On Democracy, and Leon Andrews for Ward 4 DC Council

Tomorrow, I’m voting for Leon Andrews for Ward 4 DC Council. There are plenty of good reasons why, and I’ll come back some of those.

The election comes down to two questions, one easy to answer, one more difficult.

The first question is whether you believe the Mayor is so consistently right on what is best for Ward 4, that she might as well be our Council member too. Electing Brandon Todd is essentially electing Muriel Bowser back into her old seat, as though she never left it to run for Mayor. Except she is Mayor.

Mayors will endorse candidates, even if I find that distasteful it is unavoidable. But this is different than in most cases, including in Ward 8, where LaRuby May appears to have a solid career and other qualifications on her resume. Todd’s answers to some basic questions from my fellow KSDA neighbors betrayed precious little knowledge of the job – he had no answer for how he would pay for his aging-in-place policy, or even why he was running for the office other than to win it. He has still yet to respond to a list of basic yes-or-no questions on his positions in a follow-up to that interview. When asked why he hadn’t been involved in Kennedy Street developments, he said he hadn’t gotten to it as he’d only been running for the office for 6 months, and had been working hard for Mayor Bowser’s election prior to that. I have a job too, and it has nothing to do with this, but I somehow find the time to try to help build my community.

Todd says he’ll ‘have the Mayor’s ear’ when in office, but isn’t it more likely to be the other way around? Won’t she be calling him to give marching orders, instead of him calling her to demand she deliver on our needs? We need our Council member to be independent of the Mayor, or we’ll never be fully guaranteed of having our interests defended.

The second question is more difficult. Who is the viable alternative? It took me until two hours before election day to decide who to vote for, and I’ve actually been paying a bit of attention. I can not imagine what the few percent of eligible votes who will show up tomorrow are going by. Leon Andrews has never run for office, so he is building his brand from scratch. Renee Bowser is further left than I am, but she’d certainly be a fighter for us. Dwayne Toliver is more centrist and has good ideas, but his campaign does not seem deep enough to have any chance.

These and especially the lesser known candidates did us no service either, putting their own unlikely ambitions before those of the Ward, refusing to coalesce around a unified opposition to surrendering Ward 4’s independence. With the exception of Doug Sloan, who withdrew to back Andrews, I don’t even know why most of this field is running. Many have run and lost handily several times already, and with little support from anyone but themselves. The few dozen or hundred votes they take from the other serious candidates prove nothing in our undemocratic plurality-takes-all system.

This election and the one in Ward 8 demonstrate how, now more than ever, we need instant runoff voting, so that the last choice candidate of the majority of voters doesn’t end up winning with 35% of the vote. I have followed ours closely enough to notice that the Washington Post and City Paper have published nothing other than empty, lazy praise (Post) and snide, nihilistic prose (City Paper) about only one candidate, the Mayor’s. They’re not helping either.

As such, my  best answer to the second question: Leon Andrews is the best alternative. Leon is a good family man, with three daughters and a smart and skilled wife (I only trust male politicians with such impressive spouses). Leon himself has a PhD in urban planning from University of Michigan, and he works at a respected institution on urban policy. He is smart, open minded, independent, and thus, qualified for the job. He has good ideas about smart growth and supports most of our priorities for Kennedy Street. He is opposed to the $140 million giveaway to DC United, and giving up the independence of the attorney general, two bad ideas that the Mayor hopes Brandon Todd will support her on. He cares about education because he has three daughters with no neighborhood middle school, which is an unacceptable legacy of the previous occupant of that seat.

My first choice for this job was AJ Cooper – I spoke at his campaign kick-off at an empty lot on Kennedy Street NW. He died unexpectedly shortly after announcing – we were supposed to have a campaign meeting at his house the night he died. AJ had the charisma and polish of a teen television star (he was one). I, as well as many of his other backers, were sent scattered by his death and never really recovered enough to find a successor to his cause. AJ was a natural in many ways, and probably had a great future in politics ahead of him. In failing to build a coalition for an independent voice, I feel like I’ve failed AJ’s legacy. I hope to do him better in the future.

But, late as it is, Leon Andrews deserves my support He is new to politics. He talks with the passion of a guy with a big heart and an open mind.He wants to bring to DC his experience from other cities – a novel position for any candidate for office in America. Leon came to a KSDA meeting after learning of the passing of an elderly neighbor, and was taking it hard but still thought it important to be there with us to talk about the future.

Most importantly, he’s just a normal, good, smart person. He doesn’t have the machine of anonymous donors backing him from PO Boxes in Pennsylvania and Florida. I am confident he would put our interests before those PO Boxes.

Six reasons DC taxpayer money shouldn’t buy some rich guy a stadium

I’m sure there are more.

DC’s lameduck Council, with the full support of the lameduck Mayor Gray and Mayor-elect Bowser, have agreed to borrow up to $140 million ($200 million counting tax giveaways) so the foreign billionaire who owns the DC United soccer team can build a private stadium for his private franchise land we all buy for him. Happy New Year, Washingtonians!

If you suspect we are being had, fear not, the DC government has an incomprehensible 400-page report to hand you to prove how smart they are. Hopefully they are smarter than the consultants who wrote it, who managed to botch the only important question in it – how much economic activity will the stadium generate? They were off by only about 200%.

So yes, like nearly all publicly-funded stadiums, this is a bad deal. And you don’t even have to be indifferent to Major League Soccer to see this. It’s in the data. Stanford Economist Rodger Noll has basically debunked all of these deals for some pretty straightforward reasons, which he supports with solid research:

  1. The economic benefits of stadiums are usually inflated, or just made up. Economic outcomes are notoriously hard to predict, and in this case, the initial estimate that the economic consultants gave was $70 million too high. The revised number is about $30 million, with an estimate that the stadium may pay itself off after 30 years. Bet you $30 million DC United wants another stadium before that happens. Either way, that’s a loss to the city in economic terms.
  2. Most stadiums are empty most of the time. When they’re empty, they are giant empty swathes of land that are generating no economic benefit to anyone. Football stadiums are the worst – they usually host 10 games plus about as many concerts and other events in any given year. A new DC United would host 20 matches or so, plus other events. But the fact that the taxpayer-funded, privately-owned Washington Nationals stadium is just down the street would limit the potential for these kinds of events, wouldn’t you say? And the DC Council is already talking about building the oblong football team a new stadium too. How many outdoor venues with lousy acoustics can Bon Jovi fill in one city every year?
  3. Costs are almost always more than estimates. The baseball stadium was over budget by about $140 million. Even the cost estimated for buying this land for DC United is under question – think the owners (developers Akridge) are going to let go of the one piece of land under consideration?
  4. Those who benefit also donate to the campaign funds of those who make decisions. No shit.
  5. Most stadiums are designed to make money for their operators, and certainly not for the cities that surround them. We have a great example of this in FedEx Field, home of the oblong football team, which is conveniently located somewhere off a highway in some cheap marshy woodlands in Prince George’s County, in a biblical sea of parking lots. Not a lot of additional spending going on here – you pay Dan Snyder to park, you pay him to get it, you pay him to eat and drink, then you wait in your car to go home. DC United’s stadium should be better served by surrounding restaurants, but not because the stadium developer actually wants them there. Every beer sold outside is one that could be sold inside. Ever wonder why no stadium allows you to leave and come back in anymore? It’s not because of security.
  6. Just because people spend money on sports, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have spent it. Part of the whole farce is this assumption that people come in to the city for a match, spend money at bars or restaurants as well as the stadium, then return to their homes in other jurisdictions. Well, what’s to say they wouldn’t have gone downtown that day anyway? DC is a huge draw for tourists, diners, theatergoers, and the like. Do they need a somewhat better soccer stadium to help them decide how to spend their money?

Why do teams want new stadiums? Two reasons. Elite seating, and designs that facilitate more spending from everyone else. Elite seating is the high-margin earner of the stadium itself, and are attractive only to an elite crowd of buyer. And design is more about the placement of concessions and the ability of fans to spend money on food, souvenirs, and other novelties for every spare second of their stay. Stadium designers get better at this stuff every year, and they’ve gotten a lot better since RFK Stadium, the current DC United home, was built.

There are stadiums that work for cities. This isn’t one.

Noll has some criteria for a stadium that may pay off, even potentially enough to be worth taxpayer subsidy. By and large, these are:

  1. Located downtown, ideally with little or no parking available, so people have to ride public transport and spend money en route to and from
  2. Are unique gathering assets in the city – perhaps the city has no other convention center or large theatre that could hold events of similar size
  3. Host as many games as possible, ideally both a hockey and a basketball team. These two sports will cover at least 100 events per year, five times more than soccer and ten times more than football.

By these metrics, DC United’s stadium will fall far short, and will be another giveaway to corporate developers and a sop to the jingoism of the government. Which is surprising, because I can’t imagine enough people were even aware that we had a soccer team to be inspired to support or oppose the deal.

One writer even demonstrated that buying DC United would be cheaper for the taxpayer than building them a stadium. My fellow advocates have been pushing the DC government to spend a few million cleaning up our somewhat dilapidated commercial streetscape on Kennedy Street NW, which will soon host dozens of locally-owned, locally-serving businesses. For the money we’re going to spend on this stadium, we could have bought market rate three-bedroom apartments for 650 homeless families in the District.

Data journalism is the punk of our times

Nils Mulvad has a great reporter’s name and a nice summary of what data journalism actually is in this interview for the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

One observation that he alludes to here is how we’ve always had data journalism in sports – in fact, its one of the key aspects of sports journalism. Data and competing statistics are the pivot of many sports debates, and often conclusions hinge on them.

Why is political reporting and debate so often immune to backing all assertions with data? Imagine a sports report that consisted of a couple interviews with fans about the performance of a player. Would that be considered acceptable, asking a few drunks in the crowd whether they thought one moving part was responsible for victory or defeat?

So why do we accept anecdotal political stories about the success or failure of a political figure or policy based on the quoted opinion of one or another political hack?

The plural of anecdote is not data – it’s journalism. Data journalism fixes some aspects of this dilemma.

How to build a better block

This blog post at NYTimes.com profiles a neighborhood group similar to the one I co-founded in uptown DC. I was pointed to it by a DC ANC commissioner and activist who said our movement reminded him of theirs.

A couple key differences – their movement was started by professional planners and designers, while ours was started by folks with nothing but gusto. Also, many of the Texas environments that they are reforming are actually failed suburban refits trying to go back to their urban days. Kennedy Street is and was always an urban environment, just one that lost its customer base to crime and cars. Different problems to solve, but we are using some of the same tactics.

Airbnb doesn’t ruin cities, people do

At Urbanful.com, a former Time reporter makes many points about how AirBnB may be ruining city life. Some are better than others, but all of them would make the existing hotel industry (as well as local government tax collectors).

Nothing wrong with this, as the argument is worth raising, must most of the problems are created by people – not the company. It’s not AirBnB’s job to make sure people pay their taxes, are courteous to neighbors, or that property owners are good to their customers. And the problems on the margins can be regulated by noise and use ordinances demanded by community groups in negotiations with Airbnb renters.

People can ruin cities – in this case, people who try to regulate away the nuisances of living in them, while intending to reap the many other benefits.

The “Things used to be worse” excuse

Sometimes people make obvious statements just to defend a position without vision or ambition. This is one I hear all the time:

Kennedy Street used to be so much worse.

There are two type of people who I hear this from all the time. One type is the NIMBY, which fears change for its own sake, and has – in some cases real and justified – reasons for this. The other type is the politician who has done nothing for the neighborhood, and gets impatient with the spirit and energy of those who are doing more.

This episode of the FBI files profiled the First and Kennedy Crew and their struggle with the G-men from the 1990s. During the summer, there were shootings in many booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and H Street NE. There’s been no major reports of violence from these blocks this year. Sure, it has further to go, but let’s help it get there faster.

Just because we’ve come this far doesn’t mean we should always be looking back.

The Boring Future History of Central Asia in 2013

I recently wrote a post for Registan.net on how Central Asia will have a quiet year, neither fixing long-term problems, nor descending into immediate conflagration. After I had written it, I found a Foreign Policy post that chalked up Central Asia as a region heading for apocalypse before 2012 got going, in a post called “Next Year’s Wars“.

Several states in the region are surviving on luck: their infrastructure near collapse, their political systems eaten away by corruption, their public services almost nonexistent.

All of this, and everything else written here, was true in 2011, and will be true throughout 2013.

At this point, the odds of Uzbekistan invading one of its neighbors, Tajikistan being overwhelmed by repatriated jihadis, or Kyrgyzstan descending into full-scale Tajik-style civil war are close to zero. Not that it won’t happen, or that it isn’t more likely to happen here than elsewhere, but the actual likelihood of chaos is quite low for any given 12 month period in any given failing state. The likelihood rises with time as these issues go unresolved for ever.


Interview for RFE/RL on Internet in Turkmenistan

One of the rare American-born folks I’ve met who actually speaks Turkmen (they are nearly all Peace Corps volunteers) recognized my name from reading an interview I gave to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on the state of the Internet in Turkmenistan. He said he had read it recently, though it was from 2011.

I didn’t even remember the conversation, to be honest. But, sure enough, there it is on the site. I am pleased to report that I was able to get a visa to visit my favorite -stan even in spite of this article.

I there is something interesting in there.

The Limits of Reporting on Central Asia

Some thoughts I threw together over at Registan.net, basically center on the tragedy that is reporting on Central Asia. This tragedy is based on our assumption, generally well-founded in western democratic political history, that actions are undertaken with logical goals in mind, centering on the furtherance of some reasoned state goal.

…the way those of us who know Central Asia talk about the region basically can’t be published in most Western news outlets. This is, of course, how some local muckrakers write about the region. With the full knowledge that, when an action is taken that seems self-defeating and ill-conceived, the personal logic of the executor almost never matches the logical interests of ‘the State’ or ‘the Citizen’. There may not be any good reason – but there does not have to be.

It is nearly impossible to get to the bottom of the motives behind some of the worst decisions made in this region. But, newspapers have no choice but to publish them on their own terms. Maybe this is why elites in this region (and as Russia as well) assume we are such fools as to believe their stated aims are primary.

Thoughts on Turkmenistan’s Privatization

Like all the other dozen folks who follow Turkmenistan, I’ve noticed the recent press on its supposed privatization plans. Berdymukhammedov announced that some unspecified state-run companies in the construction, transport, and communications industries would be sold off starting this year.

The big news in the international press was that the government would not sell its most valuable oil and gas assets. This, of course, should come as no news to anyone who follows Turkmenistan.

Still, that Turkmenistan would do anything approaching market reforms may come as a surprise. 

First reaction would be to believe only what we see. Will international companies be involved? Whether they are or not would have importance. 

More importantly, what companies are we talking about? If we are discussing Turkmen Airlines, Railways, the state mobile phone network Altyn Asyr, and the regional state construction companies, we would be talking about central pieces of the command economy. Airways and Railways are notorious money holes, through which millions in state expenditures are passed. Altyn Asyr is one of two national mobile providers, and while dysfunctional, it has significant revenues.

The contracts that are executed by the state construction firms are worth millions. While the most lucrative contracts are executed by Turkish, Chinese, Russian, and French firms, local companies (each close to GMB), have started implementing bigger deals. Local interests connected to GBM may be pressing for control of these assets.

The most obvious candidates for privatization would be the garment factories, particularly those already under Turkish management. For some reason, they don’t seem to be on the list.

If these aren’t the assets that are going to be put to market, then they probably are not worth much.

Iran’s Turn on Turkmenistan’s Gas Dispute Carousel

Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi announced November 14 that Turkmenistan had halted gas exports to its southern neighbor over a price dispute. Shortly thereafter, a Turkmen official told Reuters there is no price dispute, but that pipeline repairs are to blame for the gas cut.
For now, the gas is back on, Reuters reports, citing a Turkmen official who said Iran requested repairs to the pipeline. But the episode – complete with contradicting reports from the two sides – looked familiar, and suggested a few possible scenarios.

Iran-China Railroad – Tajikistan’s Latest Mega-Distraction?

With work essentially stopped at Rahmon’s marquee ‘project of the century’, including thousands of layoffs of construction workers who might be wishing they had gone to Russia this summer, time has arrived for Tajikistan to come up with a replacement nation-saving mega project. Perhaps this is why we are again hearing talk of a plan to build a railroad linking the country with China and Iran.

The line would run from Iran’s existing spur to Herat to southern Tajikistan, assumedly near the US-funded bridge at Nizhny Pyanzh, then proceed to Yavan, through the Rasht Valley to Kyrgyzstan’s Alai Valley, cross the Irkeshtam Pass and descend to Kashgar, in southwestern Chinese Xingjiang.

The project has been kicking around for years, though somehow has never gotten off the ground. Perhaps that somehow was the likely multi-billion dollar tab that no one is committed to picking up. Or the technical complications of building the line at high altitudes and through narrow river valleys. Or the fact that China, Iran, and the Central Asian republics all use different rail gauges. Or that existing lines already link Iran and Central Asia. And that Afghanistan is a war zone. And occasionally, so is the Rasht Valley.

All that aside, Iran and Tajikistan have started talking up the project again of late. Kyrgyz officials expressed no interest in the project as recently as June, and rightly so, it would only pass through a remote and sparsely populated valley. Then this month, Iran’s ambassador in Bishkek recently announced that Iran would pay for the stretch through Kyrgyzstan, which was swayed by the no-risk proposition. While any charity is generous, this stretch is short and almost entirely flat. The Tajik line would also not connect to Kyrgyzstan’s own nation-saving mega project, a rail line that would connect China and Uzbekistan across the Torugart Pass, north of Irkeshtam across an impenetrable range.

Kyrgyzstan has bandied that rail project around since at least the mid-90s, though Atambayev and Babanov have all but staked the country’s economic future on the idea. The two repeatedly insisted after repeated results-free trips to Beijing that ‘every issue related to the project is solved, except financing’. When talking about two threads of iron to cost Kyrgyzstan about 40% of a year’s GDP, financing is really the issue, is it not? Thus, Kyrgyzstan is left with two bad options: rails for minerals, or rails for tolls. Either Chinese enterprises would get privileged access to mineral concessions, or would be permitted to run the railroad to recoup the costs. Both options bring serious political risks for Bishkek, as I have argued in the past.

Tajikistan would have to offer China a similar deal. Like when Dushanbe unceremoniously gave away 1,100 sq km of mountainous territory to China in 2011, or when leases agricultural land to Chinese farming enterprises, Dushanbe will have to test its people’s patience yet again. Iran may be willing to pay for Kyrgyzstan to play nice, but the initial ascent from China and the descent through the Rasht Valley will be by far the most costly aspects of the project. Iranian media already acknowledges this, and provides some decidedly low-ball figures. The Rogun stoppage shows just how far Tajikistan can go with this projects without massive foreign backing, which is, not far. Heavily-sanctioned Iran can’t possibly have the cash lying around for a huge up-front outlay.

Even if China could be enticed to cover the cost, the whole plan would run up against the US policy of ‘No Silk Roads Lead to Persia’. Despite the possibility that this particular railroad might be more valuable to Afghanistan than alternatives options to expand Uzbek or Turkmen spurs into Afghan territory, it seems quite likely that the US will veto any progress while US troops are on the ground. And after they are gone, will the investment be protected?

Iran is supposedly still in the feasibility study phase – a process that in this part of the world means “study just how great an idea this is”. Rail investment best addresses the need to move heavy, often low-value-added goods, in large bulk, and without a tight time schedule. Marble in Balkh? Oil in Faryab? Afghanistan’s now-legendary Angyak copper deposit would be far removed from the line. Realistic studies of the rail lines viability would have to measure the actual probability of success of such nascent ventures. They would also have to measure them against the next-best alternative, not against the status quo. In this case, Iran and China have an existing rail link through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Cutting across Afghanistan and Tajikistan would save some time. But containerized trucks can already do the same thing, and without the need to switch wheels three times. Without greatly increased demand for freight services between the countries involved, such a rail line may not make economic sense. But as Rogun shows, nation-saving mega projects are bigger than economics. They’re about national mobilization, national pride, and, perhaps, national distraction.

This post was originally published by Registan, with full maps and links.