Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Prop 13: California's Mother-in-law

July 4th, 1979, I learned that Proposition 13 was evil. From our balcony in Echo Park, we had always watched the various municipal fireworks displays put on by Parks and Recreation and other public entities. It was a heck of a show; we would get our own "safe & sane" sparklers and snakes, and maybe even a fountain, but the real show was after the lights went down, on the public dime.

But that year was different. I was very eager for the shows to start, but my parents cautioned me to temper my five-year-old enthusiasm, because "Since Proposition 13," there would not be nearly as many shows.

They were right. We saw a few poofs of color, dimmed by smog, from the Coliseum and a couple other large venues... but very little else. I shook my head around and pretended that the afterimages of the city lights were fireworks. I also plotted the demise of "Proposition 13."

Nowadays, things have changed. The smog is barely a fraction of what it was, thanks to smog checks, CAFE standards, and a dramatic reduction in industrial activity. And the fireworks are better than ever, thanks to the Internet and a still-porous southern border. With the money saved on property taxes, thousands of Angelenos are able to buy professional-quality fireworks to set off from their backyards. Meanwhile, we spend far more on Independence Day overtime for cops and firefighters than we used to before Prop 13, and we have less money to do it with.

But the truth is, Proposition 13 solved a real and pressing problem. The real estate market is quite a bit more volatile than other markets; before Prop 13, your assessed value could go up tens of thousands of dollars in a single year, raising your tax bill by several hundred dollars. Let's remember, it was 1978, and hundreds of dollars was worth more than three times as much. The fact is, in just a couple of years, a neighborhood becoming suddenly fashionable could push a family out of a home they'd owned for 10 years, just because they could no longer afford the tax bill. Looking at it with today's prices, I sold a house in Echo Park in 2001 for $238k. That same house, at the market peak in 2006 or so, would have sold for probably $650k. Without Prop 13, the property taxes would have gone up by $12,000 in five years. That's unsustainable for most households, and prevents strong communities from persisting.

But it went too far... way, WAY too far. Here's a chart to help explain:
Citation: me. I did this for my term paper in Urban Planning 253 ("Sprawl"). That's why it only goes to 2000; I did this in 2005, and that was the latest data I could get. Someday, I'll update it.

It still illustrates the issue. The line shows the real value (inflation-adjusted value) of property assessments by year of tenure as a percentage of inflation-adjusted purchase value. Basically, every year, inflation pushes prices higher and the value of the dollar lower (those are really equivalent statements), which means that even if your neighborhood is static, your house will be worth a greater number of dollars. However, the limitation that Prop 13 put on how fast your assessed value (the value used to calculate your taxes) could rise meant that assessed value couldn't keep up with real dollar value... in other words, when adjusted for inflation, your assessed value got lower every year. Based on inflation rates (which were very high in the late 1970s - early 1980s, but were very low by the end of the 1990s), the assessed value of a house bought in 1978 would be just barely over half as much as the number you would get if you put the original purchase price into an inflation calculator. This isn't looking at market value in any way... just the extent to which inflation outpaced the maximum 2% increase instituted by Prop 13.

The color coding has to do with what proportion of the housing stock, as of the 2000 census, had been purchased in that year (or before, in the case of 1978). As you can see, a quarter of houses fell into the bottom category, with assessments that were 60% or less of what the owner originally paid for the house. (The selected break points between tenure categories were selected based on large changes in inflation rates, if I recall correctly.)

So here's the problem in a nutshell: Prop 13 totally destroyed our ability to maintain infrastructure, sponsor first-class education, or even give people fireworks displays so they wouldn't have to make their own. But at the same time, it did create one important positive change: it let families plan their expenses when they bought a house, and know that, barring catastrophe, they should be able to continue to live there. Just as many people find their mother-in-law reorganizes the cabinets all wrong, teaches their children things they don't want them to learn, and makes them feel ungraceful or unbeautiful or otherwise unworthy... but she did create someone worth loving and marrying, which balances for a lot of ills.

I hate Prop 13, but we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It needs to be fixed, not abolished. But this post is too long already, so you'll just have to wait with bated breath to find out my glorious plan for doing so. (Then I have to somehow get Jerry Brown and the entire California Legislature to read my blog.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not MY fantasy

Like approximately 11,999,999 other people on this planet, I play World of Warcraft. At least, I have before, and almost certainly will again, though my account is currently inactive. I've never been a hardcore player... the game wasn't released until after my first child was born, so I've never spent 13 hours straight raiding like I did in my EverQuest days. But I have a max level main and a level 70 alt, plus a couple other fairly high-level characters. I mostly play with my husband, though that's more a matter of convenience than anything else; when a child may have an emergency at any moment, it's good to have someone around to auto-follow.

So we decided to go to Blizzcon this year. Friends were going, and it seemed like a good idea. It may even have been one, but that's not what I'm writing about here. Those who know of Blizzcon, have been before, or follow it at all, may have heard this year's wasn't as good as prior years. I have no idea; this was my first one. I privately refer to it as Glitzcon. It was very shiny, but not particularly useful. I may get sucked into Diablo III. But I digress.

During the WoW open Q&A, a female human asked something very much like: "I really love that the game contains all these strong female characters, and I'm glad that you've included women who are clearly leaders. I was just wondering, is it possible that in Cataclysm [the upcoming expansion], there may be some that don't look like they just stepped out of a Victoria's Secret catalog?"

First crowd reaction: cheers. Those voices were female. Secondary reaction: boos. Much louder, as those were the male voices... which made up roughly 75% of the audience. One guy nearby shouted, "Hey, it's FANTASY!"

Which is the justification: don't take it hard, honey, because this is fantasy. And it is. And frankly, I'm not so bothered by the laws-of-physics-defying bustiers and long belts in place of skirts.

What bothers me is that the guys are all fully dressed.

And this is about something bigger than a game, or even a genre of games. Feminism has long placed undue emphasis on the way women are perceived, represented, and portrayed. But the problem isn't how women are dressed or scripted... it is the difference between how women and men are displayed.

In your next journey through World of Warcraft or a similar game, look around you. See how many glistening biceps and totally cut pecs you see on display. Count the briefs, loincloths, and cut-offs sported by unrealistically beautiful manly men. Inventory the six packs, the open vests, the torn shirts.

You'll only need one hand, I bet.

And why is it like that? Well, here's a guess: it may have something to do with the demographics of the folks making the game. Of the five lead artists, designers, coders, etc. on stage, five were men. And they know what men want: to know that their sexuality is unquestioned. They do NOT want to be confronted with sexy male figures when they're trying to relax! That's gay, or something.

So why is it expected that women should be comfortable with the same thing? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (Which apparently means that if we kill you, pluck you, chop off your head and feet, and cook you, no one cares whether you're male or female, just how you taste with gravy.)

Last I heard, nearly half of WoW players are female. As half of people are female, this suggests there may be some untapped market out there. It may be time for the designers to break themselves out of the tautology of [most players are male] ∴ [all eye candy is female] ∴ [most players are male].

And while we're at it, maybe the guys who like to suggest that women are being overly sensitive when they point out these disparities can take a good, hard look at a Google Image Search of construction worker shirtless and see just how comfortable they would be with the shoe on the other foot. I think we've been awfully patient. (Update: or just take a gander at the artwork here.)

/em hopes the Blizzard team doesn't decide to initiate equity with the Goblin race.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The World is Small, and Strangely Shaped

It's not so much that it's a small world, but that it seems to fold in on itself in some places.

Today in my facebook feed, an acquaintance posted that she had lost a dear friend. Once, we moved in much the same circles, but these days we only have a few friends in common, so I didn't think much on it.

Farther down the feed, someone with whom I share much the same relationship posted something similar. I assumed it was likely the same person, and probably no one I knew... except...

With a creeping sense of dread, I flipped over to IM, and sighed with relief to see a particular friend online... a friend who was a onetime boyfriend of the first mourning acquaintance, and is now the roommate of the second. I told him how very glad I was to know that it wasn't HIM who died.

As I related this story to my husband, as a postscript I said "Yeah, some guy who goes by Burning Dan."

"OMG, They KNOW him?" He exclaimed. Apparently, his death was big news in the entertainment world... his brother played a major supporting role in a little art film called Inception.

And now, I'm sorry my friends are mourning, but I can't help being glad that I didn't really know the guy. I may have met him at a party sometime in the last decade or so, but I don't remember. So then I'm also sad that I can't be part of the collective memory of his life... but then again, he seems to have that covered. Everyone seems to have known him BUT me.