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Mid-week reading: strategy games, housing politics, fossil fuel subsidies, and the benefits of bike lanes

Welcome back to mid-week reading, which is (happily) becoming a more intermittent feature. One of the most interesting things I’ve recently read was Jonathan McCalmont’s exploration of anarchist scholar James C Scott’s arguments about the way that governments interact with their people: “Seeing like a state: why strategy games make us think and behave like brutal psychopaths“:

Cloaked as they were in the trappings of religion and medieval warfare, it was all too easy to overlook the morally dubious nature of the games’ relationship between players and in-game characters. Indeed, it was not until the release of Bullfrog’s Syndicate (1993) that the political savagery of the strategy genre became fully apparent. Stripped of the moral fig leaf of historical context, Syndicate asked us to assume to role of a corporate CEO who used cybernetically enhanced slaves to battle rival CEOs for control over a virtual environment that enslaved the entire human race. For the first time, players were asked to embody not mythical beings or historical princes but ruthlessly exploitative capitalist tyrants. The fact that playing a corporation was no different to playing a god or a warlord merely served to drive home the moral message: You are a complete bastard

What all of these games have in common is a tendency to make even the most liberal of gamers behave like brutal tyrants. For the player of strategy games, little computer people serve only as a means to an end. We do not care about whether or not our little computer people are happy, we only care about whether or not they are productive. If they are not productive then they are in our way and little computer people who get in the way of their players tend to wind up brutalised, enslaved and dead.

Second, on a different note, Tim Watkins (Pundit) reflects on the government’s reaction to the Auckland housing crisis. While the article’s a few weeks old at this point, Watkins’ points are still worth considering:

What’s become clear is that Auckland’s problem is no longer a land supply problem, it’s a house supply problem. The Special Housing Areas have opened up over 50,000 sections according to the government, but only 1000 houses have been built. Even Auckland Council estimates six and a half years worth of land is ready to build on. What’s missing is a will (or requirement) to build, tradie capacity and, arguably, a government commitment to a mass building programme.

Instead, what we’ve got from National seems to be an admission any fix on Auckland house prices is years away and what matters to them now is spreading the blame.

Watkins also highlights infrastructure as a key problem:

Auckland Council is in a bind on infrastructure. Not that you’d know it from most of the debate, but it’s willing to sprawl somewhat. It’s problem is the lack of roads, rail, sewers, footpaths and the like on the outskirts of the city and an inability to pay for it.

Auckland Council is maxed out on debt; if it borrows more it suffer a credit downgrade and the local government authority that borrows on behalf of councils simply won’t let it do that, as I understand it. It can’t raise rates, because they’re already high and they’d suffer a revolt. Thy want to introduce congestion charges, but the government won’t change the law to let them.

Third, the Economist offers a good analysis of the opportunity that current low fossil fuel prices offer for policy reform:

The most straightforward piece of reform, pretty much everywhere, is simply to remove all the subsidies for producing or consuming fossil fuels. Last year governments around the world threw $550 billion down that rathole—on everything from holding down the price of petrol in poor countries to encouraging companies to search for oil. By one count, such handouts led to extra consumption that was responsible for 36% of global carbon emissions in 1980-2010.

Falling prices provide an opportunity to rethink this nonsense. Cash-strapped developing countries such as India and Indonesia have bravely begun to cut fuel subsidies, freeing up money to spend on hospitals and schools (see article). But the big oil exporters in the poor world, which tend to be the most egregious subsidisers of domestic fuel prices, have not followed their lead. Venezuela is close to default, yet petrol still costs a few cents a litre in Caracas. And rich countries still underwrite the production of oil and gas. Why should American taxpayers pay for Exxon to find hydrocarbons? All these subsidies should be binned.

What a better policy would look like

That should be just the beginning. Politicians, for the most part, have refused to raise taxes on fossil fuels in recent years, on the grounds that making driving or heating homes more expensive would not only annoy voters but also hurt the economy. With petrol and natural gas getting cheaper by the day, that excuse has gone. Higher taxes would encourage conservation, dampen future price swings and provide a more sensible way for governments to raise money.

An obvious starting point is to target petrol. America’s federal government levies a tax of just 18 cents a gallon (five cents a litre)—a figure that it has not dared change since 1993. Even better would be a tax on carbon. Burning fossil fuels harms the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. Taxing carbon would nudge energy firms and consumers towards using cleaner fuels. As fuel prices fall, a carbon tax is becoming less politically daunting.

Lastly, new evidence from New York shows that protected cycle lanes, in addition to being safer and more enjoyable for people on bikes, can also improve life for people in cars:

When New York City first started adding new protected bike lanes in 2007, some drivers made the usual argument against them: Taking street space away from cars would slow down traffic. After years of collecting data, a new report from the city shows that the opposite is true. On some streets redesigned with protected bike lanes, travel times are actually faster. And it turns out the new lanes have a range of other benefits as well.

For pedestrians, the bike lanes make walking safer by shortening crosswalks and making crossings more obvious to drivers. Pedestrian injuries have dropped an average of 22% on streets with bike lanes. Not surprisingly, cyclist injuries have also decreased; on 9th Avenue, for example, even though far more bikes are on the street, cyclist injuries have gone down by 65%.

For cars, a better traffic flow comes partly as a side benefit from a safety feature added with the bike lanes. Cars turning left now have pockets to wait in—so they’re less likely to hit a cyclist riding straight, but they also stop blocking traffic as they wait.

“Having that left turning area, where you’re able to get out of the flow, you can see the cyclist, the cyclist can see the turning vehicle, you can pause and not feel the pressure from behind to make a quick movement,” says Josh Benson, director of bicycle and pedestrian programs for the New York City Department of Transportation. “That’s a major major safety feature of these type of bike lanes. But it also helps the flow.”

16 comments to Mid-week reading: strategy games, housing politics, fossil fuel subsidies, and the benefits of bike lanes

  • Ari

    I just can’t believe the US keeps fuel taxes so low, when it’s whole transport infrastructure is literally falling apart.The state of the roads there are horrendous. Almost as bad as CHCH.

    • Bruce

      Yes they could have doubled it to $0.36 per gallon when prices dropped and nobody would have noticed as prices dropped by $1 per gallon.

  • Grant

    Great cycle video that..so used to New Yorkers being subway & yellow cab users.

  • Ricardo

    If you look at cycling in New York you will notice from your link that traffic still has more than one lane. Where traffic is reduced to one lane it simply becomes impossible.

    • You do understand that New York is just a little bit bigger than Auckland, eh? Just as we don’t need a Transit system on the same scale as that city, we also don’t need a driving one as big either…

  • Robert

    …”What’s become clear is that Auckland’s problem is no longer a land supply problem, it’s a house supply problem. The Special Housing Areas have opened up over 50,000 sections according to the government, but only 1000 houses have been built. Even Auckland Council estimates six and a half years worth of land is ready to build on. What’s missing is a will (or requirement) to build, tradie capacity and, arguably, a government commitment to a mass building programme…..”

    My experience of the causes at grass roots level is
    1) that houses are not being built on available land because owners are waiting for the unitary plan
    2) The council process of consenting of drainage ( this is for owner supplied extensions of the public network ) is woefully slow for even the simplest of projects and leads to long delays. A major overhaul is needed of the process
    3) Fire regulations and some building regulations just do not make sense and lead to long delays
    4) A pig headed attitude from most planners re intensification. Some of the planners and urban designers interpret the rules to suit their own personal agenda and tastes often stalling innovative and contemporary design solutions.

    • mfwic

      The first point isn’t relevant to the SHA’s as the Unitary Plan already applies to them. Number 4 is probable true. Part of the problem has been AT’s unwillingness to help in any way. They charge contributions but have until recently refused to spend them in the SHA areas. They claimed that money was already spoken for elsewhere! Without the Council coordinating arterial roads then nothing happens. I am working for one owner who says he will ignore his consent and just farm goats instead as it will make him more money given the expensive conditions he has to meet.

      • Robert

        You are correct, my comment was about the council estimate of land supply and my point 1 relates to non SHA land and land within the existing built up areas.
        Many of my clients are gobsmacked at the red tape to get anything built plus the total incompetence of many of AT, Watercare,and Auckland Council staff in the consenting process . A Lot of my clients would have built earlier but because of the tedious process of the UP they have held back worsening the housing crisis

        • Bruce

          Yes for example if you want to knock down a crappy old 3 bedroom house and build 4x townhouses on a site then you have to pay thousands to Watercare alone just for them to hook up the connection (not counting the actual cost of the piping on the property itself). Yes additional houses add cost to the overall network however if the network is already to the property this seems to be an unnecessary expense. Particularly when you consider that each new connection then pays water rates on an ongoing basis from there.

          • Matthew

            Problem is water rates don’t cover the cost of capital. Water charges need to be increased for everyone and development contributions removed.

          • Bruce

            I find that hard to believe considering that most of NZ doesn’t even get charged for water at all besides a nominal amount yet in Auckland we get charged uniform charges, water charges and wastewater charges at a high rate.

          • Matthew

            Last time I looked at Watercares annual report they barely covered operating costs with revenue. Return on capital was about 1%

  • Harriet

    This is so true for games.

  • Brendon Harre

    I have also written a housing related article last week.
    Housing: New Alliances, New Battlefields
    https://makingchristchurch.com/housing-new-alliances-new-battlefields-e47d81c24de5#.mmnsmbqet

    The NYU Stern Urbanization Project tweeted about it. Yah
    @brendon_harre

  • Luxated

    The link to the article about strategy games actually links to this interesting, but unrelated, photo journal of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: http://varlamov.ru/1749635.html

    I believe the correct link is: http://futurismic.com/2011/03/02/seeing-like-a-state-why-strategy-games-make-us-think-and-behave-like-brutal-psychopaths/

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