Worse than eminent domain

In the previous post I said that the city’s de facto taking of the “Made in Oregon” sign was “eminent domain by other means.” That’s not quite right. It’s actually worse than that. If the city had taken the sign through eminent domain it would have had to pay Ramsay Signs fair market value for the property, estimated in this Oregonian article at $500,000. Under the new deal Ramsay gets $200,000 to change the sign and a 10 year, 2,000/month contract to maintain it, for a total of just $440,000; with discounting for the present value the actual amount is even less than that. Under eminent domain, Ramsay would have received more money and been free of the sign. With this deal they’re receiving far less and will have to pay for the redesign, electricity, and upkeep for a decade.

For those of you needing a refresher, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects property rights with a clause limiting the power of eminent domain: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” I think the argument that the sign needed to be protected as a public good was dubious, but even if you disagree you should still want the owners to be fairly compensated for the taking. That so many people are glibly applauding the railroading of a private Portland business is very disappointing.

Made in Oregon, stolen by Portland

The saga of Portland’s “historic” Made in Oregon sign is finally at an end. City Commissioner Randy Leonard announced today on his blog:

The sign formerly known as the “White Satin Sugar” sign, the “White Stag” sign, and the “Made in Oregon” sign, is soon to come under the ownership of the City of Portland through a generous donation being made by Ramsay Signs. Before the City takes ownership of the sign, it will be converted to read “Portland Oregon” in the styling of its predecessors, as shown below:

portland_or2

This is a “generous donation” in the same way that protection money paid to the Mafia is money spent on “security services.” If you’ll recall, Ramsay Signs, who owns the neon giant, was no longer being paid by the Made in Oregon chain store advertised in the current design. Ramsay found a willing buyer in the Eugene-based University of Oregon, whose Portland campus lies beneath the sign. The university understandably wanted to change the text to promote the school in exchange for lighting it, all while keeping the basic design intact.

Randy Leonard and the Portland Historic Landmark Commission stepped in to stop the deal, claiming that the current text, which was only changed in 1997 and previously hawked sugar and sports apparel, suddenly qualified as a historic landmark. Specifically the Commission wrote that “The loss of the quirky, historic upper-case ‘E’ and cut-off ‘g’ in the text are not in keeping with the landmark character of the sign,” two typographical oddities this Portlander confesses not to have noticed until they took on such importance despite crossing the Burnside Bridge at least a couple times a week. Connoisseurs of font will presumably be happy to see that the new design retains these quirky letters.

Thus the sign was only “generously donated” to the city after the city violated Ramsay’s property rights by blocking its sale and making it worthless to any private buyer. This is eminent domain by other means. The city gets the sign and Randy Leonard gets the credit. And who will pay to light the sign? The new owners, i.e. us:

The maintenance of the sign, electricity, and the costs of conversion to read “Portland Oregon” will be paid for with revenues from a newly established City-owned parking lot under the Burnside Bridge.

So instead of using these parking funds for city services we’re using them to light a sign that the U of O would have lit for free. Brilliant.

Hat tip to Patrick Emerson, a.k.a. the Oregon Economist. Patrick supports the taking and thanks Leonard specifically, which can be read either as evidence that the sign really is a legitimate public good or that even savvy economists sometimes let their own preferences trump respect for property rights.

Update: Complete details of the deal here.

Update 3/26/10: Patrick has updated to say that he meant his “Thanks Randy” comment to be taken ironically and that he concerns about city ownership of the sign.

“Nice sign ya got there…

… be a real shame if something was ta happen to it.” That, in essence, is what City Commissioner Randy Leonard is saying to the University of Oregon, which wants to change the text on the White Stag sign it currently leases and pays to operate:

Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Nick Fish have co-sponsored an ordinance Leonard introduced late Thursday for City Council discussion next week that would, in essence, take the sign. The city would pay fair market value for the sign, estimated at $500,000. Other costs include maintenance and a lease on the rooftop space.

City ownership would ensure control over what has become a “national signature” for the city and state and part of the cultural fabric of Portland, Leonard said. It’s visible to Interstate 5 travelers and to millions who watch nationally televised Blazer games and other events.

It’s an admittedly aggressive move, but is a last resort, Leonard said. City Attorney Linda Meng said the use of eminent domain is warranted if the taking serves a public purpose.

“It’s not your ordinary condemnation, but the ordinance does a good job explaining what the public purpose is,” she said.

It’s amazing how such thuggish behavior becomes praiseworthy when it’s done by politicians, isn’t it?

My case for allowing the sign to change is here.

Liberty on TV

Cable is one of the things I gave up when I moved to Portland. And since I don’t get decent broadcast reception in my apartment, this means I’ve given up TV entirely. By the time I arrived here there was very little left that I wanted to watch. I lost interest in Meet the Press after Tim Russert’s death, Boston Legal had only a few episodes remaining before cancellation, and aside from Top Chef everything else I watched just served as a distraction while at home. I’m happy to say that I don’t miss it at all.

It’s unlikely that I’ll go back to TV anytime soon. Much of what I want to watch is online already and, if I wanted to watch TV series, Netflix is much cheaper. I miss out on contemporary quality shows like Battlestar Gallactica, but cable competing with Netflix is essentially current television shows competing with all television shows that have come before. Given that I haven’t watched any of the acclaimed series from HBO or Showtime that have come out in the past decade, there’s not much reason for me to pay for cable instead of catching up via DVD.

All of which is a long way of saying that last Friday’s John Stossel and Drew Carey special Bullshit in America is the first show in a while to make me wish I could watch at home. (Or even better, in a room packed with friends in DC — Portland isn’t the kind of city that airs 20/20 in its bars.) Luckily, the show is available on YouTube. The arguments are oversimplified, of course, but they offer a much needed perspective in the mainstream press. Here’s my favorite segment, on federal medical marijuana raids:

President Obama and AG Eric Holder have admirably promised to end raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that are legally recognized by their state governments. However Charles Lynch, featured in the video above, remains a victim of federal prosecution. He will be sentenced to a minimum of 5 years in prison on Monday. If Obama is serious about respecting state law, he will issue a pardon in this senseless case.

The rest of the special and Drew Carey’s Reason.tv videos that inspired it can be viewed here.

Speaking of online videos, my friend Caleb Brown has put together what may be Cato’s best production yet. Here he tells the story of Susette Kelo, whose little pink house was notoriously seized by the city of New London with approval from the Supreme Court. Today the lot where her home once stood remains empty, a testament to government waste and eminent domain abuse.