Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gays, creatives and densities

I found this at Marginal Revolution.  It includes a list of metro areas with the highest concentrations of gay coupples.  It also includes the following comment by Richard Florida:

The densest concentrations of such families are not necessarily in the places where you'd expect to find them. Especially surprising are the metros that don't make the cut -- like San Francisco and New York.
The mantra had been that (1) Gays tend to be prominent among the Creative Class; (2) Creative Class people go to the densest places: and (3) It is sufficient to estimate the densities of where the gays and/or creatives live or work by considering the metro area average density.  At least #2 and #3 are put in doubt by Florida's post.

Gay marriage supporters argued that gays are just like everyone else.  Why not leave it at that?  Why double back and buy into some stereoptype of the extra cool and hip.  And why take the next leap that the extra cool are the extraordinarily creative.  I imagine that some are and some are not. 
Many local governments clamor for a simple and magic formula for revitalization and prosperity.  Florida's approach caters to that.  But we know that knowledge is dispersed and highly specialized and we can guess that creativity is too.  It is much more dispersed than Florida's simple association with gayness suggests.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Some transportation ironies

Here is an LA Times report on parking problems at UCLA.  This is funny (or sad) for several reasons.  First, these were the controversies many (many) years ago when I was there.  Second, same old problem because no one is ready to use market mechanisms.  Third, the report cites UCLA parking expert Prof Michael Dukakis, but the same faculty has a certain Donald Shoup on its team -- who happens to write eloquently about all of the reasons to price parking.  Pricing is not even mentioned in the article.  So nothing changes.  If you do not price ...

Market fundamentals are also valid in Europe.  A recent NY Times includes "Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy."  At least this report mentions "hefty congestion charges" in London and Stockholm.  Absent these, there are the many ways to irk drivers.  Ban cars, narrow some roads, cap the number of parking spaces, etc.

Back home, the roads in the Los Angeles area are abysmal.  And this too is the policy.  Highway funds have been shifted to public transit for years, but there has been no shift towards greater transit use.  The only consequence is a miserable ride. 

In some very poor countries, a miserable ride is the consequence of poverty.  Closer to home, it is the consequence of carefully considered policy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The future of cities?

Here is James Howard Kunstler writing about the future of cities. As readers of this blog can easily see, there is nothing here that I can agree with.  Kunstler sees doomsday and substantial contraction in our future.  We will be retreating to dense small cities in the face of global warming, energy shortages, etc.  You've heard it all before, but here are some of Kunstler's expectations (H/T Planetizen)

But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.
I see our cities getting smaller and denser, with fewer people. Skyscrapers will be obsolete, travel greatly reduced, and the rural edge more distinct. The energy inputs to our economies will decrease a lot, and probably in ways that prove destabilizing. The first manifestations of climate change will be food shortages, one of the reasons I think super slum cities will be short-lived. The growth of urban megaslums in the past one hundred years has been predicated on turning oil into food, and the failure of that equation is aggravating weather-related crop failures around the world. Food shortages will quickly bend the arc of world population growth downward from the poorer margins and inward to the “developed” center—with stark implications for politics and even civil order. The crisis of money is already hampering the operation of cities and will soon critically impede the repair of water systems, paved streets, electric service, and other vital infrastructure. We are heading into a major reset of daily life, a phase of history I call The Long Emergency. Tomorrow will be a lot more like a distant yesteryear in terms of reduced comforts, commerce, and the scale of things.
In sharp contrast, here is a recent report re natural gas finds and "fracking" which has on more than one occasion been referred to as a game-changer.  There have been quite a few positive game-changers in the past and I expect their arrival to accelerate.

So which way?  We know that the resource doomsayers have always been wrong.  But we also know why.  They ignored the ideas of Adam Smith, Joseph Schumpeter, Julian Simon, Paul Romer and many others.  The facts of our improved material well being and the theories to explain it match up very well.  How can anyone ignore all this?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Las Vegas

Auto-oriented development meets the democratization of luxury.  You can call it Las Vegas which simply represents the extreme version.  Both phenomena represent success stories that are dismissed and/or disparaged by the smart set.  And both phenomena are also symbiotic and irrepressible.

The experts, instead look for "smart growth" which challenges both phenomena and criticizes them as "wasteful".  Unable to admit that the critics are deeply offended by the revealed preferences of a vast segment of the middle class, they stoop to rhetoric.  But finding the sweet spot price-and-quality combinations that work in the market place is anything but wasteful.  It is the opposite.  Calling it "waste" is a cheap shot reach for rhetorical advantage.  Its use really signals analytic ineptness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Europeans used to refer to Americans as "peasants with money."  The whole thing speaks volumes.  But the fact that it has become easier for large numbers of people to become wealthy than to become refined also has an upside. 

It is similarly without irony that many critics lament that we have "too many choices."  And who decides how many toothpastes there should be?

It is perhaps inevitable that many Americans have accumulated assets faster than they have learned to manage them.  The currect economic troubles have provided ammunition for the critics.  And that story plays into the hands of those who are reluctant to let individuals manage their own choice of foods, health plans, retirement plans, etc.  Yes, some of us (many of us?) make mistakes, but is the polticization of our lives and wealth a good alternative? 

A third possibility is more and better financial education.  But a recent paper by Lauren E. Willis (linked here), "The Financial Education Fallacy" argues that it's not so simple. The student audience is in a state of "abysmal" financial ignorance.  Financial instruments are complex and constantly changing.  Rules-of-thumb have limited usefulness; personal financial differences are too complex.  Audience-tailored instruction would be very expensive.  And Willis' list goes on and on. 

What to do?  The author leans to better financial regulation.  But that poses as may challenges as the "more and better education" idea.  She even writes, "A society that is unwilling to pay for a K-12 education system that produces a populace that can perform basic math is not goint to pay for one that can do this and more."  That's a bad place to end.  Our education system does not underperform because it is "underfunded." 

I am always amazed by seemingly sophisticated writers who leave no room at all for standard public choice analysis and who fall back on the "more money" fix.

Given the choices, better to have peasants with money than the other kind.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sprawl is good

Here is Nicholas Lemann talking about his New Yorker review of recent books by Richard Florida, Ed Glaeser and Elijah Anderson and John Kasarda.  The audio is not as interesting as the print review.  (Lemann likes to talk about his old days in NYC and the where is various old girlfriends lived.)

To his credit, Lemann steers the interviewer from cities to a more useful conversation of the much larger metropolitan areas.  He describes them this way: "When you fly in at night, it's where the lights start."  I thought that I had coined this one, but it is more likely that many others had the same idea.  But more to the point, Lemann is mainly right (in my view) that there is plenty to think about outside of Manhattan and similar enclaves.

Look at it this way.  There is remarkable stability of the size distribution of U.S. urbanized areas at the top.   These (not the metropolitan areas, which are based on county boundaries) are the ones made up of functional boundaries that are redone every ten years and where the lights really do start as you approach at night.

At demographia, there are population data for these for each of the census years, 1950-2000.  So there are five rank changes possible for each area.  But for the top five urbanized areas, there are only three rank changes over the fifty years (out of a 25 possible); for the next five there are 19 (out of 25 possible).  The biggest places find ways to get bigger.  They build on their agglomeration advantages by growing outward -- and without losing their competitiveness via "sprawling." That's the big news.  Can it be that sprawl is good?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Embarrassment of riches

As both IBM and the Carnegie Foundation turn 100 at about the same time, The Economist has launched this conversation starter:  "Has the multinational business or universal philanthropy done more for society?"   The story cites a recent Robert Barro WSJ op-ed wherein the economics professor corrected Bill Gates who, in explaining his new life in philanthropy, had seemingly not fully appreciated how much his business enterprise had improved the world.  Barro thought that more good might come from Gates not switching from entrepreneur to philanthropist.

The magazine piece wanders all over the place and ends this way:  "The achievements of IBM and the Carnegie Corporation are impossible to quantify mathematically. What seems clear, though, is that as it enters its second century, IBM can plausibly hope that its best years lie ahead. Alas, that seems most unlikely for Carnegie."

But a couple of points are missing.  First, fortunes must first be amassed before they can be given away.  While I would like less poverty in the world, I have no problem with inequality.  The possibility of great riches makes it possible to have the Carnegies as well as the Gates's.  Second, if anyone wants to make a difference in more than one way (as Bill Gates seemingly does), that's his choice and if the prospect animated him to have become the creative entrepreneur in the first place, then so much the bettter.

So it's a conversation starter, but there is simply good news.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Every thing's up to date in Washington city

Reports on dumbing down as revealed by quizzes of the population (or students) are usually horribly depressing.  This one is about abysmal results to a very basic history quiz.

So was the President pandering (he is a politician) or is it even worse when he talked like a Luddite. Many of us scoff at modern-day Luddites.  And President Obama is widely regarded as better educated than many of his peers and predecessors.  But look at this item in today's WSJ:

Blogger Jim Treacher on President Obama's understanding of economics.
Jim Treacher writing at, June 15:

Obama thinks ATMs cause unemployment—No, really, he does! That's not a joke headline. He said it out loud in front of the whole world and everything. On yesterday's "Today Show," Obama told Ann Curry his brilliant theory about why the economy hasn't been doing so well since he became president: "There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate."

That's right, the Smartest President Ever just said innovation is a job-killer. His next step, presumably, will be to demonize the Republicans for making such deep cuts to the Department of Buggy Whips. Hey, why is the President of the United States blaming machines for unemployment . . . on TELEVISION? Doesn't he care about all those out-of-work town criers?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The right thing, but late

In a better world, we would try common sense first.  Here Mark Perry cites up-and-running private inter-city bus service which might be a better deal than much of the proposed high-speed rail.

Right on time, the Los Angeles planners are proposing express bus service along Wilshire Boulevard.  Actually, they are way late.  Many of us began fretting over subway service along Wilshire many years ago.  But that project went forward and has been a huge waste.  Ridership is one-half of what was "projected" and cost "over-runs" mean that $7-billion have been spent -- and counting.

But costs and benefits aside, there is now a 99-cent store at Wilshire and Fairfax, once the top of LA's Miracle Mile.  This was not how it was supposed to work out.  Lavish transit was supposed to create lavish transit-oriented development and all the cool urban stuff that planners dream about.

This post began with an appreciation of express bus better late than never.  Winston Churchill supposedly remarked that 'You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!'  Perhaps he was being kind.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Life beyond Manhattan

Today's NY Times includes "Suburban Hip Is Where It's At ... UBS might like Manhattan. But for all the talk of an urban renaissance, most of the growth is happening beyond the city." 

Yup.  Every ten years we get pretty good data and a reality check.  The story cites Joel Kotkin noting that for the greater-than-one-million-population metros, less than ten percent of 2000-2010 growth had been in the traditional core cities.  The renaissance/revival/regeneration fantasies will have to be placed on hold one more time.

The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that there are more than 100,000 “shopping centers” (including many “Lifestyle Centers”) which account for about 50 percent of all U.S. retail gross leasable area.  Whereas some of the centers are Edge Cities which include many of the functions once associated with downtowns, many others are developed at low densities that are seemingly under the radar (as in Edgeless Cities).  So, rather, than downtown and the ‘burbs, it is an extremely complex arrangement. The many small “centers” are spatially distributed so that the average shopping trip by central city vs. suburban residents in the U.S. were of similar duration, near 15 minutes, no matter where people live (2009 NHTS data).
Yes, there is considerable life outside Manhattan and, yes, shoppers and sellers find ways to co-locate so that they can do business with each other.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Business and state

Here is James Surowiecki's take of Elizabeth Warren's charge as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  But here is Viginia Postrel's account of how policy makers from the same gene pool actually made the rules governing which light bulbs ought to be produced and consumed in the U.S.

Postrel sees waste and crony capitalism verging on corruption.  Surowiecki trusts that Warren and her Bureau will work to the advantage of consumers as well as honest bankers. 

Having just been through a period when it was Washington policy to push debt at people, and having seen where this led, I cannot muster optimism about a new Bureau's ability to stand up to the inevitable Wall Street-Washington double-teaming that will occur. That's the coalition that has brought us to where we are and I do not see it receding.

One would think that Progressive Era thinking was plausible just over 100 years ago, but that we are somewhat less naive these days.  We do a pretty good job separating church and state.  I doubt that we will ever separate business and state.  I understand that Washington hosts ever more lobbyists, no matter which party happens to be in control. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Big problem and big idea

Making poor places less poor is one of the biggest and toughest challenges.  Many smart people have been grappling with the problem for many years.  It is interesting that most of these discussions have said little about the role of cities.  Development economists recognize the importance of organization, but usually do not go the next step and recognize spatial organization.  Once you think about it, it is hard to imagine a plausible model of development that is not also an urban model.  Cities are where ideas incubate.

How do we get new cities that might be auspicious in making poor places less poor?  Paul Romer has recognized that it is all about instiutions and cities.  This is how he has promoted his Charter Cities idea.  Here is a TED talk in which he makes his case.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Here is a report from The Economist on the "Perils of Commuting."  It seems that long commutes increase the chances of divorce. 

And here is a report that compares auto commuting times with transit commuting times from the recent NHTS.  According to these data the average U.S. auto commute in 2009 was just under 23 minutes while the average transit commute was about 53 minutes.

Lavish public subsidies have not succeeded in "getting people out of their cars" but persist like all such policies because, once in place, they have constituencies that politicins find almost impossible to neglect.

But who ever thought of transit policy debated as a "social issue?"

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Gains from trade

I am not the first to suggest that specialization and the gains from trade constitute the most important insight of economics.  And it is beyond depressing that politicians of all stripes and their acolytes either miss the point or purposefully misrepresent it.

I am reading Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 which offers many more grounds for depression.  Most readers already know about the spectacular losses, blunders, cruelties and tragedies of the Great War, but Hochschild's narrative is probably a must-read even to those who have been over this ground before.

Here is the author's report of British-German trade at the height of the slaughter:

More than any previous war, this one depended on huge quantities of industrial products and the raw materials to make them ... Among the more important goods was precision optical equipment ... The British military however was running disastrously short of binoculars. An appeal to the public brought in some 2,000 pairs (including 4 each from the King and Queen), but not the tens of thousands needed ... And so, in mid-1915, just as preparations were getting under way for the big attack at Loos [France], British authorities turned to the world's leading manufacturer of precision optics: Germany ... From London, an agent of the Ministry of Munitions was quietly dispatched to neutral Switzerland to propose a deal. The answer from Germany was prompt and positive, and the outlines of an agreement were sketched out. The German War Office would immediately supply 8,000 to 10,000 each of two types of binoculars, one for infantry and one for artillery officers ... And what did Germany want in return for this astonishing bounty of tools that would better aim British rifles and howitzers at German troops? One treasured commodity, vital for everything from telephone wires to factory machinery to the tires and fan belts of motor vehicles, a commodity unnavailable to Germany because of a tight blockade imposed by the Royal Navy, but abundant in the Allies' African and Asian colonies: rubber ... The rubber, it was agreed, would be delivered to Germany at the Swiss border. During August 1915, the first month of the top-secret devil's bargain, the Germans delivered to the British even more than first agreed to: some 32,000 pairs of binoculars, 20,000 of them the higher-quality types for officers ...

The gains from trade are, of course, a no-brainer.  But listen to all the mercantilists at all levels of government, starting of course in the White House.  In fact, the foolishness is compounded.  We want to make sure that those solar panels and windmills are Made in America. 

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Great question

In this week's New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about U.S. higher education and review's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Prof X (when will X reveal himself?).

Menand tries to make sense of mass-higher education which comes close to sounding like an oxymoron.  Before I read the essay, what did I "know"?  Many high schools graduate students who are terribly underprepared.  Many of these people go on to college because they can.  They are affluent enough to postpone entry into the workforce.  And there is plenty of room for them and often some financial aid (affluence).  In a better world, all of our students would be better motivated and better prepared.

But Menand goes deeper.  "If there is a decline in motivation, it may mean an exceptional phase in the history of American higher education is coming to an end.  That phase began after the Second World War and lasted fifty years.  Large new populations kept entering the system. First there were the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill ... Then came the great expansion of the nineteen-sixties, when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then came co-education ... Finally, in the nineteen-eighties, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification.  These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch ...  College was a gate through which once only the favored could pass.  Suddenly the door was wide open: to vets, to children of Depression-era parents ... to women ... to nonwhites ... to people who came to the U.S. precisely so that their children could go to college.  For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it.  ... They were finally getting a bite at the apple ..." 

Menand then harks back to a question a student asked in class: "Why did we have to buy this book?"  In light of his discussion, he concludes that it's a great question and he hopes we keep getting students who ask it.  I may be wrong about the oxymoron.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


David Levinson points us to this report on pedestrian traffic mishaps.  The report is timely.  There are 47,000 pedestrian deaths in the U.S. each year.  This comparison caught my eye:

"Canada and Australia, both developed countries with a similar infrastructure to the U.S., have pedestrian fatality rates of 1.1 and 0.9 per 100,000, respectively, compared to 1.6 for the U.S."

I walk every day (and I live in LA and I live in a seemingly pedestrian-friendly neighborhood) and it's pretty clear that many motorists have no interest in ceding righ-of-way to pedestrians. It's also apparent that law enforcement when it comes to auto traffic in my neighborhood is spotty and pretty lax.

Oddly, the report says nothing about this, preferring design "solutions".  There are many "good ideas", although there is not a lot of attention to trade-offs.  Taking lanes away from traffic and making streets more bike- and people-friendly is nice, but never free.  There is also the standard objection that summarizing pedestrian-safety and pedestrian-friendliness by metro area is almost useless.  Variations within metro areas are vast when it comes to these conditions. I was unable to eyeball any correlation between the report's "Pedestrian danger index" and "Percent of traffic deaths that were pdestrian."  Such are the problems of indices applied to very large and varied places.

Nevertheless, the report is useful.  Walking is a good thing and "walkable" enclaves do exist that can be made much safer by even moderate enforcement of laws that are already on the books.  More civility would also be nice.


Alex Tabarrok kindly sent me the correction that the 47,000 deaths refers to a whole decade.  That does change things.  My error and thanks, Alex!