lives easier and our work more efficient exist only because we invented them. We bring unique intelligence and problem-solving capabilities into our interactions with others. Human capital―the knowledge, skills, and experiences of human beings―is the true wealth of a society.

For a healthy economy, we must remember that wealth doesn’t create itself. Government doesn’t create it, either. People create wealth. New jobs, industries, and a strong economy are the fruit of our individual creativity. So on Labor Day, let’s celebrate the freedom we have in America to bring our best to the world.

Read Blog Detail

Lisa Graham Keegan discusses the importance of school choice

Cascade Policy Institute sat down with former Arizona school chief and national school choice advocate Lisa Graham Keegan to talk about how she became a supporter of educational freedom and why it’s important for our children.

Read Blog Detail

Why the School System Doesn’t Just “Buy Local”

By Erin Mae Shiffler

The Oregonian’s recent PolitiFact “Feds Don’t Think Local on School Lunch Ingredients” was prompted by Senator Ron Wyden’s complaint that “Oregon schools receive millions of dollars per year in federal school lunch assistance and yet they are required to spend that money almost anywhere but Oregon.” Politifact concluded that Wyden’s claim was “true” because “96% of food served in Oregon schools and purchased with federal dollars came from another state.” This is a false conclusion. Just because the “one definitive document” cited shows that most school food comes from out of state doesn’t mean it is required to come from out of state.

Oregon schools are not “required” to spend federal school lunch money outside Oregon. For the largest portion of their purchasing budget, schools must obtain food products through a competitive bidding process that also includes quality and nutrition standards.

Requiring food suppliers to bid makes sure schools do not favor suppliers unfairly. The bidding process allows schools to receive bids from local producers and suppliers throughout the country. Producers which meet quality and nutrition standards at the lowest cost will be chosen. Schools cannot afford to discriminate against out-of-state suppliers in favor of local food sources because they have a limited budget with which to feed the whole student population.

The other aspects of this process that may impede local suppliers are the nutrition and quality standards. These standards may increase the cost of food and make it harder for Oregon’s farms to produce items up to par while simultaneously underbidding producers in states like California. But standards are applied across the board, not just to Oregon suppliers. These standards include criteria such as: lunches must provide at least one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for key nutrients, they may have no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, they must have less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, they must reduce sodium levels whenever possible, and they must increase fiber content whenever possible.

According to the article, Sen. Wyden assumes that local produce is more nutritious than food from out of state, but this may not be true. According to Cynthia Sass, Nutrition Director for Prevention magazine (January 2008): “A lot of people think fresh is best, but believe it or not, frozen produce is even more nutrient packed. That’s because the moment produce is picked, it starts to lose nutrients, but freezing slows that loss. A 2007 study found that vitamin C content of fresh broccoli plummeted 56% in 7 days, but dipped just 10% in a year’s time when frozen. In addition, the levels of disease-fighting antioxidants called anthocyanins actually increased after freezing.” This is just another reason why schools may choose to buy from outside Oregon.

A small portion of Oregon schools’ purchasing budget must be spent on specific items from the USDA’s program and is called “commodity money.” Commodity money is an extra $0.2225 per lunch served the previous school year. The bulk of the federally funded budget is non-commodity money that is reimbursed depending on the student’s status. For schools with less than 60% of children qualifying for free/reduced price lunches, the reimbursement rates are $0.26 for paid, $2.37 for reduced price, and $2.77 for free lunches. The rates are even higher in schools with more than 60% eligible.

According to a study of the commodity program done by the Food Research and Action Center, “when only expenditures on food are included in the calculation, the value of the commodities makes up about one-fifth of the federal resources spent on food for school lunch.” This means that four-fifths of the money is subject to the requirements above and do not need to be purchased from the USDA’s list of food. If a school found better quality items at lower prices through bids from Oregon suppliers, then they could spend about 80% of their federal funds here in Oregon.

If we are only spending 4% in Oregon, there are several possible reasons. It could be because the supply locally costs too much, lacks in quality, local suppliers are not bidding for the schools’ business, non-commodity money is following the commodity money to a single supplier to make buying easier, or the person at the school district in charge of buying food doesn’t have time to personally contact all of the small local providers that could supply cheaper and better quality food.

Oregon schools do not refuse to buy from Oregon suppliers because federal restrictions require them to buy outside Oregon or from any particular supplier. If we want to increase sales to local vendors, then local farms and food producers must offer bids for high-quality products at competitive prices. This scenario is incorrectly being used to promote the “buy local” mentality when in reality, buying local right now would only hurt the kids this program is supposed to feed because higher food prices would decrease the quantity that can be purchased. If our schools are buying food from anywhere but Oregon, don’t blame the federal government. Instead, figure out why Oregon suffers from a lack of locally available quality and low-cost food options.

Erin Mae Shiffler is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Read Blog Detail

Testimony before the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners

Testimony before the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners

Regarding the revised IGA for the Milwaukie Light Rail Project

August 22, 2012

 John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO

My name is John Charles and I represent Cascade Policy Institute, a non-partisan policy research center.

The Clackamas County Board seems to think that the financing agreement signed with TriMet in 2010 is a binding contract. However, TriMet itself has already breeched the contract, as follows:

  1. The Clackamas County Commission formally endorsed the “PMLR Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) on July 24, 2008. That endorsement was for a light rail plan including 1,000 parking spaces at the Park Avenue station and another 1,000 spaces at the Tacoma Street station.

In addition, the LPA offered a possible alternative alignment, known as the “Minimum Operating Segment”, terminating at Lake Road in Milwaukie. If this plan were chosen, the Tacoma Street station would include 1,250 parking spaces.

  1. The LPA with 1,250 – 2,000 committed parking spaces was endorsed by the County Commission when it signed the IGA in 2010.
  1. The project now being built has changed dramatically. The Park Avenue station includes only 350 parking spaces and the Tacoma Street station 320 spaces. This will lower the expected ridership of the project by a wide margin.

The entire 26-year experience with TriMet’s light rail system shows that outside the Portland city center, light rail is largely dependent on park-and-ride lots for ridership.  For example, the Gateway Transit Center has had a chronic parking shortage for decades because it is the closest parking lot to downtown on the east side. On the Westside, the Sunset Transit Center has only 587 spaces. Since this is the closest Westside TriMet lot to downtown Portland, it is usually filled to capacity every weekday by 7:00 a.m. TriMet would have higher ridership on the Westside MAX if it had built a much larger parking lot.

  1. By under-building for parking on the PMLR line, TriMet is asking both Clackamas County and the City of Milwaukie to absorb the many downsides of this project – including the taking of homes and businesses, loss of express bus service to Portland, and the cannibalization of other public services – while offering no transportation benefits compared with existing bus service.

Since TriMet has chosen to begin construction on a different project than the one promised, the Clackamas County Commission is free to opt out of previously made commitments, and should do so. The PMLR project never made any sense from a transit standpoint, and is clearly a step backwards for express bus commuters on HW 99e, who will be forced to transfer from the fast bus to the slow train in Milwaukie if this is built.

Regardless of how the project was perceived in 2008, public sentiment has changed. The County’s most recent “Community Services and Issues” survey, conducted by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall during late February and mid-March, asked respondents for “the most important issues” facing the county. Supporting light rail elicited only a 3% positive response, while 5% of respondents stated that “stopping MAX” was important to them. Overall, many other issues are of greater concern to county taxpayers, including the economy, road maintenance, education and law enforcement.

Recommended Course of Action for Clackamas County:

  • The BCC should formally state that the IGA with TriMet is no longer binding because TM is building a different project than the one promised in 2010 and 2008.
  • The county’s plan to sell bonds should be abandoned and the entire PMLR project de-funded.

 

  • The terminus of the line should be moved from Park Avenue to Tacoma Street, and the parking facility at that station should be increased to 1,250 spaces, as originally anticipated in the EIS. That would be financially feasible with savings from shortening the line.

Conclusion

It is clear that the September 18th ballot measure requiring a public vote on rail expenditures is going to pass easily. Instead of fighting the obvious, the BCC should use this vote as a mandate to protect county taxpayers from a bad deal negotiated in a different era.

 

Fortunately, it’s not too late to make this move; the single most expensive property scheduled for condemnation on the entire PMLR right-of-way – the Beaver Heat Treating facility on Moore Street – is still standing. This one property alone is likely to cost more than the entire $19.1 million IGA that is being discussed tonight. If the BCC does the right thing, the family-wage jobs at Beaver Heat Treating and other businesses in the ROW will be protected, and we won’t throw scarce tax dollars down a rat hole.

However, the window of opportunity is closing, because TriMet knows that the faster they destroy private property, the more difficult it becomes politically for elected officials to do the right thing. I encourage you to reject the proposed amended IGA, and to terminate the County’s interest in this project immediately.

Read Blog Detail

Costs of Utility Mandate Ultimately Borne by Consumers

By Eric Revell

With the passage of Senate Bill 838 by the Oregon legislature in 2007, most electric utilities in Oregon are required to provide certain levels of electricity from so-called renewable resources. The mandate is 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2015, rising to a target of 25% in 2025.

In the event that a utility is unable to meet the renewable energy mandate with their own resources, they can purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs). RECs are not an actual source of electricity; they are simply trade-able certificates representing the “environmental amenities” of power generated from politically correct sources, such as windmills and biomass facilities. They can be sold by the power generator to a retail utility company in need as a stand-alone certificate, or they can be bundled with the electricity actually produced. Unused RECs can be banked and sold to achieve compliance with green energy requirements at a later date.

While there is nothing wrong with consumers purchasing a fake commodity like a REC of their own volition, the state legislature should not make utilities purchase them simply to comply with expensive green power mandates. The additional costs incurred from REC purchases are passed on to all consumers through higher rates, an encumbrance that will increase as the renewable energy benchmarks continue to rise.

Eric Revell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Read Blog Detail

History Need Not Repeat Itself in Oregon’s Foreclosure Crisis

By Eric Revell

Recently, a foreclosure mediation program passed by the Oregon state legislature in March took effect, allowing distressed borrowers to meet with their lenders before foreclosure proceedings begin. This common-sense approach to solving the lingering issues with the state’s housing market was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the legislature and will allow borrowers who can agree to terms with their lenders to stay in their homes, a clear positive for all parties involved.

With this state-level solution in mind, it is truly unfortunate that members of Congress couldn’t produce a more intelligently designed patchwork for addressing the causes of the 2007 housing market collapse. For all its good intentions, the Dodd-Frank Act was abysmally inadequate at preventing the deterioration of lending standards that built up the subprime mortgage bubble. Even worse, it was passed on a series of strict party-line votes, is over 800 pages long, and directs democratically-unaccountable regulators to create still more rules if they view them necessary. Those regulators have graciously obliged, as Dodd-Frank now encompasses 8,843 pages of regulations, a daunting compliance challenge for America’s banks and lenders.

The 2007 failure of the subprime mortgage market was due in large part to the federal government’s crusade to promote affordable homeownership for those who lacked the ability to make a significant down payment or earn enough annual income to justify a mortgage. Through the government-sponsored enterprises of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgages had been approved for these individuals who, absent the federal regulatory push on the financial sector, wouldn’t have been able to buy a home.

This was a continuation of the trend that began with the 1990s revisions to the Community Reinvestment Act, which encouraged banks to lend to those with insufficient personal finances. From this period to the collapse of the housing market, the affordable housing goals as stipulated by government regulators rose from 30% of all mortgages originated in 1992, to 55% in 2007.

Once consumers were locked into mortgages that they couldn’t afford, foreclosures ensued. People lost their homes, and those who kept their homes saw their equity and home values plummet. Even more people were forced to tap into their savings and retirement, forestalling their plans for the future. Many banks had invested heavily in mortgage-backed securities, viewing them as safe assets. With foreclosures rising they struggled mightily to maintain their balance sheets. All told 445 banks have failed since the beginning of the crisis, and thousands of those former employees have struggled to find work in a floundering economy.

Out of this backdrop, then-senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and soon-to-be former representative Barney Frank (D-MA) drafted legislation to rein in what they viewed as “predatory lending” on the part of banks. The Dodd-Frank Act imposed regulatory costs on private sector mortgage lenders and originators with the goal of aligning their incentives with consumers, so that fewer risky mortgages would be made.

But this goal of Dodd-Frank was grievously undermined by the failure of the legislation’s creators to apply the same risk retention requirements to government providers of mortgages―namely Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac―that it imposed on private mortgage originators. Private lenders already have a clear incentive to ensure that the mortgages they provide are of adequate quality, lest they join the swelled ranks of failed banks. Those private lenders can no longer expect a taxpayer-funded bailout, given the popular furor that arose in the wake of this crisis. That is a luxury that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac implicitly enjoy, as they are allowed to do business with sub-market standard capital requirements.

Given the widespread economic hardship that the housing bubble wrought on our country and state, especially in Central and Southern Oregon, it would be utterly tragic for us to allow history to repeat itself due to the ineptitude of Dodd-Frank’s creators. Perhaps the simplest solution to the problem would be to privatize government mortgage lenders like Fannie and Freddie, so that they would become subject to the same requirements imposed on private mortgage originators. Allowing them to continue doing business as government-sponsored enterprises puts our economy in future jeopardy of another collapse. Mortgage standards will degrade over time as uninformed members of Congress loosen Fannie and Freddie’s already less stringent requirements in the name of promoting “fairness” in homeownership. Such a scenario is certainly not an intelligent path forward for our economy, country, or state.

Eric Revell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon.

Read Blog Detail

Why Can’t Portland's Pension Problem Be Solved Voluntarily?

By Shane Young

In 2008, the Portland public safety fund realized it had been accidentally overpaying pension benefits to 980 police and firefighter retirees for the last 13 years. This cost the fund $2.89 million. In 2011, the fund tried to recoup this money by withholding the cost of living increases for the retirees until the amount they were overpaid was returned. Alternatively, the retirees were given the option to repay the amount they were overpaid directly back to the fund.

However, as a response to a class action lawsuit brought by five of the affected retirees, a Multnomah county judge has recently declared that the fund cannot recoup the overpaid money by withholding cost of living increases, as such an act would violate the wage claim statute. The fund is now forced to figure out new ways to recoup this money.

While the retirees are not to blame for the overpayments, it is sad that such great lengths have to be taken to recoup what was overpaid. Only 52 of the 980 beneficiaries have chosen voluntarily to pay back their portion of the overpayments.

As ex-public servants, these retirees should be doing all they can to figure out how to voluntarily repay taxpayer money that they did not earn. It shouldn’t be the taxpayers’ job to force them to do the right thing.

Shane Young is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Read Blog Detail

Portland’s Proposed “Arts Education Tax”― Why Creativity and Government Subsidies Are Fundamentally at Odds

By Shane Young

The “Arts Education and Access Income Tax” proposed by Portland Mayor Sam Adams aims to hire more elementary school art teachers and fund local arts organizations by implementing a $35-per-year income tax (maximum) on all residents 18 years old and older who live above the poverty line. The City of Portland is promoting the levy, expected to raise $12 million annually, on the grounds that art education in public schools is vulnerable to budget cuts relative to schools’ other academic priorities.

Numerous criticisms of the tax measure have been raised, including the likelihood that the tax as constructed would be unconstitutional under Oregon law. It also can be noted that it is not the proper function of city government to levy this kind of tax, since the Portland School Board has primary jurisdiction over funding public education in Portland and has its own tax base. Even the editorial board of The Oregonian opposed the ballot measure on the grounds that art education, while valuable, doesn’t merit a dedicated tax. According to the board, Portlanders have “plenty of opportunities and incentives to support” the arts and art education, including a state income tax credit.

The proposed tax measure can and should be opposed on any or all of these grounds, but there is another reason why levying a tax to benefit art fails on principle. Portlanders should recognize what makes art so important to begin with and why government involvement and taxpayer subsidies are at odds with its purpose.

Art allows us to develop and foster creativity. It allows us to take chances and risks. It allows us to make sure that the diverse realm of ideas remains constantly expanding. Because of these benefits that art gives us, Portland should be cautious about putting creativity and diversity, the heart and soul of art, into jeopardy through dedicated, taxpayer funding of government-selected arts institutions.

Unlike the sciences, music, painting, sculpting, photography, poetry, and the many other constantly growing categories of art, have no black-and-white criteria with which to determine their success. In fact, many times art is admired, and established into history, because of its willingness to stray from the standard. It is this very deviation from the norm that allows creativity and diversity, the things art should be praised for in the first place, to flourish.

By allowing the city to take over more responsibility for the artistic growth of children, and to fund organizations solely of its choosing, taxpayers give city bureaucrats complete control over defining what exactly “art” is―and, furthermore, what “good” art is―for the purposes of public funding. Taxes thus will go to promoting one art form over another―and one standard of “good” art over another.

This isn’t to say that artistic development and success do not require discipline and some kind of formal guidance in an art class―it almost always does. Yet, because of the diverse nature of art, and the wide range of criteria used to judge its quality, this discipline and guidance must happen at a much more specialized and intimate level than what the city can or should provide. Therefore, if people are not satisfied with the art education available in Portland’s public schools, they should take The Oregonian’s advice and support the arts on an individual level.

Instead of increasing dedicated spending on the arts through taxation for the benefit of public schools and selected nonprofits, Portlanders should supplement the current art activities in schools, as they choose, with a willingness to allow and encourage children to individually explore the arts for themselves. Financially contributing directly to the areas in which children are interested, rather than simply allowing the city to mass-regulate artistic creativity and diversity, honors and respects the nature of creative expression. This November, Portlanders should allow future generations to answer the age-old question of “What is art?” for themselves, rather than hand city government more taxpayer money to answer it for them.

Shane Young is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a student at Whitman College.

Read Blog Detail

Instead of More Public Housing, How About Housing Freedom?

By Victoria Leca

The activist on hunger strike outside Portland City Hall ended his 55-day housing protest on July 26. In response to the protest, the City Council will participate in a Regional Summit on Housing and Homelessness this fall. The Council also will support a public vote on new funding for “affordable housing.”

Homelessness is a tough problem. No matter how much assistance is given, it will never completely go away. Self-destructive choices or mental problems will impede some people from living normal, healthy lives. No matter how much help is provided, they may never live in independent housing, no matter the price tag.

For those for whom price is the barrier to stable housing, “portable rental assistance” programs, which already exist on the federal level, can be a less restrictive option that empowers them to live outside the public housing system. Obtaining “decent and affordable housing on the private market” maximizes opportunities to escape poverty and promotes integration with the wider community. But while preferable to public housing, even housing vouchers come with their own dangers, such as reinforcing dependence on government cash subsidies.

Portland must acknowledge that its restrictive Urban Growth Boundary is at the root of high housing prices. The City Council could make housing more affordable for everyone simply by ending zoning policies that inflate the price of land within the Urban Growth Boundary and make more land available for low-cost housing. But the Council’s proposal simply to fund more public housing for the homeless is neither a desirable nor a sufficient solution to high prices and homelessness. Throwing more public funds at “affordable housing” only masks symptoms, rather than addressing the causes, of high housing prices in Portland.

Victoria Leca is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy think tank.

Read Blog Detail