Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
Complain as I do about the eccentricities of the Portland city council, they have been making the city a more desirable place to live, at least if housing prices are evidence. Now and then it's been reported that people who are priced out of the Portland housing market are finding less expensive housing -- even in Lake Oswego.
One quirk of the arts tax imposed by the City of Portland through the will of the well-meaning voters in November is that it taxes the full-year 2012 income of Portland residents even though it didn't take effect until December 5, 2012, when 339 days of the year had already passed. The act defines a "resident" of Portland to include persons who spent 200 days or more in the City, with some exceptions not important here, bringing up the delightful possibility that the estates of Portlanders who died between June 18 and December 4, 2012 are liable for the $35 head tax even though they died before the tax came into being, giving the government an unexpected reason to reread the obituaries.
One of the ongoing discussions about the Portland Streetcar is whether it is faster to walk or take the streetcar. When I want to travel along the streetcar's route downtown, I trot briskly along the route until a streetcar catches up with me, or until I catch up with the streetcar, or until I get to my destination. Usually I beat the streetcar. Every time I follow the tracks, I notice others also jogging or walking briskly along the route, apparently with the same purpose.
Twenty years ago I visited the Multnomah Kennel Club and watched the greyhounds run around the circuit, chasing a mechanical rabbit that's pulled along a channel next to the track. It struck me today as I noticed people trotting along the rail line that the Portland Streetcar is not primarily a means of transportation, nor is it mainly a subsidy to lucky if inept contractors and suppliers.
It's a public health measure, designed to not to move people from Point A to Point B, but to improve the cardiovascular fitness of downtown workers and residents who strive to outpace the trolleycar.
The agencies' dilemma was that a large part of the bridge funding will come from federal grants for light rail, but if the bridge is built with the 150-foot clearance necessary to accommodate existing river traffic, its approach grades will be too steep for light rail to climb. The proposed light rail line also faces active opposition from Clark County residents who fear that it would become a conduit for crime.
TriMet general manager Neil MacFarlane explained the elegant solution. "ODOT and WSDOT will build a bridge with 150 feet of clearance over the river and with a lower deck for pedestrians and bicycles. TriMet will construct a light rail line on the middle span of the bridge, about 500 feet long, but not connect it to the mainland. Once a year we'll run a Lake Oswego trolley car back and forth on the bridge." MacFarlane added that this will satisfy the federal requirement for matching funds: the bridge must include light rail, but the line on the bridge doesn't need to connect to the existing system.
Fiscal analysts for TriMet, noting that TriMet loses money on light rail, said that by operating the bridge light rail only one day a year, TriMet will save enough money to restore service on six bus lines. Capital costs are also reduced by $500 million, as the Yellow Line won't be extended beyond the Expo Center.
Although the trolley car will carry passengers only one day a year, it won't be idle. The other 364 days of the year, the trolley car will help raise money to pay the cost of building the bridge, snapping pictures of the license plates of solo drivers in the carpool lane and housing a photo radar unit. TriMet will get half the ticket revenue.
"We're going to finally make light rail turn a profit," MacFarlane smiled.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is the first of the 266 men elected pope to choose the name "Francesco," and is also the first pope from the Western Hemisphere. In an interesting coincidence, he and the church are 34 years behind the world of fiction.
In "The Vicar of Christ," a 1979 novel by the late Walter F. Murphy (1929-2010), a professor of political science and jurisprudence, the cardinals elect an American as pope, who in Professor Murphy's fictional world is the first pope from the western hemisphere, and who is the first pope to take the name "Francesco," in his case after St. Francis of Assisi.
Coincidence? Prescience? Either way, Professor Murphy would have loved to see this day.
I spent some time with Venerable Mom this week, helping her navigate the vagaries of the health care system while she lay in a hospital bed awaiting some tests. Somewhere in our discussions (which, in the parlance of diplomats, were "frank and open") she said that she didn't like what she was paying for her portable oxygen tank.
I've known for many years that Venerable Mom revels in thrift, but I couldn't let her statement pass without comment. "Mom," I said, "first, you don't need to economize; and second, if you do want to reduce expenses, cutting back on your oxygen consumption isn't where to start."
Every now and then I drive by a dam on the Columbia that has a small visitor's center. For the last few years a sign near the dam that points the way to the visitor's center has had below it a smaller sign with the cryptic phrase "Enhanced Security." What this means I have not figured out. Perhaps it's meant to make visitors feel safer, knowing that the operator's security team will be watching out for their safety while they visit. Perhaps the sign is meant to steer prospective terrorists away from this location and to dams without enhanced security.
When I passed by last week I noticed that the security has indeed been enhanced - the visitor's center is closed, keeping out the taxpayers and the terrorists alike. I feel safer already.
As it does almost every year lately, the United States government is bumping up against the debt ceiling. Congress sets the maximum limit on how much debt the federal government can issue. Congress also commands the president to spend more than the government receives; that is, to run a deficit. The administration can finance the deficit either by printing money or by borrowing more money, which increases the national debt. Congress has approved raising the debt ceiling 11 times since 2001.
Within a few months the government will have to print or borrow more money to pay for the spending that Congress has approved. Several Republican representatives are making noises that the nation would be better off if the government shuts down when it hits the debt ceiling than if it borrowed to pay its bills.
Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic representative from New York, found a way in which the government could pay its bills without borrowing more money. Possibly inspired by Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank Note," and after some searching through our laws on coin and currency, he proposed that the Treasury mint a trillion-dollar coin in platinum and deposit it with the Federal Reserve. Why the Treasury? And why platinum?
The Federal Reserve Banks, not under the administration's control, print and issue our currency. The Treasury hasn't issued paper money since 1968 when it gave up printing United States Notes. The Treasury does, however, issue our coins, in denominations and with metal content strictly prescribed by statute. All gold and silver coins, for example, must contain gold or silver that is worth more than the face value of the coin. A $50 gold coin, for example, must contain 1.09 troy ounces of gold. There's no profit to be made in making gold or silver coins.
The Treasury Department may, however, mint platinum coins of any denomination and weight that pleases the Secretary of the Treasury, including, in Mr. Nadler's proposal, a platinum coin with a face value of $1,000,000,000,000.
Republicans in Congress (including Oregon's own Greg Walden) have lined up to oppose the trillion-dollar coin, though it's not clear whether they also oppose the government paying its bills. An administration less charitable than the current one might offer to avoid the debt ceiling cliff by cutting federal spending in those states whose representatives vote against raising the debt ceiling.
Two years ago her doctor told the Aunt of the Left, who was bedridden and gravely ill, that she had only a few days to live. Following her lifelong habit of questioning authority, the Aunt of the Left told her doctor that his schedule wouldn't work for her at all, as she needed to live long enough to see President Obama be re-elected.
At the time I didn't know how strongly the A. of the L. felt about President Obama, but I do now: she told me this story, quite cheerfully, a few weeks ago as we sat at her table sharing a pot of tea. She's planning to be up and about on January 21 to watch the televised inauguration ceremonies. I didn't think to ask her if she's changed doctors.