Posts

Invest California’s Pension Funds in Water and Energy Infrastructure

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
–  Peter Thiel, in his 2011 manifesto “What Happened to the Future.”

Anyone living in California who’s paying attention knows what venture capitalist Thiel meant. While a handful of Silicon Valley social media entrepreneurs have amassed almost indescribable wealth, and fundamentally transformed how humanity communicates, investment in boring things like roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, aqueducts, reservoirs and railroads – the list is endless – has stagnated. Especially in California. Flying cars? Forget about it. Go tweet.

20161114-cpc-flyingcar

Why? Why the neglect?

(1) For starters, why invest in moving atoms around, which is messy and might incur the wrath of powerful climate change activists, when you can move electrons around in new and exciting ways and make billions? Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are making a rational choice to prefer manipulating characters to manufacturing cars.

(2) And when it comes to innovations that do involve atoms, that is, actual manufactured goods, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are lobbying for mandates that force people to purchase internet enabled home appliances, connected to smart meters, that punitively bill consumers who, for example, operate their clothes dryer or dishwasher at the “wrong” times.

(3) Public money that might be used to backstop private investment in infrastructure is being used instead to pay over-market compensation to California’s state and local workers, who now receive pay and benefits that on average are twice what California’s private sector workers earn.

To justify this neglect, California’s governor Brown has been the cheerleader for a culture of austerity. But there is an alternative that would lower the cost of living for all Californians, and even make it possible to lower public sector compensation without lowering their living standards. That is a culture of abundance.

The culture of abundance used to be synonymous with the Silicon Valley. “Better, faster, cheaper” used to be the mantra that informed innovation in the Silicon Valley. And throughout history, the human condition has marched fitfully but inexorably upwards because human creativity and innovation made everything we needed better, faster, cheaper. So how can we invest public and private funds to create cheap and abundant water, energy, transportation and housing?

One untapped source of investment are California’s public employee pension funds, which collectively manage nearly $800 billion in assets. Investing just a fraction of these assets in revenue producing civil infrastructure could have a decisive positive impact. Using water as an example, along with a crumbling distribution infrastructure, there are well established water markets in California. Investing in sewage reuse, seawater desalination, and aquifer and reservoir storage for runoff could eliminate water scarcity in California.

There are several interlocking benefits to investing pension funds in California’s infrastructure. For the pension funds, these would be safe investments that over time would yield more than typical fixed income investments and in fact may exceed their target returns of 6.5% or more per year. For California’s workforce, building and operating these assets in water, energy, and transportation would create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. For California residents, these assets would create abundance instead of scarcity, and lower the cost of living.

With respect to the environment, increasing the diversity and quantity of water and energy supplies would create climate resiliency, and in nearly all cases – since this factor is of great concern to many Californians – these operations would be either “carbon neutral” or very nearly so.

The challenge to rebuilding California’s infrastructure is not primarily financial. Attracting pension fund investment might be the centerpiece of finding the capital for these projects, but there are all the traditional sources of funds, namely bonds and private investment. The bigger challenge is cultural. Joel Kotkin, writing for the Orange County Register, vividly frames the cultural challenge we face:

“California is on the road to a bifurcated, almost feudal, society, divided by geography, race and class. As is clear from the most recent Internal Revenue Service data, it’s not just the poor and ill-educated, as Brown apologists suggest, but, rather, primarily young families and the middle-aged, who are leaving. What will be left is a state dominated by a growing, but relatively small, upper class, many of them boomers; young singles and a massive, growing, increasingly marginalized “precariat” of low wage, often occasional, workers.

This social structure can only work as long as stock and asset prices continue to stay high, allowing the ultra-rich to remain beneficent. Once the inevitable corrections take place, the whole game will be exposed for what it is: a gigantic, phony system that benefits primarily the ruling oligarchs, along with their union and green allies. Only when this becomes clear to the voters, particularly the emerging Latino electorate, can things change. Only a dose of realism can restore competition, both between the parties and within them.”

Californians must be convinced that the “better, faster and cheaper” mantra that used to define the Silicon Valley, and the cost-cutting virtue of innovations that have uplifted humanity throughout history, can again be our cultural guiding principle. They must be convinced that good jobs and affordable abundance are possible without overly compromising our culture that cherishes the environment. They must be convinced that these “green” values have been taken too far; that they are a cover for condescending, statist oligarchs.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the vice president for policy research at the California Policy Center.

California's Green Bantustans

One of the core barriers to economic prosperity in California is the price of housing. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Policies designed to stifle the ability to develop land are based on flawed premises. These policies prevail because they are backed by environmentalists, and, most importantly, because they have played into the agenda of crony capitalists, Wall Street financiers, and public sector unions. But while the elites have benefit, ordinary working families have been condemned to pay extreme prices in mortgages, property taxes, or rents, to live in confined, unhealthy, ultra high-density neighborhoods. It is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, but instead of racial superiority as the supposed moral justification, environmentalism is the religion of the day. The result is identical.

Earlier this month an economist writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Mark J. Perry, published a chart proving that over the past four years, more new homes were built in one city, Houston Texas, than in the entire state of California. We republished Perry’s article earlier this week, “California vs. Texas in one chart.” The population of greater Houston is 6.3 million people. The population of California is 38.4 million people. California, with six times as many people as Houston, built fewer homes.

And when there’s a shortage, prices rise. The median home price in Houston is $184,000. The median price of a home in Los Angeles is $530,000, nearly three times as much as a home in Houston. The median price of a home in San Francisco is $843,000, nearly five times as much as home in Houston. What is the reason for this? There may be a shortage of homes, but there is no shortage of land in California, a state of 163,000 square miles containing vast expanses of open space. What happened?

You can argue that San Francisco and Los Angeles are hemmed in by ocean and mountains, respectively, but that really doesn’t answer the question. In most cases, these cities can expand along endless freeway corridors to the north, south, and east, if not west, and new urban centers can arise along these corridors to attract jobs. But they don’t, and the reason for this are the so-called “smart growth” policies. In an interesting report entitled “America’s Emerging Housing Crisis,” Joel Kotkin calls this policy “urban containment.” And along with urban containment, comes downsizing. From another critic of smart growth/urban containment, economist Thomas Sowell, here’s a description of what downsizing means in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb Palo Alto:

“The house is for sale at $1,498,000. It is a 1,010 square foot bungalow with two bedrooms, one bath and a garage. Although the announcement does not mention it, this bungalow is located near a commuter railroad line, with trains passing regularly throughout the day. The second house has 1,200 square feet and was listed for $1.3 million. Intense competition for the house drove the sale price to $1.7 million. The third, with 1,292 square feet (120 square meters) and built in 1895 is on the market for $2.3 million.”

And as Sowell points out, there are vast rolling foothills immediately west of Palo Alto that are completely empty – the beneficiaries of urban containment.

The reason for all of this ostensibly is to preserve open space. This is a worthy goal when kept in perspective. But in California, NO open space is considered immediately acceptable for development. There are hundreds of square miles of rolling foothills on the east slopes of the Mt. Hamilton range that are virtually empty. With reasonable freeway improvements, residents there could commute to points throughout the Silicon Valley in 30-60 minutes. But entrepreneurs have spent millions of dollars and decades of efforts to develop this land, and there is always a reason their projects are held up.

The misanthropic cruelty of these polices can be illustrated by the following two photographs. The first one is from Soweto, a notorious shantytown that was once one of the most chilling warehouses for human beings in the world, during the era of apartheid in South Africa. The second one is from a suburb in North Sacramento. The scale is identical. Needless to say, the quality of the homes in Sacramento is better, but isn’t it telling that the environmentally enlightened planners in this California city didn’t think a homeowner needed any more dirt to call their own than the Afrikaners deigned to allocate to the oppressed blacks of South Africa?

The Racist Bantustan

201402_Soweto-500px

Soweto, South Africa  –  40′ x 80′ lots, single family dwellings

When you view these two studies in urban containment, consider what a person who wants to install a toilet, or add a window, or remodel their kitchen may have to go through, today in South Africa, vs. today in Sacramento. Rest assured the ability to improve one’s circumstances in Soweto would be a lot easier than in Sacramento. In Sacramento, just acquiring the permits would probably cost more time and money than doing the entire job in Soweto. And the price of these lovely, environmentally correct, smart-growth havens in Sacramento? According to Zillow, they are currently selling for right around $250,000, more than five times the median household income in that city.

The Environmentalist Bantustan

201402_Sacramento-500px

Sacramento, California  –  40′ x 80′ lots, single family dwellings

When you increase supply you lower prices, and homes are no exception. The idea that there isn’t enough land in California to develop abundant and competitively priced housing is preposterous. According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land. Think about this. You could put 10 million new residents into homes, four per household, on half-acre lots, and you would only consume 1,953 square miles. If you built those homes on the best prime agricultural land California’s got, you would only use up 14% of it. If you scattered those homes among all of California’s farmland and grazing land – which is far more likely – you would only use up 3% of it. Three percent loss of agricultural land, to allow ten million people to live on half-acre lots!

And what of these lots in North Sacramento? What of these homes that cost a quarter-million each, five times the median household income? They sit thirteen per acre. Not even enough room in the yard for a trampoline.

There is a reason to belabor these points, this simple algebra. Because the notion that we have to engage in urban containment is a cruel, entirely unfounded, self-serving lie. You may examine this question of development in any context you wish, and the lie remains intact. If there is an energy shortage, then develop California’s shale reserves. If fracking shale is unacceptable, then drill for natural gas in the Santa Barbara channel. If all fossil fuel is unacceptable, then build nuclear power stations in the geologically stable areas in California’s interior. If there is a water shortage, than build high dams. If high dams are forbidden, then develop aquifer storage to collect runoff. Or desalinate seawater off the Southern California coast. Or recycle sewage. Or let rice farmers sell their allotments. There are answers to every question.

Environmentalists generate an avalanche of studies, however, that in effect demonize all development, everywhere. The values of environmentalism are important, but if it weren’t for the trillions to be made by trial lawyers, academic careerists, government bureaucrats and their union patrons, crony green capitalist oligarchs, and government pension fund managers and their partners in the hedge funds whose portfolio asset appreciation depends on artificially elevated prices, environmentalism would be reined in. If it weren’t for opportunists following this trillion dollar opportunity, environmentalist values would be kept in their proper perspective.

The Californians who are hurt by urban containment are not the wealthy elites who find it comforting to believe and lucrative to propagate the enabling big lie. The victims are the underprivileged, the immigrants, the minority communities, retirees who collect Social Security, low wage earners and the disappearing middle class. Anyone who aspires to improve their circumstances can move to Houston and buy a home with relative ease, but in California, they have to struggle for shelter, endlessly, needlessly – contained and allegedly environmentally correct.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center