Friday, December 31, 2010

Bigger than we think

It may have been Robert Nelson who wrote that private communities are where most Americans want more governance. This makes sense. Most Americans have most of their wealth tied up in their home. And there are all sorts of commons problems associated with neighborhood quality and neighborhood change. Hence the demand for rules. The rules amount to rights vs. protections trade offs that the market for homes in private communities is supposed to vet.

But the new layer of governance brings on a new layer of politics, which is never simple. Add to that the wave of foreclosures. And add to that a very slow foreclosure process. "You can get away with living for free for two years ..." The quote is from this WSJ piece re the extra difficulties at a Florida condo association with 15 percent of the owners behind on their association fees. The report describes all of the neighbor-vs-neighbor acrimony that results. The housing mess is bigger than we think.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No unmixed blessings

Maps that plot obesity levels by state circulate occasionally. Here is one that suggests it is the "red" states or even the more rural states that have the biggest problem.

Other investigators have been loooking for ways to link "urban sprawl" to levels of obesity. Here is a prominent example.

But the democratization of luxury has been widely noted, as has obesity among poorer Americans. Gorging oneself was once a sign of wealth proudly displayed. Bill Bryson offers detailed descriptions of the meals consumed by wealthy Victorians.

So what do we know? Wealth does not guarantee happiness -- but it beats being poor. Affluence does not guarantee long life or a slim and healthy appearance -- but it beats hunger. Who ever expected unmixed blessings?


I just found this.

Friday, December 24, 2010


"I gave at the office," was the punchline to many old jokes. It alluded to a quick way to respond to all of the "asks" that come our way, especially at holiday time.

But Arthur Brooks' research suggests that it may have a new meaning. Surveys show that the most outspoken redistributionists tend to be the stingiest when it comes to their own charitable giving. They do their "giving" via the taxes that they work hard to levy on the general population.

Brooks mentions all this in an op-ed in today's WSJ:
The most recent year that a large, nonpartisan survey asked people about both redistributive beliefs and charitable giving was 1996. That year, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to nonreligious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education.
There are surely generous and well-meaning people among all political and philosophical persuasions, but if you had to make a random draw you would get a more giving person from the group that is less likely to compel others to do the giving.

Arnold Kling has suggested using public moneys to prompt matches. There would be less "giving" via coercion and a greater opportunity for those with strong preferences for various causes to put their money where their mouth is. I can think of a few government programs that I would love to contribute less to.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Sunday's post re "A Physicist Solves the City", I emphasized the parts that I liked (re Jane Jacobs complexity). But there are now about a half-million links to the article and some objections to this:

After two years of analysis, West and Bettencourt discovered that all of these urban variables could be described by a few exquisitely simple equations. For example, if they know the population of a metropolitan area in a given country, they can estimate, with approximately 85 percent accuracy, its average income and the dimensions of its sewer system. These are the laws, they say, that automatically emerge whenever people “agglomerate,” cramming themselves into apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn’t matter if the place is Manhattan or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same.
Yes, that kind of thing is jarring (and is hard to square with Jacobs complexity). I come back to this piece because I have just refereed a paper re urban densities which elaborates the importance of distinguishing between daytime and night time densities. The authors use population and employment densities (for areas in a major city abroad) to illustrate.

That's a fair point and I always worry that the areas chosen for analysis are small enough to be meaningful. Consider that average citywide densities for the top-ten U.S. cities in 2000 varied from 26,401 pop. per square mile (New York) to 2,808 (San Antonio).

But we can get smaller-area data (as in 100 PUMS areas for the Los Angeles metro area). We can then create population density deciles. The densest LA PUMAs had an average population density of 26,738 and an employment density of 9,425. The correlation among the densities of the PUMAs in the decile was 0.95. Areas that housed 10 percent of the population provided 9% of the region's jobs.

The next decile of densest population housed another 9% of the region's jobs. In fact, each of the ten population deciles housed near 10% of the region's jobs (the range was 8.6% to 11.1%). To be sure, the correlations between the densities within each decile varied considerably, from 0.06 to 0.98.

What does it mean? Within and between neighborhoods there is glorious Jacobs complexity. It is way beyond anyone's ability to predict with 85% accuracy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

New toy

Google's Ngram Viewer is the toy of the week. My first try came up this way.

"Urban sprawl" was trumped by "global warming" which was overtaken by "climate change" in the early 1990s. "Sustainability" beat both but could not keep up with "sustainable".

But where will they go? What's next? Ngram futures markets?


Here are five ways that have been used to describe cities and urban life.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Solving" the cities

The NY Times Magazine's "A Physicist Solves the City" ends on this high note: "Cities can't be managed, and that's what keeps them so vibrant. They're just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It's the freedom of the city that keeps it alive."

Earlier in the piece (by Jonah Lehrer and citing the work of Geoffrey West), Jane Jacobs' insights are approvingly noted, as is West's description of life at his Santa Fe Institute, where smart folks are encouraged to seek "chance encounters."

Yes, it is all about the exchange of ideas (within and among our brains) and letting it all happen. As at the Santa Fe Institute, this means that we must find a way to stand back and let people find each other. But this is the hard part that is not addressed.

Instead the piece cites Pres Obama's White House Office of Urban Affairs and it's mission to develop a "policy agenda for urban America." Guess where that one will end up?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tough hurdle

"Balance" and "imbalance" usually have no clear meaning, but are widely used. The same applies to "over" or "under" anything, as in "overcrowded", "overpopulated", etc. This is more rhetoric than anything else. The same applies to assertions of "too much choice" or "too many varieties".

This week's Economist includes "The tyranny of choice: You choose" which re-hashes research re the psychic costs of too many choices. "The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items ... more than five times the number in 1975.

What is the proper number? Now one knows. Inventory size and composition (on the shelf) or in the warehouse are some of the toughest problems retailers face. So the proper number of anything can only be found via (drum roll) market competition. The Economist's coverage manages to include this:
Many of these options have improved life immeasurably in the rich world, and to a lesser extent in poorer parts. They are testimony to human ingenuity and innovation. Free choice is the basis on which markets work, driving competition and generating economic growth. It is the cornerstone of liberal democracy. The 20th century bears the scars of too many failed experiments in which people had no choice. But amid all the dizzying possibilities, a nagging question lurks: is so much extra choice unambiguously a good thing?
But "unambiguously a good thing" takes in very little of the known (modern) world.

Just in time for the holidays

I never knew about the Danish idea that soaking both feet in vodka can cause drunkeness. Scientists have now debunked this approach to merriment. Here is the LA Times' coverage --along with other science updates.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Energy efficiency" again

David Owen writes about "The Efficiency Dilemma: What's the best way to use less energy?" (only abstract is not gated) in the current New Yorker. He notes that Stanley Jevons figured out many years ago that commodity-specific "efficiency" gains result in lower prices which prompt increased consumption. Many people simply call it the Law of Demand.

This suggests once more that "energy efficiency" is a dumb idea. It may make sense to engineers and even have some intuitive appeal, but all resources are scarce and markets are there to mediate the uncountable trade-offs that are prompted. Sounds simple, but it isn't.

There are enough problems when we discuss plain old efficiency (as in Pareto), but it gets crazy when we focus on efficiency with respect to just one commodity.

As long as we are unable or unwilling to price a commodity with substantial unpriced attributes, we will face the conundrum. But the climate change discussion involves a global commons. Serious global agreements re carbon taxes or cap-and-trade are unlikely. Local efforts (by individual states or cities) are mainly feel-good and (as Jevons reminded his readers) not likely to amount to anything.

The Owen piece is worth reading because he recounts how much extra energy his family has consumed over the years in the way of how many refrigerators and air conditioners they acquired over the years -- as energy (and other) prices fell. He also takes a stab at a verbal explanation of the general equilibrium effects.

Put "energy efficiency" into Google scholar and over 400,000 citations pop up. My own small sample showed that most of them take it seriously. "Sex" has only just over four times as many searches (in Google scholar).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Perceived densities?

In the current issue of Access, Eric Eidlin writes about "What Density Doesn't Tell Us About Sprawl."

Urban planners love to talk about density and sprawl. Trouble is that both are hard to define. Eidlin cites recent work on "perceived" density. But this is really a weighted average of densities across a metro area's small spatial units (he likes census tracts).

I have previously blogged about problems with the density idea. Creative people are apparently comfortable in low-density Silicon Valley as well as in high-density Manhattan. How can that be? It is the whole package that matters. I am not sure that the whole package can be assessed via the cited "perceived" density measure, but if analysts insist on looking for simple ways to characterize whole metropolitan areas, then let them. In this case, I worry that calculating the weighted averages of Silicon Valley vs Manhattan densities will not provide much in the way of new insight.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

First stump of a rump system

Plans for high-speed rail are moving in the predictable direction: all pork and no tangible benefits. The Economist has this update which includes Pres Obama's model of travel demand.
“IMAGINE,” Barack Obama instructed Americans last year, “boarding a train in the centre of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be, to rebuild America.”
This has always been the way large bets have been placed with other people's money.

Keynesian stimulus boosters either deny the public choice concern that negative NPV projects will be funded or they do not care as long as funds are spent.

Wendell Cox notes that we will probably end up with a useless rump system. The Corcoran-to-Borden stump will be first at a cost of unknown billions. Even boosters admit to just under $5 billion. Readers are welcome to look up these places and/or find them on a map.

A nearly useless rump rail transit system is what LA got. Pieces have been running for just over 20 years, but ridership is still miniscule and traffic impacts are zero.

The really interesting thing is that very few people know or care.


The Los Angeles MTA has just announced further bus service cutbacks. No reports of shutting down their high-cost rail lines.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Off topic

I rarely blog about movies, but I keep a list of my favorites here.

But Inheritance is special. Synopses and reviews are at the link. Suffice it to say that the documentary depicts the recent meeting between Amon Goeth's (the concentration camp commander portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List) daughter and one of the survivors, who was also a slave/servant in Goeth's household, and who was eventually rescued by Schindler himself.

Both women are unbelievably strong.

I had recently blogged about Bloodlands here. The book takes us through Europe's 20th-century killing fields and is profoundly jarring. The book involves millions and the movie is centered on the meeting of two people (actually three because the survivor brings her adult daughter along). In my view, the book is indispensible. But I now think that the film is too.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Help is on the way

"South LA Still Being Protected Against Fast Food". No, it's not The Onion.

This ordinance invokes land use planning which seemingly can be enlisted for a variety of politically correct efforts. Note that "Mixed-use developments are exempt from the ban." How about organic fast food?

In the imaginations of LA leaders, mixed-use fosters walking and bicycling and even transit use (it would add to density). But would they actually be adding to auto traffic by prompting longer drives for a fast-food fix? Social engineering is very hard work.

There is Nanny State stuff in the news almost every day. You can laugh or cry, but the statists can always line up a litany of grievances to get a majority.

Monday, December 06, 2010


Some years ago, Ray Oldenburg published The Great Good Place and also Celebrating the Third Place. He was celebrating neighborhood hangouts (including general stores, bars. beauty parlors, etc.) where folks meet and entertain each other. Oldenburg was also worrying about the demise of these places.

Urban economists love to celebrate cities as places where ideas are exchanged and spawned. "City lights" are an important element in entrepreneurial discovery and economic development.

What to make of yesterday's NY Times report on "Destination Laptopistan"? The piece mentions entrepreneurial activity, but also notes that local etiquette limits the sort of chat that Oldenburg prized.

The internet changes everything -- we hear. We can retreat to cyberspace to work, to think, to be entertained and even communicate. And we can do this alone or in a public space. Is Laptopistan a Great Good Place? Does it suggest that we are Bowling Alone? Starbucks and many wannabees are great success stories because the founders and backers had sensed that most people do not want to be alone with their laptop. As I so often say, there are many manifestations of "density."

Friday, December 03, 2010

The other unemployment

Unemployment benefits are in the news, but we hear much less about other ways that people find to support themselves when not working. Here is a comparison (from this week's Economist) of various countries re how much they spend on disability, sickness and unemployment benefits. For the U.S., unemployment compensation is far smaller than the other two. There are similar patterns in most of the other countries. The comparisons of proportions allocated to the three programs between countries are a bit misleading because the U.S. has the largest defense budget. As a percent of total spending, we are tied with the UK and Australia (Denmark is close) in spite of our large defense budget.

Here (see Figure 1) are trend data for just the U.S. Unemployment compensation is cyclical, but disability payments are on a long-term upward trend.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What animates U.S. politics?

Here is a nice discussion by William Voegeli re whether class warfare animates U.S. politics. The author says "no". It did not fly in the recent election.

This morning's WSJ includes "In California, a Road to Recovery Stirs Unrest ... State Engineers Sue Over a Highway to Golden Gate Bridge, Protesting Foreign Investors." California's roads are in awful shape and the state's leaders have redirected highway funds to all the wrong projects. What to do? Attract private investors? Attract capital to California that otherwise would not come here? Not exactly.

What does animate politics? My students and I owe a lot to Bruce Yandle because Baptists and Bootleggers nicely illustrates public choice economics. But are either of these interest groups native or foreign? It seemingly makes a big difference.