Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There's a pony here somewhere

Here are Bryan Caplan's reasons for disdaining politics. I feel the same. In fact, I could add to it. But the point is made. This political season has not helped. The fact that Americans' cynicism towards politics grows is not a good sign. I have no idea if any of  this is reversible. Where do we go after Clinton-Trump? There are cliches about "hitting bottom" and then somehow bouncing back.

In all this it's good when politicians connect dots. We did have a short spate of de-regulation under Carter-Reagan. And that was it for a while.

So here is some good news. Almost everyone has by now seen hard evidence that restrictive land use policies are the cause of the widely lamented housing affordability problem. Green land use policies have had this effect since the UK 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. So in 2016, we finally get "Obama takes on zoning laws in bid to build more housing, spur growth." Is it a sign? We'll have to see.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Teamwork and fun

Nobelist James Buchanan's public choice (politics without romance) ideas are profound. But public choice is still missing from most economists' "toolkit". It is seemingly easier to find departures from Nirvana economics (models built on assumptions of perfect information, perfect foresight, perfect rationality, etc.) and hop-skip-jump to the conclusion that markets fail -- and a wise and dispassionate tribe of experts should get to work fixing things. It's the old progressive idea. It is seductive and it seemingly appeals to people who dream of social order -- and also many brainy people, perhaps elevating their self-image as the engineers of such order.

But beyond that, one sees the problem every time a political candidate speaks -- and when listeners jump and shout for joy. Nothing may make logical sense. But people are tickled to be there and to be participants. The human instinct is that people desperately want to be on a team -- just like at sporting events. The impulse to form teams and bands is a favored evolutionary tale of how sapiens came to dominate all of the other faster and stronger species roaming the planet.

All of this is stark in 2016. It has been many times noted that Clinton and Trump are flawed candidates. But Clinton's lying is no big deal; Trump will become "presidential" anytime soon! Many are desperate to be on a team -- and tie themselves into knots to find a way get behind one or the other of the unappealing candidates. People cheering at the game Saturday afternoon are having a lot more fun than those who stayed away, attending to their normal lives.

Small government (small politics) advocates will always have a tough time. What they offer comes up short in the fun department.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Here is Issi Romen's Romem's "Can U.S. Cities Compensate for Urban Sprawl by Growing Denser?"
It's a thoughtful piece.  Here are my top five thoughts and responses.  Readers of this blog may have encountered these five "pillars" (apologies to David Henderson) before.

1. "Sprawl" is vague, pejorative and misleading. We have auto-oriented development -- because autos are dominant.
2.  "Density" is likewise misleading. Can we describe a large urban area via just one number? There are many densities in most places -- to accommodate a variety of tastes and interests.
3.   Planning policies are a mixed picture. The ones in place and the ones advertised may not be the same. A lot happens in the approvals process. This includes too much cronyism.
4.  Market forces are the prime movers of development. Development that fails the market test has a bleak future. In the event, even government subsidies can only go so far.
5. There is no way for planners (or anyone) to know the right (or wrong) density. There is a diversity of tastes and opportunities out there. These are best evaluated and responded to by people with (i) local knowledge; and (ii) the capacity to take risks.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Not the full story

Millions of Americans have gone through some sort of college, taken the standard principles of economics course, and heard about specialization and trade. Exchange means more consumption and more consumer well-being. Prices are lower, variety is greater, as is innovation. Consumer sovereignty is the best way to allocate scarce resources.

Strangely, however, the simple story is ignored in standard political discourse. Trump, Clinton, Sanders and all the others only talk about jobs lost (trade) or gained (protection). Cronyism, xenophobia and ignorance are a miserable brew. Among the ironies is the fact that most Americans do poorly in school (by international standards, OECD PISA comparisons) yet live very well (again, by international standards). The apparent irony cannot ever be addressed if terms of trade are never explained.

I had hoped for clarification via Nathaniel Popper in today's NY Times, "We know plenty about the losers in global trade. Why don't we know more about the winners?" But he too sticks to the jobs gained vs jobs lost narrative.

Live to work or work to live? Most people would say it's the latter. But even the smart people, like Popper for example, only highlight the work part. It is not the full story. In fact, it's misleading.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016


California's establishment (a large club) cannot fix potholes but they want to build a bullet train. I get that. More baffling is the fact that many leading economists (and others) ignore all this and promote ever more spending on "infrastructure". When it comes to public spending, it's apparently OK to double-down on multi-billion dollar waste.

The real game-changer (challenge to the growth of private auto use) is from the likes of Uber. The Economist of Sep 3 includes "From zero to seventy (billion) ... The accelerated life and times of the world's most valuable startup." Ironies everywhere. Uber's billions, for new ideas and approaches, are volunteered; transit's billions for old tech are coerced -- with predictable results. And transit's politician friends do what they can to throttle Uber -- and protect the taxi status quo.

What will Uber-plus-self-driving technology do? Door-to-door personal transportation will beat fixed-route collective transit in most cases. Serving the public does not involve "public servants." Quite the opposite.


Cowen re Uber.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

History riddle

The WSJ links to Gary Saul Morson's "The house is on fire! ... On the hidden horrors of Soviet life." There is a discussion of who murdered more, the Nazis or the Communists? In the early 20th century, class war and race war rhetoric were widely invoked. But since the Holocaust, race war rhetoric is decidedly unfashionable (at least in polite company). But class war rhetoric is almost a mainstay of political campaigns around the world. The free-lunch brigade exploits it all the time.

Morson mentions that the body-count casualties of class war (Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim, Pol Pot, etc.) are largely out of sight-out of mind. But that begs the question. Why should it be so?

Both of the socialisms (national socialism and bolshevik socialism) were utopian. Both promised to create a "new man" (and woman, I suppose).  But the Nazis were German-centric while the bolsheviks talked in international terms (their anthem).

Morson's punchline is one of those laugh-or-cry East bloc jokes:
 ... a story, set during the Great Purges, about some families in a communal apartment who are awakened at 4 a.m. (the usual time for arrests) by a peremptory banging at the door. Finally one old man, with less life left to lose, answers, disappears into the corridor, and at last returns. “Comrades, relax!” he explains. “The house is on fire!”

I am reading Svetlana Alexievich's Seconhand Time. Today's Homo Sovieticus is tragic in many ways.