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But Rich People Live Here, So We Can't Be Going Broke (strongtowns.org)
261 points by oftenwrong 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 183 comments

The ironic thing here, is that Carmel Indiana debt is so high in large part because it followed StrongTowns requests.

StrongTowns is constantly telling everyone "you should densify" and "you should slow down / tear up all of your streets" and "chase growth / YIMBY everything" and "hyper-invest in Downtown, only dense neighborhoods matter, middle-class housing is a worthless drain on all of society" - https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborh...

So Carmel does all of that, tearing out intersections for roundabouts, creating bike lanes and dedicated paths, densifying everything, and more-or-less following exactly what StrongTowns is constantly recommending.

But it turns out actually following the StrongTowns wishlist is really expensive, far more expensive than not doing any of it. Now StrongTowns wants to complain that Carmel has a high debt load. If they think that debt isn't worth it, they should stop telling cities to do all of this StrongTowns stuff in the first place.


The blog even complains that Carmel built "a New Urbanist downtown out of thin air", but does not acknowledge that this exists precisely because StrongTowns demanded it. StrongTowns is one of many New Urbanist groups making those sorts of demands on cities in the first place.

The model city of StrongTowns is European cities and suburbs. Carmel Indiana is far from that.

Compare the densest parts of Carmel to the densest part of a suburb of similar size and distance to its city Huddinge:

Carmel: https://www.google.ch/maps/@39.9641636,-86.1445548,1732m/dat...

Huddinge: https://www.google.ch/maps/@59.2347134,17.986286,1277m/data=...

The most noticeable part is that Carmel has way more roads and parkings. This is due to its bad public transport, notice how Carmel lacks a train station. Also if you look closer you can see that Huddinge has tens of bus lines running through covering most of this area (they are shown in Google maps), I can't find a single bus line in Carmel.

Another thing you can notice is the diversity of buildings. In Huddinge you have small dots of dense housing near its public transport/shopping hubs, with lots of freestanding houses filling the gaps. In Carmel on the other hand all of the places which would be filled with free standing houses are instead taken up by parking lots. In order to find any freestanding houses in Carmel you have to get further away, far enough that it is no longer within walking distance to any public hubs forcing them to take the car, which is why there are so many parking lots and large roads instead of houses in the center...

At first I thought like "hey Carmel doesn't look so bad". Then I realized all the grey stuff is parking lots, not houses.

You're right, that's an insane amount of parking spots! It looks like the parking spot to building ratio is 2 to 1.

Strong Towns preaches incremental development. Building anything "out of thin air" is basically antithetical that that.

Indeed. Relax zoning and restrain from subsidization. That should be the primary approach. But it's not free market zealotry. Interventions aren't ruled out, they should just be at the back of your playbook.

It's naive to think you can manufacture sustainability (i.e. a cost efficient, opportunity maximizing environment) out of whole cloth. If you intervene don't expect your money back, at least not in a way that let's you balance the books in this lifetime. You're intervening to achieve some specific social objective, then it's manifestly unlikely to produce an economic surplus that can be easily captured, even if it does produce a surplus. If someone says you can have your cake (low-income housing near economic opportunity, ubiquitous mass transit) and eat it too (pays for itself), it's probably a lie. Yes, it happens; but so does winning the lottery. But you don't build a legitimate budget on a pile of lottery tickets.

And to finance things sensibly based upon real revenue flows, not speculative debt drawing on wishful thoughts about future growth.

Sounds like the no true Scotsman approach to urban planning.

I disagree completely. Carmel's approach of building a big fancy new neighborhood all at once is the exact opposite of StrongTown's suggested approach of making small incremental improvements spread across many poor neighborhoods.


> Rely on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects.

> Inspire by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb).

> Seek to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale.

> Obsess about accounting for revenues, expenses, assets, and long-term liabilities (do the math).


> Spreading your money out over many small different investments gives you a large hedge against risk

> These places are built all at once to a finished state. Today is peak wealth; it's all downhill from here, regardless of how much public investment is made.

[1] https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/8/22/the-more-we-gr...

[2] https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborh...

How? Not complying with one of the explicit tenets of the Strongtowns philosophy seems like a valid rebuttal.

Can you tell us how it fits the definition of a No True Scotsman?

I'm not him - but it's obviously something close, if not full NTS. Real implementations always differ from ideals, so it's always possible to take a divergence and say it makes the implementation antithetical to the ideal. That's the heart of the fallacy. To counter, you'd have to identify the heart of the Strong Towns idea, the 'spirit', and demonstrate how the implementation violates that spirit.

Criticizing a specifically incorrect caricature of the tenets of an organization by pointing out the actual tenets of the organization is about as far from No True Scotsman as I can imagine.

It's actually a strawman, ironically enough.

You don't think incrementalism is at the heart of the Strong Towns idea?

I've no opinion. All I'm saying is, if you don't give strong evidence that it is at the idea's heart, then the argument is No-True-Scotsman. Like a lot of fallacies, there's a rather subtle ground between fallacious reasoning and legitimate argument, and I think NTS is basically in a class of problems like the ship of Theseus, that play on the distinction we commonly draw between the identity of a thing, and the thing itself.

> it's obviously something close, if not full NTS.

> I've no opinion.

Well this is a confusing line. Anyway, in addition to the other evidence provided in this thread, here is part of the Strong Towns mission statement[1]:

Enduring prosperity for our communities cannot be artificially created from the outside but must be built from within, incrementally over time.

1. https://www.strongtowns.org/mission/

"No True Scotsman" is second only to ad-hominem on the list of frequently misidentified fallacies in comments sections.

> tearing out intersections for roundabouts

As someone who drives in the UK, and has driven or been driven a lot in the in the US I so completely appreciate roundabouts.

They're just way faster. If there's nothing coming from the right (in the UK) then you don't need to stop. The frustration of stop/start driving from intersection to intersection in SF could be completely replaced by a mostly uninterrupted drive. Sure, they don't work so well when there's heavy traffic, but you just need to intelligently decide which intersections to put them at.

A non trivial amount of the CO2 difference between the EU and US comes from the difference between the two.

Unfortunately my town has round abouts with stop signs, which are just dumb.

> As someone who drives in the UK, and has driven or been driven a lot in the in the US I so completely appreciate roundabouts.

Roundabouts are also less common in continental Europe than in the UK (or Australia).

I think that's because the usual rule is that we give way to the traffic coming from the right even in countries where you drive on the right-hand side. But this rule really doesn't work for round-abouts, and so they become a potentially confusing corner-case (ha!) whereas everything is consistent in left-hand drive traffic countries.

So far I haven't seen that there is an actual problem with Carmel; it still seems like quite a nice place to be. The main issue seems to be that high debt load creates a high risk of bad consequences for the town.

Can you fault the city? The alternative was to not spend the money and spend all this time with lower risk of bankruptcy but in a more crappy/rundown environment. With the present course even if something bad happens they had a good series of years with the upgraded infrastructure--and counting. Doesn't seem that crazy to me.

I think StrongTowns like moderation. I often suggest to people that they should put savings into stocks to grow it for their retirement. If someone listens to me and sells the house, invests everything in the stock market and has to declare bankruptcy a year later after a crash it's absolutely not my fault and it says nothing about whether or not my advice was valid.

What do you mean when you say "middle class housing"? Are you referring to suburb-style developments, perhaps?

It's a bit strange isn't it? You can find middle class people living in rural farm houses, suburbs, inner cities, anywhere.

It really is.

I mean, I understand it. There are strong cultural ideas around the detached single family home with the white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and dog and so on. Rich people live in vast luxury flats in cities, and poor people in small tenements. Suburbs are for the middle class!

Our modern culture doesn't emphasize this quite as strongly as it used to, with cities becoming more idealized and suburbs less well-loved. So people talk about middle-class housing being hated instead of endless fields of suburban developments.

You are claiming Strong Towns is calling for some things that seem far from what they actually advocate. The page you linked doesn't say those things, so where are you getting this from? Could you provide actual quotes?

For example, Strong Towns advocates incrementalism. Building an entire neighbourhood from scratch, to a finished state, like the New Urbanist downtown, is not incremental development. Here's a page where the president of Strong Towns advocates incrementalism: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/6/12/the-power-of-g...

"There are two defining differences between pre-Depression and post-War development patterns. Pre-Depression development was incremental on a continuum of improvement while post-War development is built at a large scale to a finished state."

In any case, building yourself into debt to chase growth while cargo-culting aspects of successful towns is the opposite of incrementalism, and just dumb. It is clear that Strong Towns advocates, as a Prime Directive, building only what the town can actually afford to build long-term, including all maintenance and replacement.

From https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/8/22/the-more-we-gr... :

"Here is our approach:

- Rely on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects.

- Emphasize resiliency of result over efficiency of execution.

- Design to adapt to feedback.

- Inspire by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb).

- Seek to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale.

- Obsess about accounting for revenues, expenses, assets, and long-term liabilities (do the math)."

From the Strong Towns Strength Test https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/11/15/strong-towns-... :

"10. Does the city government spend no more than 10% of its locally-generated revenue on debt service?"

I did find a page calling for signalised intersections to be torn out in favour of roundabouts, with some fair questions about costs: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/1/15/missouri-round...

To be clear you’re exactly wrong about Strong Towns mission and message. The linked blog post is specifically criticizing the Carmel spending spree as irresponsible.

Strong Towns isn’t a New Urbanist organization, and in fact butts heads with the CNU regularly.

The extreme example are the ghost cities in China.

The ghost towns in China should be the canary in the coal mine. It's interesting to see how an authoritarian government can force its economy to move along. Eventually it has to fail... right?

Dunno.. Is China the ultimate bailout state? ... the population is educated enough and inspiring enough to innovate (or copy) technology. Sounds like the USA too... the difference is that the USA is controlled by special interests who can use other parts of the government to achieve their means whereas China is a single party... (same as Russia)...

funny thing about Georgia, or metro Atlanta that is. We just completed the new Northwest Corridor Express Lanes, 30 miles of elevated reversible toll lanes for a whopping eight hundred and thirty four million dollars.

however with regards to the story, Atlanta has its issues with old and needing of repair infrastructure but mostly this comes about because politicians love to cut a ribbon and money goes to new and expensive projects while maintenance gets deferred. This is very evident in heavy rail metro transit systems across the country where it is estimated that over a hundred billion dollars has been deferred.

however the real bomb coming is the public employee pension funds running out of money, from police to fire to teachers to city employees. Chicago has a time bomb set to go off in just a few years [1] and if we thought infrastructure costs were killer wait till the pensions collapse, here is a hint : worn out sewers and bridges won't sue you. Already more than a few cities and counties have filed bankruptcy because of these costs.

rich neighborhoods want more and more services but when the bill finally comes due it is only then that they realize the true cost of that folly. it easy to live on deferred payment plans until it comes due

[1] https://chicagocitywire.com/stories/511130434-projection-chi...

OTOH, how to fund pensions properly is a solved problem. A properly managed pension fund will have fully funded (with a high degree of certainty) a pensioners' expected payout by the time he retires, and indeed have fully funded accrued liabilities at every point in his career. It's just a matter of relying on a conservative rate of return with a proven track record. Something like 4-6% per annum, IIRC. We know this because of the 200+ years of commercial and regulatory experience with insurance, especially life insurance. People trust their life insurance and annuity policies will pay out because politicians from 100 years ago bequeathed to us a reliable regulatory framework (forged by multiple crises) that penalizes insurers from being "innovative" with the bottom line. That same discipline can and is used for pensions, just not for public pensions at the state level because state governments are often exempt from regulations controlling private actors.

Do we know how to do the same for infrastructure, especially large infrastructure projects? Infrastructure needs and costs are much more dynamic, which makes it easier to fudge numbers and avoid accountability--now and later.

> OTOH, how to fund pensions properly is a solved problem.

There is another fine way to handle it, which is to use a defined contribution plan rather than a defined benefit plan.

The problem for a lot of states is that it's already too late for any of that. It isn't that we don't know how to do it right, it's that they've been doing it wrong for 50 years and now the account has insufficient funds to cash the checks.

The states essentially borrowed billions of dollars from their pensions without any available future revenue source from which to pay that amount of money back.

So now they have two problems. The first is that if they don't want to be having this problem indefinitely they have to start contributing more than they have to the retirement funds of the current government employees, which means raising taxes or cutting spending (or, similar but different, reducing the number of government employees). And the second is that they have to either pay the shortfall for the existing pensions out of current revenues, which means raising taxes or cutting spending again, or they're filing for bankruptcy.

But nobody ever likes any of those options.

It’s not that simple at all.

Sovereign entities like state governments have the option of simply not paying creditors. Bonds get renegotiated, pensioners get scrip instead of cash.

Ultimately, these impossible obligations that US government subdivisions have will be paid for via inflation. The US has the unique ability to tax wealth globally via the dollar.

Cities go bankrupt, states and territories do not. Pension obligations are generally state obligations.

> Sovereign entities like state governments have the option of simply not paying creditors. Bonds get renegotiated, pensioners get scrip instead of cash.

This is a description of bankruptcy.

> Ultimately, these impossible obligations that US government subdivisions have will be paid for via inflation. The US has the unique ability to tax wealth globally via the dollar.

The states aren't subdivisions of the federal government. The federal government could bail them out, but it's going to be busy with its own debts (see also social security and medicare, to say nothing of the outstanding treasury bonds).

Bankruptcy is a court controlled process and creditors can seize assets in the process. With a sovereign, the conversation is very different.

The feds will ultimately need to bailout the states and the markets know it at some level.

>The US has the unique ability to tax wealth globally via the dollar

Cool thought, and sounds pretty good as someone who lives in the US. Guess there are certain perks to being the world superpower.

This works fine but you can only do it if there are large foreign reserves of your currency. Now, since foreign reserves of USD are massive, we can print a lot of money (relatively) before it becomes a problem, but it isn't like this exempts you from market effects. The reason foreign reserves of USD are so high in the first place is that we usually do this very little.

The US also has to keep the USD a just-safer investment than other world currencies, held by other governments with their own issues. As long as USD is the safest investment, the US will never default. Don't outswim the shark, just the slowest swimmer and all that.

Is 4-6%/yr considered conservative? The personal safe withdrawal rate from the Trinity study was 4% for the rest of someone's life, assuming normal age of retirement, but pension funds have to last longer than 30 years. And there are rumblings from many reputable corners, including Vanguard, that they think 4% may be an optimistic assumption given current valuations.

The Trinity study was about an individual's savings. A group, like a pension fund, has different requirements.

The reason is mortality. Let's say an individual has a 20% chance of reaching age 90. They are not willing to take the risk of being 90 and broke, so they need to save for ages 90-95.

With a large group of people, mortality is much more predictable. The ones that die early collect less, so the lucky few that live a long time can collect more.

To learn more about this, the term to look for is "mortality credit".

Fair, as long as withdrawal rate isn't based on an assumption of 6% annual growth of the underlying investments.

There are many fixes. The employees at a company I used to work for funded their own pension, with company contributions up to some thousands a year per person.

The plan was fully funded, too...meaning that it would never run out of money.

The point is that many cities did not fund their pension funds to the levels required.

Further, as cities employees (often unions) negotiated better payments and a lower retirement age - because, it's all later! - the gap got bigger and bigger.

The US government did that as well back in the 80s when it converted from CSRS to FERS. The unfunded obligation of the old system is something like $800 billion and won't be settled until 2090. The new system is a mix of SS, defined benefit, and defined contribution and is expected to stay solvent indefinitely. New federal employees hired after 2013 got screwed, however, as they upped their contribution rate to cover the massive problem CSRS caused.

People still scream bloody murder about the Post Office being required to fund its pensions and avoid these catastrophes.


Though, to be fair it's complicated. Requiring them to fully fund their pension obligations rather than use pay-go accounting is absolutely fair. Not only fair, it should be entirely uncontroversial. And I think it would be relatively uncontroversial, partly because the USPS is slowly making ground. IIRC they're past 70% funding and it's steadily improving.

Setting aside the partisan politicking that has hijacked the debate, IIRC the real bone of contention are the healthcare liabilities. Congress won't allow the USPS to cut retiree healthcare benefits even though the union contracts permit this. Healthcare inflation grew substantially larger than expected. Though this wasn't entirely unforeseen--it's why the contract permits cutting benefits. This is what's actually bankrupting the USPS. Healthcare benefits are only funded to something like 30%, and the USPS simply can't gain any ground because of healthcare inflation.

The best fix for this is Single Payer - healthcare is a COST, only disasters and horrid genetic "luck" are things that can be bet against across populations.

The single payer arguement will win out. It’ll take the end of the era where geezer baby boomers were controlling government to get it done.

No the screaming was about politicians who required the Post Office to fund it's pensions, then went and used that fact to claim the Post Office is mismanaged and we should outsource that basic function.

I think one side of the aisle is definitely more to blame than the other for this manufactured controversy, but to be fair the Democrats also intentionally conflate the pension and healthcare liabilities, for somewhat similar reasons as the Republicans. Democrats have put themselves in the position of implicitly defending pay-go funding for pensions because they don't want to spook public sector unions at the state level where pay-go is the norm. (At the federal level the USPS was the outlier for using pay-go, rather than fully funding liabilities.)

It's indefensible policy wise. The USPS is capable of fully funding the pension liabilities and are making solid progress. It's the healthcare liabilities which are bankrupting them, but Congress has prohibited them from cutting retiree healthcare benefits even though the USPS deliberately (and smartly) negotiated for that flexibility in the union contracts.

I'm really struggling to see the need for a government postal service any longer. Compared to 20 years ago, 95% of what I would get in the mail is now delivered electronically. All my bills are paid electronically. I haven't sent a letter via post in recent memory. What I do get delivered by the postal service is frequently mis-delivered. I get first-class mail addresed to my neighbors at least a couple of times a month. Who knows how much of my mail simply disappears? The rest of my mail is junk: adverts and flyers that go straight into the trash, unread.

Package delivery by USPS is cheap and reliable, e.g. for 3rd-party online sellers.

Cheap yes, reliable no. Last time I ordered from Amazon I had to go looking for it in my neighbor's mailboxes (technically illegal for me to do that, but Amazon told me it had been delivered and yet it was not in my mailbox).

Found it two houses down from mine.

I've had horror stories no matter WHAT delivery service makes an attempt. Even those automated lockers are seriously annoying (mostly because there aren't enough of them).

I'm actually slightly amazed that the local mall doesn't talk to the various delivery companies and just "give" them an unused store front to setup an automated box for every company inside of it. I imagine the increase in traffic TO the mall would more than make up for the loss of otherwise unused dead space.

Interesting idea, but I don't think it would need to be an entire storefront. I've been to plenty of malls with entranceways that are lined with long, blank, feature-free walls. Lots of lockers could be in those places.

FedEx did the same thing with $5,000 of Apple gear for me.

In my area, USPS is by far the best carrier for parcels, especially for residential delivery.

Having a reasonably well run, national organization with an obligation to serve every home and business is a wonderful thing.

FedEx did it with 15,000$ worth of apple gear for me.

Seriously, what driver would think it's appropriate to leave a bunch of imac pro boxes with a (thankfully in my case good natured) neighbour?

Has been reliable in large city, for hundreds of package deliveries, usually faster than UPS.

It's a thin justification, but the IRS still sends a lot of correspondence via USPS that they're not allowed to send in other ways. And taxes can still be received at the post office up until the filing deadline. The IRS has come a long ways with eFile, but it's still not universal. So the USPS needs to exist, if only to support the government's current revenue collection mechanisms.

Only until the Legislature or Executive chooses to change those arbitrary rules. They could choose a new delivery partner (or multiple, subject to open access criteria they designate)

But the fact that these liabilities weren't already funded is proof that it was mismanaged.

The funding part is fixed now but the fact that it wasn't funded already is a problem.

Before the USPS was treated as the civil service, with unfounded liabilities being paid out of current taxation, like social security. Now they want the USPS to act like a private company and fund its own liabilities. If you change the rules you should not expect an organisation that was fine under the old rules to be fine under the new ones, especially immediately.

Alternatively, one could argue that these other unfounded liabilities, such as social security, are also poorly run because of them being unfunded.

Except for when the pension and budget planners plan around 10% returns that don't happen, or the planners make really bad bets for a whole lot of people that will never meet expectations but the money is owed and has to come from somewhere (ultimately the taxpayers)

"It's just a matter of relying on a conservative rate of return with a proven track record."

Responsible states have managed to figure out this problem.

I think you are over-estimating how many responsible states there are: https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-bri...

> The funding gap for the state pension plans studied reached $1.4 trillion in 2016—an increase of $295 billion from 2015. State contribution policies proved insufficient to deal with the unfunded liabilities already on the books. Even if all assumptions had been met, the funding gap would have grown by $13 billion. Instead, investments fell short of assumptions for the second year in a row, leaving state pension debt at historic highs.

> Other measures of fiscal vulnerability also show cause for concern. The gap between returns on safe investments and state pension plan investment assumptions was the highest in decades. Independent analyses suggest that states can assume returns of about 6.5 percent a year for at least the next 10 years; 5 percent or lower returns are a real possibility over the next 20 years.7 While strong investment performance in 2017 would lower reported unfunded liabilities in the short term, measures of plan cash flow show that state pension plans increasingly depend on investment performance to keep assets from declining. All of these measures show that plans are more vulnerable to volatility than in the recent past, which could have an adverse impact on funds in the future.

Meanwhile in California, and probably all the other underwater states soon enough: https://reason.com/blog/2017/10/05/pension-costs-are-forcing...

> California public pension plans are funded on the basis of policies and assumptions that can delay recognition of their true cost. Even with this delay, local and state governments are facing increasingly higher pension costs—costs that are certain to continue their rise over the next one to two decades, even under assumptions that critics regard as optimistic. As budgets are squeezed, what are state and local governments cutting? Core services, including higher education, social services, public assistance, welfare, recreation and libraries, health, public works, and in some cases, public safety.

There's a deep irony in re-electing Jerry Brown to fix the problem he made in the 70s with his giveaways to the public sector, which will be paid for by the private sector who generally is compensated much much less.

You're over-estimating the liability outside of truly screwed places like Illinois. Many states can and will screw over the employees.

California needs a constitutional change, as pensions is just one of a bunch of issues that will kill the golden goose. Unions are getting killed right now -- the real boogeyman is the braindead propositions that tie the hands of the government.

The Reason article to linked to is a great example of overplaying it: "Using data from Merritt Research Services, Governing Magazine determined that American cities with a population of more than 500,000 spend, on average, about a quarter of their budgets on debt service—including payments to pension system and other so-called "legacy costs" like retired public workers' health care costs."

It's kind of disingenuous to portray debt service budgeting as pension costs and neglect to mention things like... bond payments.

The far bigger problem is health costs, which need to be addressed at the national level. Much of the actual cost growth is in increasing health costs, especially for police/fire people who tend to retire young and may be receiving benefits for a decade or more before Medicare kicks in.

The amount of people who are wholly oblivious or simply don't care about the pension bombs that are going to rock most states in the USA is utterly insane to me, and its primarily the blue ones.

We really need to get rid of these over-promising pensions and get public employees onto private accounts like most workers have with 401ks, and yet the cry from the left is always more "well paying unions and pensions" while they have no idea it is becoming a house of cards.

I believe many places in California have already had to deal with shutting down public infrastructure and services due to pensions growing to be more and more of the local budgets.

The problem in many California towns, including mine, is that the public employee unions (particularly the fire and police) give huge amounts of campaign contributions to city politicians, who then turn around and give those unions everything they ask for. We even had a consultant come in and tell us we could easily cut our fire department in half, but nope: they instead got a new emergency center. Median salary for them is about $150K.

That seems to be a ubiquitous problem.

I had a bit of a consciousness-raising moment when a friend of mine ran for public office a decade or so back, and shared his experiences with me. The calculus is simple: Nobody really wants to pay out of pocket for the campaign costs, if they can even afford to in the first place, and public donations alone aren't going to cut the mustard, either. So, if you want to play, apparently the very first thing you do is go and talk to the different interest groups in town. Labor unions are an option, but so are philanthropists with significant business interests. They'll happily scratch your back, but only if you promise to scratch theirs.

So, that's not even really your first day at work in public office, it's more your first round job interview. The incorruptible need not apply.

There have been various attempts at doing something about it over time, but there's a precedent in Constitutional law that money is effectively a form of speech, so serious efforts typically founder on the First Amendment.

I would recommend Larry Lessig's "Republic: Lost," which is an excellent dissection of the problem and proposes a few actual solutions. Unfortunately, one of the solutions at the federal level is a Constitutional convention. This is possibly the exact worst time in our nation's history to stage one of those.

> This is possibly the exact worst time in our nation's history to stage one of those.

It seems that that kind of comes with the territory, no? You don't have a Constitutional convention when everything's going great.

maybe political candidates should have gofundme campaigns..

Well out in the real world we recently lost of health care insurance. It has been replaced with a scam called HSA.

HSA is so bad they told us we needed supplemental insurance to cover our medical costs.

So a common workplace benefit has been replaced with a scam.

I don't hear any calls for HSA's for government workers. Considering the strength of public sector unions I am not surprised..

Unions that used to benefit craftsmen were killed off. Instead Teachers and Firefighters now make more money than people with an actual tradecraft.

All thanks to their unions.

So what was created to promote workplace safety for tradesman (Unions) has been distorted into a giant money sucking vortex.

What a country (My best Yakov Smirnoff impression).

> Unions that used to benefit craftsmen were killed off. Instead Teachers and Firefighters now make more money than people with an actual tradecraft. > > All thanks to their unions.

It sounds like you should be forming a union to demand things like a serious health insurance plan.

Given that teaching pays worse than most other professions requiring a degree, the better question is how bad it’d be without unions. I live in DC which has some of the best teacher pay in the country and that’s still $60-70k — not poverty but really far from “a giant money sucking vortex” unless you think they should be monks.

Where do you live that teachers actually get paid worth a damn, geez.

In populous cities, teachers make $100K/yr prorated for vacation and including value of benefits

If your company only offers an HSA, I would find another job and when you leave tell them that their health insurance plan was the reason.

I’d rather be paid more cash and decide how I want to spend it.

Well you're not the audience here.

Well, then maybe the primarily blue states should spend less on subsidies for the red States, and more on their own residents.


Not a great attitude if you want to maintain a union.

It seems the latest plan for the Chicago pensions is to issue $10bn in bonds with the assumption this will earn more in the fund than interest they will pay on the bonds.

If the markets keep booming absolutely. Though risky to tackle excessive debt with more debt. Especially while the markets are likely near their cyclical peak.

They also talk about increased taxes. But no mention of the pension members taking a haircut or contributing more which would seem a fair and financially stable option, though obviously not politically.


I always felt a good pension system would be to have something like Australia's where 10% of your pay goes into a fund you can't touch til ~65. You can invest it how you want within reasonable parameters to avoid scams etc but the money must be saved. This combined with a government pension that starts at 65 on poverty line payments but increases each year you dont take it.

This way people don't have to fund their full retirement lenght and takes away planning for the unknown moment of death, assuming increases are reasonable. People can plan to fund say 15 years of retirement and then know they hit X+15 years increases pension which is more affordable to the govt as many citizens will die during the self-funding period removing that obligation.

  I always felt a good pension system would be to have something like Australia's where 10% of your pay goes into a fund you can't touch til ~65.
Social Security taxes in the U.S. amount to 12.4% of wages, exclusive of income taxes. And that's just to fund poverty line benefits. How are poverty line benefits funded in Australia? From regular income taxes?

Yes, there is a state issued (means tested, but not that hard to get) Pension that is funded out of general revenue. The 10% that is referred to is a separate but mandatory amount known as "supperannuation" - this is taxed at a reduced rate.

I believe that this is similar to a 401K in the US, except that it's mandatory for all workers who earn over a small amount (less than the minimum weekly earning).

The long term intent of this is to increase "private" savings to reduce the general-revenue funded pensions (though there is a large industry around structuring assets and savings to allow people to have their savings and still get the pension).


The thing about 401ks in the US is that you have to be working for a corporation to get one. If you are a 1099 none of your retirement savings can be tax-deferred. IRAs are kind of a joke compared to 401k and a lot of the tax benefits for "small businesses" don't really matter if you're a sole proprietorship with no other employees.

The thing about 401ks in the US is that you have to be working for a corporation to get one. If you are a 1099 none of your retirement savings can be tax-deferred.


This isn’t true at all. Solo 401ks and SEP-IRAs both allow tax-deferred savings for self-employed folks up to $55k per year, if you make enough (the amount you can contribute is a function of your profit).

Correct. My wife does this and the cap is something like 91 or 92% of gross profits. (There's a few types of tax that come out first, but it's over 90% that you can sock away if you choose.)

It's the same stupidity with the rules for health insurance. Why are any of these tax benefits dependent on where you work? They should all be available to everybody. Easier for companies and better for employees.

It's pretty crazy that important things like retirement savings or health insurance are decided by companies and not the employees.

You need to read up on the US tax code, because you're completely losing out. In the current US tax system there's no reason why you would want to be a W2 instead of a 1099.

Being a sole proprietorship, you as an individual can enroll in an ACA marketplace plan. Get a Bronze-level HDHP plan with HSA. That means the most out-of-pocket will be around $6K if a really bad emergency happens that requires surgery or you're incarcerated in a 'mental health' facility against your will, but _should_ be $0 if you take advantage of the free preventative stuff granted by the ACA and take your health seriously by eating right, exercise, learn basic first aid, and perform preventative maintenance on your organic machinery.

You'll pay considerably less premiums and you'll be incentivized to never go to the scam artists that are doctors.

ACA premiums and tax credit subsidies are based on your MAGI, which means if you're a 1099, you have extreme flexibility and precision in making sure your MAGI ends up right at the subsidy cliff, 150% of the poverty level. At the end of the year, when you tally your final income and figure out which of many ways to reduce your taxable income down to 150% poverty level, the IRS will pay you _more_ money as a _refundable_ credit than you even paid into the premiums in the first place, since the subsidy credit is based on the 2nd lowest Silver tier plan available in your location whereas you would have bought the much cheaper Bronze plan with HSA.

Given the self-employed health care premium deduction (~5K), HSA contribution ($3.5K), IRA contribution ($5.5K), solo 401k contribution ($18K employee, $35K "employer"), and whatever miscellaneous deductions fit your specific situation, if you can't find a way to get your MAGI down you have no business complaining in the first place due to your extravagant income.

Where do you get a solo 401k? Because I spent most of a day several months ago looking for a way to open a 401k as a sole proprietor to no avail. I don't have an "employer" because I'm a contractor.

To start your journey, begin here! :)


There's several mainstream providers listed on the site: - Fidelity - Schwab - T. Rowe Price - Vanguard

Each has various fee structures, features, and tiers of hand-holding depending on how savvy you are financially and needs.

For example, some providers can act as the actual plan administrator for your i401k relieving you of the burden of liability in bookkeeping and may or may not support loans or certain withdrawal types or even traditional versus Roth contributions. Those top four listed above are examples of these.

However, other providers are simply accounting firms that allow you to bring your own plan document in advanced financial engineering mode to support things like Substantially Equal Periodic Payments for distributions in early retirement, mega-backdoor after-tax contributions wizardry, rollover/transfer features that are technically allowed by the IRS but usually missing from mainstream 401k plan documents like accepting incoming Roth 401k transfers or in-service withdrawals to use the i401k simply as a qualified plan conduit into checkbook control of an IRA for advanced self-directed investments or into a previous employers 401k for less fees or better investment options and especially to ensure creditor protection due to the identicalness between plan trustee of the i401k and employee participant ending up muddling the legal waters between what assets are afforded ERISA protection against debt liability claims in case you or your business are sued and collections judgements are levied.

I hope this hasn't confused you a lot, or made you nervous about investigating considering you 'only' spent most a day so far researching this.

If you just want a quick default, I'd probably go with Fidelity or Vanguard. In the paperwork, you _are_ the "employer" in the language of 401k terminology -- we wear two hats in this regard where you act both as making employer decisions like providing your employee (also you) salary deferrals (the current ~$18K limit) or employer contributions (the rest of the fillup toward ~$53K depending on profits). If they need a EIN, it's going to be your SSN as a passthrough sole proprietorship.

How can you hide your income from passthrough if you are a sole proprietor earning more than 150% of poverty?

It's not about 'hiding' your income, the point is that the metric used to determine eligibility for certain credits, benefits, or subsidies in many US governmental programs (but not all) is exclusively based on either Adjusted Gross Income or Modified Adjusted Gross Income. These are metrics that are fairly flexible for the self-employed to track up to a fairly large gross income. So I guess this is a real case of Goodheart's law concerning the quantification of poverty and identifying who actually 'deserves' financial assistance from the public, or under my own optimistic interpretation is rather that the government is trying to incentivize you to be self-sufficient in taking care of your own retirement and responsible healthcare spending so that the federal government doesn't become insolvent with excessive social program spending. Maybe wishful thinking?

Some credits include the Saver's Credit (non-refundable), which is essentially free $1K from the federal government for contributing $2K to any retirement plan once you plan your AGI appropriately. Another is the Affordable Care Act Premium Tax Credit (refundable) which would cover any premiums bought on the healthcare.gov marketplace as a sole proprietor once you plan your AGI appropriately. There are many of these in the tax code if you hunt for them! :)

150% of poverty is around ~$17K on average across the US, while in higher cost-of-living areas it can be much higher.

So given a $17K MAGI target, you can use any of the various available deductions on a 1040 lines 23 -> 35, such as retirement plan pre-tax contributions, health savings account contribution, health insurance premium deduction, educator expenses, moving expenses, deductible part of self-employed tax, school tuition and fees, domestic production activities deduction (like the development of computer software as a contractor!), and presto! you're technically artificially near the poverty line and eligible for certain benefits. Just contributing to the basic IRA/i401K/HSA/PTC puts you at an available earning limit of around ~$85K gross income in an _average_ cost-of-living area, let alone the other deductions listed that can be available depending on your circumstances.

The drawback is that these are additional goodies from taxes _deferred_ and definitely should not be considered taxes _evaded_ which is highly illegal. It could be possible in the future that all your income deferred would actually be taxed a much higher rate than if you paid upfront today in the case of Roth contributions to qualified retirement plans. But it's also possible that the income tax rate goes down, or you're well off enough in the future to just donate it directly to causes you care about rather than allowing Uncle Sam to get his hands on distributing your hard-earned income, or you die and pass your stuff to people you directly care about rather than being absorbed into the operating revenue of the entire US.

As discussed in this thread lower down, this is most relevant as a way of smoothing out feast/famine cycles of contractor gigs, planning an early retirement, or in general just living a very stoic and frugal life that you can afford to defer gratification until later. "A tax deferred is a tax saved."

This is fascinating. I take it you have to create your own C-corp or LLC in order for this to work?

For the ACA Marketplace, the requirements for enrolling as an individual are something like you just can't be eligible for health insurance by an employer's rules with some caveats that you could apply for an appeal to enroll if your employer does not offer a plan that meets the Minimum Essential Coverage requirements based on benefits and affordability. Being self-employed, whether that is a straight passthrough entity such as your own identity as a sole proprietorship or LLC, or some more exotic structuring isn't really the issue.

In fact, this could work even if you're a W2 employee who is not granted eligibility for health insurance coverage such as places with very draconian eligibility waiting periods or because you decided to work several part time jobs under the legal hourly limits before employers are required to provide health benefits. You wouldn't be able to use the Self-Employed Health Insurance Deduction, but you'll still be eligible for the Premium Tax Credit as long as you meet a list of requirements including MAGI in a certain range.

The appeal of being a 1099 is that it's far easier to finely control your MAGI, be it for this ACA PTC or any other type of subsidy/credit/benefit that is tied specifically to MAGI/AGI and can thus be gamed into legally but artificially giving you income status as being near poverty levels.

Of course, this is only really relevant for youngish people who are in an accumulation phase way before retirement and have frugal enough annual expenditures that you can sock away the vast majority of your income in tax-deferred accounts and still survive or have family that provide financial support anyways. There are also tradeoffs to consider in deducting traditional pre-tax contributions to retirement plans rather than Roth, but if you are in the situation that this scheme seems appealing for consideration, then there is a very good chance that you have somewhat unstable income streams, prefer your own working pace, or would even like to take breaks to go back to school/self-study/bootstrap_a_startup/whatever, that you could always smooth that out in future years by converting pre-tax to post-tax during times of relative famine. And if you're the type looking for early retirement going full throttle in your 20s/30s, it makes much more sense to defer taxes rather than pay upfront in Roth given your upcoming break/slowdown from the workforce.

Of course, I'm not your tax attorney, so please read the various rules and regulations and figure applicability for yourself. :)

For starters see:

Pub 974: Self-Employed Health Insurance Deduction and PTC https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p974.pdf

Form 8962: Premium Tax Credit https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-8962

Thanks for the reply, I'll take a look at the links you posted!

I ran a one person consulting company for a number of years. Both the simple IRA and the sep IRA are valid options that have a minimum of paperwork and let you save five figures of income, tax deferred. If I were on my own again, would definitely open one of these up.

This is only for the USA, can't speak to options on other countries.

401(k), yes, but there are other functionally similar schemes that are usable by sole traders and small corporations. We have a SIMPLE IRA, for example.

Don’t forget that the 12.4% is capped at about $130k of income. Social security would be able to offer much more than just poverty line benefits by removing the cap.

There is an old-age pension scheme which is funded out of normal revenue (our constitution frowns of government revenues going into special pots of money). This is entirely separate from the system called superannuation where a mandatory fraction of your income goes to a retirement fund of your choice. (Obviously I am grossly simplifying).

From what little I understand of US politics, any move to something like superannuation gets called "privatizing social security", and is a no-go zone. On the other hand our government pension system is proudly socialistic and does not pretend to be an individual savings plan.

Social security seems very 20th century American in that it puts an individualistic veneer over a programme that makes more sense from a socialist point of view.

Eventually you’ll see superannuation at the state level in the US.

The problem is that government is good at big procurement, and these funds will cost wall st billions in fees.

Meanwhile, if I could have invested that 12% in a 401k, in addition to the 15% I contribute, I could have already retired in my 40’s.

SS is such a horrible scam. Run an amortization table on what you could have done with it, and what you’ll get to in return in even the shittiest interest rate. It’s depressing.

In 2009? Social security is a defined-benefit program, not defined-contribution. It matters when you're talking about securing the elderly from severe deprivation, especially when they're the most vulnerable.

And what about the guy who blows his savings on bad tech stocks? Are you and the rest of the electorate prepared to kick him to the curb?

You may spend extravagantly expecting to live to 85, but what if you live to 105? Social Security acts more like a life annuity. Yes, the rate of return sucks, but relative to what the free market offers in life annuities its not too bad.

Social Security taxes are capped at $128,000 for 2018 (it's indexed and increases each year). If you say you could have retired at 40 without cherry-picking retrospective market highs, I assume you've been making significantly more than the SS cap all this time. So, I ask you, did you actually investment 27% of your income over that cap in retirement funds? (Whether tax deferred or not shouldn't matter.)

Social Security is a back stop. It's hardly ideal but it doesn't exist in isolation. It exists in a context where financial markets and retirement funds are very lightly regulated. Where enforcement regimes are often intentionally left toothless and ineffective. Privatization of Social Security would be more likely to end up like in Chile[1], where banks skim double-digit management fees and enforcement of mandatory contributions is absent, than in Australia or Singapore where private, individual savings plans work within a constellation of supplementing policies.

[1] Using a system largely designed by conservative American economists.

I’ve been making 401k contributions for 22 years (through the 2000 and 2008 dips), most of that time, maxing it out. If I add in the additional SS tax (limited by the cap), stopping contributions at 67, by 85 I’d have $17M accumulated at a 4% interest rate. As I said, you have to run the numbers yourself, but it’s mind boggling how much you are losing, even more so if you die at 67, the government walks away with it all.

When you die at any age, the rest of us walk away with everything you had. The big questions are how we divide that up (do we give it all to your children, do we put it back into the public coffers, etc).

"You can't take it with you" isn't just empty words.

It should go into “my” estate to do as “I” see fit, not for “we” to decide.

No, the government has already spent it on current retirees as you pay.

I'm not following your numbers. Max social security contribution is $16000 a year. 30 years of contributions at 4% return gives $1m; at 8%, $1.8m

It was SS plus 401k contribution, over 60 years of interest, with 40 years of contributing. Download your earnings history from SS.gov, and paste into a spreadsheet to play with the numbers.

If you want these things to work for the poor then you need to accept that it won’t be a good deal for the (comparatively) rich.

Just like health insurance premiums (or the taxes you pay if you live under a single payer system) are a terrible scam for those of us who are (comparatively) healthy.

This is true only if costs are constant which evidence suggests they are not. E.g. my insurance company pays far less for <insert any medical procedure> than I do if I don't have insurance that covers it.

"It seems the latest plan for the Chicago pensions is to issue $10bn in bonds with the assumption this will earn more in the fund than interest they will pay on the bonds. "

What could go wrong here? Seems like a 100% bullet proof plan!

The pension liability for the top 100 paid public school administrators in IL is over $1B.

They always can hire some more administrators that look into the issue and propose solutions...

> rich neighborhoods want more and more services but when the bill finally comes due it is only then that they realize the true cost of that folly

I'm not sure they do; I've known more than a few wealthy acquaintances who just grumble about the taxes suddenly being too high and then move to the next town.

I think they do, and then a few people who do complain about taxes move away...then suddenly in order to make up that shortfall taxes have to rise again...then a previous group that was closer to wanting low taxes threshold move...Cities take this as they aren't doing enough, so they spend more, and more, and more. They still have shortfalls, so they try to raise taxes, then realize no one wants it. It fails, so the city dips into pensions, or skimps. Then sooner or later it cascades down a hard to reverse path. It can take years or decades to play out...but it almost always does. It can also take decades to fix once it hits the fan.

From the perspective of a buyer, this leads to the opposite conclusion of the article: instead of buying an in older neighborhood that has held on to its property value but racked up pension debt, buy in a brand new neighborhood that may decrease in property value but has no pension debt and new infrastructure. From the perspective of society at large, both are pretty bad.

The bet for newer suburban home buyers is that you can buy the home, raise kids for 20-30 years in the good schools that use the new home values as a barrier to entry, sell it without a major loss, and then move somewhere cheaper and older before the home or the home's surroundings deteriorate.

There’s lots of assumptions here — not that they’re wrong, as for the past few generations they’ve been more or less correct.

But what if those assumptions become outdated? E.g. suburbs having a better school system because of the higher home values and home values being high because of the school system? What happens when one side of the circular equation breaks?

In Dallas, the city proper is outperforming roughly half of the more expensive suburban school districts. In Dallas, more affluent, young couples who plan to start a family are choosing the city over suburbs that just a decade ago were seen as the Place To Be.

There’s also the nationwide trend that many millenials — family or no family — want to live in urban cores, not sprawling suburbs.

What happens then? Do “the suburbs” eventually become looked down upon by future generations in the perjorative way the current generation looks at “the inner city” today? And are all those people who made those assumptions when they bought into the suburbs caught holding the bag?


> then move somewhere cheaper and older before the home or the home's surroundings deteriorate

sure, if you know exactly when this will happen. but if you know, other people probably know, and they won't pay as much for your house.

In case anyone could explain this to me/us:

What happens after a city/county files for bankruptcy? Do the pensioners get the promised amount in full or there would be a haircut? Is the city/county forced to raise taxes over the objection of current residents?

They can be screwed. Detroit for example:


The data in the "Lost in Place" report that the first point references seems questionable. I spot-checked a couple municipalities I had firsthand experience with (Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose). The worst "fallen star" census tract was the Boston Harbor Islands, which ostensibly has gone from 9% poverty to 82% poverty over the last 40 years. However, this is largely because most existing private uses for the islands have been discontinued, such that the largest complex on them is a sewage treatment plant on Deer Island and a homeless shelter & public services complex on Long Island. When most of a census tract of 1500 becomes a national park and the only thing left is public housing for the homeless, of course the poverty rate is going up.

Similarly, the only "fallen star" in San Francisco was the area around SFSU. If most of the population in a census tract consists of college students without an income, of course the poverty rate is going up. That isn't actually reflective of poverty as we know it, though, because it just so happens those districts include people who are spending hundreds of thousands for a credential that will hopefully let them earn more in the future, and isn't reflective of their lifetime earning potential.

Makes me wonder how many of the other "fallen star" neighborhoods the report references consists of colleges, prisons, or other social services.

"I have all this nice stuff, so obviously I was able to afford it. And because I was able to afford it, it's not a problem that I have it. Nothing to worry about."

Did they just make this up? What proportion of people actually think like this?

I think normally you look at your salary (or bank balance) to see how "rich" you are.

I think there are a lot of people like that. I've visited homes of plenty of acquaintances that, based on their jobs, earn less money than me, but live a much more luxurious life - for example, a 2700 square foot 4 bedroom 5 bath home, $5000 viking stove (how do I know it was a $5K stove? They were sure to let me know: "Gosh, $5,000 for this stove and it still burns the eggs!"), BMW car for him, BMW SUV for her, private school for the kids (despite paying a premium to live in a desirable public school district). It's possible that they have some alternate source of income, but still I wonder how they can afford all of that luxury.

I think there are more people that look at the equity in their home to see how rich they are than look in their bank account.

I think what has happened is that post war we have defined success as having it better than our parents. Which isn't necessarily incorrect, though ways of measuring that can be. Starting in the '80s people have been making a lot of money in things like real estate and the stock market, while the price of access to opportunities like education and job markets have increased. If you weren't part of the former group, you have essentially been left behind.

At the same time wealth, or inequity, isn't something a lot of people talk about openly. So you are left either accepting your place in the world or you can pretend that you have success by going into debt and hoping for the best. That is that the market continues to be on your side. Some people might even think this is the normal thing to do, not realizing other people have family wealth. Some people realize what is going on, but thinks that it is worth trying anyway. Or they could be those people with family wealth.

This was something that surprised me too. Looking at how someone lived and expecting them to be wealthy, only to find out later that they had no savings for retirement, and selling off property to get out from under leases or mortgages.

Who's really the sucker when they can just keep counting on forever increasing real-estate valuations? Even in the 2008 collapse, banks got bailouts and the market today is just as ridiculous as it was pre-2008.[1] "Too big to fail." The cars, the private school, they're nothing but a couple years of home appreciation with a generous tax writeoff discount. Free money, no work required. Houses in the middle of the desert and homes that have burned to the ground, are worth more than a garage full of Ferraris these days.

Savers are stupidly working hard and socking away meager sums rather than hopping on the housing gravy train.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/06/20/f...

I think normally you look at your salary (or bank balance) to see how "rich" you are.

Nnnnnooope. Live in a McMansion, Land Rover in the driveway, you have arrived. Ignore the part about how you made the minimum down payment (in fact, you got another loan to make the down payment on the house) on those items, and your credit cards are maxed to pay for the home theater and new dining set. You are livin' large!

I've seen it with my own eyes, including a family member. They think they're rich, when they don't have a pot that they own outright to piss in.

“Big hat no cattle”

That phrase is going into my verbal toolkit.

This is a forum for people who are mostly (software) engineers. People who are mathy and-- forgive the unfortunate generalization-- unflashy.

Founders aren't the only people who's motto is sometimes fake it until you make it. A lot of times people are doing a lot worse than would appear on the surface. They may believe looking well off helps them to be successful. And when things go wrong they see themselves as victims. Who knew my company would have layoffs? How could I anticipate declining property values.. etc.

Lots of people think like this. During the housing crash there were lots of news reports about people earning mid six-figures losing their homes because they went out of their way to buy extravagant mansions they could barely afford, rather than a more modest-sized luxury home they could have paid for outright in a year or two.

Even more of those hundred-thousandaires bought condos that they couldn't afford. We ended up with over-built areas like Chicago's Loop and Miami, because so many of them got exposed when it all nearly imploded. (All of it probably would have imploded without the bailouts.)

Oh lots of people do! Since I'm a fairly analytic person, it's batshit crazy to me.

"If someone is willing to lend me money (at any interest rate) to buy it, I can afford it."

Prior to the 2008 collapse, the San Diego Union Tribune ran a map of the county colored by the average percentage of household income spent on housing. The entire coastline was 80+% — and that included places like La Jolla with houses well into the millions, where you had these high-income couples who were living paycheck to paycheck, financing or even leasing everything to keep the affluent image and praying that the real estate market would continue rising to bail them out.

Actually this is not a surprise, most of the people feel rich based on what materials they poses and what they can afford to buy even on the loan. It does not matter what money they have in bank. Very recent famous example of this would be 50 cent.

It’s very well understood that 50 filed for bankruptcy as a strategic move, and a giant FU to an ex who tried to sue him, only to get nothing because of his “bankruptcy.” He even flat out says it in multiple interviews.


A lot of people look at the equity of their homes, unfortunately. Consumer spending has been steadily increasing in Sweden during the past decade in spite of salary stagnation. This sadly means the restaurants, novelty stores, coffee shops and what not that have plopped up in downtown areas are not here to stay.

What has happened during the past decade is that the real estate prices have increased by a lot and Sweden is among the most indebted populations in the world.

Firstly, in the nicest possible way, have you tested that belief against evidence? Because it is very easy to socialise with an unusual peer group and get weird anecdotes on this particular subject.

Secondly, there are unarguably some people who think like this and by their nature, they make up a disproportionate fraction of both borrowing, consumer spending and hence potentially business activity. Wise to keep an eye on them.

I find it hilarious Carmel, Indiana is featured so heavily in this article without mentioning Roundabouts. I grew up near Carmel, and it was famous for its Roundabouts. They have replaced almost every 4 Way Stop with a roundabout. I believe they have more Roundabouts than any other town in the US. They have gone so far as to replace classic overpass bridges over the two major highways with Cassini Oval shaped Roundabouts.


Roundabouts are way better and safer than 4 way stops.

Unless you're an American driver. Americans already don't know how to use normal ones in Europe. Then in America they make them wrong, with big yield signs that look like stop signs, unintuitive marking, confusing exits, and giant obstructions to the view that force people to stop at the entry to wait to see if a car is coming, and then refuse to enter if they see one far away.

It is not true that those things negate the efficiency and safety of roundabouts over four-way stops. Where did you hear that?

I live near many roundabouts (in America) and they work fine. This meme about how terrible American drivers are with roundabouts is tiring. People in America get used to them just like everywhere else.

The only roundabout (a "rotary", since it was in Massachusetts) that I ever liked was over a highway. Three roads intersected at the same point, with one being a divided highway. (each at 60 degrees to its neighbors, like a six-pointed asterisk)

The solution:

Make the roundabout really huge (probably safe at 70 MPH if you don't mind speeding tickets) and place it over top of the highway, crossing on two separate bridges. Provide ramps for the highway, and connect up the other roads as normal.

Offramps from the highway are ascending, helping to slow vehicles. Onramps to the highway are descending, helping to bring vehicles up to highway speed. This turns out to be really really nice.

I think they did mention them, just not by name since whether a road project is a roundabout or some other intersection isn't really relevant:

The city has gone on an above-and-beyond municipal spending spree in recent years—road projects...

Wouldnt be surprised if mafia was involved

It has nothing to do with the mafia, and everything to do with Carmel's long-time self-esteem problem. The only people that insist on pronouncing the town's name like the one in California are Carmel residents. The rest of the world pronounces it "KAR-mel". Or, more snidely, "CarMEL-by-the-Interstate". It was particularly hilarious that residents like to think of Carmel as where the rich people live (it's really where the upper middle-class live), and then I moved to Redmond and saw how real rich people lived. :-)

I haven't lived near Indianapolis in twenty years, but I don't imagine it's changed much. In which case public spending is probably motivated more by keeping up appearances, just like with Carmel's citizens, than it is about corruption.

So does traffic move smoothly now?

In a roundabout way yes it does.

"Poor neighborhoods subsidize the affluent; it is a ubiquitous condition of the American development pattern"

I don't really see that as a positive, more as another symptom of the ongoing pillage and exploitation of America's working class.

Being familiar with Strong Towns I would say the author agrees with you. In general Strong Towns tries to point out that the older and lower income parts of town typically produce a substantial tax surplus while the newer and higher income parts of town are a substantial tax drain. This is because, while each individual homeowner may pay more in property tax, they live in much less density and newer infrastructure is usually a lot more expensive (due to increased engineering requirements, ie. more pavement, fancy street lights, etc.) -- so there are fewer people paying for much more expensive infrastructure.

This is obviously unjust, and the organization is trying to help bring awareness to the problem to help create a movement for change.

I would be surprised if the author didn't agree with you (though they might frame it in very different terms). The same blog recently published an article[1] explicitly advocating for more investment in poor neighborhoods.

[1] https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborh...

Although the article references Carmel and its relationship to Indianapolis, I can't help myself from thinking everything written is analogous to Summerlin and Las Vegas, the city where I currently reside. It's scary to think how many other suburbs and cities across the nation where you could draw similar parallels.


a) city population density outweighs most other factors at producing overall prosperity.

b) suburban development is a bad roi for public financing

c) therefore, a lot of seemingly affluent areas (think gated communities) are actually going to ruin, because the roi on public financing can't keep them affluent.

the article is interesting, but light on quantitative analysis. you're supposed to accept that the author ran the numbers.

in particular, i doubt that misallocated public financing is the main reason for a city to grow or shrink. the global economy is too strong.

there could even be reverse causation -- all the best urban planners left cleveland as it shrank, which resulted in waste...

The author has run the numbers (or at least found and cited them) - see e.g. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/5/7/the-more-we-bui... and https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/7/20/mapping-the-ef...

It's true that the global economy is the biggest factor in a city's prosperity, but a strong economy is only papering over the fiscally unsustainable way most municipalities are run.

Also, generally, urban planners are the technicians that implement decisions made by elected officials. They are NOT the ones setting the vision for a city. [citation: Masters in Urban Planning that I never used]

Many articles on the site have numbers so I'm curious why you chose the first one; it has exactly 1 number, and a graph that looks illustrative rather than empirical.

Second article definitely has data in the graphs (as does TFA, for that matter).

"...all the best urban planners left cleveland as it shrank, which resulted in waste..."


But if they all left Cleveland, wasn't that because the places they moved to were more desirable for whatever reason?

And if those other places were more desirable, doesn't that imply that they missed something in their planning? (Or else they would have done the planning to make their own place that desirable.)

Serious question BTW. I'm not trying to be snarky.

> But if they all left Cleveland, wasn't isn't that because the places they moved to were more desirable for whatever reason?

Yes, for instance, jobs for urban planners, which are both more plentiful and better paying in growing (both population and economy) areas.

> And if those other places were more desirable, doesn't that imply that they missed something in their planning?

No, in the same way that an investment planner that experiences a known risk that would have been more likely under alternative courses, or who underperforms other portfolios that benefited from access to investments only made selectively available to people who owned particular investments before that advisor came onboard have not necessarily missed anything. Unavoidable risk and opportunities constrained by initial conditions definitely affect urban planning.

the article suggests that bad urban planning can cause a city to shrink.

reverse causation would be that cities which shrink result in bad urban planning.

the mechanism for the reverse causation could be that the best urban planners may choose to work in cities with promising growth. or, that shrinking makes urban planning too unpredictable to be effective.

you seem to be assuming that urban planners cause a city to be desirable or not. I'm not so sure planners have as much influence, versus, say, trade/resources/industries.

point being, i don't think the causal mechanisms on this are clear.

Doesn't this seem to be conflating correlation with causation? A sign of a wealthier than average household is a beamer in the drive way. That does not mean that buying a beamer is a a good way to get rich, quite the opposite in fact. Areas that are 'overall prosperous' are going to tend to drive economic migration. As a city's area for development tends to be limited this is going to drive population densities upward, as compared to areas that are not economically desirable.

San Francisco is a great example, all the way back to its beginnings. San Francisco was practically created by the California gold rush. At the start of 1848 its population was around 1,000. By the end of 1849, it's population was 25,000. By 1890 it's population was 300,000 and it was the 8th largest city in the US. By 1906 the population was more than 400,000. Things then got shaken up by the quake of 1906.

But the whole point is that as its population increased 40,000% in about 5 decades, you'd have seen population densities skyrocket. But the city didn't become prosperous because the population density increased. Its prosperity caused the density increases.

>Doesn't this seem to be conflating correlation with causation? A sign of a wealthier than average household is a beamer in the drive way. That does not mean that buying a beamer is a a good way to get rich, quite the opposite in fact.

Yep. And most economic policy is based on exactly this fallacy: "When 'the economy' is prosperous, people are buying a lot. Therefore, if we artificially stimulate the economy, we will get prosperity in the relevant, desired sense."

That's not a fallacy. If a lot of people start to buy a lot, more jobs are created. You are trying to take the case of a single household (where "buying a lot" can only mean using a lot of money) and apply that to the whole society.

You just bought into the fallacy -- jobs (and buying stuff) are only good when they're satisfying a legit demand, not one artificially created by the stimulus policy. To the extent that that the desire to provide that job or purchase that item is artificial, the "prosperity" indicated by that action is likewise artificial.

If I put a gun to your head and forced you to buy a sofa, that's not the same kind of prosperity as when you independently judged that you needed a sofa and freely bought one. The same basic dynamic is going on when I conceal it slightly by forcing other people to give me money so I can subsidize your sofa purchase.

I take it that you don't believe in Keynesian theory, which is fine for me, but if you want to persuade people that you can disprove one of the most influential economic theories, then you might need a better argument than the tired old "What if somebody put a gun to your head?" story.

If "believing in Keynesian theory" requires you to believe that economic prosperity is something different from satisfying human desires and we should optimize for the former anyway, then no one should "believe in" it.

Do you want policies that satisfy human desires, or do you want to goose an arbitrary metric?

The foundation of keynsianism is the fact that an idle worker's lost productivity is waste, and putting that worker to work generates something of value. Obviously doing useless work is useless, but making a market so that the worker can be connected with a consumer is a net win. Fiscal keynsianism, aka printing money and handing it out, creates that market by giving consumers buying power to buy things they want, motivating the worker to do work creating value instead of sitting idle wasting their labor. It's a catalyst to activate the real economy.

One of the points the author makes is that a lot of American communities are not financially robust. If the global economy hiccups, they won’t be able to handle it and might go bankrupt.

Detroit has an excuse, it follows the auto industry's fate. Indiana just elects too many republicans.

Wow. I lived in west Indiana in the late 90s, remember Carmel as the 'new In place'. Looks like they're headed for trouble.

Bummer. Hope city planners are taking note.

I'd bet that they aren't.

Big-screen TVs start from $150 these days so I think they should not be mentioned as splurge wealth anymore.

Missing the forest for the trees.

The "brand new car" thing isn't a great example either. You can lease a new car for under $100/month which likely has lower insurance costs, is safer, and no maintenance fees other than gas (which you'll also need less of since its probably a more efficient vehicle).

An older car could end up needing several thousands of dollars in repair costs at any time, and maybe more than once. I drive an older car because I could swing a new engine or transmission if it came up. For a lot of people that means they no longer have a car.

> The "brand new car" thing isn't a great example either. You can lease a new car for under $100/month which likely has lower insurance costs, is safer, and no maintenance fees other than gas (which you'll also need less of since its probably a more efficient vehicle).

Few people (like yourself) buy commodities in increments limited by their needs. Most people buy commodities limited only by their total borrowing capacity.

The unofficial Theory of Consumer Spending holds that "where credit is extended, it will inevitably be utilized." It's no coincidence retail chains push their own credit cards. Offered a $300K loan, people will buy a $300K house.

Most consumers are ignorant of terms. If the possibility exists to literally sign a dotted line and drive away in a new Range Rover, few people will opt for your plebeian Accord.

Fair enough, but in context, I think the "brand new car" reference implied a high-end new car.

2 things that bother me in this article: misconceptions about the nature of finance, and the role of real-estate brokers

The first one is illustrated in the 'hyperloop affordability' paragraph.

What bothers me here it the confusion about the nature of fiat currency. In fiat currency based financial system, money is not realy a resource in the true sense. You don't need 'work' (in the energy sense) to create it. One push off a button can create limitless amounts of it. Money is 'merely' a means of prioritization.

This is a subtle but essential difference. You can 'afford' something if you have the knowledge and the free (prioritized) energy (work) to invest in (choose to do) it. In classic balanced systems, where money and 'potential work energy' are in balance, the difference is small. In our real world financial system, where this is nowhere near close, both are very different.

The second thing that bothers me is the lack of highlighting the active role of real estate brokers and speculators on the dynamics of rising and falling 'neighborhoods'.

These businesses live of fractional transaction fees. Some real-estate is highly profitable as it generates a lot of transactions. A good-looking but 'bad' house where people often find out it is not so nice to live there and move on asap is a start in the realtor market. It generates potential transaction fees on the sale every few years.

By contrast, a truly good home is sold on the market maybe once every 2 or 3 generations if ever. The only way to 'unlock' these houses is to take away their 'goodness'. Small things can be leveraged into high market dynamics.

Typical things are lobbying local authorities to divert go-through traffic. Once peaceful and nice neighborhoods now become polluted and noisy, often resulting in a mass exodus by those that can afford it. Previous traffic hellholes that could be bought up for pennies suddenly become nice, relaxed and very desirable. A decade or 2-3 later you reverse the process and hit the jackpot again.

Another trick is to buy a house on a nice street, and rent it out to a toxic person/family and let the butterfly effect do it's work.

Not nice, but unfortunately very effective

The point about transaction fees sound tru-ish...but do you have any evidence to support any of the above?

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