High Speed Rail

The California Senate voted another tranche of financing yesterday , keeping the state’s high speed rail project alive. There’s a cartoon to be drawn in which the program is a maiden tied up in the middle of a freeway with the highway/automobile industry approaching, or maybe it’s a train being switched off a track leading to a washed-out trestle…
I don’t entirely trust my judgment on this issue, because I love trains, an affection acquired in youth going to high school (and everywhere) in New York on one of the only two (IIRC) 24-hr public transit systems in the world, and deepened riding all sorts of trains, especially in Europe. You can read, eat, write, get up and walk around or to the dining car for a snack, or sleep, and you don’t have to park it when you arrive.  What’s not to like? Keeping a car between two white lines is a very low-grade use of a human, even with a radio or a passenger for conversation. My instinct is to be a fan of California HSR. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk for us.

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It’s not a ‘women’s issue’

Ann-Marie Slaughter is on the cover of the Atlantic with an important essay about work and family. along with a stupid picture of a baby in a briefcase (which some art director stuck her with) and a stupid title/headline (which she did not write).   She starts out with a personal anecdote, which I regret as an overused  rhetorical trick, but ends up talking about the important stuff, which is bigger than her family’s work/child-rearing conflicts and bigger than the cultural habits and expectations that are especially tough on women. I’m not going to summarize it; you need to read it all.

The piece has stirred up a rousing discussion on a listserv I frequent along with thoughtful and on-target commentary, for example (and only for example; I have not trolled the web to get everything) here and here.  But I did look at the first Google page of hits and found ten articles by women, which makes twelve, and two fairly flip paragraphs by one man.  One would think the conflict between work and family is a problem women have, sort of like race being something black people have, or  work mainly in women’s inboxes .  Slaughter actually gets this right, but even among my liberal listserv colleagues, the women have had a lot more to say than the men, including the few men who weighed in (on the listserv, but not as far as I can tell in public) to take ownership of the issue.  This state of affairs is wrongheaded on the facts (men and their kids also pay heavy dues trying to be good at work and at home) but more fundamentally wrong because we’re all in this together. Men have daughters and wives and depend on the value created (or not) by women at work, not to mention retiring on the taxes to be paid by all of today’s children.

The stupidity of the title is its implication that ‘everything’ is a reasonable thing to aspire to.  Of course you can’t have everything, because there are 24 hours – not 25 or 240 -  in each day of your three score and ten, and because if you’re a world-class shot putter you will not be a winning jockey for fundamental and intractable properties of muscle energy per unit of mass. A lot of the power of the article is its irrefutable certification that the family-job problem is not solved by money or caused by poverty or stupidity or ignorance: the Moravcsik-Slaughter household has all the IQ points, social capital, advantages of birth and status, and money they could possibly use. They have as much of everything as can be hoped for; the problem is  that they can’t apportion their shopping basket optimally because of constraints that actually don’t have to bind us.

What Slaughter is about is that we could all have a lot more of two big important things if we organized life better, and her lessons are emphatically not that the way to go about that is women-centric.  It’s complicated, because there is indeed misogyny all over the place and a lot of the bad habits and rules are especially hostile to women, so it would be wrong for men to just hijack the issue. The feminism issue here is twofold: indeed, women in particular deserve a better deal, but also, and partly for that reason, women have some useful stuff to teach everyone if we will just pay attention.

My main takeaway from the article is the enormous social cost of the macho workplace, created and managed by insecure men to assure their status by hazing routines and a sort of potlatch of self-abuse, and the positional arms race culture.  How much more value (net of fringes etc. and pay) is actually created by one Stakhanovite working seventy-hour weeks and a wreck for thirty of them, than two people with a life and hobbies working thirty-five each?   How many crises asking for work on Sunday are really crises?  When it snows in DC, “non-essential” workers are asked to stay home.  Raise hands, all those who are happy to signal their dispensability by sledding with the kids.  Slaughter has a lot of good ideas in the way of changes in specific rules (like a nudge that extends the tenure clock for anyone who has a child rather than allowing people to have the extension if they ask for it).  Is really good day care, the kind the French and Italians lay on and try to recruit all kids into, for employers? for women who want to work?  for kids?  or, as they think, for all of society including men and women alumni of the École Maternelles? The pervasive expectation that it’s good to be an attentive and engaged dad, but obviously parenting is mainly mom’s to assure, makes stuff like this come down on women more, or seem to, but a great deal of the myth built into top-level, competitive, workplace life (yeah, and blue-collar just-trying-to-make-the-rent life) is equal-opportunity, and sex-independent costly, jive.

I’m not a spokesperson for men, not proud to be a man (I didn’t choose to), but still, I’m ashamed that the people standing up and saying what is true about this stuff are still almost all women.  It’s going to be a lot of work, and maybe cost us some net stuff and house square feetage, to fix this, and it’s both stupid and unfair to expect half the team to do all the lifting.



Supporting the arts

Of course government should support the arts.  Unfortunately, as soon as we try to reduce this prescription to specific practices, it gets extremely messy.  What level of government should give what to whom, under what conditions? What government programs, other than writing checks, matter?  The New York Times offers a Room for Debate forum that assembles a bunch of arts advocates, plus a Cato Institute small-government ideologue, for a conversation that consistently, and typically, ignores many of the most important realities and constraints affecting this sector.  Why do smart people leave their brains at the door and get all mooshy and soft-headed talking about art?  Hats off to the Times for running a piece on this important topic, but shame on all the authors for an almost unrelieved collection of fact-free posturing and noodling.  Not that they are unusual in this regard: reading most of what’s written about this issue could make a cynic think none of these people cares enough about art to actually think carefully and do homework.  Sorry; arts policy doesn’t need wooly sentiment, pointing with alarm, doe-eyed begging and whining, or charity-case condescension; it needs the dignity of serious thinking that treats artists and their audience as grownups.

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Sampling footnotes

Harold’s nice post about sampling populations who spend varying spells in the state you observe reminds me of some other contexts in which the same principle sheds some light. But first, a puzzle that you can skip if you know “the one about the guy with the two girlfriends and the subway” :

One of my students was greatly in love, simultaneously, with a  girl who lived in Orinda and another who lived in the Mission in San Francisco.  He was pretty sure he wanted to marry one of them, but not sure which, so he decided to roll the dice of life.  Learning that inbound and outbound BART trains strictly alternated, first a westbound, then an eastbound, at the Rockridge station near his house (where trains in both directions stop on opposite sides of the same platform) during the relevant times of day, he carefully randomized his departure times from home, took his bike to BART, and got on the next train whichever way it was going, visiting the girl it took him to.  After a few weeks of this, he was astonished to find he had had five times more dates with the girl in the city and was engaged to her. Continue reading “Sampling footnotes”

Who should pay for whose college, and how?

Years and years ago, David Mundel used to provoke my interest in public policy as an object of analysis (rather than an occasion to opine) by suggesting out-of-the-box things like: the way to deal with affirmative action and discrimination in college admissions is to require colleges to admit by lottery and have done with it.  This appears flatly nuts until you realize that under such a scheme, applicants would have a strong interest in choosing schools whose academic demands matched their abilities, because there’s no point in getting into a place you will just flunk out of as a freshman, and colleges would have an interest in providing the information with which applicants could choose intelligently, because there’s no point in admitting someone who can’t cut it. I’m still not ready to completely sign on to this idea, but it has a lot going for it. It certainly beats the uninformed grasping for prestige that college application season has turned into.

David, IIRC, also favored charging full costs in tuition with an extensive loan program, because all college students are pretty rich on a lifetime income basis no matter what income their families have, and not being able to afford college is simply a capital market failure that should be fixed directly. Tuition subsidy at the University of California, on this model, is a Hood Robin transfer from everyone to the upper third of the income distribution.

This question is not just dinner-table conversation stuff: a lot of my students and colleagues are off to Sacramento Monday to demand that the state fund education, including higher education, sufficiently not only to put an end to the petty and wasteful “economies” we are being subjected to but to reverse the hockey-stick increase in tuition at public colleges and universities.  That California is abusing its young people by trashing their educations in K-12 and underproviding it at the college level is my view in spades; I’m torn between rage and despair.  This spring I clicker-polled my class and found that the parents of 17% of them had no degrees above high school, and my heart leapt; these are the students I especially get up in the morning and go to work for. Continue reading “Who should pay for whose college, and how?”


This picture is a treasury of symbolism and metaphor.

Helpless on its side, with an enormous hole torn in its hull, this disaster has already killed more than a dozen people who only wanted to have fun for a few days, ruined the career of the captain and possibly headed him for time in the slam, dented the balance sheet of some insurance companies, and dinged confidence in the whole cruise industry.  The bleeding isn’t over. See the pathetic little line of boom strung out along the shore? The ship is liable at any moment to slide off its rock and go underwater, and it’s full of bunker oil ready to foul beaches for miles.

What does it stand for…better, what in today’s news doesn‘t it remind us of!  The world economy, run aground by expert leadership who just wanted to show off  how rich they could get?  The American political process, set up for disaster by the Supreme Court and mismanaged by ideologues who think the only reality is what they can see above the surface of things (charts? we don’t need no stinkin’ charts!), with more pain and damage looming?  The Perry campaign, vacuous glitter and rhinestone bling dead in the water?

This picture is a non-rival good, and serves any of those purposes, feel free. But my first association was with something that, if possible, is even more completely broken and more threatening than any of these: the economy of digital content.  The wonderful structure of copyright, distribution, royalties, law, conventions, and contracts that brought us stuff to read, see and listen to for so long has sailed right into the very well-charted rock of virtual embodiment.  Some pieces of it are still above the waterline, but they don’t work.  And everything – everything – we are contemplating to do about it has about as much hope of success as that pathetic boom.

No, I didn’t steal the picture; it’s a public domain Italian government satellite photo. But all the other pictures floating around the web are also non-rival goods, just like the songs and video files Megaupload is being taken down for circulating, and just like this blog post.  The right price to consumers for all this stuff is zero.  Most of it, especially with some attention from kids in Finland and Bulgaria and who knows where else, is also non-excludible in fact (I could have posted any of hundreds of copyrighted pictures of the Costa C. here and not been punished for it, nor you for looking at them).  That battle is over and the technological facts have won, though there’s plenty of pointless damage yet to be inflicted as the content industries try to make gravity point up.

The right price to creators and providers is not zero.  Pretty simple design constraints, right: give content to consumers at a price of zero, and pay musicians, writers, and the like an efficient and just non-zero price to make it for us.  Simple constraints don’t mean it will be simple to solve the problem, of course, but all the flailing about we’re doing with no good effect on this one is not a counsel of despair.  Very similar problems have been solved quite nicely already, like the sidewalk I’m allowed to walk on for free and the park, whose gardener is not enslaved, but actually earns a nice civil service union wage. And all the clean air I can breathe at will that was quite  expensive for the power plant and my car-driving neighbors to provide for me, and the complete absence of nasty foreign occupying armies provided by a military that pays its workers and ponies up for tanks and all the other gear.

One might think we would be figuring out how to sail our priceless, glorious social capital ship of art and knowledge safely past these technical rocks. But we aren’t; we spent two or three decades arguing in the wheelhouse about whether citizens who just want to get smart and hear some music are pirates, and whether the earth could be flat if we just shout “property” loud enough, and refusing to look at charts that might be useful, and now the ship is wrecked. It will probably be harder, not easier, to right and refloat the longer we wait, and while we yammer about property rights and assigning blame, a large ugly plume of yuck is going to keep spreading across our civic life, as the content that does get provided is bought for us by the people who can afford to put it out under our broken system.


Cell phones and driving; some science ignorance that kills

Keith says he not only doesn’t use his cell phone when driving (CWD), but doesn’t talk to people when they are driving.  Good for Keith, and the NTSB, which has recommended a flat ban on using cell phones while driving, hands-free or not. Our designated ‘conservative’ columnist, Debra Saunders, weighs in with one of her typically muddled attempts to turn conservatism into less government across the board, mixes up what’s really dangerous about driving while on the phone, and confuses “not CWD” with “outlawing CWD”. She did get me to find the HLDI study from two years ago that found an accident reduction effect in states that outlawed CWD but with low statistical significance, a result she upends into “[the study] found hands-free laws did not reduce the number of car crashes in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.”

This is actually quite an interesting issue with superficially counterintuitive facts.  It’s not especially dangerous for a driver to chat with a passenger in a car, or to listen to the radio, or even to eat a sandwich with one hand (OK, maybe a slippery drooling Carl’s Jr. premium burger).  It’s obviously dangerous to be looking at a cellphone and texting or even dialing it (why do we still say dial such a device, and why is a circle with ten circles inscribed in it still an ideogram for a phone? but I digress) but dialing a handheld phone only takes a short time compared to the conversation, so it can’t be too important overall.

Indeed, the danger comes from the conversation, and a hands-free phone makes almost no difference. The distraction of a phone for a driver is in fact the same as the distraction from a pet or a child who demands attention without knowing what’s happening on the road, and importantly, (i) who you know doesn’t know what you’re attending to but (ii) has a strong subconscious claim on your attention whether by affection or courtesy or both.  An adult in the car can see out the windshield and understand the situation, and you know he can, so you don’t need to explain a sudden silence while you plan to steer around the mattress in your lane.  The radio’s feelings won’t be hurt if you stop paying attention for a minute.  But your conversational phone partner has none of the subconscious cues needed to let you comfortably, and instantly, tune into traffic exigencies.  So, handsfree CWD is as bad as handheld, or very close. It’s not science, but I feel distinctly impaired using a handsfree phone behind the wheel and will pull off the road if I have to be on the phone. Conjecture: handsfree (voice recognition) outgoing texting is actually not dangerous, indeed I occasionally dictate correspondence in a car and don’t feel a bit impaired.  Maybe even incoming texts and emails if they’re delivered by synthesized voice? Could video skyping from the car be OK if the camera points through the windshield?

The press release for the HLDI study points out reasons why (i) outlawing (ii) handheld CWD didn’t make much difference.  First, laws are not always enforced or obeyed.  Second, these laws probably just drove people to use handsfree devices, especially as their distinction between handheld and handsfree implicitly gave approval to the latter.  If we get this right, and try to put a stop to all cellphone use in cars, the enforcement problem for handsfree phones is quite daunting.  I’m not sure we want the highway patrol trying to make out whether a driver alone in a car is talking while both vehicles are whizzing along.  I suppose the phone company could note phone use while the user is switching towers faster than walking speed, but that would pick up passengers using their phones, and jamming calls while the engine is running is a non-starter for several reasons (I think making a 911 call to report an accident or a drunk driver is just fine, dialing and all).

In the end, the law as NTSB proposes it is probably an important action certifying society’s judgment about the behavior, but actually reducing it depends on public education and social pressure of the kind Keith nicely applies to his friends.  Friends don’t let friends drive distracted, or friends don’t distract friends while they’re driving; that sort of thing.



Owner-occupied rental housing

In the northeastern cities best known to me (Boston and New York), small multi-family buildings whose owners live in one of the units are a common housing form. The classic types are, respectively the triple-decker and the brownstone row house.  Interestingly, these physical forms became owner-occupied rental housing (OORH)  from opposite directions: the three-deckers were built as rentals for a large influx of immigrants, the brownstones as single-family homes for a growing upper middle class, with servant accommodations.   The three-decker was actually the result of a policy error: after the Boston Fire, the building code was reformed to forbid wooden tenements of four or more units, but it turned out to be cheaper to build three-unit frame buildings than larger brick ones, even with the required driveway separation between them.

Elsewhere in the US, this occupancy is zoned against with the fervor only an ignorant and frightened middle class can gin up against anything of which they have no experience, and that might affect property values — like public transit disgorging hordes of brown criminals into the peacable white heart of Georgetown or Marin County.  This is a pity, because there is a lot to be said for accessory dwelling units in private homes. It certainly worked for me (YMMV); the only good business decision my parents ever made was to buy a brownstone in 1946 and rent the bottom two floors as apartments; we lived in a three-bedroom two-story apartment absurdly above our real financial means, my mother had a sculpture studio in the front of an unusual fifth floor penthouse (probably not strictly legal) and my dad’s workshop was in the back half.  In Brookline, Mass, my wife and I bought a Victorian with a carriage house whose second floor was an apartment. While our kids were growing up, we had an au pair couple in it and my mother lived in the attic apartment of the house after she moved to Boston.  Again, we were living better than our real incomes could normally justify.

A typical pattern is an older family owning the building and living in the largest unit, or two floors of a triple-decker put together,  renting one or two units to students, to an au pair couple, to a young couple just starting out, or to empty-nest grandparents.  The rent helps pay the mortgage  and taxes.  Back in the day of outrageous depreciation rules for real estate, it was possible to live almost free as the landlord in a three-family building, but those days are probably gone; still, insurance, depreciation, roof repairs, water and sewer, and the like can partially offset taxable rental income, so for a modest investment in management and faucet repairs, being the proprietor of one of these is a very good deal in most markets.

More important, the form keeps neighborhood populations mixed in age and status; you don’t get a whole street of suburban single-family houses with an identical family in each one, houses that will all turn over at once when the kids leave and can’t afford to buy a house on the block for a couple of decades.  Grandma doesn’t have to choose between living with the kids and living forty minutes away, and can almost certainly stay independent longer.  There are always kids of different ages out and about.  And these neighborhoods are denser and usually walkable, always a good thing.

OORH landlords do not ignore a leak or a broken window or failing heat in their buildings.  OORH tenants do not trash the place or turn it into a crash pad for dopers.  The owners do not try to gouge every last dollar of rent, because tenants provide useful services (and are anyway very close neighbors), like taking care of the dog during ski weekends and turning off the oven you left on when you went out of town.  What this housing form makes (not without exception, but usually, and much more successfully than automobile suburbs) is stability and a dense network of neighborhood social capital.  Neighborhood social capital is a Good Thing.

Furthermore, it allows efficient, green, use of housing stock (in the case of the converted brownstones and San Francisco Victorians) whose units are too big for modern families with fewer kids and no live-in servants.  Rationalized zoning to encourage this pattern could bring a lot of people back to sustainable living in cities; building more of it from scratch wouldn’t hurt either.

Why it shouldn’t be stealing to listen to an mp3 file you didn’t buy

Matt Yglesias   and Kevin Drum  are at it again about digital content. Unasked, I propose to mediate this dispute between parties known to me to be technically, economically, and politically astute, and to have their hearts in the right place.   The question on the table is, approximately ,whether taking a good embodied in a bunch of bits that can be copied perfectly and cheaply without limit, like an mp3 file of a song, is “like” taking a physical chattel like a pair of shoes from their possessor against his will – something widely viewed as stealing  and wrong. [Matt was provoked back into this issue by a fairly loony radical article urging us to loot more physical goods when the opportunity arises.]

Mediation is done in the spirit of recognizing the merits of both parties’ positions, and discerning a result with which both can be comfortable. After careful Solomonic reflection, the result I propose is thus: Kevin (unusually for him) is wrong, and Matt (more typically) is right. An mp3 file is not like physical stuff in the way Kevin says it is.

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Overreacting to Irene?

Lots of people evacuated who could just as well have stayed home.  Irene was not the apocalypse for which  Bloomberg, Christie, and the other elected officials who pulled out all the stops prepared.  Were they wrong?  In a world without the second law of thermodynamics, in which time can be run back and forth, obviously they were.  And if you curse every year you spend money on life insurance and don’t die, similarly.  But it looks from here as though the various governments did the right thing given the information they had when they had to commit to a plan. The National Hurricane Center (that commie nest of waste, fraud and abuse that rips tax dollars from your pocket to fly airplanes into storms and pay lazy bureaucrats to stare at radar screens and crunch pointyhead computer models: Eric Cantor, where are you when we need this abuse shut down! but I digress, pant pant pant) churned out useful forecasts 24/7, and the mayors and governors used the best science available to manage a situation with large and robust uncertainty.

Will Rogers said, “It’s easy to make money in stocks!  First, buy some stock.  If it goes up, sell.  If it don’t go up, don’t buy it!”  Will Rogers was a comedian on purpose; Rick Perry and Ron Paul only inadvertently.  In the real world,  four storms that don’t peg the needle in the event, out of five with a working FEMA, evacuations, and subway shutdowns, is probably a good overall record, and observing one of the four says nothing about the policy.  Consider the alternative.