No Red Side in Congress When It Comes to China

In speaking to small audiences in Chinese Asia where I formerly made business trips, I’d sometimes note that whatever qualms they had about White House policy toward Beijing, they’d best consider where Congress would take things. This was true, for instance, during the early stages of President Trump’s trade war. A distant observer might have thought that Democrats would oppose Trump on that, as on most issues. But that was never the case–rare congressional bipartisanship exists on Communist China: opposed. And this definitely extends to support of beleaguered Taiwan, as Nancy Pelosi’s just concluded visit showed. She received nearly unanimous support on Capitol Hill, as this Axios dispatch indicates. A deep animus toward the one-party state existed even before Xi Jinping’s hardening of relations with the U.S., and is all the more pronounced now. Sober scholars, cautious admirals and practical businesspeople may counsel a measured approach to confronting the rising red power, but in America’s theatrical legislative branch, there is only true blue on this front. Xi and his lieutenants ought to be aware of this, even if they missed my talk.

Borrowers Aren’t Being Bounced from Their Homes

Among the many stopgap subsidies that governments instituted during the pandemic was a freeze on home-loan foreclosures. When the federal barrier was lifted last year (various state measures carried their own expirations) we read and heard much wailing about a wave of mortgage holders who would be cast out onto the streets. Well, the latest data this month (for the first half of 2022) from ATTOM, the go-to source, shows this is not (yet?) occurring. Naturally, there’s a big leap from a year earlier, when the foreclosure limits were still in place, but the totals are less than in early 2020 and considerably below pre-Covid 2019, when the economy was really perking along. So is the crisis still coming? Some outlets keep screaming about it, citing the same data source from earlier in 2022. And yes, the economy is entering more volatile times, with spending pinched by inflation and interest rates rising, but nearly everybody willing to work has a job and unless the bar charts reverse, we’re going to continue to see subdued foreclosure activity. Indeed, that’s what we should expect after a window of exceedingly low mortgage (including re-fi) rates, and an end to many of the subprime lending practices in the housing market that brought on trouble a decade or so ago.  The only holdover from that earlier period, as ATTOM’s release notes, are extraordinarily long stretches to complete foreclosure—a deterrent to new mortgage availability.  The lesson so far seems to be that most people find ways to adapt when markets are allowed to clear and political cushions are removed.

An Ode to the Op-ed Sweetener

Back in the 1980s, when the Wall Street Journal was still exclusively a print product, my little team in the op-ed department formalized the near-daily placement of a short, usually humorous or poignant, article at the bottom of the section. Because of the position on the layer cake, we called those pieces the “tertiary” and gave them an italicized headline. The point was to supply the reader a bit of relief from the weighty and sometimes denunciatory material above. We often selected over-the-transom submissions, slices of American life with wry or true observations on the human condition. We found and favored some wonderful writers, including Joe Queenan, back when he still did $250 piecework. I am reminded of this when, in the WSJ’s mix, I still read such regular tertiaries–the one today is about an old-school plumber. (The Journal’s letters section also plucks such gems.) Especially in these times, benign treatment of our challenges and compatriots has a place amid all the moral lectures. Too many of the opinion sites or sections seem to lack this–the New York Times just christened its latest iteration and I still see little of the light touch. Please, serve a treat with each meal.

Green Living: Cows Are Coming Home

This correspondent at Unherd tries to separate the current Dutch farming protest over nitrogen restrictions from more sweeping global pushback against climate and other environmental strictures. Sure, there’s generally a more localized context to every “global” story. But it’s nonetheless true that what are being presented as planetary urgencies are beginning to impinge on large numbers of people, especially at this time of fuel and food crises in so many lands. The fact is that gains on pollution in the past few decades were greatly made from engineering tweaks that made the vehicles, appliances and industrial processes of modern societies much more efficiently clean and therefore recaptured much of the cost of legislation before it was imposed on the public. Now we are reaching a point when living standards–or at least, chosen ways of life–must bend if green science is to be applied through mandates. This will not just be an American political crucible.

On the Trail of Hamptons Preservation

The year 2022 is triggering public anniversary memories on the East End of Long Island, some of which go back  50 years to significant developments that changed Suffolk County such as the abrupt completion of the Long Island Expressway and the birth of the resource-preservationist outfit known back then as the Group for America’s South Fork. (There’s also a major commercial half-century occasion.) It’s an opportunity as well to review the role that nature-trail enthusiasts have played over that time in securing stretches of that precious landscape—a short world away from the famous Hamptons beach dunes–for public access.

Surely the early 1970s were a watershed time for what had been a largely rural and often sleepy place, its beauty the secret of a precious few. Other periods of ferment followed, but they were staggered by economic cycles. A misconception born of recent boom times is that the Hamptons (and now the North Fork) have been in constant rapid development since those days in the ‘70s. But away from the beachfront, the property market fell into the doldrums multiple times, usually in line with equities or Wall Street bonuses. As late as 1993, New York’s governor was convening a task force for sustainable economic development on the East End.

Arguably, those lulls could have afforded more groundwork for containing the severe growth pangs that afflict the East End today.  But it’s the nature of things that preservation activity responds to each development push. And a common impetus behind such reactions has been the maintaining of riding and hiking trails that were a feature of the South Fork since long before it became a summer (now all-year) escape for the wealthy.

Which brings me to another anniversary in 2022, the 25th of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt (in Bridgehampton). The Friends not only are celebrating their milestone but are rousing opposition to a PSEG utility plan to drill for underground power lines across the greenbelt, amid its most familiar coastal-plain ponds. The  reason for the grid enhancement? More electricity demand in bustling East Hampton.

The Long Pond Greenbelt is best known for its walking and nature trails, especially along a stretch below Sag Harbor. The support group, whose founding goes back to one of the Hamptons’ great wealth spurts in the late 1990s, commemorates what took years of ad hoc efforts to assemble. These acquisitions largely preceded the creation of the East End’s Community Preservation Fund (CPF), a tax-derived kitty for buying up land from development nowadays. It helped, in piecing together the greenbelt, that an abandoned trunk line of the Long Island Rail Road, which used to connect Bridgehampton to Sag Harbor, is a spine for the northern stretch. But the 1,100-acre greenbelt actually extends well south of its namesake to Poxabogue Pond, where earlier conservation moves were needed to ward off housing in favor of county parkland, and to Sagg Swamp, a Nature Conservancy protectorate since the 1970s.  Sagg Pond, at 92 acres, stretches below this point nearly to the Atlantic Ocean.

In nearly all of this belt, walking is the only active use. (On the water, there’s a bit of fishing and kayaking.) This is also the case for most of the preserved public land to the west and east of the LongPond Greenbelt, in the towns of Southampton and East Hampton. Look at planning maps, and a surprisingly vast amount of the South Fork is green—as in, restricted from development. Not surprisingly, you can connect the existence of this green to two organizations, the Trails Preservation Societies of the two towns. 

In both cases, it was horseback riding along the old backwoods paths that got the movements started.  That’s because, with private residences beginning to create a land grid a half century ago, it was the longer pokes of the riders that felt hemmed in first. Lee Dion, the founding trails president in East Hampton, told me in correspondence earlier this year that “when I first came to EH in 1965, I could ride my horse 25 miles throughout the Northwest area [of town] without the need to ride alongside of a paved road. I needed to cross over some, but it never was necessary to ride alongside. That quickly changed. Most of the land was in private ownership and development became serious. By the late ‘70s you could barely go a mile without the need to ride alongside a road.” And dirt paths were being paved for new homes.

Dion’s new group, formed in 1980, worked with George Sid Miller Jr., a town planning official from an old landowning family, to maintain a lattice of trails stretching for miles into East Hampton’s woods and bayfront. Meanwhile, to the west, Dai Dayton, a horsewoman from another pioneer clan, was similarly staking public claim to pathways deep into Southampton town’s woods. She recalls a first official success in the stretch between Sagaponack and Sag Harbor, as it began to be built out in the mid-1980s. Dayton, who is president of the Long Pond Greenbelt Friends, remains active as well with the Southampton Trails Preservation group (disclosure: I recently became its treasurer).

Horses are still found occasionally on some trails, but they’re not an easy ride in today’s suburbanized Hamptons. So two legs are now the usual mode of giddy-up, with bicycles sometimes used, legally or otherwise. (Always-illegal motorized cycles are a more frequent and baleful presence—there is little town policing.)

Aided by a political shift in town toward land preservation in the early 1980s, East Hampton’s trails society by 1985 was sketching out the eastern legs of what would become the Paumanok Path, a walking trail that extends 125 miles from the town of Brookhaven on the west to Montauk Point at the end.  It’s become the crowning achievement of eastern Suffolk County’s nature lobby. (An East Hampton portion of the route was named after George Sid Miller, who died in 1984.) The politics in Southampton were still in flux when the Southampton TPS was formed in 1986, but the town’s controversial approval  of the Red Creek Ridge subdivision west of the Shinnecock Canal in the late 1980s included dedication of a large chunk of open space that the trails group seized on in 1990 to open five miles of Paumanok and other paths.  This area, close to the Peconic Bay Estuary, opens into the vast Long Island Pine Barrens to the west. Both the estuary and the barrens, laced with trails, were major development concerns and the focus of pitched planning battles in the years before 2000.

The trails groups maintain most of the South Fork’s hundreds of miles of pathways out of their own resources, coordinating with the two towns. In some cases they partner with the county or state, or the Nature Conservancy or Peconic Land Trust.  Also in the loop is the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, which dates to 1978. All parties continue to look for additional open-space connections. The CPF tax, which collects at least a hundred million dollars a year from real-estate sales, provides heft that the early organizers could only have dreamed of. But even a funding infusion cannot protect against tree blight, such is occurring along many trails today. The photo above, from a hilly stretch of the Paumanok Path near Southampton’s recycling center (once the town dump), shows the state of many pitch pines.

I should note that there is another active use of much of this now-vast preserved acreage: hunting. It is legal in various forms—primarily for deer and ducks—in the colder-weather months. This happens to be the favored time for many hikers because the virus-ridden ticks are mostly dormant, and there’s an uneasy peace between the two outdoorsy sets. The noise of the kills, and the potential for mishaps or encountering  a bloodied animal carcass, can be a spoiler for some hikers. (The spare fisherman is less of a rub.)  But it must be said that the hunters, unlike most hikers, pony up for usage through licenses.

To summarize, then:  Whenever things have gotten too “hot” in the Hamptons, a countervailing push for preservation has managed to keep much open space for the locals. Volunteer organizations such as trails societies have been vital in maintaining those retreats. No history of the area is complete without their piece of it.

AC/DC as a Fetish

The pursuit of electricity as a climate relief strategy has become rather a fetish on the left, even in quarters where you’d expect more skepticism about any power source. Mainstream media are fully on board. There’s an all-out push in Washington and around the country for subsidizing battery-powered vehicles, even though 1) combustion engines are growing remarkably more fuel efficient and less polluting; 2) batteries have uncertain technology and risks, the kinds that progressive normally worry much about; and 3) their charging has to come from electricity that, for all we know, long will be substantially from burning fossils in many jurisdictions that lack hydro or dreaded nuclear power. (Hydrogen fuel cells are an iffy alternative.) Then there is the push, starting in Berkeley in 2019 and spreading nationwide, to curb “natural” gas hookups in residences. Los Angeles is the focus of this Real Deal story but you see the same in other big metros, including New York. Those of us old enough to remember “All Electric, Gold Medallion” homes from the 1960s, when we thought such power would be too cheap to meter (sorry, nuclear) can feel a dark deja vu. Fossil gas may be “clean” (and great for cooking) but it puts out CO2 for warming we don’t want. Heating oil and propane are similarly marked for extinction–heat pumps (electric, again) are in vogue. Thomas Edison & Co. never had it so good, but I wonder about the rest of us in the near term.

Soon to be Overrun With the Old

When media spotlight “existential crises” they often are referring to some resource whose supply is in peril for future generations. Usually this has some environmental element, such as species depletion or food supply, or any other angle of climate change. But in First World societies there’s a demographic “timebomb” as the baby boomers and successive cohorts reach ages of infirmity even as sustained lower birth-rates now provide no obvious source of personalized elder care. Numerous wonkish studies have charted the problem; today the Wall Street Journal publishes this short humane observation. As long as most adults are no longer disposed to take in doddering parents as a family obligation, we’re left with these eventualities: 1) Innovation, in the form of pharmaceutical treatments for dementia and robotic aids for physical incapacities, might be of some aid; 2) these and other, existing forms of assistance will be most available to households of means–others will have to scramble; 3) governments can tax more to sustain socialized-care systems that are of uneven quality; 4) immigration barriers can be adjusted to admit more service workers who are temperamentally and economically inspired to offer eldercare. Any of these options will lead to rough outcomes that trigger many complaints. But democratic peoples will have to accept some combination of them, as well as lots more episodes such as the op-ed describes.

Hamptons Traffic and the Road Not Taken

My interest in land-use policy 50 years ago on Long Island was piqued when I learned offhand*  of a state highway that was to have been built back then, not far from where our home now sits in Water Mill. How could that have been the case, over a route that today features much larger homes selling in the multimillions of dollars?  What were they thinking in Albany?

That is the reaction of most contemporary Hamptonites when they, too, hear of what was known as the Sunrise Highway extension or bypass. This thoroughfare—it was a limited-access, four-lane road in the state plans—would have extended from where the Sunrise now dumps into County Road 39 in Southampton, all the way east to the beginnings of the hamlet of Amagansett. Various map alternatives were floated, but the most likely 23-mile course was over a wooded moraine that at the time sported only the occasional and modest human habitats. Most structures back then went up closer to coastlines.

Road building was the default mode in the post-World War II days. The state had already taken the Long Island Expressway from New York City to deep into Suffolk County, and in the early 1970s would complete the remaining high-speed pavement to Southampton. The villages of the island’s South Fork, which except for hosting the “summer people” and a few year-round artists had been sleepy hubs for a fishing and farming community, were wary of what greater day traffic from around the metropolitan area could mean. Well into the 1960s, the citizenry and civic groups** were egging the state highway planners on. A bypass around the quaint town centers strips made sense to many locals.

But the consciousness about highways, as about so much else, was changing as the Hamptons began to attract affluent weekenders. The idea of anything that could attract more visitors, especially day trippers into the eastern reaches, was now repellant. Environmentalism was on the rise, and asphalt a villain. Besides, the gathering consensus among planners and other urbanologists was that new roadways never relieved the congestion elsewhere, they just filled up with traffic of their own. Even if a parkway was tucked away scenically (the state would later fall back on a two-lane proposal for the bypass), it simply would invite new development, commercialization and bottlenecks wherever it had exits.

So the Halt the Highway campaign sprang up from the South Fork preservationist circles that were battling other growth buds. (See above a scare ad from the Halloween 1974 edition of the Southampton Press.) The protesters found new Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat with a close ear to East Hampton***, a welcome change from Nelson Rockefeller and the go-go era of New York Republicanism.  Forward movement on the Sunrise stopped in the mid-1970s–a state spending crunch figured in–and the idea was finally killed off early in the following decade. There would be no more major road construction on the East End of Long Island. (A similar fate met plans for an expressway on the North Fork.)

The problem was, however, that development in the Hamptons didn’t stop. Yes, sizable parcels of land were preserved and zoning was changed to limit how many and what kinds of homes were built. But, sure as wealth was being generated in the big city, it would find its way out east. And the newcomers, with their bigger minimum lot sizes, would pour their minor fortunes into grander “estates”: look-alike mansions with lavish landscaping. That ensured an endless trades parade: construction traffic followed by designers and repairmen and more and more gardeners to look after the grounds. On top of it all: today’s delivery and garbage-pickup armada. One traffic expert puts the vehicle increase—in unit terms, forget weight—at 50% over the two recent decades.

In 2020, I hadn’t yet connected the dots when I sat down with Tom Halsey, a longtime agricultural and civic leader in Southampton.  Halsey held positions in the ‘70s and ‘80s that put him in the middle of contentious development approvals. Although partial to the traditional South Fork, he honored property rights (including those of fellow farmers who chose to sell off their lands) and was sometimes at odds with the new crowd’s ways to freeze-frame their adopted retreat. In conversation, he didn’t want to fight old battles but still had one bone to pick:  the bypass highway. He regretted its demise, blaming a movement that stoked any fear including, he noted ruefully, “that it would destroy the habitat of the white-tailed deer.” (The creatures were not then the common scourge of home gardens, as they numerously are now.)

Halsey’s view, though once mainstream, was one I hadn’t heard voiced in these times. After the 1970s and especially the Hamptons rush of the roaring 1980s, when so many crude development plays were afoot that land-preservationists were frantic to stop whatever they could, the narrative shifted for good. Anything not disturbed became a victory for the good Hamptons way of life. (This ground is now shifting on the matter of affordable housing.)

Back then, the highway debate was mostly centered around the seasonal visitor jams, and if it had just been that, maybe a dozen weeks a year, maybe there was no need to plow through thousands of acres of countryside. But what happened in the Hamptons as new wealth met “living large” changed the picture. Especially after the mass introduction of GPS vehicle software, the engorged and nearly year-round traffic has found bypasses of its own, on the winding two-lane back roads that snake their way west and east. Pounding and often speeding commercial vehicles—along with plenty of entitled elite in their luxury SUVs—shoot past countless home driveways. Dreading not only the noise but the danger to any living thing that occupies the road, neighbors conjure various pleading signs and in rare circumstances get official restrictions to forestall the onslaught. But they haven’t succeeded as an overall political force.

Of course, we don’t know that a bypass could have been laid without incentivizing even more cubic footage nearby than what we have now. Certainly a speedier corridor to the easternmost stretches would have added to pressures there. What were to become greenbelts and hiking trails would have been affected. But the towns have had the same zoning powers all along, if they cared to use them. In containing  the current traffic menace, these levers are now inadequate.

Probably this was fated, because as Tom Halsey said to me, “it was the most ridiculous argument, that if you don’t build roads the people won’t come.” They did come, and are still coming as long as they have a spare million or two to spend on remaining buildable lots. And they are bringing all their paid helpers with them. They are finding their ways through Southampton to East Hampton town, extending out to Amagansett and Montauk. If some kind of thruway was in, akin to the truck route that is used on the North Fork, most would use that and not residential streets like mine. The protective impulse of 50 years ago just bought us more trouble today.

                                                                                                                                    –June 21, 2022

*This came in a lunch chat a few years ago with Donald Louchheim, who these days is stepping down as longtime mayor of Sagaponack Village but previously was owner of the Southampton Press and a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. I came to him for journalism tales but when I inquired about issues he confronted after acquiring the Press, he mentioned the highway controversy, and I was all ears. The period is not much covered in local reference works.

**For examples, the ladies auxiliaries of both East Hampton and Southampton villages; longtime New York City planner Goodhue Livingston Jr., a summer resident (his father was the architect of Southampton Hospital); the East Hampton town board (which in its 1965 endorsement thought the road was “possible in four years if all goes well”), and even, through the 1960s, the East Hampton Star newspaper—soon to be an ardent foe of development—which in 1969 editorialized that a bypass “now seems a safe bet” within the next decade.

***Between stretches as East Hampton town supervisor in the 1970s and ‘80s, Judith Hope served as a Carey aide. She would marry lawyer Tom Twomey, a Halt the Highway leader.

FTC Has Fetched a New Stick

The action in this latest Wall Street Journal story on the now-progressive Federal Trade Commission concerns veterinarians, but it is not a mere dog and pony show. It reflects a concerted push to rein in the nation’s private-equity firms, particularly those involved in mergers or “roll-ups” of businesses in the same type of enterprise. The FTC historically has focused on what were seen as threats to competition that could harm consumers—monopolies, for example. The new bent incorporates a wider net that may in fact give second fiddle to consumer welfare.  Here’s why: The dirty secret of many deals by private-equity, which likes to tout its role in funding enterprise growth, is that they’re designed to bleed out costs. Sometimes this is done by effectively combining operations and lowering the overhead.  In the process, however, some employees can be made worse off, including through job loss. Arguably there are additional social costs. The new mindset at the Democrat-dominated FTC sees these other factors as part of its mandate as well. So, if a combination might result in better dollar value for consumers—even after the private-equity owners take their cut–it could be nixed by the agency.  Without knowing in this case whether the animals or customers in California and Texas would be helped or not, or determining whether big private equity amounts to modern trusts that need busting, this is a bracing development:  Appointed but independent rule-makers in Washington have sweeping added reach into how American business transacts.

Sociology’s Un-economic Impulse

In the agitated state of modern societies, a rebellion against “neo-liberalism” heralds some preferred order, usually a form of ostensibly democratic socialism. Inherent in this movement is a rejection of economics, which is the study of allocating scarce resources. This is a startling proposition, coming off a generation or two in which economics has been a dominant form of popular analysis and in fact the favorite choice of major at even many of our woke universities. It was addressed last month in an article in the New Yorker by Idrees Kahloon, who is fittingly the Washington correspondent of the news publication called The Economist. Kahloon takes off on a new book from Princeton University Press attacking the concept of economics in policymaking–naturally authored by a sociologist. The academic doesn’t like the idea of efficiency being a guide to establishing laws or fiscal practice. And, in fact, this belief underlies much of social-values bent of the modern left. In this mindset, various aims–equity foremost, but also unity, stability, status-protection, security, even “happiness”–trump the economist’s ideal of welfare optimality. As Kahloon writes, however, many economists have liberal or even egalitarian values at the heart of their models, the tools of their trade being just a way of best achieving those aims. I would go further, and say that without a measure of how and whether a government is carrying out its objectives, its enactments are capricious and authoritarian. Fair to say this dividing line is roughly between the economics and sociology departments.