Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taiwanese Food Policy

Recently food policy seems to be a big issue in Taiwan, at least judging by how frequently the Taipei Times mentions it. A common assumption is that Taiwan should aim to be self-sufficient in food production. Michael Turton offers a more concrete reason than any Taipei Times article:
Increasing grain production is an urgent necessity since rising petroleum prices over the long term gravely threaten Taiwan's food security. In 2008 when oil hit $120 a barrel Taiwan stopped importing sweet corn from the US and sourced it from China. Since China is also a food deficit country, this is obviously not sustainable. Long-term projections for climate change show that the grain regions of the central and western US are going to suffering from permanent drought by mid century (for example) and Taiwan can expect further declines in rain. Preparation now is urgently necessary.

My question is: why so urgent? Why can we not let fields lie fallow until it is necessary to increase Taiwan's food supply again? Farming is an environmentally damaging enterprise, consuming 70% of Taiwan's water and huge tracts of land that could otherwise be left to nature, and gives off CO2 to boot. Increasing food production now is solving one potential problem- a problem that may, hopefully, never come to pass- by exacerbating already-existing problems, namely water shortages, global warming and the erosion of natural ecologies.
It seems to me that modern economic policy is obsessed with boosting consumption in order to boost production. The problem with that is that ever-increasing consumption eats up an ever-larger share of the planet's limited resources. This approach combines the worst of capitalism and socialism. A capitalist solution would be to let prices increase so people consume less and farmers produce more, and both groups waste less. Some form of welfare could be used to guarantee enough food for the poor. A socialist/ communist response would be to ration food, so that all people are given the same amount of food regardless of income. Keep in mind that reducing consumption does not mean starving people; it means people eat foods that themselves don't eat up as many resources, for example less meat and more vegetables.
Any thoughts? Am I missing some facts, or using faulty logic?

Friday, May 13, 2011

MRT expansion news: Circular Line

Some MRT-expansion related news: Taipei’s Dept. of Rapid Transit Systems has told the Taipei City Council that the southern section of the circular MRT line will be completed at 2021 at the very earliest, despite having begun planning in 1992. This line would extend the orbital line (which is already under construction and passes through Xinzhuang, Banqiao, Zhonghe and Xindian) from Dapinglin east through Muzha to NCCU, and will link up with the Wen-Hu line at the Taipei Zoo station. Its construction has not yet been approved because DoRTS doesn’t feel it will cover enough of its own costs, and wants to do more to develop the land around future stations.
I feel this is a reasonable strategy on the part of DoRTS. If a heavy rail line fails to attract enough ridership to pay for itself, it could probably be replaced by another, lower-capacity form of mass transit, such as BRT or light rail. A government’s resources will always be limited, no matter how high you raise taxes, so any service that requires subsidies will drain money from other services. In other words if an MRT line loses money, that’s less money available for education, health care, welfare, and so on. The problem in Taiwan is that the government expects the MRT to be profitable, as it should, but then subsidizes driving by providing free parking, by using general funds instead of a gas tax to build roads, and by not making drivers pay for the pollution and noise they create. If these subsidies were steadily removed as mass transit services were expanded, you would probably have enough demand to build comprehensive mass transit in all of Taiwan’s cities while at the same time reducing the government’s spending, decreasing pollution and making Taiwan an altogether more pleasant place to live.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Solving a Problem that May Not Exist

I'm a sceptic about the dangers of population decline. The benefits seem obvious: the world has limited resources, a lower population can make these resources go further. After all the world's population can't expand indefinitely. The supposed dangers on the other hand seem unconvincing. For example, many people worry that an increase in the proportion of the population that is elderly will strain government budgets. True, but children also consume more wealth than they create, so the money people and the government spent on children can be diverted to caring for the elderly.
Which brings me to this. I think it's a poor article, because the author doesn't really establish a clear link between the problems he describes (low birth rates, brain drain) and his solution (allowing Chinese students to come to Taiwan). But I'll ignore that issue and pretend the author made a more common, cogent argument, namely that Taiwan's schools need students or they will be forced to close. The problem with this is that Taiwan's schools are government-subsidized- even private colleges. Closing schools will free up money that can be used to help the elderly. Allowing Chinese students in is basically spending Taiwan's limited public resources on Chinese students (unless their tuition covers the full costs of their education here). The author argues that allowing Chinese students into Taiwan will make them more friendly to Taiwan, but only offers one example. To me it is far from clear that the supposed benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Taiwan arguably has too many colleges as it is- Taiwanese people often comment on how easy it is to get a degree these days, since there's so many colleges that anyone can get into one. That may sound nice, but not everyone needs to go to college, and in a world of limited resources not everyone should be granted a subsidized college education. A final issue many people bring up is teachers- what will they do if they don't have students? One solution is smaller classes. Another is retraining to care for the elderly.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Who Should Build Taiwan's Subways?

Some politicians in Taichung and Xinbei are upset that construction of MRTs in those cities is managed by Taipei's Department of Rapid Transit Systems. Taichung's government has so little involvement with rapid transit construction that Jason Hu didn't even know the completion date had been pushed back two years (to 2017), or that its cost rose over 10 billion NT dollars. Yu Tian, a national legislator from Xinbei (I think DPP), also complained that Taipei's MRT is too "Taipei-centric". "It only takes 20 minutes to take a taxi from Banqiao to Sanchong, but to do the same trip by MRT you have to change lines twice", to paraphrase his complaint. They feel rapid transit construction should be handed over to the central government, possibly the TRA.
There's a good case to be made for central control, given that Taipei's MRT already crosses county borders and Taichung's and Kaohsiung's may do the same in the future. The fact that Hu didn't know even basic information about Taichung's MRT also suggests reform is needed, though I don't see how central control would necessarily increase local involvement. Yu's complaints however ring hollow: of course Taipei is the center of the MRT network, because that's the economic center of the region. Even if it wasn't, it lies at the center of the Taipei Basin, surrounded on all sides by Xinbei, so the shortest paths between many parts of Xinbei (e.g., Xindian and
Luzhou, Xizhi and anywhere else) lie through central Taipei. It is hard to believe that there's as much demand for a rapid transit line between each of Xinbei's districts- and by the way, Taipei is constructing one anyway. That's not to say that they shouldn't build, just that it makes sense that it has been a lower priority than lines connecting Xinbei to central Taipei and Xinyi.
To be fair it is true that Taipei gets an unfair portion of Taiwan's resources. A better way to resolve this problem though would be to integrate Taipei and Xinbei, instead of perpetuating a political division that obscures the two cities' interdependence.

Peds vs. Scooters

The Taipei Times reports that DPP city councilors are upset that the city government isn't making up for scooter parking lost to expanding sidewalks for pedestrians. One city councilor claims to support improving the pedestrian environment while still criticizing the reduction in parking space. While superficially reasonable, the councilor's position is as contradictory as saying you support peace but wouldn't mind bombing Iraq.
This is because space is a limited resource, and its use is zero-sum. Sure the city could build off-street parking lots, but any space used for parking lots is space not used for apartments, stores, and offices-- in other words, off-street parking lots will increase rents because the supply of space available for non-parking uses will decrease. The DPP councilors further argue that parking is a "right", but I see no reason why that should be so, especially since it negatively effects the
lives of Taipei's many non-drivers, including poor people who would be able to move just a little closer to Taipei's city center if more space was given to apartments. More space devoted to parking will also lessen sprawl, since there will be less need for people and businesses to locate further from Taipei's center.
Furthermore, the areas where illegally parked scooters are being ticketed are all close to MRT stations and innumerable bus lines, and will only become more accessible as the MRT opens several major extensions over the next five years. Many of the people driving scooters into these areas could probably just as well take public transit for at least the last leg of their journey. In fact reducing parking as public transit expands is exactly what Taipei should do: new public transit lines makes public transport more convenient for a large number of drivers, and will replace the transportation capacity lost with the reduction of parking places.
Finally, reducing parking is better for the environment and public health. Providing free parking subsidizes
driving, since one of the major costs of driving is space for storing vehicles. If you provide free parking it will become more cost-effective for some people to drive, which will in turn increase air pollution- oh, and quicken global warming. Providing more space for walking (and biking!) makes walking and biking safer and more pleasant, which in turn makes both more appealing to more people. While it might seem that walking can't replace scooters, walking is a necessary complement to public transit- you have to walk to stations before you can get on the bus or train.
I look forward to seeing widened sidewalks not blocked by scooters. Hopefully someday they'll get to Shida Road, and I won't have to be forced into the street and worry about the 74 slamming into my back when I return home on weekend evenings.