Chicago Street Art

4 May

Art outside the Lill Street Cafe, Chicago. Fill in your own blank.


Chicago: The Crumbling City

3 May

Everywhere you go in Chicago you’ll find signs of urban decay. Not the sort of middling decay you find in most cities but decades-old, ground in, well-worn and surprising decline. But crumbling walls, fragile sewers, rusting struts and wobbly bridges are not the sort of fabric upon which a thrusting and growing 21st century city is built upon.

So the task at hand for the new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is catch up with the long-overdue repairs to his city, while making the necessary improvements that will make sure that people want to move into the city rather than out of it. The city has little or no money, and citizens are against the idea of raising taxes. The state is broke too. Dribs and drabs come from the federal government. So how does one fund a serious $7 billion improvement program?

Besides borrowing more money, the answer in Chicago is to do something rather like a private finance initiative. This is to ask the private sector to come in and invest in projects that deliver some steady returns over a number of years.

Chicagoans have been rather anxious about this new idea. Rather ironically private finance of public projects is actually more common in “socialist” Europe. But in Chicago particularly, everyone remembers the parking deal that went bad. The time when a previous mayor sold the lease to the city’s parking meters for 75 years for a fraction of its value. This is not the same idea. Nobody is talking about selling off the city’s assets. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust wants to match private finance with investments in the city that will yield ongoing returns.

That is not to say that the idea is without risk, there are many things that can go wrong with private financing deals. The public side can end up taking on more risk than it realises when it has to pick up the pieces (a half finished school for example) when things go bad. (See Wikipedia on Criticism of PFI.) And if the investment depends on user fees (say a toll road), sometimes these can be uncomfortably high. And the costs of the project can be too high as well, as experience with school and hospital building has shown in Britain.

But if it is done properly, it absolutely does work–as experience with Britain’s new Treasury building shows. And let us not forget how badly public-financed projects can go wrong. The new Scottish parliament building was originally supposed to cost 40m GPB ($64m), but actually cost 400m GPB.

So there are risks, and there are huge potential rewards. While there is anxiety, few appreciate the fact that Chicago needs to act quickly. It lost 200,000 people in the last decade. If this sort of pattern picks up in the next census, rather than reverses, it will be a disaster. Chicago could become just another one of those hollowed out former industrial Midwestern cities, with the wealthy taking refuge in the suburbs and the city loosing its energy and dynamism. Chicago has to be the place that people seek out in the Midwest, not flee from.

So when the mayor says that the city cannot afford to wait for the federal government to act with regards to infrastructure investments, he probably means it. By the time the next census comes around in a decade from now, the city needs to have stemmed or reversed this trend of population decline. Its a tough nut to crack, but this probably explains why the new major has been like a hyperactive squirrel in the last year, scurrying from new project to new project. Time is of the essence.

Restoration drama

1 May
America’s under-appreciated community colleges hold promise 
Apr 28th 2012 | CHICAGO AND BOSTON | from the print edition

COMPARED with its world-famous universities, America’s community colleges are virtually anonymous. But over half of the nation’s 20m undergraduates attend them, and the number is growing fast. Poor, minority and first-generation-immigrant students are far more likely to get their tertiary education from community colleges—where two-year courses offer a cheap route to a degree—than from universities. And, increasingly, many policymakers are wondering whether more attention to the colleges might be a low-cost way of resolving the nation’s shortage of skilled workers.

America’s problem with training was laid bare in a report published last year by Deloitte, a consultancy firm, and the Manufacturing Institute. It identified 600,000 positions that were going unfilled because there were too few qualified skilled workers. Too many colleges, it seems, still fail to align themselves with the needs of local employers, a mismatch that is bad both for the employers and for potential employees, though arguably universities are even worse at doing this. [More…]

Really good comments on this article, including one that points out an important flaw in using graduation rates as a metric of success in community colleges. Not sure what the answer to this is.

America’s crazy healthcare system

20 Apr
As an outsider here, one of the things that is wryly amusing to me is how many Americans are convinced by the vast superiority of their own healthcare system. I’ve even been told how awful the British National Health Service in Britain is and actually pitied by a grandmother at a Rick Santorum rally.

This idea, that Brits are suffering under the NHS, besides being funny, is actually part of a meme that was promoted in the US in order to attack the new healthcare laws. The British NHS, so the story goes, is awful “socialised” healthcare. I know the NHS has many flaws, but the longer I spend in the US the more I realise how utterly brilliant it is at delivering pretty universal coverage to the entire population at far less cost than in the US.

Why are healthcare costs so high? Americans will sometimes say that the quality of their healthcare is higher and they have better service. On the latter point, they are almost correct. It is easy to shop around for doctors and each doctor is far more specialised. We don’t have a family GP any more, we have an internist, pediatrician, and an “obgyn” (women’s things).

On the subject of quality, I am not so sure. For one thing there is the problem of “too much choice”. In many ways, life would be far easier if the entire family could go and visit a local GP for everything and get referred as necessary. The family is an health ecosystem in itself. It doesn’t make sense to me that if I and my son catch the same flu  that we both have to go and see different doctors. One tends to form long-term relationships with the family doctor–and this is very helpful. On top of this there is NHS Direct, a telephone  helpline that means you can speak to a nurse 24 hours a day, and if necessary be referred to a doctor or hospital.

It is also clear that in the US testing is overdone, and medical bills are greatly inflated. On the matter of tests, my son’s dentist wanted to give him routine X-rays (there are no problems with his teeth). He is five. We objected and she said she wasn’t sure if she could treat our son without doing routine X-rays. We said we would go elsewhere and suddenly it was possible after all. Dental X-rays are not a good thing, especially if you are a young child. I’ve since read more about  the link between dental X-rays and brain tumours.

On the subject of medical bills, now that I’ve seen the cost of the same treatment in different countries I can see that the costs doctors charge insurers are ludicrously high. We’ve paid privately for work on my back in the UK and received something similar under insurance in the US. The cost of 20-30 minutes of spine manipulation was about $145 at a posh private hospital in London, and $490 in a downtown corporate office.

Similarly, our pediatrician charged our insurers $1,600 to register and do a check up on two children. I can’t say whether or not her time was worth this, but I can say that having the same job done on the NHS would have been a fraction of the cost. Of course the $64,000 question is whether all that extra expense was necessary–a question that is far more difficult to answer.

Updated: This blog was tidied up on 24th April.

The NRA’s star may be on the wane

19 Apr
Opinion from the Economist blog: Democracy in America

Apr 19th 2012, 20:25 by N.L. | ST LOUIS

 ONE of the things Europeans find incomprehensible about America is its love of guns. There are two reasons they don’t get it. One is that Europeans live in a much more urbanised, regulated and crowded part of the world. More importantly the concept of owning a gun as an essential civil liberty is entirely absent. There is no second amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms, and there is little sense that it is up to the individual to defend one’s family and property.

The organisation most associated with America’s culture of guns is the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—which drafts model legislation—have been enormously successful at pushing pro-gun laws in state legislatures. These days the debate is no longer whether assault rifles ought to be banned, but whether they should be allowed in bars, churches and schools. One group, Students for Concealed Carry, even argues that carrying concealed weapons on university campuses would be an effective means of self defence. [More…]

Arms and the man

19 Apr

Despite legislative victories, the NRA is under pressure 

Apr 21st 2012 | ST LOUIS | from the print edition

“TAKE a sticker,” urges the woman from Ambush Firearms. “We are giving away two free guns every day to people wearing them.” What your correspondent would do with an semi-automatic rifle, let alone one that also comes in pink, was not obvious. Welcome to the annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—this year held in St Louis, Missouri. It is a yearly celebration of freedom, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and, above all else, a festival of guns. Seven acres, to be precise, of guns and gear.

Americans like firearms. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service there were 294m guns in the country in 2007, up from 192m in 1994. More guns might be expected to mean more influence for the NRA, except that the number of households with guns has actually declined fairly consistently since 1973. The people who buy guns, it seems, are usually those who already own them. One probable cause of this decline is a shift to urban living. Moreover, safety-conscious Americans are increasingly aware that, statistically, a gun is a far greater risk to friends and family than it is of potential use in self-defence. [More…]

Stalled in Motor City

7 Apr
Detroit skyline: Shawn Wilson, Wikicommons

A desperate tussle over whether the state of Michigan should take over Detroit

Apr 7th 2012 | DETROIT | from the print edition, co-written Rosemarie Ward.

APART from more money, what the city of Detroit needs most is certainty. Both are in short supply at the moment. On March 21st a state-appointed review team unanimously agreed that it is suffering a “severe financial emergency”. The day before, Moody’s had downgraded more than $2.5 billion of the city’s debt, citing its lack of cash. Amid this deepening financial crisis the state of Michigan, local unions, the mayor, the city council and the courts are battling over the future of Motor City.

The simplest solution, a state bail-out, is tricky. Both the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and the head of the state’s House Appropriations Committee, Chuck Moss, argue that yet another infusion of cash will not solve Detroit’s underlying problems. To prove his point, the governor recently reminded citizens that the city has borrowed $600m since 2005 just to get by. It is also planning, with some state support, to issue $137m in bonds in order to refinance its debt and create cashflow that will allow it to totter on until the end of the financial year. [More…]