Rank your favorite public good

If there were a ranking for ‘the best’ public goods– how would it go?

A public good here at home-economic is a good which a group makes available to everyone in that group. For the purposes of this list, let’s extend that delineation to the political boundaries of the US. What are the public goods here in the United States that promote a service to its constituents, while maximizing individual freedom?

I’d have to say the winner is our road system. Most all roadways in the US are open to anyone’s use. Except for a handful of toll roads, there is no charge to the user, and little restraint in their availability. Furthermore there is timely efforts to keep them clear of obstacles.

I started with drinking water, but many people in the US use private wells. And then there was that problem in Flint and the complete absence of water in a number of spots in California.

Then I thought personal safety– which is the oldest public good. Here again, the variance in quality provision of protection varies too much across the states to say that it is consistently available.

Education is meant to be…but we all know the pitfalls here. Even though we do it much better than most.

Nope– it’s definitely the roads. More people have access to the open highway than other pubic goods.

But what say you?

Mysteries around Google Maps

I started posting my photos to google maps about four years ago, undoubtedly because some AI trick prompted a friendly message onto my screen encouraging me to do so. As I became more familiar with maps, and the cooperative efforts of people around the world to share what they were seeing on the ground, I began to value the service. Which led to more postings.

For instance, I was going through childhood travel pictures and family members could not recall the location of this fortification.

Google Lens was helpful, but it suggested more than one fortified option. The choices spanned destinations from the Punjab to Egypt and in between. Fort Attock Khurd looked the most promising so I went to Google Maps and found it sitting beautifully overlooking the River Indus.

Then I paged through the photos posted by recent visitors to the area. With a little adjustment for perspective, the ramparts, curved walls, the river all came into focus. It’s truly (I’m going to show my age!) spectacular that I can access vacation photos from someone on the other side of the earth. It allows for such ease in piecing together a road trip taken half a century ago.

So now I am asking my AI friend, if he/she is listening: Explain the mystery of why some of my photos get so many views and some not. For example, this park is located in a sleepy little suburb and the park itself is nice but not as heavily used as others. The numbers under the playground equipment are particularly strong– it doesn’t seem like the best photo to me out of the group. Why so many views?

I wrote about this DQ about three weeks ago and the views on it have taken off. I guess it is ice cream season. And people often search for food and restaurants. Still it seems like a lot in comparison to other photos of equal quality.

I liked the shot of the Minneapolis skyline from under the I94 Bridge. Maybe I’m biased because we had such a nice bike ride along the river. The river flats area is famous for being the low income housing area of a century ago.

My all time high views is of a beautiful beach at Fish Lake Regional Park in Maple Grove. I do love that park. In addition to the beach, there are walking trails, you can rent a variety of water craft and there is a dog park. We have an extensive regional park system in Hennepin County, and maybe the numbers reflect the number of patrons planning visits.

Still– if AI big sister is listening: Please explain the variance in views!

Recognizing Structure

Human perception, as well as the “perception” of so-called intelligent machines, is based on the ability to recognize the same structure in different guises. It is the faculty for discerning, in different objects, the same relationships between their parts.

The dictionary tells us that two things are “isomorphic” if they have the same structure. The notion of isomorphism of having the same structure is central to every branch of mathematics and permeates all of abstract reasoning. It is an expression of the simple fact that objects may be different in substance but identical in form.

A Book of Abstract Algebra

Avian Objections

“There’s Wilson’s warbler, and Swainson’s warbler, and Kirtland’s warbler,” lists Kenn Kaufman, author of several birding field guides.

“You’ve got Nuttall’s woodpecker, and Cassin’s vireo, Cassin’s auklet, and then there’s Botteri’s sparrow, and Bachman’s sparrow,” he says.

Monuments and Teams have changed names as America reckons with racism.

Of all the names listed above there is one which is objectional to inclusive activists. Can you pick it out? Can anyone pick it out, regardless of their background? You’ll have to read the article to find out which one symbolizes oppression. In my mind, if no one can select the offender, than no offense has been done.

This whole renaming thing comes across as people on a mission (not the right kind of mission) to create a story where they get to play the knight in shining armour. A search for misdeeds. Uncover and disclose them! Then become the agent who sets the whole thing straight.

Some may say, ‘What’s the harm in it?’ If changing names makes just one person more comfortable than it is a win. Yet, there are only so many hours to devote to things. NPR can only run so many stories. There are only so many resources available to rectifying a wrong. If you gear everyone up to work on the ones which produce little results, than disappointment is all that will follow.

And anger–eventually.

If activists engage people in work that makes no contribution to the mission, than aren’t they involved in some sort of taking? Those hours of work can only be spent once. You can change a bird’s name or perhaps they could be spent being a big brother-big sister, working a job fair, teaching English as a second language classes, finding someone a place to live. Changing the name of the Wilson Warbler to the little warbler with a cap wouldn’t be something I’d tweet about.

Can houses be made anew?

Speculating on innovation in housing is harder than you would think. I’m not sure if we take the basics elements of the structures as givens, or if they are fundamentally difficult to innovate. Here’s a new listing I have coming on the market at the end of the month– what could we do better?

The single family home on a plot of its own is still the most preferred housing option outside of the densely populated mega cities. According to statista, “as of September 2020, there were 213.3 million single-family dwelling units in the United States and only 38 million multifamily units.”

This one is above average in square footage, and about double the median priced property in the metro, but it still has the same structure as most single family homes: lot, dwelling, garage. The city provided infrastructure for utilities determines the type of mechanicals which service the property. In this part of the country natural gas is the established solution for heating and electricity runs the lights and air conditioning.

One innovation which is more visible around town than ever before is solar panels. One can see them glistening on more and more roof tops. But the breakeven point for installation is still out about 7-9 years, which makes it a difficult purchase. There are no heating solutions more friendly than natural gas on the horizon. The only other efficiencies toward energy conservation can be achieved through additional insulation and careful review of appliances.

Perhaps innovation will be more about how we use the space within homes rather than the structure itself. More complexity to household formation, particularly in the mixing of generations, could bring down the square footage per person ratio, leading to less utility consumption. Using the space in a single family home as a home office will keep cars off the roads.

Innovation in the near future may well be about usage and not structure.

Platters of yesteryear

Robert Putnam, a sociologist from Harvard, is probably best known for his seminal book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. From wikipedia:

Putnam surveys the decline of social capital in the United States since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He argues that this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy requires from its citizens.

Putnam outlines at length the waning of voluntary associations.

Putnam noted the aggregate loss in membership and number of volunteers in many existing civic organizations such as religious groups (Knights of ColumbusB’nai Brith, etc.), labor unions, parent–teacher associationsFederation of Women’s ClubsLeague of Women Voters, military veterans’ organizations, volunteers with Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and fraternal organizations (Lions ClubsBenevolent and Protective Order of ElksUnited States Junior ChamberFreemasonryRotaryKiwanis, etc.).[1] Putnam used bowling as an example to illustrate this; although the number of people who bowled had increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowled in leagues had decreased. If people bowled alone, they did not participate in the social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.[1]

In my mind what is being tracked here are the platters where exchanges took place, and not the actual amount of work or resources engaged in production of a shared asset. The bowling leagues provided the venue for friends and neighbors to gather, extend a hand, overhear who needed a job, step-up if someone passed. But as the clubs of father’s or grandfather’s became out of date it is just as feasible that younger generations found new places to gather and organize.

But why then are the number of volunteer hours reported in the American Community Survey lower? Perhaps people were engaged in informal volunteer work, unpaid work to help a friend or member of the community, without being associated with a formal organization.

Consider American life from the 70’s up to the writing of this paper in 1995 (followed by the book in 2000).

The observations in the book coincide with two decades of increasing divorce rates in the US, of households being split apart. Moving homes is time consuming enough, then there are the additional logistics of separating both financially and emotionally when the cause is a divorce. This closing out of marital arrangements can easily last a year or more.

Furthermore the schedule of a single person with children is bound to be quite different from a married couple. Whereas there may have been an easy agreement of, ‘you get to golf, I get book club, you handle sports leagues, I’ll manage PTA,’ everything gets a little trickier to plan when you no longer share a household.

There are a variety of reasons why marriages came apart and people preferred to dedicate resources to undoing their marital bonds rather than hanging in for the golden anniversary. There was a reckoning with this institution that may still be in play. But the reality remains that there are only so many out-of-paid-work hours to devote to family and community. If those are being devoted to a reassessment of marriage, then they will not show up on the American Community Survey under volunteer hours.

Platters III

The image of platters is useful in visualizing where the economic implications of culture plays out within groups. The exchanges, trades, evaluations of mission-minded individuals transpire on platters, whether it is in the support of a university, a corporation, a hobby, or a tight knit community.

In a recent conversation, we speculated about how remote work will inhibit culture. When professors no longer reside in the same small town as their college, the social activities of years gone by will never materialize. When judges no longer have offices in the same building, they can no longer stroll down the hall and run a scenario past a colleague. If corporate employees only engage over zoom there are no casual exchanges post meetings to develop an ease of interaction.

These are examples of how physical distance renders exchanges of ideas and resources difficult. Trade is muted as the agora, the platter, evaporates on the electronic mechanisms.

In contrast, there are situations where platters are nested, and the appropriate level of control is opaque. Authority at the local level is generally preferred. At some point, however, the effects of parochial rules can create negative outcomes for the larger platter. Zoning, for example, can restricts housing to the point of increasing housing costs regionally. Than there is an argument for the rules to be made over a larger platter. If public safety of a city gets to the point that places of shared institutions such as universities, convention centers and so on are experiencing extraordinary crime, than impositions of safety measures by the greater group seem justified.

The mission morphs to various compositions of platters depending on the demands to meet the mission. And then, when demand subsides, the dynamics relinquishes trade and interaction back down to the most basic level.

Math thought of the day

It’s reunion season and even though we were unable to have an official reunion, some of us got together last evening. Math was and is a popular major at St. Olaf, and it was fun to reconnect with some old classmates. I happen to have my Abstract Algebra book and nostalgia probably tugged it off the shelf for me today.

Come to find out the author wrote super interesting prologues to each chapter. Of course I couldn’t have been bothered with such unnecessary consumption of my time back when I was twenty. Getting the problem sets done was my minimal obligation! Now stories of Euclid and Niels Abel and Evariste Galois are the bits I want to hear about.

Education is wasted on the young!

Algebra today is organized axiomatically, and as such it is abstract. Mathematicians study algebraic structures from a general point of view, compare different structures, and find relationships between them. This abstraction and generalization might appear to be hopelessly impractical but it is not! The general approach in algebra has produced powerful new methods for “algebraizing” different parts of mathematics and science, formulating problems which could never have been formulated before, and finding entirely new kinds of solutions.

Such excursions into pure mathematical fancy have an odd way of running ahead of physical science, providing a theoretical framework to account for facts even before those facts are fully known. This pattern is so characteristic that many mathematicians see themselves as pioneers in a world of possibilities rather than facts. Mathematicians study structure independently of content, and their science is a voyage of exploration through all the kinds of structure and order which the human mind is capable of discerning.

A Book of Abstract Algebra by Charles C. Pinter

Steinbeck the economist

When I picked up Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle it was to ensure a certain caliber of writing. Only good luck would have it that farm workers, activists and landowners struggling over resources was the subject matter. Steinbeck sets up the social and economic dynamics of which I speak. Now I’m only a couple dozen pages into The Winter of our Discontent (1961), and I’m realizing that this is his thing. Take this passage where the protagonist Ethan is trying to describe to the Mr. Baker, the banker, his frame of reference around investing his wife’s money.

Ethan started an angry retort- Course you don’t under stand; you’ve never had it-and then he swept a small circle of gum wrappers and cigarette butts into a pyramid and moved the pyramid toward the gutter. “Men don’t get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I’m scared. Long Island Lighting Company might turn off the lights. My wife needs clothes. My children-shoes and fun. And suppose they can’t get an education? And the monthly bills and the doctor and teeth and a tonsillectomy, and beyond that suppose I get sick and can’t sweep this goddam sidewalk? Course you don’t understand. It’s slow. It rots out your guts. I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator. I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. How could you understand that?”

“How about Mary’s mother?”

“I told you. She sits on it. She’ll die sitting on it.”

“I didn’t know. I thought Mary came from a poor family. But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up Ethan “

The banker is trying to talk Ethan into being a risk taker, an investor. Ethan doesn’t have the stomach for it anymore. He lost ownership of the family grocery store, and it was more than a pecuniary loss. He lost social standing, he lost piece of mind, he lost dreams of his children’s future, and most dear to him, he feels he has lost his wife’s admiration. The slow process of exchanges that led to his financial demise was ‘the erosion’ that killed his spirit.

As history will have it, this played out during the more recent great recession, when everyday people were taken up short by the reality that they were going to loose their house through foreclosure. The evidence was there for anyone showing foreclosed properties to witness.

For the most part bank owned homes are in rough shape. An extended period of tough financial times results in missing cabinet hardware, water stains where a leak was left to drip, flooring worn right through to the subfloor. Foreclosures were a mixed bag in 2010. Frequently the properties were neat as a pin. Vacuum marks still tracked in the carpet. Appliances were clean and left intact. Sellers maintained pride in their home until they had to leave the keys on the counter and lock the door behind them.

But the strain of the situation, the erosion of spirit, kept people out of homeownership well past the three to five year waiting period as required by credit considerations. It’s a pretty safe bet that not only were their ambitions of ownership curtailed but also those of their siblings and people in their close circles. People who supported them emotionally through the process. The homeownership rate for Millennials is only 43%, well below any other cohort. And I don’t believe it is all about student debt.

But back to The Winter of our Discontent. The banker wants an investor and looks first to a man who comes from a family with experience. He makes an assumption that his best candidate comes from the pool of past business buddies. I’ll have to keep reading to find out how it all shakes out for Ethan and Mr. Baker.

But what I think we should take away from all this is that the emotional draw or drawback from participating in transactions whether for a house, or a police force or a business venture is much more dear and lingering than we acknowledge. And it cannot be ignored. The compensating factors to pull people back into those markets are perhaps partly pecuniary, but mostly something else. The need for a new entrepreneurial spirit may be harder to incentivize in the old pool and easier to energize in a new one.

What we need is to be better accountants of all the social implications of our pecuniary endeavors.

Sparks

A little over a year ago, around 8pm, a my phone dings as one of my tenants texts the photo in the lower right corner of the tweet below. In the twenty foot side yard a car had spun around and was pointing at her as she sat by her dinette window. As it turns out a couple of ne’er-do-wells had held up a CVS pharmacy a mile or two down the road and ended up in a high speed chase.

As the twosome sped north bound along a residential through road, they left the intersection one house prior to mine, hit a berm in the neighbor’s yard (which slowed them down a bit and changed their trajectory so they missed my building), flew through a hedge, slammed into a fifty foot pine which whirled them around to my tenant’s kitchen window view.

It was the talk of the neighborhood in these first weeks of Covid lockdown. I went to inspect the following morning and an assortment of neighbors strolled over to tell what they had heard and seen. The only evidence left for me to see were the black tire marks indicating the car’s departure from the city road, a large assortment of car parts and a whole bunch of broken branches from the hedge the car had taken out in its 180 degree spin.

The police had actually done a great job of getting most of the debris and large branches off the property. I just had one follow-up call for part of the traffic pole and a muffler or some odd car part. But the mess motivated me to tackle getting rid of the rest of the scraggly old hedge that had sat on the lot line all these years. Ignored. Overgrown.

Pretty soon I’m cleaning up the yard all along that side of the building, roots and all. Picking up more plastic car parts in the process. The neighbor starts to do the same. It’s contagious. One person makes it a bit nicer, the other tackles something else. Before you know it all the brush is gone, the ground regraded, new grass seed sprouting, a house painter is called, another tree comes down.

After fourteen months of hardship and struggle we are all at a stage of putting life back together. Now is the time to be on the alert for those who will motivate and be motivated by continued improvement. These situations can be leveraged. Let’s leave the great stagnation behind.

(Epilogue- I heard from the pine tree neighbor today that one of the rogues got 14 months. The other is still awaiting sentencing.)

When the mission has exhausted its purpose

PETA finds offense in the naming of Ham Lake, a sleepy small town about a half hour north of the Twin Cities. It’s the type of town that when you call city hall with a question you actually get through to the person you need to talk to and he or she is more than willing to spend some time answering your inquire and filling in any background as needed. There is a minimum lot size of an acre which preserves the rural feel of a settlement on the outskirts of a major metro.

And who are these fine folks roofed in the hamlet of Ham Lake offending ? — Pigs, apparently.

“Pigs are smart, sensitive, wonderful individuals, so if we have a heart, we’ll leave their legs alone and choose yams over hams,” says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA envisions a new ‘Yam Lake’ that promotes kindness and healthy eating.”

https://www.peta.org/media/news-releases/peta-yams-it-up-with-name-change-proposal-for-ham-lake/

There’s a lot going on in the world right now for attention to be devoted to a swine’s feelings, detectable or not. If an animal advocacy group can come up with nothing better than recommending name changes to small towns in Minnesota, perhaps they have out lived their cause.

In a family group, the demands of a sick child, or a temporary bout of unemployment, may have the group suspending other activities so as to devote all resources to the emergency at hand. The natural mechanism is to continuously reassess resource allocation as the need for advocacy subsides. Thus ensuring a mission expires once past its usefulness.

In large organizations such as PETA, which has 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide, the reassessing goes to the wayside. The mission perseveres. Ham Lake must see the err of its way and morph into Yam Lake. It’s for the pigs!

Who else cares about a Canadian Goose?

My love affair with the internet has been uneven. First there was the amazement at reconnecting with childhood friends long left behind at destinations around the world. Then there was the aggravation at the dismantling of established business norms which guided professional behavior. But then there is all the upside of discovery and learning and connecting with very specific groups of people.

The MN Gardeners is one such group. The postings here will inevitably make my day.

Costs of ownership

Summer fun MN style

As spring closes out and June opens up upon the North Star state we prep for summer of fun. Going to the lake is a communal affair. Those priced out of the metro area lakes like Lake Minnetonka, Prior Lake or White Bear, spread out to the thousands of properties in outstate Minnesota. People of all walks of life load up the family vehicle on Fridays and after a weekend up north, drift back in slow traffic Sunday evening.

For some the setting is a rustic cabin under a canopy of old growth trees banked on an environmental lake– one that accommodates canoes and kayaks. If you are into water sports you’re looking for an 800 acres lake, minimum, to have a long enough run for the water skiers and wake boarders. Tubers are pulled behind power boats or even jet skis if the passenger is not too big.

When I was growing up we didn’t have access to a speed boat much to my brother’s dismay. My grandpa was a fisherman who grew up poor so it was an aluminum boat with three bench seats and 15 HP motor which was tied up to our dock. At the time us kids couldn’t figure out why a little bit bigger boat was out of reach.

Of course there was the cost of it, the craft and the engine. But honestly that didn’t seem to be the issue. And it turns out it wasn’t. In order to maintain a speed boat, you need a lift. The lift needs a canopy (unless you want the barn swallows to make a mess of it). The dock and the lift go into the water in the spring and come out of the water in the fall. It’s a day’s job bookending the summer season.

And then there is fuel and maintenance. Five gallon red plastic gas cans need to be filled and emptied. There’s the trailer to transport the boat from the lake’s public access to its winter storage destination. Caring for a boat, and all its entrapments, make it a viable vehicle for fun and fishing– and requires time and work.

People are so quick to point out others who own this or own that, but they never consider the work that ownership demands. A boat might cost 30k, with a lifespan of twenty years that’s $1500/yr. This is less than the other costs associated with it’s ownership.

My grandpa did the math. That’s what made him perfectly happy with his Lund fishing boat.

Thoughts about voice

Voice is a necessary component of the societal feedback loop. But lately the dynamics across social medium has been to divide and isolate; keep groups of varying opinions at bay, isolate and maintain only the voices which resonate your cause. And the echo is deafening.

It feels like a hang over from the 70’s feminists who learned all too dearly the lessons of being shut out of the conversation. First, it’s hard to be heard when you’re not even in the room, nor on the playing field. The decision makers met at men’s clubs and in their notorious dark paneled boardrooms. Men played tennis, golf or shot a few hoops. Women were accused of various gender infractions if considered to be too sporty.

Second, there’s the awkward silence of being completely ignored after taking advantage of an opportune moment to get one’s opinion out in the public sphere. Even as recently as 2017 the minority leader of the MN House, Melissa Hortman, called out the gaggle of men who had decided a card game was a better use of their time than listening to a female legislators expound on a budget bill.

“I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room but I think this is an important debate,” she said, referring to a private room off the House floor.

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/04/04/house-dfl-leader-hortman-slams-white-make-card-game

So is it really that surprising that the job of voice-protectorate immerged to avenge the thoughtless and disrespectful behavior of a certain generation? I’ve run into voice-protectorates. Their strategies are remarkably similar to the ones men were known to employ: exclude, ignore, shun and intimidate any supporters with group expulsion.

Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) the protectorates inevitably leave the realm of honest discussion since being a protectorate has power appeal. (Life so easily turns into a Lord of The Rings saga). The prestige and fear a dedicated voice-protectorate can infuse is so alluring that it becomes their intoxicant. And hence their downfall.

Sure they hide out in a large group of similar voices. It might be hard to identify them at first. But so were the mob guys in the Italian communities of years ago. Then you realize they are not carrying through with the work of the mission at hand. They are more about drawing lines and including or excluding people. Then you know they are about the power and no longer about the mission.

What to do about them is the same as with any imposter. Expose if you can. Count on their obsession with control to show what they are all about. The group will catch on. Then, at least for a time, we can all be regular folk again hammering out the complex nature of life.

Incentives for vaccines

Even as Covid-19 cases plummet, the MN Governor is not resting until more Minnesotans are vaccinated. Approximately 54% of the population has received one dose, and 45% is fully vaccinate. Eligibility for those in the 12-18 year old group just opened up last week. In order to boost the rates, the following incentives are being offer up (KSTP news):

The first 100,000 Minnesotans who get their first shot between May 27 and June 30 can choose a reward of their preference from a list of options, including:

  • Great Lakes Aquarium Pass — Eligible for one entrance to the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Valid until July 1, 2023. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the Aquarium which will mail tickets to Minnesotans who select this option.
  • Mall of America Nickelodeon Universe Pass — Eligible for a 30-point ride pass at Nickelodeon Universe that can be redeemed through September 1, 2021. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to Mall of America who will send information to redeem the pass.
  • Minnesota Fishing License — Eligible for one individual Minnesota resident annual fishing license effective through February 2022. Must be redeemed by July 30, 2021. Recipient must be eligible to hold a Minnesota fishing license. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the Department of Natural Resources which will reach out to Minnesotans to complete their fishing license application.
  • Minnesota State Parks Pass — Eligible for one Minnesota State Parks annual pass. Minnesotans will receive the pass in the mail from the Department of Natural Resources. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the Department of Natural Resources which will mail the State Parks pass.
  • Minnesota Zoo Admission — Eligible for one adult admission at the Minnesota Zoo through September 8. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the Minnesota Zoo which will email information in order for Minnesotans to redeem their admission.
  • Northwoods Baseball League Tickets — Eligible for one reserved ticket to attend a Northwoods League baseball game during the 2021 season. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the Northwoods League and Minnesotans will call the ticket office of the team they select and provide their full name and address for verification to reserve their ticket. Tickets are based on availability at the time of calling. Participating teams include the Rochester Honkers, Willmar Stingers, Mankato MoonDogs, St. Cloud Rox and the Duluth Huskies.
  • State Fair Tickets — Eligible for two admission tickets to the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide recipients’ contact information to the State Fair which will email tickets no later than July 16, 2021.
  • Valleyfair Single-Day Admission — Valid for one Valleyfair admission ticket and the chance to purchase additional tickets for the same date at a discounted rate during the 2021 season. The Minnesota Department of Health will provide a unique code via email in order for Minnesotans to redeem this offer.
  • $25 Visa Card — Eligible for a $25 Visa Card to be used anywhere Visa is accepted. Minnesotans will receive the cards by mail or email from the Minnesota Department of Health or a State of Minnesota Vendor.

“We believe this is a good way to get some excitement back in it,” the governor said in response to a question about incentives in other states. “We did talk about that and continue to say ‘You know, are there other things we can do?’ I just think this one you’re not in a lottery. Like in those states it’s all or nothing. Somebody might get a million but there’s going to be a 100,000 getting nothing. Here in Minnesota, everybody is getting something.”

Minnesotans can verify their first dose and indicate their preferred reward online.

In this file photo dated Wednesday, April 14, 2021, a pharmacist fills a syringe from a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Antwerp, Belgium. Moderna and vaccine promoter Gavi have announced Monday May 3, 2021, the pharmaceutical company will provide up to 500 million coronavirus vaccine doses for the U.N.-backed program for needy people in low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2022.

Some might think that the folks who rolled up their sleeves for their shots first missed out on internalizing these public incentives. Who wouldn’t want tickets to the MN State Fair or the Zoo? They should have waited. But more than likely the people who lined up first felt they were the most at risk, or that they engaged with people who were are risk. The Minnesotans who lined up first also privatized a benefit by getting vaccinated promptly.

It would be safe to assume that those who have yet to be vaccinated are less fearful of the virus. Maybe they are in an age group which has suffered few casualties. Maybe they themselves have few health concerns. The effort to schedule and go in for a shot has not seemed worth it to them.

Yet the public still gains when the vaccination rate climbs above 70%. So using the incentives listed above to pull these vaccine free bodies in for their shots provides a statewide benefit. And paying out incentives is actually balancing out the benefits received by the firsters.

Nesting, Public Goods and Price signals

Public goods often exist in a nested structure. The household, the neighborhood, the ward, the city, the state. The classroom, the elementary school, the district, the states’ Department of Education. At what point is it clear that a rung on the ladder needs help in its delivery of the good?

Earlier in the month it was reported that a charter school, Cedar Riverside Community School, would be closing. It serves a neighborhood of high rise subsidized housing nestled between downtown and the University of Minnesota. Lauded as culturally sensitive in its delivery of education to a mostly Somali immigrant community, it has been plagued with threats of closure due to poor performance for more than a decade.

There are many good intentions, hopes and aspirations at the ground level for these types of grass roots public goods to be successful. But when are the price signals strong enough to cause the rung up the ladder to engage, and supplement the production of the good. When is the loss great enough to tip the efforts away from the local level and demand services from a superior level?

With the bright flood lights of the world stage focused on our metro and its racial disparities, it’s hard not to imagine that the closure comes in the wake of last year’s events. It seems pretty costly and inefficient to wait for a crisis to fess up to the fact that these kids were not being served by their neighborhood school.

Maybe the better question is what are the powers in play which dampen or misalign the the signals of lost public good delivery? What stops the natural interactions of feedback and improvement that occur through the system elsewhere?

I can only speculate from afar, but it seems to boil down to two components: structure of (for pay) jobs and positions of power. An enterprise, whether a company or a school is composed of an interlocking group of paid employees. These are entities composed of W2 workers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the boat afloat. A company will sink if it fails to attracts consumers. As long as a school has a pool of students within its attendance boundaries, it will receive funding.

In a typical neighborhood, people with school age children will leave the neighborhood if they feel the schools are inadequate, while others would-be-buyers into the neighborhood will look to settle elsewhere. The dynamics is a little different in a neighborhood like Cedar Riverside as many of the residents are tied to their housing through subsidies. The lack of mobility creates a type of monopoly on the residents both for their support of the school as well as the political structure.

The end result is that the price signals–the signs that the pupils are failing to receive the public services which inevitably are an expense to them and their communities later in life–are muted. They are not able to exit. Their presence in the group is taken for granted by those in paying jobs and those with political power.

Skin in the game

Skin in the game is a phrase mostly understood in a business context where the potential investors look to how much the CEO has anted up before throwing their cash in the pot. The potential of future profits are dickered over, but it’s what will be lost if things go awry which indicates a certain confidence level in the project. Apparently people are more adverse to loosing what they have, than gaining in the future.

Corporations offer incentives to employees to invest in their the company’s stock 401K based on this premise. A matching corporate contribution is thought to be money well spent, as employees have a reason to care about the future of the company. Tying their retirement fund to the company dollar sets up a scenario where they could loose, which then spurs them to adopt custodial duties over and above their cube and highbacked chair.

These two scenarios are pretty easy to peg as they are demarcated by the flow of dollars between employees, investors and the corporation. But what about skin in the game in the production of public goods, street safety for instance? How do the subgroups get divvied up and who has something to loose on which street corner?

The skin in the game problem here is that members don’t realize what they have to loose, they don’t realize that they are players in services that greatly impact their lives and the potential for loss is real. They think, because they have been told to think, that public goods are something provided to them. If anything the problem in public goods has been described as one of free riding- which is mostly irrelevant. It is skin in the game that matters.

When encouraged to turn on the illegal element in a neighborhood, the individual actor’s calculus is that there is more to loose by going to the cops. Yesterday a $30,000 reward was posted for information leading to the arrest of individuals responsible for the death of a six year old by a stray bullet. We’ll see if that’s the right number to buy out the loss, perceived or real, and remove one tax on safety.

But street safety is not the only public arena where skin in the game lacks proper account. If citizens could truly see what they loose over their lifetime by failing to put some of their efforts in the production of public goods, I think their dispensation of time and resources would change. And for that reason lack of approachable role models at all levels of neighborhood public goods is the skin in the game we are all missing.

Fun facts about DQ

Dairy Queen – Golden Valley, MN

This DQ is not far away, in a neighboring suburb. It is one of the few left which is solely a walk-up ice cream shop. Built in 1964 it remains plopped in the middle of a 100 ft by 134 ft asphalt covered lot, surrounded by customer parking. In normal years there are tables and chairs within the white lined rectangle in front of the building where hot sweaty kids sit with their parents and enjoy their treats.

DQ was a mainstay of summer back when we would come back to the Midwest between tours abroad. And continues to be the first choice for where to take the team after a big game. Although headquartered in the Minneapolis area, there are 4455 franchise locations in the US and 6800 worldwide. That’s a lot of real estate devoted to ice cream.

This building is a classic. I hope it never is torn down.

Whose on title- does locality matter?

After the great recession, which put countless people unexpectedly out of their homes, large investors showed up and bought up single family homes. Since you can only buy what is for sale, and many of these distressed properties were in challenged neighborhoods, the large investors are well represented there. But is that a problem?

On the face of it, the answer should be no. Large builders like Lennar build homes all over the US. Commercial real estate is often owned by non-local entities. But when an LLC from Georgia owns over 240 single family homes in the Twin Cities, you might wonder why.

Property management is a very hands on endeavor, especially when there are problems. You might want to think of owning from a distance as an extra carrying cost. Then the question becomes, what are the benefits which counter the cost.

Pro-renter advocates will say it is to jack up the rents and sluff off on repairs. But for as often as I hear that, or see it referenced in print, the claim is never followed up with any documentation. If there are studies showing that out of town landlords have more complaints registered against them, more legal battles, more licensure problems, I haven’t seen the data.

I’d be more curious about the sequence of title changes and debt registered against these properties. Perhaps it’s normal for an LLC to sell the asset to another LLC with one letter changed in the name. Perhaps there’s nothing suspicious in the escalating debt on the property. Perhaps there’s nothing illegal going on.

But I’d be curious to know.

People who doubt markets

For as much as the US is associated with markets you would think that its citizens would have a pretty good feel for what they entail. But most Americans are removed from the mechanics of haggling in their daily lives as most of their consumer purchases are priced and on the shelves of the shops (virtual or in person) of their liking.

Americans actually don’t like to bargain that much. They simply don’t have that much experience. Even at markets that resemble the one pictured above, prices are honored. Every five years or so, in order to purchase a car, there maybe some uncomfortable bartering. Still many will doubt whether they got a good deal. And no one likes to feel they’ve been played the fool.

It’s a shame too, because it leaves a portion of the population disassociated from the moving impersonal parts of large groups of buyers and sellers weighing options and landing on agreeable arrangements. Traders know what it is. Auctioneers. But if anything a whole gaggle average people associate markets with the negative outcomes in some market transactions.

And since they dismiss markets as a mechanism, one that shuffles through a bunch of decisions made by their peers as they weigh options, they feel they best route is to pick arbitrary numbers and set floors. You can hear it in the rationalizing for rent control or minimum wage. We’ll fix the market!

They’re not fixing anything. They are interfering with a market. Which of course will resonate elsewhere in the system, resulting in the ever tiresome and now cliché– unintended consequence.

Arguments for cooperation

If you’ve shopped for a house you’ve probably heard the acronym MLS. It stands for multiple listing service and exists as a database of information around the marketing and sales of real estate. Real estate companies, or brokers, cooperate and share information about the transactions their agents complete on behalf of their clients.

In the old days, the listings were printed in big books, published and distributed. I think it was in the 1990’s when the transition was made to a database with terminal access. In the old days, every region had their set of information with norms that governed its quality and input. This kept agents in their own backyards as they only had access one multiple listing service.

There are still corners of the state where local realtor associations choose not to participate in a shared system. They feel that sharing local data will rob them of their livelihoods. Keeping their market proprietary obliges buyers and sellers, who want to do business in their county, to seek out local agents.

This short video clip is from the CEO of Northstar MLS, the largest multiple listing service in the upper Midwest region. He makes the case to smaller associations to relinquish their private control of the data and share it in a cooperative fashion with all 22,000 of Minnesota’s realtors. His strategy is to tell a story of how Northstar chose to make a portion of code- the add/edit function- an open source item.

The issue arose when the software vendor failed to provide enhancements needed to allow agents to add and edit the listing information. Being a timely and key feature, the board approved additional funding so Northstar was able to develop the code inhouse. They were successful to the point of being approached to make this improvement available for sale. Instead, they chose to put the code out in an open source model.

Note how he talks of selling the technology for a fee, that it ‘wasn’t what they were about.’ Note too that although there is no monetary fee for the add/edit code, there is an implied long term partnership in growing the technology together. As the new user of the code develops it further, they incur the obligation to reciprocate and share their improvements.

Some might say this is foolish, to turn something of value loose, and trust competitors and peers to simply share on their honor. But the public, or the group who can benefit from this piece of code, is a limited group. It might not be limited to the extent that everyone is on the same speed dial, but players in an industry of like products tend to overlap in hiring, purchasing, and other workplace transactions. The pressure to conform to a standard exists in order to minimize the risk of being left out in the cold, especially in times of need.


In economic terms one could say that Northstar chose to provide a positive externality within their public sphere of industry peers by making a segment of code accessible in an open source model. To make it a public good. Financially they reasoned that their technology cost was already well spent as it achieved the desired goal. Furthermore, to keep it a private good and sell it would change the nature of their business. An evaluation of the public group to which it was made available was determined to be tight enough to indenture a sharing of progress in the code’s development.

What Northstar lost in potential income from the sale of the code was valued less than what they speculate to receive in converting it to a public good. Meanwhile, the public sphere gained an asset.

More of that please

I listened in on a rent stabilization presentation today (another name for rent control) as it is an issue that is being brought before Minneapolis voters this fall. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs did a nice presentation covering the issues.

Minneapolis’ population has gone from 382K in 2010 to an estimated 430K today, for an increase approaching 48,000 residents. Given all the gloom and doom around the decline of center cities back twenty years ago, this should be reason enough to celebrate. This growth was also achieved without substantial rent increases.

But the most optimistic data came from this slide.

Look at the income increases amongst the BIPOC population. Doesn’t it look like an increase of in excess of 25% between 2017 and 2019? Nice. Though as fantastic as that is, there is more work to do to bring those numbers even further along (and celebrate along the way).

I say–more of that please.

More about masks

On Friday, Governor Walz lifted the statewide mask mandate for those who have been vaccinated. His announcement coordinated with the CDC’s announcement to do the same. It took local politicians off guard, however, who turned around and extended the mandate in their cities. The claim is the risk is too great as the disparity gap is still too large.

The latest numbers show the counties in the metro are all hovering around 70%, which is the target number for herd immunity. But even out in the greater metro people at stores are wearing masks. I noticed this yesterday when I was picking up stuff for my garden. I asked at the first store and the clerk said they will continue with the policy “until everyone is vaccinated.”

Of course there are cascading stories on social media about how people are acting and how people should be acting. Discourse which battles the personal liberties versus public responsibilities debate is a national pastime– or at least a way some people need to process change in their lives. Talk it out.

But who is responsible for getting their constituents vaccinated? It’s hard not to question whether the local politicians crying fowl on disparities will be eating crow for how badly they’ve delivered safety to their constituents. Vaccines were first made available by special designation. Now they are easy to get everywhere- the state, pharmacies, community centers, health providers. If a local pol can’t handle the coordination of a free and vastly available public good, then– what?

It sets off the bat vibes that these leaders are primarily power players, and not practical cogs in the boring denouement of public life. And for sure we need power players now and again, but only, now and again. Excessive attachment to power, when pols see themselves above the nuts and bolts of public life, inevitably leads to the need for more masking.

The best take on why people aren’t showing face so far was from my daughter. “They don’t want to loose the mask because then people will think they are Republicans.”

La Fontaine

There were a lot of things I liked about going to French schools as a youth, but one that stands out is the discipline of recitation. A student prepares a poem and delivers it in front of the class. You were graded on tone and inflection, on cadence and emphasis. The French take their language seriously, and you are to deliver the words just so.

Scratchy pencil markings on Le Rat de ville et le Rat des champs show where to slow down, where to come to a full stop. Scribbled in are indications of the rhythms. While holding the little book in front of my peers, I most likely kneaded my sweaty fingers into the cover as I plied back the binding. The activity may have alleviated some trepidations of being front of a crowd.

It is delightful to say the words just right, to have them tumble out and be heard amongst an audience. It is not the same as reading the text in one’s head, in the same way as reading a play falls short of a production. It’s really a shame that the US school system lacks this emphasis on performance and language. Completely contrary to saying there is only one way to get one’s tongue around the words, as perhaps the French do, it is about how words are articulated to add meaning. The delivery is a disclosure of more than the words themselves.

Fables, whether by Aesop or by La Fontaine or La Fontaine’s version of Aesop, are subtle in their meaning. Some might say Straussian. There are of course the sweet little creatures having adventures. The Tortoise and the Hair, or the Lion and the Mouse. Creatures not like each other interacting to tell us that outcomes are sometimes unexpected. That we should not presume to know everything.

La Fountaine along with his contemporary Moliere were well known for cloaking messages, designed to instruct without offense. Both were successful in their lifetime for although their subject matter thrived on human foibles, the ruse of concealment let each audience member interpret the piece as they desired.

Tweets about Work

Mike Bird is always providing great information. This time it’s a paper written by Nicholas Crafts, Professor of Economics and Economic History at the University of Warwick.


Quite neat – not just measured relative to 1931 life expectancy either, but to what demographers might reasonably have expected C21st life expectancy to be. So we have the same sort of balance of work/life that a 15hr week would have achieved, it's just very unevenly distributed

Originally tweeted by Mike Bird (@Birdyword) on May 14, 2021.


Craft does something cool. He adjusts the framing of what Keynes was after by taking into consideration how the understanding of the components has changed over time. When Keynes made his prediction about work hours, they were compensation in exchange for labor. There was no consideration for the work we do to maintain or improve our health, for example, which prolongs life expectancies.

By taking a new view on labor and stretching it out over a lifetime, Craft shows how Keynes wasn’t far off in his prediction. There is also an acknowledgement of work outside of paid work. (Although calling it non-market will result in the same confusion as use of irrational for choices made outside the traditional economy.)

Establishing something called ‘non-market’ work means that we can talk about what that is, and how it works. If it is done outside the paid-for work, shouldn’t we know where it lives? In a different sphere perhaps. It is not leisure, but if cash does not change hands where is the value in it? What are the tradeoffs individual make within their own choice matrix to perform such work and how can it be cashed out?

Maybe there are more lessons to learn from the NFT’s whose value only exists within their crypto space.

All that make markets go around

The concerns about inequality have been out there for several decades now, and I still don’t get it. Global markets were blown wide open through technology and timing. Those first to market have reaped incredible sums. But there are historic precedents to such things. If anything I think it is very favorable that this wealth is generated 80% of the time from work and not investments.

As Raghuram Rajan points out in chapter six of The Third Pillar (Page 188)

The increase in top incomes is not because countries are dominated by the idle rich. Even for the richest 0.01 percent of Americans toward the end of the twentieth century, 80 percent of income consisted of wages and income from self-owned businesses, while only 20 percent consisted of income from financial investments. (35. Piketty and Saez, “Income Inequality”) This is in stark contrast to the pattern in the early part of the twentieth century when the richest got most of their income from property. The rich are now more likely to be the working self-made rich rather than the idle inheriting rich.

The wealth is the result of people producing stuff that other people want. This is a good thing that we want more of. Tremendous financial incentives are the fuel to get the motors running, to get people to take a risk and go all in on a business idea. These aren’t people who just tumbled into a fluke situation, their firms also run more efficiently then their competitors.

The majority of top earners receive business income, and tend to be owners of single-establishment, skill intensive, midsized firms in areas like law, consulting, dentistry, or medicine. These firms tend to be twice as profitable per worker than other similar firms, and the rise in incomes appears to be driven by greater profitability rather than an increase in scale. The study finds owners typically are at an age where they take active part in the business. The premature death of an owner cuts substantially into profitability, suggesting their skills are critical to income generation. The authors conclude the working rich remain central to rising top incomes even today. (Piketty, Capital)

The private market is supposed to be propelled by private incentives.

This is not how the public market works, which is fueled by other incentives. And fortunately many of the individuals who happen into the windfalls of private wealth are susceptible to those incentives as well, and frequently fold their wealth back into society.

Fraud, or tricking people into thinking they are doing business in one market when they are really playing in the other is the culprit to root out. These are the people, or groups of people, who profess to work for the pubic while internalizing benefits; or the private enterprises who finesse their commercial power to press particular public objectives. It’s the cloaking, aggregating, and averaging, that can cause setbacks like the great recession.

In two generations

Kids of Norwegian immigrants circa 1920(s?)

The history lesson yesterday had me digging through my grandmother’s photo collection. Ethel with her straight blond hair is pointed out at the top with a pencil mark. She is clustered here with her classmates. I’m not seeing a lot of wealth or power, but rather a collection of homemade dresses and hand me down overalls.

Happy Birthday Minnesota

Minnesota became a state on May 11th, 1858, making today her 163rd birthday. Perhaps it is hard to believe, but the Scandinavian countries weren’t wealthy back then so a great many Swedes and Finns and Norwegians boarded boats in ports off their fjords and ventured to the land of ten thousand lakes which reminded them of their motherland. A bunch of Germans headed this way as well. And then there were the French Canadian trappers pulling furs out of the back country.

In more recent times the leading immigrant group harkened from the Horn of Africa, but now the top country of origin is Mexico. The state has received a nice cluster of Hmong, Indian and then in smaller numbers Chinese, Russian, and Liberian immigrants. The increasingly multicultural population matches up to the international reach of many Minnesota based companies. Best know abroad are probably 3M, Cargill, and General Mills, which are three of the 16 fortune 500 companies based here. Medtronic is a local creation, only moving its headquarters abroad recently for tax reasons.

Minnesota is a high tax state. A strong communitarian spirit emerged out of its agricultural origins and persists to various degrees throughout the population. The state offers generous social services, safety nets and (even prior to Obama Care) universal health coverage. The University of Minnesota is a leading research institution, founded in 1851. In addition to a network of branches, the U funds our nationally recognized arboretum (truly something to visit if you ever make it out this way).

It’s a popular place for small liberal arts colleges. Best known by east coasters is probably Carleton College, established in 1866 in the bucolic town of Northfield, about an hour south of the metro area. Its notable graduate, Thorstein Veblen, coined the phrase Conspicuous Consumption– so you see the realization that consumers pay extra for things like social status is not new around here.

We have had our share of super stars like Judy Garland, Prince and Bob Dylan, Vince Vaughn, Winona Rider and Jessica Lang, to name just a few. Life isn’t really that much different than portrayed in the film Fargo, written by Ethan Coen. The Coen brothers, as they are known, went through St. Louis Park schools around the same time as Senator Al Franken and writer/commentor Thomas Friedman. Can you imagine how they must have tormented their middle school teachers in the late ’60’s–yikes!

I could go on about how we elected a former All Star Wrestler for governor in order to tune out the same-old same-old banter from the established parties. I could try to explain Scandinavian humility which keeps brashness in check but morphs into passive aggressive behavior. I could warn you that you will be inundated with casseroles if you experience a family tragedy, and that no one will take the last piece of a cake at an office potluck.

But mostly, on this 163 anniversary of Minnesota, I wanted to share more about our state than the view of the Minnesota State Seal during the now infamous trial of a former police officer.

Mothers, do they Work?

Seems like a silly question, right? Especially on Mother’s Day (one day late as yesterday was an event filled day). We celebrate mom’s and all they do. Whatever that is, love, nurturing, caring, there is an unsaid insistance at not distilling it down to a currency calculation.

Nor should it be. Kind of. As long as it is understood as a public good, one that fulfills the mission of a seventeen year investment in a child– work done to form a member of society who is both able to achieve their inner purposes while contributing in ways to those around them. It is nature’s ultimate public good transacted between the giver of life and her offspring.

But for the sake of practicality, for ease of conversation, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to quantify some of the efforts towards these ends? Researchers such as James S Coleman tied mother’s education level to child’s performance, but as far as I know he did not draw a present value of those future earnings back to the mother and say, voila, her life’s work was worth $xxx.

Perhaps the aversion to equating mother’s work to dollars is that cash is fungible and moms are not. You can hire babysitter to look after a child, but that just buys you care enough to keep the child out of harm’s way. It doesn’t buy all the extra on-demand services, or the supplementary nurturing, or the tradeoff evaluations between off-spring and what would be best for them at that particular point in time.

Even the courts agree that only under dire circumstances should a child be removed from their mother. After forays into such social interventions, it quickly became clear that even if they are of meager means and abilities, moms are still the most likely to serve their child’s interests. You see, because the labor of motherhood is not replaceable with paid work, it is non-fungible.

And similarly, just as the mother is poorly substituted in the paid marketplace, the care and education passed from parent to child is also non-fungible. A child cannot package it up like their Nike shoes or favorite baseball cards an sell them to classmates. The value of the transaction clings tightly to those in the relationship.

These are not straight out gifts in most cases. There is a payment, whether said or unsaid. Mostly the implication is that what a parent does for a child, the child is expected to pay it forward to the next generation. The reciprocity isn’t back to the individual who did the work. Time does not allow for that. The reciprocity is to another in the group who will in due course have a need.

But what about the group: Mothers? Are they an aggregate of individual mothers each making the best decision for their individual child, or are they grouped as mothers, celebrated on Mothers’ Day, altogether going through such metering out a list of jobs? Well, that depends

At the primary level every player is an individual. But there are instances, compelled by a common pursuit, say a Little League Team, that mothers may start behaving as a group. They become known as The Baseball Moms. Although each mom is still keeping their individual commitments to their children, the interest in winning the League championship, persuades them, as a group, to cooperate for all things baseball.

These might be making sure all the kids get to practices, organizing their eligibility paperwork, bringing snacks and water, mending and cleaning uniforms, tag-teaming on sibling care. It doesn’t matter which one of the individual moms do exactly which chores. It only matters how much they do sum total. And in that way their individuality vanishes.

Even though the mom are still making choices and acting individually, the only measure that matters is how the group of moms keep their pitchers, basemen, shortstops, catchers and outfielders in the game. Their work is spontaneous and just-in-time, as well as divided into jobs. To add each individual’s hours or contributions matters little–it’s the sum total or their capacity that matters.

Mom’s are independent contractors who forge alliances with groups in the schools, extra-circular activities and places of worship to advance many missions. Far from a socialistic model of a group performing based on equal allocations of obligation, the individual choice making is done through granular comparisons on where it is best to spend one’s time and energies.

It makes no sense to hand out 1099’s for this type of non-fungible work. Value is accumulated and retained. In the public sphere, choices are made as individuals, but the work is evaluated based on the outcome of the group. So in order to make any sense of measures, it is vital to know how to sort.

How to value Works

This morning I’m sitting in this waiting room while my car gets an oil change. The mechanics here are prefer to work on Audis and Porches but they’ve done other repairs for me, so they let me sneak in for an oil change. The shop is in my suburb, whereas the dealer is eight miles away across town. They charge more here, but I don’t have to drive through traffic.

Which brings up all the extra surcharges we pay for convenience and what that means. Aren’t we really paying to keep our time? Because an hour of our time is worth more to us than the $40 surcharge. Doesn’t that make whatever I substitute in for that hour of my time worth $40/hr?

In the case of a busy mom that might be stopping at the grocery store or being available to run the kids to sports activities. Or someone may have elderly parents that need a lift to a medical appointment. Even if the hour is spent at happy hour with work colleagues, more than likely the time is being used towards a social connection and not the profession at hand.

Since we don’t keep track of this type of work specifically, it’s hard to track how people are making these tradeoffs. But if we started taking the time to calculate the surcharges we pay and then looking into the activities that are substituted in during the recaptured time, we could get a glimpse at what is most important to us.

Who pays for lot remediation?

There’s a commercial development underway nearby, consisting of a four story apartment building and a medical office building. The structures will replace a garden center on a lot which needs $1.4 million in environmental cleanup. The developer petitioned the city to submit the bill for “excavation, soil handling, segregation, treatment and haul-off and replacement of contaminated soils, and remediation of buried onsite debris” for repayment from grant funds.

The city council approved the developer’s petition for the funds on a close 4-3 vote amongst the mayor and six council members. One councilmember ‘stressed that the grant would amount to the privatization of the profit and socialization of the public cost.’ I would rephrase that the funding allows the internalization of public funds to a private benefit.

So who usually pays for remediation? It depends.

Take the case where a neighborhood becomes ill from industrial contaminants seeping into the soil or drinking water. Three years ago 3M settled for $850 million in a suit brought against the corporation for having dumped “millions of pounds of excess toxic chemicals in areas east of St. Paul beginning in the 1950s.” The corporate headquarters is in this area.

Following this norm, the clean-up would fall to the seller. But whether sellers have to prep for market (unless specifically regulated) really depends on market conditions. With housing inventory tight, sellers of single family homes are putting very little effort or investment into obtaining a well qualified buyer. The garden center is in a position to deny any interest in remediation as they are located in an affluent area.

The council members in favor of allowing the developer to tap countywide and statewide funds for remediation express their own philosophy on the matter. Whereas the dissenters imply a gifting of public funds to private enterprise, the yes-voters are relinquished to ‘that’s the way the system works so let them ask for the money.’ Their view of the grant money is that, it has been collected, and set aside, so use it.

I’ve come across this ‘you should ask for benefits’ view before. When my kids were young, the daycare workers were pushing parents to fill out forms to pay for the meal programs (there are income limits but the idea was not to have folks self censure). Instead of putting it on the recipients to ask, the marketing of the state funded program was pushed from the supply side. I didn’t care for the approach then, and although some may be shy to admit they are in need of help, pushing benefits on people still goes counter to the natural momentum of things.

Back to remediation. Once the city gives the green light, the petition goes to the MN Department of Employee and Economic Development, the Metropolitan Council, and Hennepin County for various levels of approval. Since there are multiple demands on the public funds for a variety of projects some comparative pricing will occur. But wouldn’t it be cool if there were some type of ticker tape spitting out the price and or return on this type of investment? And in that representation one could compare the demand for environmental clean-up versus subsidies for housing versus sewer line replacement and so on.

Pricing out the demand sends public money chasing highest value projects. With that type of information we could better make sense how public funds are being internalized into private projects, and what if any, public externalities are generated per dollar or associational work hour in subsequent time-frames. Then we could better analyze the market.

Matching like to like–cohort addition

Framing up the data around issues can highlight one view while smothering another. All the numbers are correct, it is the sorting and comparing which is all a kilter. Take for instance the topic of home ownership. Here are the rates by state provided by FRED. Minnesota looks great!

Now let’s look at how homeownership rates broken down by county. You will notice that the highest homeownership rates are in out-state Minnesota and the lowest rates in the counties which make up the Twin Cities metropolitan area–outlined in purple.

Also taken from FRED

Since the rural communities tend to be older, it will be no surprise that homeownership is also highest amongst the middle to late middle age population. The Millennials, until just recently, have taken lack of interest in homeownership. Whereas 77-80% of the Boomers or Silent generation live in their own home, only 43% of those under 35 years of age have chosen buy a home. Younger folks are more likely to be attracted to the metro area.

To review, the data shows that as a state we have a high homeownership rate. Overall Minnesotans are confident in their ability and desire to own real estate and pay relatively high (ranked 19th) property taxes. Homeowners trust the cities, counties, school districts and, (for a smaller portion) the state in the use of the funds to provide services. The youngest group of adults, however, are running well below this rate, but in line with the national average.

No tricks or mirrors so far.

But what about these headlines? Are they accurate? Racial inequality in Minneapolis is among the worst in the nation – The Washington Post, Homeownership gap plays a huge part in race inequities – StarTribune.com, Why Black Homeownership Lags Badly in Minneapolis – WSJ

Each article frames the data in the same way. Minnesota is a horrible place to live for African Americans as exemplified in the homeownership gap of 51%, which is the worst in the nation.

In the Minneapolis metro area, 77% of white residents own homes, compared with 25% of Black residents—a 52-percentage-point difference, larger than in any other major U.S. city, according to an analysis of census and survey data by the Minnesota State Demographic Center, a state agency.

WSJ

What’s interesting is the black population in Minnesota has increases by more than 36% in the past ten years.

Between 2010 and 2018, the fastest growing racial group in Minnesota was the Black or African American population, which grew by 36%, adding more than 96,500 people. Second fastest was the Asian population, which grew by 32%, adding 69,800 people, followed by the Hispanic or Latin(x) population, which grew by 24%, adding 59,000 people. (Black or African American and Asian race groups are that race “alone” and not Hispanic or Latin(x)).

Data by Topic: Age, Race & Ethnicity / MN State Demographic Center

So if things are so bad, why all the in-migration? Maybe there is a need to look at the numbers a little more closely. Consider the breakdown of Minnesotans by age. You will note that people of color skew strongly to Millennials or younger.

Homepage | MN Compass

So wouldn’t the proper framing be to compare Minnesota’s homeownership rates by age cohort? I don’t have access to the numbers by generation, nor the time a journalist could devote to such calculations, but it seems erroneous to ignore variance between the groups. It seems flat out wrong to calculate rates of ownerships for African Americans who simply don’t live in our state. It’s true, that even with such an adjustment, there is still a gap. The spread is in the 18% (43%-25%=18%) range instead of the noteworthy gap of 51%.

Perhaps it is useful to use the inflated figure in order to get people’s attention. I believe ownership is the answer to extending trust between citizens and all the public endeavors in a neighborhood. I’ve also devoted many hours of unpaid labor with that mission in mind. But there are negative outcomes from fooling with the numbers too.

They discredit the built up capital that hundreds of people have devoted to the cause in good faith.

The Wild West that was Amy Klobuchar’s childhood home

Multiple public safety agencies went into action to chase this SUV through St. Paul, Minneapolis, Golden Valley and then Plymouth, where they were apprehended on a county highway not far from my house. Hopefully the efforts were initiated from an inside source as constituents realize that public safety is an ongoing interaction between the community and the official forces in charge (and called upon) to apprehend criminals.

Thankfully no one was hurt.

Crime Report

My son’s home from the U and the news is that robberies are regular occurrences, armed robberies that is. At what point do people decide to support law enforcement?

Here are some updates from Twitter, if there are any doubts about the need for public safety.

First mow of the season

With the mowing season upon us, let’s take a moment to reflect upon the subtle pressures in play which keep the block looking shipshape. Our pediatrician and I bantered around such stories, years ago when my then toddler kids were having a yearly wellness check. He lived in a tony part of town where buffed-up two stories sit on manicured postage stamp lots edged with crisp sidewalks.

A discarded bike in the grass would provoke an arched eyebrow. A creative chalk drawing colorfully leading up to the foot of the round top front door would cause a yoyo effect, as the pedestrian’s eyes followed the artwork up and back. An offensive pile of unattended fall leaves would cause the dog walker to yank the poor creatures nose as they hurried off.

Whether you are more casual about your yard work, or dig out each objectional dandelion at first sight of their jagged leaves amongst the soldier straight grass blades, it is something to consider at time of home purchase. Just how much time you are comfortable devoting to trimming hedges and potting geraniums can determine the admiration or wrath of your nearby neighbors.

To err on the tiptop side will mean an injurious sniff every time a green thumber strolls their pooch down the sidewalk. Err too casual, and you’ll cringe every time you approach your drive and note the massive brambling tea roses full of deadwood. You don’t want to turn into ‘that neighbor’ who inadvertently comments, or pulls a face, or displays some sort of other gesture of disapproval.

There aren’t specific standards on these things. A city may have an ordinance in place to regulate the maximum length of the grass. But it is usually pretty lenient– in the mid-calf to knee range. Even though you own your property, your neighbors have a say in its outward appearance, both through nudging and formal recourse.

Hiding in Plain Sight

One thing that is as clear as a spring blue sky day is that there are wolves lurking amongst the sheep on both sides of the most pertinent issues in America today. With all that has happened it’s hard to deny the rogues in the public safety business. It’s also hard to deny those, who would fundamentally change America’s way of life, mingling blissfully amongst the progressives.

United Renter’s for Justice is an organization pushing locally for rent control and tenant’s right-of-first refusal should their landlord take their apartment building to market. Members think along the lines that one individual owning more than one property is some form of injustice. (Not sure how that adds up for housing those who are not in a position to house themselves).

The new angle on leveling the American playing field isn’t to be progressive about income taxes, nor to understand how to leverage opportunity, but seems now to be focused on shifting capital. The reasoning appears to be no different than that of many revolutionary governments of yesteryear: “We don’t think you acquired your capital in an appropriate fashion, so we will take it, and redistribute it ‘fairly’.”

These folks need to read history, as there is yet to be a successful outcome from such reasoning.

The capital gains tax proposal shimmers a bit from this implied sense of justice-through-acquisition. Or, we have the power to take so we will. This type of authoritarian strong arming is not very popular in a country built by people who fled from governance by arbitrary taking.

But maybe there is some truth to ponder here, that the increased value of some assets are due, in some portion, to a wider public than simply those who own the assets. It is part of the pro-tenant people’s argument. Tenants participate in local civic activities. These activities contribute to the desirability of the neighborhood, which in turn increases demand for property, putting upward pressure on property prices. Despite their lack of direct ownership in real estate, do renters participate in some community work which is left unaccounted for?

That is an excellent question. And if the answer is yes, where in other capital ownership has there been public involvement that could be offset when an owner decides to internalize profits and sell their asset?

You do Math, you do

A lot of people say they can’t do math. With a shake of the head, “No, I’m not good with numbers.” But they’re just being shy.

When you go to the grocery store and decide what goes in the cart and what stays on the shelf, you are doing math. With the background knowledge that money going out on fruit, milk, and meat has to come close to how much money is coming in, that’s a balancing act. There’s an equation in play, an equality.

You are doing math when you solve puzzles like Suduko or play strategy games like Sequence. Or when you have to meet someone across town. You are doing math when you calculate your drive time, including parking time. Maybe there is a risk of a traffic delay. Then you’re calculating the probability of an event and adding time accordingly. You have your givens: when you are suppose to be there, the speed limit, your route choices. The equation solves for how much time to allow.

The risk portion is a little more complicated. Probability is a fun one when it comes to betting on your poker hand, or figuring out the cards in your bridge partner’s hand. There’s a whole discipline devoted to probabilities. In statistics probabilities determine the likelihoods of events replicating historical data. If we know the past, we can be pretty sure about the future, to a certain probability.

There’s this weird rule called the Null Hypothesis. In Statistics for Social Data Analysis by David Knoke, the author asks: “What is the probability that the relationship observed in the sample data could come from a population in which there is no relationship between the two variables?” (the two things you are interested in comparing). You see, if you can show that this is false, or null, then voila–you’ve proven your point. Seems backwards, right? To prove a relationship, you disprove that there isn’t one.

Whether you think of it as doing math, you are in fact calculating (shrewdly I might add) every time you buy or sell a home. Buyers and sellers weigh all the features they value, do some internal calculating and sum it up to one final number: the figure they are willing to either pony up to purchase, or, exchange for a signed warranty deed. As buyers and sellers do this over and over and over again, the numbers can start to tell you things about what they prefer.

A statistician can work the data over to glean some insights, but it’s the consumers who are doing the math.

Mn political news

The first surprise this morning was that Minnesota did not loose a congressional seat as feared. It appears we kept our seat whereas New York lost one. Our population keeps on growing despite the cold winters temperatures!

The second bit of surprise news is the large field of right leaning candidates in the Minneapolis city council race. All thirteen councilpersons are up for reelection this fall. The council president has chosen not to seek office.

Here are a few non-fungible things

With Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) -digital artwork- making headlines in the art world by commanding sales of $69 million, I thought it would be interesting to ferret out other non-fungible things. Remember the NFT works of art are not retractable from the crypto space as their unique identifiers are encoded in blockchain.

Take the the Crown Jewels of England, protected safely in the Tower of London. Wikipedia says the owner of the collection of a bejeweled crown, two sceptres, an elegant orb and a ring is Elizabeth II. But can she sell them? Perhaps technically she could– but not really. They are not tradeable, hence non-fungible. So if they cannot not be exchanged for cash, does it follow that they are not worth cash?

Take another example closer to home. Say you are dividing out the belongings from your parents home and one of the possessions is grandma’s Limoge china, a place setting for twelve with serving dishes. Your brother says it’s quite valuable, so you can have it and he will take the mutual fund account. The thing is, you wouldn’t sell grandma’s china because it is part of your family history. In this sense it is not worth cash, and hence is non-fungible.

What about activities instead of objects. Say you have two people and one eats three square meals a day while the other stuffs down the occasional bar food between beer and cigarettes. By late middle age the former exercises regularly and is feeling good. The later is sporting the wrinkles of someone twenty years his senior and the voice of two packs a day. The results of choices on how to treat one’s body is non-fungible. A health condition, whether good or bad, can not be separated, traded or sold off.

You would think currency is the ultimate fungible product. It floats around through computer screens with the ease of electricity. But consider this example. You’re on a beach vacation and you offer to pay the knickknack vendor in USD or in their local currency. She opts for US cash. If you can offer both in equal value, why should that be? The strength US currency, and hence the fact that it is widely accepted as a form of payment, is non-fungible. And makes it more desirable. Even currency has portions of its value assigned to non-fungible qualities.

Have any examples of your own? Leave them in the comments!

Don’t prop up wages–combine households

Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $400 Billion to fund home based care for boomers so they may age in their homes. Several aspects of this expenditure strikes me as errant. Borrowing money to pay salaries is not infrastructure, it is a subsidy. It seems about as unwise as mortgaging your house to pay your gas bill. At some point your heat gets turned off and you loose your house.

Part of the plan is to extend care provisions to less wealthy people. I don’t find this problematic. It’s the part where in home care givers wages are supplemented. These folks are paid in the $12/hour range as the work is simply about oversight, and basic needs. The administration does not feel this is an adequate life wage for a worker, and for that reason it should (the moral imperative should) to be augmented with tax dollars.

Although all home care workers care in some capacity for the elderly and disabled, workers vary widely in their training and educational level. The $12 an hour wage cited in the Biden job plan refers to workers also known as home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides, whose work does not require education beyond a high school diploma. 

https://www.businessinsider.com/bidens-400-billion-for-home-care-wages-will-affect-the-fragmented-industry-2021-4

Creating a working wage job that does warrant being a working wage job takes on a shine of a planned economy.

Let’s consider another scenario. What if the home health workers raised their wages, and charged more to the boomers for their services. Families of the elderly may decide it’s not worth having grandma and grandpa live alone in a 3000 square foot home, and every month pay the utilities to basically store a lifetime of possessions. At this new rate of care, maybe it would be best if the eldest daughter(or the youngest son, or whoever is best suited) took in mom and dad. More than likely, when these now octogenarians were children, some lived in multigenerational homes.

Think of what happens as households combine. We have many more single family homes available to sell and the price of housing stays within reach of the moderate middle class. Instead of spending infrastructure money on salaries, spend it on helping families retrofit their homes to accommodate intergenerational living. Instead of keeping houses off the market and driving up housing costs, release the boomer’s single family homes back out into the market.

Feed the troops

Always keep healthy food around was a pact we made to ourselves when my college roommate and I talked into the night on our lofted mattresses. It keeps a family together. It’s simple and it works.

Mealtime is a cattle call when the troops show up because they are hungry. Yes the TV is on, and people are checking their phones. But does that matter as much as everyone coming together at a designated point in the day? –I say no.

Spending time in the kitchen caught a bad rap in the ’70’s. Lurking about the measuring cups, blenders and double ovens had a status problem, it appears. I find it to be a great place, a refuge. A creative place where every year you learn how to make something new, like potstickers. Or discover how to rework the leftover pork tenderloin into a sweet and sour soup.

Then there is baking. The smell of cinnamon seeping through the house, whether from oatmeal raisin cookies, pecan rolls, or apple pie, it incapsulates the feeling of home. Why producers of such aromas were scorned for being “barefoot in the kitchen” is a bit of a mystery.

Fortunately it’s a bit passé to taunt women who choose to feed people for being weak and pathetic. In fact, women of the kitchen have linked to millions through the window of the internet. This cooker proudly entitles her site with 1500 recipes, Barefoot in the Kitchen. Thanks to technology the homey profession commands a private income as well as a familial service.

Even abroad women know the power of culinary expertise. This sweets chef has over 1.4 million subscribers and the video for a fancy treat of fine bread dough wrapped decoratively around a nut stuffing, all soaked in syrup, has 3.3 mil views. It was posted a month ago.

It appears there are many paths which lead to power and wealth.

An instance vs a life-time

The world of Twitter and Instagram promotes the power of a snapshot. It’s a small-package delivered to pack a punch. Not only is it how a lot of information is disseminated to audiences in the millions (in small frame, limited view, no historical placement setting) but has also become the most popular vehicle of public debate, or hollering.

Recently there has been lot of admonishing of our north star state with data claiming Minnesota has the largest achievement gap between majority and minority populations. Let’s consider how this datagram could mean something good instead of assuming it means something bad.

If Minnesota abruptly welcomed a large group of immigrants with no English language skills to the state, the state would be celebrated as humanitarian and good. But of course, for a number of years (how many? ten? a generation?) Minnesota’s numbers for minority education performance would be affected, as not knowing a language is a serious impediment to learning. That makes Minnesota a bad place for minorities.

Minnesota also achieves very high performance amongst children with long time residency, which makes Minnesota is a good place to live. But of course this exacerbates the difference between scores with those who have come more recently, less well equipped, which once again makes Minnesota a bad place for disparities.

It is like the comic strip with an angel and devil on each shoulder whispering their arguments in each ear. Each little creature gesticulating wildly while the face between them looks comically confused.

Raj Chetty is an economist at Harvard who studies, among other things, equality of opportunity over time and place. After all, what we want is a culmination of activity to produce a result. One time snapshots capture a measure at a particular time. A piece of information. They are woefully barren of any wisdom.

His research shows that the Minneapolis area is in the lead among large cities in cultivating the greatest income growth for children of poor families, by age 26.

Brookings

The issue of time and setting must be made part of any half intelligent conversation about these issues. The public goods a city provide can’t possibly be evaluated in moment-in-time snapshots. And people who to try to navigate this path are more likely activists out to promote one point of view, not for a public benefit, but for their private initiatives.

What’s with the birds?

I realize a lot of people wonder about bird watchers and what exactly they are up to. How can it be that interesting to catch a glimpse of an avian creature? So here are some things to consider.

Where’s Waldo has been in print for over thirty years delighting fans all over the world in finding the little man in red and white stripes. Birdwatching beats Waldo any day. First off, it can be done outside anytime, any season without any printed materials. And there are a lot more variations to look for than stripes of two colors.

Walking about in nature is pleasant in and of itself, but add to that the possibility of coming upon a devoted couple of Hooded Mergansers can make any day special. The elaborate head plumage on the drake is bright white even from across the pond. While the hen can barely be distinguished from her surroundings. Sometimes you only get a quick glance before a bird takes flight, so stand-out features are a definite plus.

Hunting is part of the fun. But the distinguishing is the real skill. You might only get a few seconds, half a minute to make some critical observations before the subject at hand flutters off to a higher limb or across the tall prairie grass. In that precious time your eyes need to take in the size, plumage markings, beak thickness and any other mannerisms that may help you with identification.

With experience, an observer can collect an impression and plop it between a range of sizes, colors and markings, then scroll the memory banks for the best possibility of what it it that flies ahead. But that’s where it gets tricky. Once out of view, the memory becomes foggy. Was it a gross beak? Was the cap black and a black bar across the wings? You learn to look for defining features.

Before you know it, your trained eye see the Flicker on the hallowed tree by the driveway, and the Orioles making their way up for the summer months, and the Crested King Fishers down by the water. Life is richer, more varied and better understood.

Now if I could only spot those darn owls.

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

When Zillow and various other tech companies decided to upend the real estate industry more than a decade ago, their tool of choice was information. With all their money and data skills, tech companies were able to thread together rigorous findings on every homesite. They took the mortgage data and the house features data and the tax data and the school data and wove it into a twinkling tapestry of particulars.

The public was mesmerized for years by the shiny fabric. It glistened and glowed and gave them more information than they could imagine. Like the ‘pre-foreclosure’ status, which delicately made public which one of the neighbors was behind on their payments. A little flag went up on the map to grab a scrollers attention. Many consumers interpreted this to mean that the house was for sale, and went up to the owners to inquire.

The wealth of information posted in one electronic capture was impressive. But it was only information. It was neither knowledge nor wisdom. Let me see if I can describe the differences with an analogy.

The weather is harsh in Minnesota with temperature swings from twenty below to over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason most single family homes are built on a full basement, so the footings are below the frost line. In addition to the temperature fluctuations we have quite a bit of water. Have you heard of the land of ten thousand lakes? That’s us!

You’re most probably familiar with basements. It’s where the utility room is located, housing the furnace, hot water heater and water softener. There is probably an electrical panel on one of the walls where the service is controlled by breaker switches. And if it is an older home, the washer and dryer are most likely in a laundry room along side a utility sink where the wash water drains.

Now all this information about what’s in a Minnesota basement might be evolving past some of you. The vague sense of the utilities being in that area is known, but identifying each of the mechanicals is becoming as shadowy as the utility room before you find the string cord and give it a yank to turn on the bare bulb light. You definitely can’t tell the difference from a security panel and the electrical, or where the main water shut-off is located. You have information but you don’t have knowledge.

Say there is a bunch of water on the floor. This is a problem. If left, it could cause mold and unpleasant odors. If there is chronic seepage into the big hole that is a basement, then there can be damage to the foundation walls. The seasonal pushing of water on the concrete blocks creates movement. You have information on what is in the basement. You may even have knowledge. But it takes the wisdom of knowing how the whole structure works.

The water pipes could be culprit, or the water heater may be leaking from its bottom. The drain under the 1950’s concrete laundry sink may have cracked beyond retightening. Or maybe the wall right behind the sink is experiencing seepage because the exterior gutter is plugged and overflowing with spring rains. This last one can get nasty over time. A seemingly innocent horizontal line will darken between the cinder blocks. Then widen. And if a decade goes by, you’ll notice a definite bowing of the wall.

You can only acquire wisdom over time. Information is flat. Wisdom has dimension. Zillow will never be wise.

Platters II

There’s another aspect to the platter system which deserves a little thought. The rules put into play at the higher, overarching levels need to be the most useful to the most people. If they are too specific, they set the lower platters, or ecosystems of exchange, a kilter, setting up rules to counter act the rules.

Take a subway system as an example. The governance and maintenance of the infrastructure is managed as a system for a large population. The NY subway handles over 3 million rides a day. So in terms of setting user fees, the calculation is done with inclusivity in mind, pricing so as to be accessible to the most people, in this case of upwards of 20 million residents

User fees work well in carrying the cost of water delivery, but come up short in paying for sewer line replacement. User fees in subway systems are also insufficient in maintaining the physical structure. In sewer lines it is easy to assign the replacement cost to each dwelling. In metro stops it is less clear who should pay.

As different locations benefit to different degrees from their proximity to the subway stop and the line, who benefits the most from a particular piece of the system is more difficult to identify. But those who enjoy its use the most, are also those who are most likely to be agreeable to paying a surcharge in order to preserve its use.

Similar to the example of waste water removal, the daily patrons at any metro stop are the most likely to realize a tangible benefit. Another way to put it is the people who use the property, apartment towers, businesses, shoppers, office complexes, realized a benefit and hence receive an increased value in rents, level of employee employee satisfaction, and so on. Wouldn’t it be great is there were price signals to tell us how much they would be willing to pay?

Being able to price out the maintenance expense would realize another mid-level platter efficiency. The building owners who do not value the proximity to the subway, and hence would find the maintenance assessment a burden, would be incentivized to leave the property. There maybe ten other desirable aspects to their building keeping them in place. Hence they stay put neglecting the benefits of mass transit.

But if the market value expense of subway maintenance were great enough, the building owner may move five blocks away from the subway line where some combination of the ten other features would maximize their needs. By not have to pay for the line, which they don’t value, they voluntarily relinquish that space to others who value it more.

When new construction goes in, the cost of putting in sewer lines, roads, curbs, and so on are built into the price of the purchase. Developers are only able to go forward with a project if there are buyers who would pay for the package– including infrastructure costs. Last time I checked, these ran around $25-30K per household in Minnesota.

If all the decision making is done at the largest, most encompassing level of cooperative agreements, then then there is a glossing over of the pockets where the benefits are compounded. Infrastructure is an amenity to an entire city, and those who travel to see it. But to afford such a significant amenity, the details of all the various levels of users and daily riders could be better understood.

Spring sports

It was a beautiful evening to enjoy this first game of spring sports over at the high school. I wasn’t raised in a sports family so for many years American’s obsession with football and baseball and basketball was a mystery to me, and even a little amusing.

As a young loan officer I worked mostly with men who each fancied their favorite sport. A very young Shaq O’Neil was scheduled to be at the Metrodome in the early ’90’s and the bunch of guys I worked with in downtown Minneapolis were excited to watch him practice. Their hearts’ pulsed visibly beneath their grey suit jackets.

Slowly I came to understand that many of them knew the histories of the final four teams; they knew statistics and coachs; they had a long term relationship with the sport. Watching the game is just one of many facets of being a sport’s fan.

In the spring, when the warmer temps are just barely taking the edge off still dormant ground, I can’t wait to climb up the metal bleachers to take in a game. It took a lot of youth sports to teach me the rules, and to understand the plays, but I have gradually grown into fan stature. Actually both my husband and I have.

Come to find out, sports are more fun to consume with someone else. When the Twins won the World Series in ’86 it was easy to jump on board as a fair weather fan and bask in the ticker tape parade through Minneapolis. But sitting on a couch comparing memories of past plays or relishing the last 90 minutes of a toe-to-toe basketball game, is also more enjoyable with a buddy.

A sport’s audience is bound in a communal relationship. People from all parts of a city can strike up a conversation with a simple, “How about them T-Wolves?” There aren’t many ways strangers can break through the social dampeners that keep people on their platter. Sports provides that venue.

The beauty of Math

The best thing about math is that it is reliable. Numbers don’t change, they don’t have nuance or inflated expectations. You can’t disappoint them. They make you think of Horton the Elephant with a little redirect, “they say what they mean and they mean what they say, numbers are faithful 100%.”

Some people find them inconvenient for that reason. They want to tell their own story and numbers get in the way. So there are all sorts of tricks to distort the numbers. Graphs that don’t start at zero, or graphics where the bars are enlarged, to imply an unsubstantiated claim. The number sits on its axis, seemingly blushing under its inflated image.

All the more reason to keep people thinking about math. I was just reviewing the statewide scores by public school district and the math scores have the greatest spread between neighborhoods. Yet I don’t think math talent divides out that way. God given gifts ignore social-economic concerns. We just don’t know how to tap that talent-yet.

But we do know a lot about mathematical relationships. There are theorems and proofs as ancient as the Greeks. Some of us who desire some concreteness in the world, find this comforting. And even if it is not your thing, the applications of their relationships have been leveraged to give us a life enhanced by science and technology.

This alone should garner respect from even those with aversions to numbers. And even when the numbers aren’t giving us the feedback we want, they will most likely represent the reality we need to hear.

Platters

A few days ago I wrote an interpretation of a notion using an analogy to juggling plates. On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding political/economic ecosystems. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them. If there is one plate up in the clouds and a bunch of plates jiggling away down by the parkay flooring, then people can only jump sideways, not upward.

On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding a political/economic ecosystem. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them.

With this structure in mind, it is easier to see how societal systems require competent political figures at all levels, in turn providing greater freedom of movement between the platters. (And if you should imply from this mental drawing that those closer to the ground are somehow simpletons, you are not in my portrait, yet. Many people choose a simple rural life, for instance, regardless of their intellectual makeup)

There is, however, a natural nesting of authority, as all the plates are spinning in the same environment. So when decisions are made of an overarching nature, they come from the upper platters. A neighborhood does fine sorting out it’s dog park and garbage collection, but needs a city to set up sewers and water service. Then the county takes over with the county roads and the state with the freeways. What if there were no levels of government between caring for your own driveway and the interstate?

Here’s an example given by Raghuram Rajan in The Third Pillar.

Therefore, for example, they want him to procure a birth certificate for their child, who was delivered in their shack in a village far away from any medical clinic. The birth certificate is essential for the child to be admitted to the free government school, and no government officer will provide it with out suitable gratification, because he has no official document to rely on. The poor do not have the money to bribe so they plead for a call from the MP’s office, which will set the wheels of bureaucracy rolling. Once the child is in the local school, the child becomes the MP’s responsibility. When she gradu ates from high school, the MP has to find a college that will admit the student if her grades are modest, and when she gets a degree, he has to persuade some government office to give her a respectable secure job. And when she gets married, he will be invited to the wedding and be expected to give a suit able gift.

In a society where the typical government civil servant is neither civil nor a servant to the poor, the MP is the intermediary who will help the poor navigate the treacherous world. While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does what he can to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents-a land right enforced here, subsidized medical services honored there. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Tied to their MP via patronage, they do not really care about how the MP will vote on the bigger issues of the day, whether he supports tax-evading liquor barons, illegal miners, or industrial polluters, so long as these do not intrude directly in their already-hard lives.

The missing plates between the poor in this story and the MP causes a couple of errors in the system. Those who should be receiving support through a combination of reciprocal work and engagement have nothing to offer the person in authority but an unconditional vote. The vote contains no value in evaluating the higher level issues which do not effect their lives.

If the vote was going to an intermediary plate authority, one who could actually trade in meaningful services for the poor, social exchanges would be tested and evaluated and remediated through the system. A successful local politician, say at the city council level could become a candidate for state or county level responsibility. The omission of mid-tier ecosystems eliminates that possibility, allowing for private actors to step in and capture the needs at those levels, in fraudulent manners.

The winds, they are a-changing

The mayor of Brooklyn Center has navigated a superb response to the on-going crisis. His feed is specific, situational and gives clear direction.

This approach appears to have general pubic support. As you read through the comments, an expression of outrage is followed by an explanation. Other voices are spelling out the agenda.

Mayor Mike Elliott on Twitter: “Daunte Wright’s death will not be exploited. Some outside elements may be planning to show up to infiltrate peaceful protesters and cause mayhem, we will not allow that. We ask folks to protest peacefully then please go home before the curfew goes into effect this evening.” / Twitter

So far the extensive military force present around the city seems to be deemed appropriate to the level of potential threat. A far cry from last years repeated bolstering of the protestors, allowing the grievers “express” themselves. The sweet naivete has been swept away on winds of change.

From the Inferno

Our metropolitan area is being tested by dark forces. To have a senseless tragedy occur midway through the legal proceedings of former police officer Chauvin feels like the doings of evil seeping up from a subterranean inferno.

Events are unfolding differently from last May. The top political figures are out front and center. The mayor of Brooklyn Center, Mike Elliot, posted a video statement in the middle of the night and today held a press conference. (We didn’t see the Mayor of Minneapolis last year until five days after the event.) The Governor also has made public statements along with John Harrington Minnesota’s commissioner of public safety.

The looting started last night so there is a four county curfew tonight from 7pm until 6am. The top politician voiced stern rhetoric against violators of the curfew and stated in no uncertain terms that they would be arrested. The national guard has been activated. So much for woke empathy.

We all received several alerts, like amber alerts, on our phones to remind us to stay home. Since it is rainy and 40 degrees outside, this won’t be much of a sacrifice. The news did show clips of businesses back out putting plywood over their windows. Someone Twitter quipped, “where’s the closest Target?”

Throughout the day newspapers and citizen journalists were out capturing bits of information and promptly posting them to social media, but it feels different. Less surprised outrage when a journalist gets hit by a rubber bullet. More disbelief that a firearm could be confused with a taser. Maybe because the officer is female, the “militarization of the police” image doesn’t quite materialize.

Lastly, this incident is different because the victim’s mother and older brother are very much of Caucasian descent. And so far the brother has acted as the family spokesperson. Whereas the TV news has found young African American talent to be the lead reporters from the streets. It’s nice to see their fresh faces report on an important issue.

There are similarities too. Both men had cause to be apprehended. Both struggled or resisted arrest. Both ended up dead at the hands of our law enforcement officers.

Now how are we going to solve this problem?

San Francisco comes to its senses

San Francisco schools have decided not to spend the time and money to rename 44 schools.

The San Francisco Board of Education will ultimately keep the names of dozens of public schools in a case of high-stakes second thoughts.

It seems we are seeing a turning point in the ridiculous posturing against ghostly foes of yore. And the objections came from a wide selection of practical folks from both sides of the aisle.

The reversal was met with relief and enthusiasm by disparate critics united in their opposition to the project. Conservatives characterized the effort as cancel culture run amok, while liberals decried the woefully poor research conducted by the blue-ribbon panel that led to the lengthy list of school names to be changed.

San Francisco School Board Rescinds Controversial School Renaming Plan : NPR

Here in Minnesota, we are experiencing an attendance problem. Now that buildings are opening up again, it’s time to try to lure the 17,000 Minnesota kids, who left public school, to get back on the yellow busses. Some may have settled into parochial schools, but the vast majority, according to reports, are being home schooled. Or at least are at home.

Let’s hope these families return to valuing our teachers, the socialization benefits of in-class learning, as well as the extra curricular activities. At an approximate revenue of $14K a pupil, there’s a $238 million dollar missing entry in the public school income ledger.

Sorting

The national conversation around inequality is grounded in measuring an individual’s income or wealth. I question if this is really the way we want to sort the players in order to get down to the nuts and bolts of our concerns.

Many of those in the one percent are recent superstars: ball players, rock stars, blockbuster actors. None of the ones who come to mind are set to receive an inheritance. Derek Jeters of NY Yankees fame, qualifies as a one percenter with a reported $5 mil/year salary. His parents are not from the super rich stratosphere, nor are quarterback Russell Wilson’s (35 mil/yr), nor Serena Williams’ (78 mil/yr).

The purpose of a free and open society is for folks to be able to move between social and financial groups. If the majority of the one percenters are the first in their families to enter this income bracket, that is a win for the country not a loss.

There are plenty of examples outside of sports franchises and Hollywood too. Many of the tech giants don’t come from substantial wealth. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk all come from professional parents, but seemingly not one percenters. And Oprah (315 mil/yr) isn’t the only self-made woman that came from a modest background. There are plenty of self-made rich women in the US.

It is true that the wealthiest women in the US are beneficiaries of family fortunes. “Eight out of the 10 richest women in America are descendants or widows of the founders of some of the biggest companies in the country – from Walmart to Apple to Mars candy.” And I’m sure there are one percenters of the male persuasion who have lived a life of financial opulence.

It seems to me, however, that it is uncommon for family wealth to make it much past the second generation. Entrenched wealth is what we find objectional. Movement of people between the income brackets is desirable. It is the way connectors can move between groups and link resources to talent.

So I suggest we talk in terms of coupling parents and children. The greater difference between their life’s circumstance the healthier the environment. Taken together, as a grouping, and then ranked, will give a better snapshot of how income is stacking up across the country.

I realize there are already inter-generational studies of income, but these focus on upward mobility. These are concerned with lifting people out of poverty. While this is one aspect to consider, moving people up from low income to higher income bracket, I consider the reverse to be of equal importance.

Children of parents with financial means are best able to be entrepreneurs as there is greater financial security in their backgrounds. Friends and family usually fund the first round of investment in a start-up. Children of parents with means can afford to tinker in a garage, be creative, invent something new.

So as important as it is to couple generations for upward mobility, it is also important to see whether those with means are helping the next generation invest their work in progress and the arts. For all these reasons I thinking sorting bi-generationally reveals more insights into the financial status of our communities.

Building a case

Watching a trial is interesting as you follow the threads left as the attorneys build their case. The witnesses are called to tell their part of the story to the jury, or contribute their expert opinion. Yet it is the attorney’s precision in introducing information to the jury that can be the difference between clarity and confusion.

Questioning the witnesses is a fine-tuned skill. There is timing and emphasis. A dance of words swirl around the courtroom, meant to land in the right order, with the right emotion. When the witness’ response chimes in agreement with the argument, the defense attorney looks down as if to review his notes. But he’s not. He’s waiting. Waiting for the sounds to resonate in the chambers a little bit longer. He wants the words to settle in each of the juror’s ears.

We all resist seeing, hearing, knowing things, especially when they tug our brains to venture down a yet unexplored path. “Stay on the rutted course” it directs us, “it’s easier, safer.”

The trial is a slow version of what happened. The process requires a review of what led up to the event. Persons from a sobbing passerby, to the off duty firefighter, to the boxer, tell what they saw, what they heard, what emotion was left on the pavement. The store clerk who called out the forged bill is shown at the curb holding his hands to his head

But just when the evidence seems irrefutable, that there is only one verdict to be had, the video footage from five other cameras is cut, reviewed, spliced into side-by-side viewings. The viral clip hides the activity behind the squad car. The body cams tell that story. The police officials discuss policy; the trainers discuss procedures; the famous pulmonologist discusses breathing.

There are diagrams, charts and examples. But caution! An exaggerated comparison might be rewarded by a nervous chuckle from the witness. The clearing of tension from the room might be appreciated, temporarily. On the redirect, facts may lay it out, hollow, a dud, a bridge too far. One point gained, two points lost, net score is negative one.

What the jurors are asked to judge is intangible. There was no decisive gun shot or stab wound through the heart. There were no marks or bruising from strangulation or force. A man’s heart and lungs stopped. An enlarged heart serviced by obstructed arteries, was supporting life to a body which had recently experienced Covid and was harboring a concealed tumor and some level of meth.

The jurors, who are thankfully out of the scrutiny of TV cameras, are responsible for the verdict. A tremendous responsibility! At least the members of the court are doing their utmost to present every possible angle of this case, thoroughly examined, through a variety of framings.

A rigged system?

I’m finding all sorts of little mindless projects to do so I can justify listening to the Chauvin trial. My latest is sorting miscellaneous hardware left over from blind installs or picture frame mountings. Yes–I have that work ethic problem where one still needs to keep busy doing something.

In some ways it feels like Minnesota is on trial. All we’ve heard about since May 25th is the ongoing degradation of our neighbors at the hands of systematic racism and white priveledge. This truly does not seem reflective of our state. And I think the trial is vindicating that notion, regardless of the jury’s decision regarding Mr. Chauvin.

The Star Tribune offers a comprehensive list of all the witnesses to date. It is far from a clubby group of white men who hang out at the firehouse slamming women and minorities. In fact the firefighter personnel involved in the incident were evenly divided by gender. We’ve also heard from both women and minorities at various levels of seniority within the Minneapolis Police Department.

Similarly, the Bureau of Apprehension and the crime scene workers are all non-white male. But maybe more importantly I can’t help but note how consistently well spoken, careful to respond and even mannered the witnesses have been. These Minnesotans are under the glare of worldwide scrutiny and they are showing themselves to be well spoken, conscientious workers.

It’s hard to build a case of systemic oppression, imposed by from above, by a mixed group of the oppressed.

Infrastructure

There’s a lot of chat going on about what all is included in President Biden’s infrastructure bill. Those on the right are making accusations of bad intentions as funds for social programs have been feathered into the expenditures. The left quips back that they are simply not thinking creatively enough with what it is that is necessary for a successful society.

So what is infrastructure? According to the dictionary(.com):

Well this leaves us with a lot of leeway for interpretation. But traditionalists would claim that you need to look at what has historically been considered infrastructure, like roads and bridges, water delivery systems and even mass transit.

I would humbly point out that what I refer to as public goods, those things we prefer to provide as public products to the most people within a defined grouped, is an excellent way to stack and separate infrastructure from private goods.

We choose to provide public goods when 1. It is simply more practical to pool resources and have roads available to everyone than have everyone pulling over to throw a few quarters in toll booths 2. When there are questions of safety involved, particularly personal safety. Can’t let people drink foul water–then we’d have to rescue them! 3. When the benefit of mass production provides strong upsides, like preservation of our environment. Why else would there be doggie bags on the public trails?

Biden’s bill provides several provisions for housing. “Specifically, the plan calls for the construction and rehabilitation of over 500,000 homes in low- and middle-income areas. According to Biden, two million affordable homes and commercial buildings would be built and renovated over the next decade as part of the initiative.”

This money will be pushed down to the local level through a grant making system. Typically, the final tally of actual structures touched following these types of political statements are far fewer than the aspirations. But the question perhaps is whether housing should be a public good, or infrastructure, in the first place.

The answer is no. Public housing projects, like Kabrini Green, have a long history of failure in America. The construction and maintenance of structures is best handled in the private (quasi-private) market. While the determination of which segments of society need help in the spread between their capabilities and the cost of housing should be left to the public arena.

Framing

Framing offers multiple perspectives.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could put a frame around a conversation so when voice(s) try get a hold of the markers and run straight off the canvas on some doodle, they’d hit the edge of it and come ricocheting back to finish the project at hand?

The ability to reframe an image quickly has taken a lot of uncertainty out of successful modern photography. Whereas one once spent time manually capturing the image through the lens, now one worries mostly about high resolution. Unhappy with tipping or cropping? A few clicks and it’s done! Take one photo and clip it four ways to tell four stories.

Framing topics of discussion is not so simple. There can be lack of guidance as to what information is admissible, as to the boundaries of the topic. And that’s just the subject matter, data, facts. Then there is the obscurity of the wealth, or limitations, of your interlocutor’s personal experiences.

Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet, has a new book out: A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant & the Curious. In an interview today she explained that her writing is a way of showing the American people what is like to be an immigrant in a foreign land. And through this process help people to reframe issues.

But what if the audience in question has very few points of reference?

For instance, when I returned to the US in the early 80’s to attend a small liberal arts college, I befriended woman who had never been allowed to venture to downtown Minneapolis. The 8 mile trek from her affluent first tier suburb was considered to risky. To entertain a meaningful discussion about safety when the granular degrees of life’s experience are so excessively narrow in one instance, and so comprehensively broad (so as to include a childhood immersed in revolution and an eventual flight from one’s homeland) seems improbable.

And what is challenging in public conversation, is that more times than not, you do not know your interlocutor’s framing. Are they looking at the river in the upper left photo, concerned primarily about water quality? Are they focusing at what is going on beneath Hennepin Avenue Bridge? Do they just have the bridge in focus as a source of river crossing and transport? Or are they in those tall condos valuing the view of the river and the Minneapolis skyline beyond?

When two people fail to find common ground for the basis of a discussion, the outcome is frustration and a few slurs on Twitter. Irritating yes, but there are worse things. Here is a case where lack of framing leads to detrimental rule making.

Say a city was weathering a period of fast rising rents. Maybe this inflation was even due to a catch-up period as real estate prices had been atypically low in preceding years. But the acceleration scares people. Especially young people with short time horizons. So they rally and want action. They point to the recent data to convince the public that markets must be constrained. If not the 4%, 5% increases will continue to 6%,7%,8%!

The data over a long term, however, shows a modest increase in annual rents of, let’s say, 2%. The city council members prefer to keep their framing on the short term as this is most effective. It seems there maybe a role here for the Federal Government. If rescue funds were made available (like Covid funds are now) to the truly needy after a sharp increase in rent, then the gut reaction to impose rules would be muted. The demand for action satisfied.

Having a rescuer of last resort whose view isn’t immediate, whose view expands to a longer timeline framing, who steps in to ease the burden of those disproportionately effected, this could deter four year politicians from rewriting rules with over a century of good standing.

Whereas less rules keep us nimble in our special combination of an open economy and liberal democracy, erroneous rules take time to undo, reek havoc and prevent progress. Every tier of government can use its framing to ease demand for bad policy.

Author essays

I really enjoy late-in-life reflective essays written by authors whose work is too large and too challenging to tackle head on. For example Bertrand Russell wrote Portraits from Memory and other essays, which places him in his time and space as an observer of his contemporaries. And recently I’ve been enjoying Essays on Political Economy by James M. Buchanan.

Taken in small bites, it’s easier to chew on some of the ideas they left for the world.

Consider the fourth essay in the book: The Relatively Absolute Absolutes. Buchanan tells the story of how he was invited to give a talk on the same old hum drum economic stuff when he negotiated their accord to a presentation with this somewhat Suessian title. Keep in mind this is after he won the noble prize in 1986. With celebrity prizes earned, he was free to expend some creative thought.

He explains the commitment to the talk was meant to keep him on track with the good intentions of writing a small book, to bear the same title. Yet it doesn’t appear to have been enough of a push. So we must turn to this essay to learn what this great mind was trying to impart about relativity and absolutes.

I’m sure I am going to fall short of his intentions, but here is goes. The term implies that for purposes of analysis one can pull out a segmented situation and look at interactions at that level for the absolutes that are applicable, even if those absolutes are only relative once the segment is shoved back into the extended deck of playing cards for life.

If all settings of economic activity could be held on plates swirling on sticks, like the jugglers are able to manage, then to do the analysis of just one plate of activity, you are able to temporarily ignore the other relevant factors of being part of a larger group of plates (one being that they will come crashing to the ground once the stick stop jiggling).

In his first example he considers the work of Alfred Marshall who “imposed a temporal order environment within which firms act.” As we all know there are short term decisions which can garner immediate profits, but short change long term goals. Using the relatively absolute absolutes argues that it is OK to consider the short term ignoring the overarching ‘absolutes’ or givens of long term decisions. It’s OK to analyze long tern decisions under similar circumstance. Then pull the analysis together.

The short-period and the long-period planning process may occur simultaneously. The differentiation lies, instead, in the number of variables that are allowed within the relevant choice-set relative to the number of variables that are regulated to the set of constraints.

The next example releases the individual from commitments to institutions. “The individual must reckon on the the temporal ability of the potential choice variables, and norms for rational choice required that some variables be treated analogously to fixed inputs in the Marshallian model, that is, as relatively absolute absolutes for the purpose of making short-period choices.”

He says that this is all pretty straight forward on the surface but it gets more complicated when you consider how many plates everyone is trying to spin without any falling to the ground. Things get a little more interesting when one interest has constraints placed upon it by a higher level interest. For instance the “higher” level interest of loosing weight is biased constraint against the initial impulse to select a second chocolate Easter egg.

The practical part of what he is offering with the relatively absolute absolutes is that analysis and measures can be done on just one plate. “We may, on occasion, walk on ice as if it were solid ground, even if we recognize that to do so requires that certain conditions of temperature, time and place be met.”

I think this is a very useful point of view.

Union Market

Even back twenty years a go when the death kneel sounded for the end of paper books, I was skeptical. I never tried the Nook or downloaded books from the library. The feel of the printed page in my hands is part of the reading experience.

In those in between years, when national bookstore chains were shutting down, I made a point to visit Birchbark Books which is one of a handful of independent bookstores to weathered the competition from technological alternatives. It’s a sweet brick storefront with a large glass paned window, owned and run by writer Louise Erdrich.

Her shop, which is in an old money neighborhood of Minneapolis, has an eclectic inventory on its shelves with brief commentary on handwritten cards taped up so as to give you a preview of what is to be found between the pages. Quite a few shelves are devoted to her books as well as the work of other Native American writers, as this is a venue for their display.

Last week while out in DC we visited Union Market, an old grocery marketplace now being rehabilitated after a long period of decline. Politics and Prose has a cozy presence in a slim shop settled in a long row of what appears to have been food distributers. The area has that cool vibe of a place artists would like.

The redevelopment, however, is coming fast and furious. The contrast is visible as the four to seven story apartment or building space surround the street level shops.

Politics and Prose is the pale green store front center left.

Housing as Infrastructure

Biden’s 2.5 trillion infrastructure plan has supply side incentives for getting additional housing up and running. The push is provided by grants to those who will eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

The fact sheet goes on to describe this zoning plan in two sentences, as follows:

CNS News

Eliminate exclusionary zoning and harmful land use policies. For decades, exclusionary zoning laws — like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and prohibitions on multifamily housing — have inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with more opportunities.

President Biden is calling on Congress to enact an innovative, new competitive grant program that awards flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate such needless barriers to producing affordable housing.

The City of Minneapolis rezoned the entire city in 2019 to allow for multi-family dwellings across the city. What was discovered however, is that there are still many additional rules in place that restrict developers from completing the task. Things like height restrictions and underground parking. As most of the requests thus far have been in the high demand neighborhoods, the planners seem disinterested in working out the kinks.

The persistent thought that development for the wealthy is a negative, not a positive, continues to restrain people in power from acting.

The city gets full credit, however, for bringing back some old school methods of diversifying the composition of household formation. In November of 2019 a change in zoning was approved to allow for intentional housing clusters. This is a similar set-up to a rooming house where residents share a kitchen and one or more bathrooms.

The intentional community cluster development ordinance allows nonprofit organizations, government agencies or healthcare agencies to create collections of small housing units (tiny homes) and a common house or rooming houses with shared facilities on a city lot that is at least 10,000 square feet. The developments are allowed in any part of the city with the exception of industrial zoning districts.

Most recently, the county in conjunction with Avivo, a local non-profit, created “Avivo Village, an indoor community of 100 secure, private dwellings or “tiny houses” created to provide shelter to individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness, has opened in Minneapolis’ North Loop Neighborhood.”

And the council continues to push through additional changes.

A few days ago “the Minneapolis Council Business, Inspections, Housing and Zoning Committee approved a provision that would remove language from the city’s Housing Code regarding occupancy requirements. Currently, the city’s Housing Code limits occupancy by restricting dwellings “to one family that must be related by blood, marriage or domestic partnership.”

All this undoing of how housing is built and used in the city is a start to allowing more people move into more space. More units leads to lower costs. But it is also necessary to keep the history of such restrictions close at hand. The reasons constituents blocked rooming houses were because they became problem spaces. So what’s the plan to prevent this from happening?

To revive old systems and proclaim them to be new solutions without any consideration of their history seems shortsighted. They do provide lesser expensive housing. But there needs to be an active and on-going companion piece to keep the public from turning on these ‘new’ solutions again, down the road.

Trials in an age of body cams

The Derek Chauvin trial has been very distracting! There are several outlets for the live stream including the NYT and Court TV. What makes it so engaging is all the high quality video footage from multiple street cameras and police body cams.

With witnesses filling in context, there seems to be little room for Perry Mason like attorney tricks trying to sway whether someone could really see what they saw, whether someone said the menacing words, whether a bystander was really belligerent. Maybe for this reason the unfolding of events as told by the witnesses over the past few days has been relatively uncontested between the two legal teams.

At one point today the prosecutor was leading Chauvin’s supervisor to proclaim a judgement call on the event prior to having fully investigated all the evidence. Upon objection by the defense, the jury was asked to vacate the chambers so the judge could be convinced of his reasoning. Judge Cahill then allowed the prosecutor one question in this regard. The defense responded with a thorough and methodical cross examination.

The paramedics were on the stand in the afternoon along with a captain of the Minneapolis Fire Department. If you thought firefighters only put out flames, you would be as wrong as I. About 80 percent of their calls, it was testified, are support calls for EMT’s. The speed with which they responded, in minutes, has to be recognized as well above average.

Since a police officer entered the ambulance, the court was shown several still photographs from his body cam. It was all very real TV to see the photographs and then hear the paramedic’s testimony of the attempts to revive the victim who appeared to be in cardiac arrest. Only minutes later, Chauvin’s supervisor, who also activated his body cam, gave the court a look at the halls of Hennepin County Medical Center.

This trial must contain more video footage of any other yet to be presented to a jury. It’s fascinating. I’m sure I’ll get sucked into more viewing hours in the coming days.

Supply-side shelter

The conversation around housing always seems to be one of demand. We need more affordable housing! There are homeless people who need a safe place to live! There aren’t enough rental units!

What if, instead of demand, we thought in terms of the supply. Not even necessarily in terms of the supply of the physical structures as much as the physical structures in conjunction with the neighborhood attributes.

For instances, there are several examples in Rochester and Perham MN where businesses have banned together get involved in the process of suppling workforce housing. It came about because they had jobs to fill and potential employees could not afford to live within a reasonable driving distance of the workplaces.

There is a history of missionary types of people hosting new immigrants to our country, of supplying them with housing until they get on their feet.

Maybe if more thought was put into supply-side housing, instead of incessantly pounding the drum of demand, we could see our way to more solutions. Or maybe if we could see the constraints that are holding back the natural inclinations of supply, we could ease them to allow for more forms of shelter.

Affordable housing is not a product line

Some politicians don’t buy the idea that an additional supply of housing units, at any price point, will lead to more units of affordable housing. They do not accept that increasing the number of units overall, or greater supply, reduces costs.

What they see are swanky high end homes being built and swanky high income people moving in and absolutely nothing happening to the other end of society. So who’s to blame them?

In order to assist in smoothing out some of these misconceptions, it’s necessary to beg people to accept that housing is not an ordinary commodity, like clothing. Everyone needs housing and clothing, but that’s where the similarities ends.

Poli-types and activists talk about affordable housing as if it were one line of housing, like an evening gown is one line of a designer’s seasonal collection. If you only make evening gowns there’s nothing for the average Joleen to wear. We must sew up some practical shirtdresses! It’s that simple: Build affordable housing.

There are two conceptual problems with treating housing like clothing (just pick the right line for goodness sakes!) Housing is a good that is used and reused as opposed to being disposable. And secondly, in part due to this, over time (time is important) depending on how much maintenance it receives (maintenance is important) a home’s usefulness and hence value fluctuates.

When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable.

Whereas a community doesn’t want too much time to pass with too little maintenance (which creates slums), this is often the scenario playing out for NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing). A long time landlord may get to the point of not being energized by upgrades and flashy renovations. He or she may be riding out the property’s usefulness as long as the tenants are amicable.

But time never stops. And mechanicals get old. So these situations are only sustainable for so long. When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable. Down comes the structure to make way for a swanky new one.

Since new is expensive, expensive people move-in. But as long as the new construction is adding units to the pool of housing, and not just being filled with newcomers, then homes are freed up for folks to stair step up through more choices.

Deals to be had

The condo market continues to have growing inventory in this fast hectic market. (Or maybe part of the market is hectic because condos are being ignored.)

Either way, this won’t last forever folks! The extra inventory allows for better selection and better pricing. But in that funny way markets work, this opportunity will be taken for granted until it’s gone. Then there will be regrets.

Catallactics

I came across a new word today in James M Buchanan’s Essays on the Political Economy. In his second essay, The Public Choice Perspective, he says:

I shall refer in the following discussion to two separate and distinct aspects of elements in the public-choice perspective. The first aspect is the generalized “catallactics” approach to economics. The second is the more familiar homo economicus postulate concerning individual behavior. These two elements, as I shall try to demonstrate, enter with differing weights in the several strands of public-choice theory, inclusively defined.

He goes on to explain what the catallactic part of the economy means as used in his POV.

The approach to economics that I have long urged and am urging here was called by some nineteenth-century proponents “catallactics,” the science of exchanges. More recently, Professor Hayek has suggested the term “catallaxy,” which he claims is more in keeping with the proper Greek origins of the word. This approach to economics, as the subject matter for inquiry, draws our attention directly to the process of exchange, trade, or agreement to contract.

Then he elaborates to distinguish traditional economics as the exchange between two individuals, versus the catallactic form as an exchange between groups of people.

If we take the catallactics approach seriously, we then quite naturally bring into the analysis complex as well as simple exchange, with complex exchange being defined as that contractual agreement process that goes beyond the economist’s magic number “2,” beyond the simple two-person, two-commodity barter setting. The emphasis shifts, directly and immediately, to all processes of voluntary agreement among persons.

This seems like more than a point of view. This is the foundational understanding of the comprehensive economic apparatus.

Equality at odds with Progress?

There’s a new paper, Lessons from Denmark about Inequality and Social Mobility, by James J Heckman and Rasmus Landerso. Here’s the abstract:

Many American policy analysts point to Denmark as a model welfare state with low levels of
income inequality and high levels of income mobility across generations. It has in place many
social policies now advocated for adoption in the U.S. Despite generous Danish social policies,
family influence on important child outcomes in Denmark is about as strong as it is in the United
States. More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally
available programs. Purposive sorting by levels of family advantage create neighborhood effects.
Powerful forces not easily mitigated by Danish-style welfare state programs operate in both
countries

What I find interesting is the framing of their analysis around neighborhoods. They find that even though teachers in Denmark are paid the same salaries, there are still different outcomes for children which appear to be a result of families sorting themselves by neighborhood.

One good example of this phenomenon is the quality of schoolteachers by clusters of parental
characteristics. In Denmark, teacher salaries by neighborhood are mandated to be equal. That is
a force for uniform quality of schools across neighborhoods. However, uniform quality is not the
actual outcome in Denmark.

The sorting continues down through to the teachers.

There is a strong positive association between the characteristics of parents, on the one hand, and the characteristics of teachers on the other, despite equality in wages.

Even with an equalization of monetary compensation to the educators, the more established families gain the preferred access to education. And thus equal opportunity to education is not being realized.

But is this one of those everything-should-be-equal that makes sense or is counter productive? Are the measures and classifications and groupings done in a way that divvies up into a state of balance?

I don’t think it is a controversial notion that those on the lower rung of academic performance are more likely to be motivated by seeing themselves in their teachers and mentors. And until those teachers and mentors are brought along into this higher level of academic delivery, the system that looks for those mentors will have unbalanced delivery systems. By choice. And this may very well be the best delivery for that moment in time.

Here is a scenario where fine tuning and focusing in on what is thought to be an issue of equality maybe sabotaging the path for greatest progress. By drilling down to the tier of the individual, one dismisses the group. To bring along the child can only be done by bringing along their larger group, including their parents and teachers.

Revolt?

It might be my imagination, but I sense a subsurface tension in the teaching community around the issue of the extended Covid school closings. It lurks like other things you can’t quite detect: a high pitched dog whistle or the floor beneath your feet right before a quake. Or even more material things like the moisture on your brow and that earthy smell in the hour or so before thundershowers roll in.

As long as the virus is still taking lives, the topic is off the table. But soon everyone will be vaccinated. Soon the teachers will be taking account of where exactly their students are at in the curriculum. Some who normally enjoy the challenge of working with the most in need, may find their charges have have slid in arrears, past due even for assignments pre-Covid.

Without the structure of school, without the routine, without the expectation of someone waiting for them, recognizing them, without the the fun as well as the drudgery of the school environment, they simply stopped paying any attention to their education.

As an outsider looking in, it seems the teacher’s union towed a tough line. The virus put teachers’ lives at risk. The end. Apparently their work is not essential to the functioning of society. Decades of negotiating wages and benefits right down to each and every minute of their instructional day has made it easy to disregard any intent of the job and only see their work from a pecuniary point of view.

How the teachers who carry an old school sense of service to the community feel about this very privatized manner of handling their chosen profession is yet to be seen. Unions deserve credit for elevating teachers’ wages, and after all, spirit or no spirit, one has to pay the bills. Still–in years gone by, teaching was more of an employment of the heart, it involved a sense of duty, and was regarded as such.

So this cocooning of teachers away from the public while grocery workers and nurses became celebrated frontline workers, this buffering of their duties to educate seven, eight and nine year olds through Zoom screens can’t possibly fulfill the desire to be in good standing within the community. Some might feel the dignity of their work has been stolen out from under them.

Maybe when they were young pups trying to figure out their career choices, they absorbed the fact that teaching would pay less than other professions in business or law, but as a counter balance, they valued the sense of contributing to a greater cause. Teachers are trusted. Teachers are a source of advice. Teachers have the ability to play the role of a connector. At least for now.

For every minute of labor, the union has monetized their job. Perhaps the process has squeezed out any compensatory allocation to good will, to the noble cause. The power of the union is to talk in one voice. Then there is little hope of those within, who oppose its direction, being heard in any way.

This is all speculation on my part, of course! Classes are resuming, and by next fall all the soldiers will be marching to the old familiar cadence. Everything will be chalked up to the unprecedented and unanticipeted year of the plague. No matter. A little inkling persists. If you strip all the community value out of a labor force who is inspired by it, has worked for it, defends it; if you monetize every last moment of their day, at some point workers will revolt.


Vintage Stonehenge and the passing of time

Stonehenge summer of 1976

In honor of the alignment of the rising sun on the spring solstice between the ancient stones of Stonehenge, here is picture from my visit in the mid 1970’s. I do remember the now UNESCO World Heritage site as being well attended. And from the lack of grass around the ancient stones, it seems that everyone was allowed full access to the area.

To write or not to write

“Get it in writing!’ is the advise offered when entering into a contract. Too true. In particular when the parties have no relationship. If you want the law to back up your claim in an agreement, then it is a lot simpler if the terms are written out and both parties have signed in acknowledgement.

However, things aren’t always spelled out in a contract. A while back, in small claims court, I listened to a judge pull the rental agreement between a duplex owner and a tenant, one question at a time. It was clear he had some experience ferreting out these types of arrangements, to help settle who owed what to whom. He didn’t seem aghast that the plan at hand was verbal not written.

And before you judge, how many times have you clicked through the ‘I accept’ box without taking a moment to read what it is you are accepting? Written out yet neglected. We rush around our lives assuming the best.

Sometimes no one is clear what that ‘is’ is in particular. Technology has generated some truly stunning options, options unanticipated. When facebook provided that opportunity to reconnect with childhood friends around the world, it was intoxicating. Did I click right through the user disclosures agreeing to let their algorithms stalk my life and sell the information to advertisers? Yep. (or wait–were their any concerns of data privacy at the start?)

Written or not written. It’s not practical to put every moment of our lives into a written contract. Say you wanted to ride share with another family. You divvy up the chore, one takes the girls to girl scouts, the other to lacrosse practice. Stuff happens. Things get cancelled, rearranged, people have to be flexible.

Maybe one family does bare an larger burden. There’s no official settling of accounts, but for the relationship to sustain further commitments of work towards the children’s on-going experiences, more than likely there is some sort of make-up. Interaction continues. And this pattern can be seen in workplace groups, covering for each other or coordinating on projects. Work, exchange, work.

And when this pattern continues over a long period of time, people trust it. They rely on it. Home buyers, except for rare exceptions, diligently sign the stack of documents as indicated by the manicured finger of their closing agent. There’s no flinching at the part where the bank can foreclose for non-payment. Buyers rely on the knowledge that banks are competitive, consistent and regulated.

Consumers rely on a business climate. That many thorny issues have already been washed through mediation or courts by objectors who took their time to point out injustices. How can that be? It’s certainly not true everywhere in the world. The answer might be something like, “In the US we have institutions which allow consumers to trust the mortgage financing system.”

So in effect, institutions are the culmination of work which goes to enforce unwritten contracts on how to behave in (this case) the mortgage business. We have written contracts too, of course. But the trust in the system, the cart blanche, ‘I don’t need to have an attorney review this’ part is a trust based on social behavior and outcomes. Based on the knowledge that others have gone to bat and secured enforcement or change. That people were consistently able to work toward an outcome secured in the spirit of the transaction.

People often refer to institutions as a set of rules. I see institutions as the structure which allows work to occur and be captured in a non-fungible manner within a community. The greater the repetition, the greater the trust, the stronger the institution. We may even discover the value of unwritten contracts to far exceed the value of ones spelled out in ink on paper.

Example of ADU (accessory dwelling unit)

If you’ve been curious about accessory dwelling units–just a fancy name for an apartment on top of the garage- there’s a home for sale in Minneapolis that has one. The market has been hesitating a little bit with it as it has been on the market a week already, which is uncharacteristically long for a home in this condition.

As posted on NorthStar MLS

The listing is offered by Lake Sotheby’s Realty and a full set of photos is found here.

Truth-in-Regulation

A few days ago I suggested that home buyers and sellers, at least while in the process of a transaction, do not place monetary value on a city’s truth-in-housing process (TISH). Whether the city mandated point-of-sale ordinance contributes to the transfer of property is not a new discussion. It’s not even controversial in the sense that the handful of cities which require the inspections are steadfast in the process and very few new cities have ventured down the road of its implementation. You can read the Minneapolis Realtor Association position statement on the matter here.

Let’s consider the expense of the regulation in a modest suburb of 23,000 households which experiences a ten percent turnover in any one year. The city collects a fee of $250 x 2300 or $575K to cover the costs of TISH. By design this fee pays inspectors on staff and the administrative burden of processing the certificates. Financially it is a wash through the city coffers.

What exactly do the residents get for the $575K? The idea, of course, is that the condition of the housing stock is elevated to some degree. As you can read in the position statement this reasoning is flawed, at least in a relative sense. The properties that come to market have been prepped and prettied up. Buyers often require sellers to do repairs before closing based on their own private inspections. Furthermore new owners, in their excitement, invest further in mechanical and cosmetic improvements. Just ask Home Depot.

The truth-in-housing process does double duty to the private process of a more comprehensive inspection. The city is perhaps better prepared to catch failures to pull or complete permits, but that is also covered in the disclosure process required my Minnesota law.

Regulations are needed. They are desired. Let’s just be as efficient with them as possible. If the objective is to elevate housing stock, I would argue that constituents may choose something other than TISH. They may choose for the $500K to be shoveled back into clearing up permits for the least advantaged households in their community. They may choose for the city to carry out TISH on properties that have not pulled a permit in the last fifteen years.

Many mechanicals have an average 15 year lifespan: appliances, hot water heaters, even furnaces. In a fifteen year window roofs might be replaced, window and doors. There’s a good chance that these households are not pulling permits because they either suffer from lack of money or the ability to tackle large projects. Wouldn’t this be a good use of half a million? To aid those who are not able to help themselves with their housing maintenance?

I don’t claim to know how a city’s population would respond. But I know the present system doesn’t even allow the conversation to happen. (And those with the most expertise in the process are quite deliberately left out on the permis they are only capable of self-interest.) Establishing a periodic rethink of regulations refreshes the figures, and the costs, the possible alternatives, and the goals.

Wouldn’t it be great if truth-in-regulations were right there, printed on glossy paper, with all the other summary reports of a city’s performance?

Unicorns and Magic Dust

One of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is the speedy development of vaccines. Nothing like a threat to all of humanity to bring people together and achieve medical milestones! But short of alien invasions or another plague, what are more temperate ways to promote progress? This, it turns out, is a hard question.

I find it much easier to point out what stops progress than what ignites it. Three culprits come to mind: desire for power, inability to curb jealousy and gatekeeping (which I guess is the result of the first two human conditions). It’s no wonder successful start-ups are dubbed unicorns as the circumstances which spin out to swirl them into explosive growth are rare and magical. Any one of many fateful decisions could lead the whole project down the wrong road.

Some time ago I heard a story about one such decision made at the infancy of a present day multinational. The founder needed a place to build stuff. This was up in northern Minnesota where the land bares little more than hay and potatoes. The founder approached a local guy who had a bunch of large sheds sitting empty. He had no money, but he went to the owner and asked is he could lease the space and pay with stock certificates from his soon-to-be company.

The local guy didn’t know what to think of such a proposition. How was he to evaluate this guy from the cities and whatever it was that he would be putting together in his buildings? It wasn’t like people were banging down his door to pay him rent, but he didn’t want to play the fool (nobody wants to play the fool) either. He knew a successful real estate guy from the cities. He had done some work for him planting a nice row of Colorado Blue Spruces as a border along the drive into his lake home.

So here’s the connector part. A connector person is one who can bridge various otherwise isolated communities. The relationship is strong enough that the parties at hand trust each other and value the information being shared. Up north guy knew enough about the real estate guy: he was a college athlete, his business was successful, he was reliable. He had interacted with him enough to know he was on the up and up.

So when real estate guy leaned in and said, “Really, what do you have to loose?” Up north guy unlocked the sheds and widgets started to tumble out.

Real estate people tend to be optimistic, but what if up north guy had turn to a pessimist for advice. Instead of a ‘what have you got to loose’ response, he got a ‘those city folks are always out to take us for a ride’ response. What if there had been no one to turn to to figure out if this was a con or the real deal? What if there was a person nearby, but he was all caught up in social stature making him unapproachable?

The solution that won’t necessarily ignite progress, but would certainly set up an environment of greater potential, is the advancement of activities which encourage the mixing of people from different backgrounds, skills, and social groups.

As you probably predicted, the stock made up north guy far wealthier than the majority of other residents in the county. More than half a century later his descendants are still flush from a decision to rent or not to rent. All because he trusted sound advice and didn’t get caught up in a power play.

Jury selection- Chauvin trial con’t

I didn’t know jury trials were an American thing. According to Jury | Britannica 90 percent of jury trials occur in the US. A defendant who faces a penalty in excess of a six month imprisonment has a constitutional right to have their case judged by a jury of their peers.

It seems when their are tough decisions to make, we prefer to defer to a group. A jury is interesting as their deliberations are done privately, no outside judging, no transparency. There’s an anonymity to a group. The group has to come together behind a decision and stand by it in front of the court.

This is a service done without compensation, a civic duty. Granted, many will sabotage their opportunity to sit in the jury box. Reading through this coverage of jury selection in the Derek Chauvin case provides plenty of examples. And then there are those like #52 who is compelled to participate in an historic court case.

It takes all types of people with all types of talents to round out a group.


Reporting from the Hennepin County Court house:

Entire thread

Chauvin’s attorney says the Court should consider: giving the defense extra strikes, delaying the trial, moving the trial outside Hennepin County, bringing back the seated jurors to ask them what they’ve heard, or immediately sequestering all the jurors.

“We’ve got a mayor who is a lawyer by trade, he should know better,” defense says of Jacob Frey. Judge Cahill: “I wish City officials would stop talking about this case.” May bring back seated jurors to inquire, motion to delay trial taken under advisement—nothing decided yet.

The first prospective juror of the day right away discloses she heard about the $27m George Floyd family civil lawsuit settlement on the radio. “When I heard it I almost gasped at the amount,” she says. She doesn’t think she can be impartial, and has been excused.

Prospective juror #52 says he doesn’t think Chauvin intended to harm anyone, but he wonders why the other officers didn’t intervene and stop him. Supports BLM. “This is the most historic case of my lifetime and I would love to be a part of it,” he says. He’s on the jury.

Prospective juror #54 in the #ChauvinTrial is 75 years old and describes being “appalled” by the video. “To exert that kind of force for that long just seemed out of line to me,” he says. After expressing doubt over whether he can be impartial, the judge excuses him.

Originally tweeted by Tony Webster (@webster) on March 15, 2021.

Market Value of City Inspection : $0

The housing market is marching to pomp and circumstance as apartment dwellers and condo owners are graduating to detach single family living. As this Star and Tribune weekend article announces, “In risky move, buyers waive inspections in red hot Twin Cities home market.”

Everyone benefits from an inspection. Buyers learn what it is they are buying, and sellers are far less likely to hear about conditions issues after the fact. The average home owner has somewhat limited knowledge of all the mechanicals in a house, and first time buyers are truly limited in their understanding of not only how it all works, but more importantly which items are costly.

It is risky for the average buyer to accept a home without an inspector’s professional opinion. The fear is that hidden behind some panel is a terrible crack in the foundation or behind an electrical panel cover is a box about to be set alight by over-fused breakers. So wouldn’t you think there would be some value placed on a city’s truth-in-housing process? This is a process where the city requires the soon to be seller to have a city inspector come to the property and do a less thorough review, yet still a systematic evaluation of the structural features of the home.

The city collects a permit fee somewhere in the $200-250 range, produces a report, and sometimes request repairs. Yet never once in over twenty-five years have I heard a buyer say, “I don’t need to get this home inspected because I know xyz city has done one already.” Even in these fiercely competitive times when buyers are bidding on three, four, five houses before securing a purchase, they hang onto the inspection contingency.

If the actors in the market do not value the city inspections, who is receiving a benefit from the $250 being spent on the housing market? The seller is simply complying with the rules. The buyers, even the ones who only want assurance that the home won’t collapse around them on the day of move-in, don’t value it. Anyone not involved in the transfer of property, pay no attention to it.

City officials when considering a truth-in-housing ordinance say things like, ‘preserve the housing stock,’ and, ‘get in there and look around,’ and, ‘make sure they are keeping things up.’ I doubt the money is a profit to the city, maybe a breakeven. It seems that the $250 times thousands of transactions per year is the expense to feel like something is being done.

It wouldn’t be that hard to investigate the subject, especially in this market. There is an advantage for a buyer to waive the inspection as the seller will consider the offer more favorably over another; the sellers will not have to wait a handful of days to know the transaction is finalized. Simply tracking transactions between two cities, one with a truth-in-housing and one without would determine if there is any consideration given to the report.

In the reports that city’s send out to constituents pie charting out how they spend their tax dollars, it might be beneficial if city’s also had to justify the benefits of their permitting expenses. Instead of a truth-in-housing, a truth-in-regulation.

Talk of Short Sales- How can that be?

After a steady stream of buyers came through my new listing today, it’s hard to believe some people are out preparing for what is being presented as an inevitable wave of short sales.

When I sold this mid-century modern home to my clients in 2010 the listing sheet bragged that it was not a short sale, that the folks on title as owners did not have to beg permission from a lender to sell their home. A little over a decade ago buyers in the marketplace had become weary of dealing with corporate interests who had to forego of some profits in order to allow a sale to proceed. What we call a traditional seller was a valued party to the transaction.

With demand for single family homes peaking as inventory shrinks, the days of bank owned properties are part of a foggy past. But maybe it makes sense that the reason for the inventory shortage is in part due to the protections in place for all those distressed sellers who would have had to jump in the game and let their homes go to market. Once a past due seller realizes they can live rent and payment free, why not coast it out.

If the incentives are there, that is exactly what should be anticipated.

One fellow realtor went to a class recently offered on the topic, and said the presenter had some pretty astounding numbers. They are predicting a tsunami of distressed property once Covid protections are lifted. Time will tell how demand absorbs it all.

Presidential Addresses

I hadn’t given presidential addresses a lot of thought over the years. They provided so little new information over and above what was already known. I honestly didn’t appreciate being addressed by a leader until the last days of May 2020 when our city on fire.

The leaders of the largest city in this state and the state itself were eerily absent. As protestors burnt buildings and commandeered a police precinct, crickets. On Friday evening, the 4th night of the protests and the second attempt at an evening curfew there may have one tweet, something like, pleeeese stay home tonight for your own safety. So Minnesotan to be polite to folks hiding tinder in alleys to set structures ablaze.

Tonight when Joe Biden took to the TV I kept thinking–there it is. That’s how it’s done. It might be repeating old news. It might be reassuring old fears. But he’s there, concerned and unwavering, optimistic and speaking to the future. Leadership 101: don’t run and hide in times of crisis.

To err in commission or ommision- and how to know?

There’s an excellent bakery in a little strip mall down the interstate from where I live. The jumbo donut holes melt in your mouth. I’m not sure if it is the glaze on the golden globes, but the texture and flavor and softness is memorable. The store front is small. A twelve foot display counter full of long johns, and bear claws and jelly donuts (my husbands favorite) reveals the day’s offering as you walk through the door.

A middle aged guy runs the place and when he plans the baking for the next day, I’ll bet he’s trying for that ultimate mix of filling the expectations of the steady stream of regulars who filter in, yet not having any pastries left at 11 am when he flips the ‘closed’ sign on the glass door and locks up.

The point is that nothing really bad happens if he doesn’t get it quite right. He might have to take a dozen treats home or give them to the food shelf. Or he may have lost out on some sales if he was too conservative and didn’t bake enough. A few dollars either way, but no one dies because he miscounted his jumbo cinnamon rolls.

That’s why bakery goods are an ideal private good. Their production and consumption are individualized. Everyone can have their favorite. Products that tend to be well suited to public good, by contrast, usually involve groups, either because they service groups, like infrastructure, or because they require a group consensus on their production, like education standards.

To further complicate things, group opinions vary by region and demographic. In order to accommodate these features, the fine tuning of say the reopening of schools, is pushed all the way down to the school district level. The standard for how a community agrees to educate their K12 population during a pandemic is placed into, let’s call it, a first tier group. Not the county, or the state, or the region, or the country.

Unlike the provision of apple strudels, errors involving health and safety can result in physical harm. There’s more at stake than a few bills in a till. And there is often no unique measure to dictate exactly how to proceed—which is exactly why it’s been delegated to a public good. How safe is safe enough; how much school is school enough; how much protection is protection enough? And as a group we are both anonymous and participatory in the decision process.

And as this is a big messy political endeavor, it is much more difficult to ascertain whether errors of commissions, or errors of omissions occur in taking a run at the most efficient social outcome.

Suess Addendum

Whether intended or not, whether considered or not, the copyrights holders of Suess’ life work have realized a windfall. We can’t look into the hearts of men to know if they strategized for the money. Since Ted Geisel had no children of his own, we do know that these people are not his blood relatives.

I don’t think they expected the cash. They probably were horrified by the thought that they could be earning money off of anything of a systemic nature, and more than likely move in circles who feel the same way. Removing the books was a public service, a response, a tangible action.

Buyers thought otherwise. Some might say the buyers who pushed up the prices are part of ‘the problem.’ But I think most realize this is a group of people who feel this judgement-from-on-high of a beloved author is a miscarriage of cultural perspicacity. It follows a long list of similar actions that have yet to prove useful in tempering or solving this High-Stakes-Social-Issue (HSSI).

The fact remains that by withdrawing the product from the market, demand rose, and a pot of gold was found at the end of the rainbow. Indeed– signaling occurred. A signal to others who understand the social component of price and will now look for other opportunities to leverage and create their own pot of gold. It’s happened before. People were steered, profits were realized. Others found their nest egg fleeced.

First Laura now Seuss

Parents beware- Watch out for children’s books! First Laura Ingles Wilder’s memoires of life on the prairies of Minnesota and Wisconsin were warping young minds with an inaccurate portrayal of a free and self-reliant frontier. Now the linguistically entertaining word-strings penned by Ted Geisel are riddled with caustic racism.

Today’s price on Amazon for a copy of On Beyond Zebra is $650. What accounts for the 38 fold price increase? (Barnes and Noble still has the ‘out of stock’ hardcover listed at 16.99.) Cutting off supply seems like the traditional way to look at it. Stopping the presses from printing such offensive material indicates a future scarcity. This isn’t the first book to become dated so as to be dismissed by the publishers. Most of these tomes are simply forgotten, found for a few dollars on a table at a church sale.

In this case, the books are being withdrawn them from the market by those who hold their copyrights. On Beyond Zebra, however, is a relatively unknown Dr. Suess book. There are other discontinued books for sale by famous authors. Zane Grey’s The Vanishing America can be had for $3.79. Cass Timberlaine by Sinclair Lewis is posted at $5.39. And Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov is $3 even. (So much to read–so little time)

The extra $633 dollars is the result of a social or community change. The premium for this copy, on this day in March, is a social component arrived at through the market pricing system we know as Amazon.

Reframing first jobs

I’ve taken photos since I was a kid. Framing in your subject matter back then was more important. Whatever was captured on the 35 mm negative frame, was what you got back printed on glossy paper. Now you can be as lazy as you want. You can crop a photo on your phone, reposition it, tilt it. Decades ago reframing was a luxury enjoyed by those with access to a darkroom.

Sometimes you can’t see how to frame something until you’ve given it a go. Once you’ve clip out all the surrounding noise, it’s easier to see how the subject at hand can be better positioned. Or redressed, or simplified. Most of you have probably seen before and after framing with portraiture, or with a home remodel. The first shot is flat and cluttered. The second gives the room depth, a room which is now smartened up with clean lines. Reframing makes you see things clearer.


In ninth grade my brother and I attended a boarding school in the Normandy region of France. It was just how you would imagine from portrayals of British schools: strict teachers, old manor homes for dorms, and a short distance from a quaint country village.

The student body, however, was very eclectic. Insurgencies in countries like Lebanon, Iran, Algeria and Nicaragua sent wealthy kids to safer regions of the world. Many had ties to France or relatives who lived in Paris. So a school an hour west of the capital city was a perfect refuge.

There were a few Europeans as well. One classmate was the daughter of a businessman from Milan, call her M. Her typical mode of transit to and from her northern Italian home was by personal chauffer. Where as my brother and I melded in with the general population on a flight into Charles de Gaulle, then bus transit to central Paris–if I remember right to Place des Invalides– where several greyhound style busses waited to drive students out to the country. She went executive class, while we were riding in coach.

One late Saturday afternoon I found myself going through math exercises with M in the salon of the country house that served as our dormitory. What she had in riches she lacked in scholastic aptitude. As I had already been identified by teachers as the student to pair-up with other kids who needed help in the classroom, it seems natural that I was there. The other girls were upstairs giggling and gorging on purchases from a visit to the town that afternoon.

Perhaps she said thank you. Or perhaps she made a self-deprecating remark. In response I said something I had heard throughout my childhood. That when something needs to get done, you dig in and get it done. Everyone has something to bring to the potluck so to speak. I may have listed the treats our roommates were sharing as examples. I may not have. The idea was that there was no need for thanks as tutoring was one thing I could contribute.

She froze momentarily, thinking, and looked at me with a steady gaze as we sat there at the wooden tables where we took our afternoon goute of French bread and chocolate (a most excellent tradition which unfortunately cannot be replicated without crusty baguettes from French ovens). Her first language was Italian and mine English, but it was very clear that whatever it was we were doing that damp rainy afternoon, it had no relation to material things. Nothing I was doing in that space had that type of value.

This was hardly the first time a cultural clash had caught me up short. Cultural clashes were part of my upbringing. I tutored all through high school and college. I taught French University students English during an abroad program in Avignon. But at age fourteen my classmate from Milan reframed my concept of work, clarifying the distinction between cooperative reciprocal work and that done for money.

I Care a Lot – Movie Review

My husband and I finally stumbled onto a movie last night that didn’t have me flicking the exit button after fifteen minutes. Netflix’s I Care a Lot twisted and turned enough to hold our attention.

It’s a battle between a nouveau riche con-woman and an established class con-man. But the story is kept au current by setting it in the middle of the how-to-care-for-aging-boomers dilemma. The portrayal of a nursing home as a lockdown facility is terrifyingly real, especially in times of covid when there has been strict control over who enters and exits through the magnetically locking entrance doors.

The protagonist is a bad ass feminist. She’s driven to out smart and out bully anyone in her path to success. She’s out to demonstrate how the work which usually falls to the domestic in a household, can instead be externalized into a lucrative business. Get the right doctor to assess memory loss and the right judge to legitimise her stewardship, and poof! She builds a portfolio of guardianships. Bend the rules a bit more, and it’s a cash cow bonanza.

The plot riffs off the ever too real issues simmering through many families. As mom and dad age, when do they become too forgetful (because being a little forgetful reaches well down into middle age)? Who gets to decide when an adult, a person of authority for decades, must forego their independence and turn everyday decisions over to another. An error of commission causes unhappy holiday gatherings. An error of omission invites scammers of all sorts to prey on the elderly.

Grappling with incentives

Many free market economists are criticized for placing excessive weight on incentives. A couple of examples come to mind. If an actor finds a wallet with $1000, do they keep the money or try to return the wallet? The utility maximizing objective suggests keeping the money. Perhaps true if the actor is an individual devoid of human contact. The keeping the money answer omits that the actor is part of a community, and has an interest in promoting and participating in a group which returns lost items. Some people would call this morality. I see it as practical. The group incentive encourages action which retains capital within the community in the form of future gestures of similar goodwill.

Another example given is the story of the drowning child. Saving the child would result in the loss of an expensive suit. Does utility maximization deter the actor from saving the child? The answer that the actor bypasses the impulse to save his suit, and saves the child in order to be a better, or noble, person is an individualistic way to look at it. But what about the practicality of being the one in the group who is available for a just-in-time activity, who sets a precedent for the next person to carry out similar duties when the need arises. An insurance towards future savings of life. This seems like a a reasonable justification for the behavior. One that is also in sync with responding to incentives, group incentives that is.

But where do we see the $1000 or the reimbursement for the expensive suit? Where do we see the money? Where do we see the returns for the work of stay at home moms or senior volunteers? Where are the lifetime earnings of (est) $1mil-$2mil that a family foregoes when one partner works in the community? Are they suckers? Is it just fairy dust? I think not. But it will take me a bit to prove it to you.

Post Covid, what will be different?

Working from home will be just one of the inevitable changes that springs from the pandemic lockdown of 2020. At home, there will be a better understanding of domestic life. The demands of combining to work for pay with work for children has put in contrast two different types of work. The new perspective should facilitate tackling busy family life. But how about some others? What else will change?

Family formation appears to be on the rise amongst Millennials. Pre-pandemic Pew reports that only three in ten lived with family (a spouse and children), lagging behind other generations. But the recent mortgage application rates indicate an uptick in this cohort financing new home purchases. An extended stay with mom and dad may have hit a limit during the lockdown.

While some households are combining, others are coming apart. The New York Times ran an article in January providing testimonial of such things as the official statistics for divorce rates from last year are still unavailable. Lawyers, counselors, social workers, private judges all report an increase in activity. Perhaps the bright spot here is that 90 percent of the cases settled though mediation as a court time, in times of covid, is in short supply.

While the pandemic may extinguished the last flicker of love light for some couples, I have to think that all age groups are reflecting on the disadvantages of living alone. In Minnesota just under 30% of households are single person occupancy. Perhaps the stoic pride of self-sufficiency will take a back seat to the flat out desire for companionship. Zoom can make connections but nothing replaces the warmth of the human touch.

Human interaction plays into mental health, but I think an overall awareness of self-health will hover in everyone’s consciousness. After experiencing so much loss of life, loss aggravated by health risk factors, it seems like people will place greater value on looking after themselves. The most basic means of achieving this end is through food and diet and exercise.

An abundant use of parks and trails has opened up this avenue to fitness on several fronts. Due to all the walkers out and about, people don’t feel odd to go for a walk. People have discovered all the great trails nearby. People meet up and chat with neighbors on a walk, sometimes even cluster in driveways for that Thank God it’s Friday happy hour. It’s becoming a routine, a part of your day, a way to socialize. As well as exercise and a clearing of one’s head.

I also predict that the authority of science will no longer be given cart blanche in regulatory discussions. Whereas a loss of life used to trump all conversations, policy decisions during covid have forced the issue that there are trade-offs. It is time to unhinge the bolt across the gate which kept regulators in control of the conversations about health and welfare outcomes based on science. Many voices, particularly those in the industry at hand, deserve equal time to make a case in order for the system work properly.

It’s hard to believe we are coming up on the one year anniversary of being secluded from social life. A year, three hundred and sixty-five days, and we’re not done yet.

More on Millenials

A recent report by LendingTree analyzed mortgage requests and offers in 2020 for borrowers across the 50 largest metros. The report ranked the metros by the percentage of total purchase mortgage requests received. The report found that millennials made up at least 50% of purchase mortgage requests in most metros.

The top 5 metros ranked by millennial homebuying popularity 

#1: San Jose
Share of mortgage requests: 61.8%
Average down payment: $158,040
Average requested loan amount: $704,318

#2: Boston
Share of mortgage requests: 59.1%
Average down payment: $78,062
Average requested loan amount: $416,267

#3: Denver
Share of mortgage requests: 59.1%
Average down payment: $56,937
Average requested loan amount: $354,433

#4: Minneapolis
Share of mortgage requests: 58.8%
Average down payment: $38,833
Average requested loan amount: $252,163

Yikes! No homes to sell

Northstar MLS

As you can see from the graph, the inventory of homes for sale in the Twin Cities had been fairly consistent until people emerged from the Covid lockdown and started buying last June. Now we are down 31.4% over last year. Buyers are buying but not enough sellers are bringing their homes to the market.

I speculate that some sellers are waiting until herd immunity as they are not comfortable interacting with the public. Some are being sold off market to Millennial children who are just now starting family formation. And some are being protected by stays which keep people in homes until after the crisis.

A hike, a lake, a monastery.

A hike up to the crater lake at Mount Zuqualla is a day trip from Addis Ababa. The drive out of the capital city and off the Ethiopian high plateau, down through the valley to the base of the extinct volcano can be done in less than a couple of hours. It is a bit of a climb up to the lake, and the road is rough. The verdure is thick right after the rainy season, and yellow flowers, similar to our tickseed, bloom throughout the countryside. Silhouetted on the ridge of the hill are oversized eucalyptus trees. They grow everywhere in the highlands and their fragrance is unmistakable.

The crater lake is not much to look at but the views back over the valley are spectacular. A 14th century monastery is visible off to the west, but we did not venture in its direction. I came across this post on twitter telling the story about how it was settled.

Taken from the Asian African studies blog at the British Museum

The British Museum has an extensive collection of Ethiopian manuscripts which are beautifully inscribed and illustrated. If you ever hear people complain that Christian art does not depict the stories of the bible in their image, send them to this resource. Ethiopians trace their Christian heritage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Choose your work location

Yesterday was the day for work-from-home articles, as Bloomberg also posted this excellent article by Sarah Holder, The True Costs of Working From Home. It’s full of great information and statistics. This, for example:

Between 2013 and 2017, households with at least one adult who worked from home spent more money on housing, on average, than ones that all worked outside of the house, the study found: Remote renters spent between 6.5 % and 7.4% more of their income a month, and homeowners who worked remotely had mortgage and property taxes that were 8.4% to 9.8% greater than non-remote households.

I didn’t appreciate that, pre-pandemic, remote workers were already spending almost ten percent more on housing. That’s quite a bit. On the other hand I’m surprised the percentage of people working from home in times of Covid isn’t higher.

The study is a snapshot of the pre-coronavirus world, when only about 3% of U.S. employees did their jobs from home. By February 2020, that number had swelled by some estimates to 8%. And by May, that share had exploded, with about 35% of U.S. workers who once commuted going remote. 

Still– that is about a third of the workforce. And it appears that staying in the neighborhood is popular amongst employees.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than half of workers who can do their jobs remotely say they will want to continue doing so after the pandemic ends. A December survey from Upwork predicted that 27% of workers in the U.S. would still be largely remote by the end of 2021.

The freedom of WFH allows people to move to new communities if they so choose. Perhaps drawn by less expensive housing, or a host of other possible benefits. A U-Haul study shows that coastal people tend to move to other states near the coasts. This article offers another view.

But sticking closer to home may be the favored path for many, especially if companies ask for some face-time each month. A San Francisco Chronicle analysis of USPS moving data showed that the majority of San Franciscans who left the city during the pandemic moved not to Florida or Texas, but to another Northern California county; a Zumper report that analyzed national rent shifts found a similar story, with “cheaper, neighboring cities” appearing to be the 2020 destinations. 

I think it’s too soon to tell how household priorities will all shake out. There are options out there that people have yet to consider. If moving half way across the country is possible, why not another continent? Croatia is just one country trying to leverage the remote work concept by offering a Digital Nomad Visa.

There are many costs and benefits to living in various communities, and the reshuffling of tradeoffs will be different for each household. Businesses also may find the transition to remote work a cost savings at first, but then an expense as it is more difficult to recruit and train a corporate culture from afar. Though as a general rule, more choices for both employers and employees are a good thing.

Work in the neighborhood

The pandemic will reshape our lives for years to come. One lesson learned is that company centric office space is not essential to many forms of employment. This creates inroads to the reality of paid work from home. And the benefits for families to staying in the neighborhood, close to daycare and schools and extra-curricular activities, will make it a convenient option for many employees.

When people started to re-emerge from their homes last spring, at the beginning of what ended as a boom year in real estate, we heard a lot of buyers expressing the desire for home offices. Once children return to a traditional schedule in daycare or school, the home environment will be even more ideal.

There are other options for remote work. WeWork, a US real estate company, has provided office space with shared amenities since 2010. It’s success has been muddied by an outrageous leader and a lack of market confidence in its business model. Recently its co-founder has been embroiled in a law suit with SoftBank. Sensing blood in the water, an international competitor, IWG (International Workplace Group), has made moves on WeWork’s holdings in Hong Kong.

For the third time in less than a year, IWG has opened flexible offices under the Signature brand in a Hong Kong space formerly occupied by embattled rival WeWork.

IWG is based out of Switzerland and provides space in 120 countries. Their focus is on catering to a particular environment with supportive services, access to networks while connecting companies to locations at close proximity to their clients.

Perhaps this flexible model office space is an even better fit in densely populated cities like Hong Kong. Here the average home is 484 sqft limiting space for home offices. The average American lives in a 2164 sqft. dwelling which, in comparison, sounds generous with ample room for work. Yet everything is relative. City dwellers will settle for a 1800 sqft craftsman bungalow while suburban buyers desire a full two story with double the footage and a three car garage.

Whether through a work-from-home setup, or a flexible workspace nearby, households with children will benefit by having at least one adult in the neighborhood. Being available on-demand for children is part of the deal: when daycare calls to pick-up a toddler running a fever, or there’s the school science fair to attend, or little league practice starts at 4pm. Since juggling those demands around commute times is stressful, being close to home is a social benefit employers can provide at no pecuniary cost.

Standards

I recently listened in on a presentation which was given by a respected academic to a political body. The topic is one that I know well and over decades have heard many arguments hugging all sides of the issue. I was dumbstruck by how fluidly the professor’s language navigated between academically supported information and his own opinions. Isn’t there a standard of disclosure for such things?

For instance, he would start with results from a study but then list projections which his team conjectured– as if lives could be lived twice and records kept accordingly. One politician asked specially about these projections, and there was an apology for the omission of the model, yet his dialogue kept flowing as if these figures were generated with the same standards as the peer reviewed papers.

For the average listener, including the folks who will make policy for tens of thousands of people, the distinction between actual data and estimates was muted if not eliminated. The professor’s tone, consistency, and manner of referring to the material did not distinguish between research and conjecture.

The inference of receiving information from an academic, particularly those who have cultivated a long CRV and a number of titles, is that they are communicating academically supported material. Anyone with limited knowledge of the topic will not be able to detect when the information is in fact a subjective opinion. Instead of aiding the pubic conversation around a topic professors become arms dealers for divisive public discourse.

Lessons from airports

To say I grew up in airports is a bit of an exaggeration, but only slightly. International travel in the 60’s was still rather new and exotic and susceptible to schedule changes. Long layovers to coordinate connections were common, and delays due to weather or mechanical issues were even more common. My parents were adventuresome and thought nothing of towing three young children around with them. In the photo, my brothers and I are cooperating dutifully on the luggage cart at the Colombo airport having arrived from Dhaka for a little R&R.

The vintage “where in the world” posts are from trips we took while stationed overseas with the US Diplomatic Corps. Even by foreign service standards we moved a lot, fulfilling only one DC assignment which lasted less than three years. The school years spent on Chesapeake Street between Reno Road and Connecticut were idyllic, only blocks from Murch Elementary.

On the weekends we would go for hikes off the scenic Skyline Drive or ride our Shetland ponies on an acreage in West Virginia. But this tame American experience couldn’t match hiking the terraced tea gardens of Malaysia or climbing up to the crater lake at Mount Zuqualla or even the rather urban stroll up to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. The whole family was eager to take back to the skies. I didn’t return to live in the US until college.

With so much time on our hands at Heathrow or Narita or Charles de Gaulle my brothers and I would play games eavesdropping and then betting on the nationalities of our chosen observation subjects. Of course there was language to give us some guidance, but also mannerisms and apparel. If we were lucky they would pull out their passports to allow us to settle our bets.

Fifty years ago, as pre-covid, airports were busy places with passengers rushing anxiously to catch flights. Perhaps forgotten now, is that by 1972 a total of 150 US planes had been hijacked. Commandeering aircraft was in a golden age. Airport security was considerable. I remember the Rome airport in particular crawling with camo clad soldiers, each carrying an assault rifle. The true power, however, was held by the typically slender uniform behind the passport control counter. He (usually, but sometimes she) could question or detain you. Have your luggage searched.

The approach was straightforward. Only answer the questions when asked. Don’t offer additional information. Do nothing that could antagonize the one person who could delay your travel. I still think of these very prompts when I travel abroad.

Chauvin Trial Update

The Derek Chauvin trial starts two weeks from today, and from all the prep that is going on, it appears that folks are nervous. Concrete dividers, fencing and barb wire have joined plywood at the entrance doors of the Hennepin County Government Center building in downtown Minneapolis.

For those readers who were busy in a blow pipe making class in PNG last summer, Derek Chauvin is the former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes. With his face inches from the pavement, Floyd expressed concerns about not being able to breath before he died in police custody. This happened on a Tuesday. Protests were in full gear by Wednesday evening. Riots led to the burning of a police precinct Thursday. It wasn’t until Saturday evening that the National Guard, in full combat gear, patrolled the streets with pellets guns to keep them clear for the curfew. Black smoke from Batteries Plus and other commercial spaces hung over the Lake Street section of South Minneapolis through Sunday morning. Protestors burned or damaged upwards of 700 buildings, housing many minority owned businesses as well as national chains.

Estimates are that the Minneapolis Police Department has lost 200 of its 600 police officers to disability claims and early retirements since last year. The city council continues to hammer on the department, denying funding requests while attempting to shift responsibilities from the police department to social workers. This strategy is not garnering a lot of support outside the city limits.

In an unusual move, the speaker of the Minnesota house, Melissa Hortman (D-Brooklyn Park), brought a bill to the floor of the (DFL majority) house which, apparently, had not been vetted for votes. The governor’s proposal to create a statewide fund intended to pay for security during the trial failed as a handful of democrats voted with the GOP. It appears there is a shuffling up of groups, as who do or do not support Minneapolis’ move to reimagine public safety, and they are not all falling along party lines.

The Minnesota House rejected a bill Thursday that seeks to create a state fund to reimburse police departments from outside Minneapolis if they’re called in to help prevent civil unrest around the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin.

Security funding plan for Chauvin trial fails in Minnesota House | MPR News

One comment that was made was that outstate Minnesotans aren’t necessarily as supportive of the MPD, as they are appalled at how the police have been treated. There is a difference. The media, however, is cradling protestors sympathetically, as in this recent headline in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. (Hollywood ready little girl in his arms et all)

The trial will be televised, but it seems like the drama already has its verdict. Just in case, there will be a lot of manpower on the ground to keep the peace.

Suburban sprawl in the time of Jesus of Nazareth

The majority of the Greek Jews lived in the new section of the city which had sprung up on Mount Scopus outside the ancient walls, opposite the Sheep Gate. Accustomed to spacious houses, with gardens and colonnades, they could not find room in the old, crowded sections. The house of Miriam, sister of bar Naba, built in the Cypriot style, resembled a Greek temple; behind it was a garden, enclosed in a peristyle, and here she arranged frequent banquets for the leaders of the Greek-Jewish community of Jerusalem.

The Apostle by Sholem Asch

Try something new

The drum beating earlier in the week about cancelling student loan debt was abruptly muffled by the president. In response to Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass) proposal to forgive up to $50,000 in student loans:

“I will not make that happen,” Biden said when asked at a Milwaukee town hall hosted by CNN Tuesday night if he would take executive action on loan forgiveness beyond the $10,000 his administration has already proposed.

Biden Balks At $50,000 Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Proposal | HuffPost

Some people think student loan forgiveness falls into a moral category. Society has an obligation to advance citizens through education; that college is an extension of the k-12 necessity to set a youth up for a productive life. The debt should be waived on principle. Of course this gets a little messy post grade twelve, as vocational choices, and the education they require, vary tremendously. And for this reason I think free college will always be a non-starter.

But why waste good numbers when they are out there for consumption? The debt figures can be, and should be, put to good use. When aggregated up to the federal level they loose some nuance. But at the local level it maybe possible pull some levers and leverage a few social objectives at a time. The results maybe more interesting than a simple money transfer.

Case 1. Say there were two objectives on the table: student loan debt and career advancement. One would look for organizations at this intersection. There are hundreds of business associations in Minnesota. Local Chambers of Commerce might be first to mind, but there is the Iron Mining Association or the Minnesota’s Corn Growers Association or even local PTA’s. Say an association was given access to a pool of federal funds marked for student debt relief, with a catch. There is a trade involved. Once the Mining association, or corn growers, show proof of employment of a new-to-the-profession worker (for at least x-amount of time), then they can allocate relief to the student they deem eligible.

It’s a community grant (given to an individual) in exchange for making an effort to lift a worker up and into a new stage of professional development. Many of these associations have a history of giving out scholarships, and a process in place for evaluation. They are well regarded in their communities and have a reputation to protect in the administration of debt forgiveness.

The relief recipient advances economically from the removal of the debt. The business community can justify the extra work or training necessary to bring an inexperienced employee into their field. The new employee hopefully evolves to see the rewards of elevated employment and not just feel the demands of the additional expectations in a challenging position. All those who step outside their norms to make this happen find comradery with others not like themselves.

Case 2. Here’s another example. Say an elementary school attendance area is experiencing a sharp downward trend in enrollment–and the demographics confirm the trend to be long term. The risk of school closure is high. Closing a building is not only expensive for a school district, but the loss to a neighborhood can be devastating. Short term it brings angst to the families who now send their young children to a building out of the neighborhood. Long-term it can be difficult to reverse the negative impact from the closure.

Say the federal government allocated a pool of student debt relief money to the elementary school’s attendance area. Now imagine that there is a household with young children who would qualify to purchase a home in the area if a portion of student loan debt was forgiven. The local PTA in conjunction with a local mortgage bankers’ association could be in charge of distribution. This scenario leverages three objectives: debt relief, school support and housing.

Local control over distribution of funds could refine distribution in a way which engages incentives to accomplish other objectives within communities.

NFT’s at Christie’s

The NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) are making news in the art world as auction house “Christie’s Will Become the First Auction House to Offer Non-Fungible Token Art.”

Last December, an artist who goes by the name “Beeple” made headlines when he set a new record for the most valuable artwork auctioned off Nifty Gateway, a marketplace for limited-edition digital items. Beeple sold 20 artworks for a total of over $3.5 million, catching the attention of those who might not previously have known about the existence of NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens. While just a few years ago blockchain-based art might have been considered niche, a recent development proves this is no longer the case: on Tuesday, Christie’s announced an upcoming auction featuring thousands of images created by Beeple that have been compiled into a single composition.

The actual art looks very much like regular art. And are trading amongst buyers and sellers at a nice clip. Bitcoin.com reports that in a week last August there were 14,654 sales and $1.2 million in weekly trade volume. This piece by Trevor Jones commanded a nice price.

So what about the NFT- or the non-fungible token notation.

Crypto art relies on non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which are usually issued with an Ethereum token, ERC-721. This ensures verifiable digital scarcity; each artwork is a uniquely distinguishable digital asset—no two are the same. 

Crypto Art Sales on Ethereum Reach a Record $80 Million – Decrypt

At first glance it seems to be a certification of sorts, a blockchain version of an identifier to keep track of the art work’s provenance. An authentication certificate more than anything else. In the artworld the story of where a piece was produced and who has owned it since, is an integral part of preserving its authenticity. The token is attached to the piece and hence is non-fungible.

But something is missing from this conceptualization. Fungible has the quality of being able to be exchanged with other goods. The auction activity indicates a product that is very tradeable. Since these NFT’s are bought and sold freely, there seems to be a contradiction. Zoup at non-fungible.com tackles some of the issues.

zoup: I had several passionate debates during Meetups around the definition of non-fungibility. And I must confess… most of these debates turned out to be sterile but, they helped me understand something important: the definition of non-fungibility is everything but obvious.

Zoup explains that bitcoins are fungible in the same way that nickels, dimes, quarters are easily exchanged. A precious coin, however, is something different. To a collector a nickel that was mistruck during production can have significant value. To a collector the deformed nickel is non-fungible. And it is in this way the non-fungible tokens make digit art unique. Hence zoup comes to this conclusion:

It is therefore the use value that defines the fungible or non-fungible character of the asset. And not its technical characteristics. The main use of an asset and the perception that one can have of it define fundamentally if the asset is fungible or not.

Why most definitions of “non-fungible” are incorrect. – NonFungible.com

It is here that I propose a clarification needs to be made. The quality of being fungible, by definition, indicates an attachment to a group, as it is the group which determines its use.

Let’s try to disprove the idea and see what happens. The mistruck nickel is non-fungible when held within the collector group, it is precious, it has a unique story. To a kid who wants a coke on a hot day, the nickel is simply five pennies towards his purchase. He pops the coins into the slot on the side of the machine without another thought. He is using the coin as a fungible asset.

The quality of non-fungibility is attached to transactions that exist within groups. NFT’s find value in the crypt-investors sphere, but I doubt you would find much interest at the local VFW. Outside of this very specific group of people who understand the crypto space, the value goes to zero. I’ve written about fungible versus non-fungible transactions. I claim that when non-fungible assets are held within a group, they are a public good. All investors share equally in the assurance that the tokens represent a unique asset.

When a group assigns a use to an object- a park bench, for example, is open to the public in a park- then the bench is a non-fungible asset (it can’t be rented out or traded by any one individual) that is held by the group. When the crypto people decide to use tokens as identifiers, they’ve created a certification process that legitimizes an artwork by the community. And that is non-fungible.

I’ve said it before. It’s all about the group.

Numbers, pictures, and what they tell you.

I’m a sucker for images, and these new graphic representations at the intersection of maps and data are lovely.

A consulting firm out of North Carolina, Urban3, has a new measure for assessing the productivity of land in an urban environment. It’s an interesting new twist.

Urban3 makes maps that show the value of city buildings on a per-acre basis. That last detail is the kicker.

“We make the models to provide information equity,” explained Joe Minicozzi when I asked him about his approach. “We show a financial picture of what’s going on with the cash flow. You see where the holes are, what’s doing well, what’s not doing well. You can’t see where you’re leaking your money if you don’t know what’s going on.”

Per-acre analysis: a unique way of looking at urban economics | MinnPost

The general process is to take the tax revenue on the section of land and divide it by a spatial measure. Under this calculation, downtown buildings are more ‘efficient’ than suburban malls with lots of surrounding acreage of asphalt parking spaces. And in this way the analysis has flaws. Consumer (pre-covid) enjoyed the ease of mall access. Downtowns discourage shopping traffic. So if the objective is to encourage downtown visits, an understanding of transit and traffic and parking would be more valuable.

Reframing a means of analysis is exciting, but there are many more features of the built environment than simply tax collection and land space.

Aesthetics and Solar Roofs

Elon Musk has stated that 2021 will be a key year for the Solar Roof, with the CEO noting that its potential would be evident this year. Considering the company’s ongoing rollout of the integrated PV system and the development of better Solar Roof designs, it may only be a matter of time before more customers of Tesla’s flagship residential solar product would have more design options available. 

https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-solar-roof-colored-textured-tiles-patent/

Aesthetics is one stumbling block in consumers’ embrace of solar energy. A look that blends into the standard architectural asphalt shingles, or clay roof tiles, would be more consumer friendly than panels.

NorthStar MLS

Attractive shingles will undoubtedly command greater appeal than shiny 24 x 24 inch panels set into a large framework.

Tesla’s Solarglass Roof tiles are already among the most aesthetically-pleasing PV systems in the market. A Solar Roof installation involves the setup of both PV and non-PV roof tiles, and according to Tesla, this could present some issues. Since some tiles do not have solar cells in them, there will be some angles or times when it is possible to distinguish which tiles have solar cells and which do not. 

credit: Patentscope

Tesla also produces a lithium home battery, called a powerwall, which can store energy from the panels to be used after dark, during peak pricing hours.

The Tesla Powerwall pairs well with solar panel systems, especially if your utility has reduced or removed net metering, introduced time-of-use rates, or instituted demand charges. Installing a storage solution like the Tesla Powerwall with a solar energy system allows you to maintain a sustained power supply during the day or night, as long as you store enough power from your panels when the sun is shining.

https://news.energysage.com/tesla-powerwall-battery-complete-review/

With cost for the battery alone running around $8-9K, installation of an entire solar system is upwards of $20K. For comparison, a forest air furnace runs around $4-5K. That said, people pay extra for all sorts of social reasons. They use their son-in-law for their mortgage despite higher fees, they buy Girl Scout Cookies (OK, they are delicious too) and bid triple the value of a vacation package at a charity auction. There is an additional expense in buying organic vegetables and sometimes loyalty to one’s barber requires a drive across town. There are many circumstances where one pays above the going rate so that a portion of the price supports a social objective. Still- the premium has its limits. And solar power isn’t quite affordable enough to reach the mainstream concerned, yet.

In the end it is all about the payback and reliability, especially in a harsh climate. Natural gas is very affordable, but its infrastructure is not available throughout the state. Homes that rely on electric baseboard heat will most likely be the first to tackle the significant upfront investment and convert to solar.

State capacity MN style: Stay off the roads!

Around 4pm this afternoon the temp in the Twin Cities creeped above zero ending a 95 hour streak of negative highs and lows. As far as I know there have been no deaths during this polar vortex. But down I35 W, past Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, a tragic 133 vehicle pile up left 65 hospitalized and 6 dead in Texas. The winter weather conditions coated the interstate with glare ice jackknifing semis across the thoroughfare. Approaching cars helplessly collided into each other as they skated into the metal mangled mess.

Around the same time last week, in Minnesota, a “bridge appeared to be ice-covered when the driver crashed and nearly went over the edge…”Take a look at the video where bystanders stopped a pickup from teetering over a bridge rail into the Minnesota River. When it comes to winter weather, Minnesotans have high state capacity. As a group we have the extra skills and initiative to respond to unexpected winter weather challenges.

It’s not that the people down in the Lone Star State are hick, uneducated or inept. It’s not that they’re too poor to be responsible nor too rich so as think they’re above it all. It’s not that they are too stupid or too smart. Capacity is a combination of knowing what to do, and being able to engage when the need arises. It’s an identification process, a communication process and a step-up-if-you-are-there-and-available process.

The group has to have the expertise to distinguish the glean on the pavement as black ice, and not innocent damp asphalt. A network has strength to communicate the concern when it is reliable and trusted. Parents put in the extra ‘no’ with persistent teenagers who want to go meet their friends, errands are put off. Stories of cars sliding into holding ponds and drivers waiting through the night, half submerged, until someone comes to the rescue, are retold to confirm the nature of the situation. All these activities enforce behavioral sacrifices which lead to successful outcomes.

Our cities are well rehearsed to handle the weather, whereas the Texas Department of Transportation lacks the physical equipment to plow off the half a foot of snow from the roadways. Formal government and its preparedness are just one feature of the ability of a community to identify, communicate and respond to the challenges, or ambitions, at hand. But it’s really the coordination abilities of the whole group which delineates its capacity.

Valentine, Will you be true?

Despite all the shortfalls in American culture in the 50’s, one grossly overlooked foundational strength was community support for marital bounds. Sure– a lot of the outrage in the 60’s stemmed from strength of the marriage contract. Women were disproportionately dependent on their partners, due to male control of traditional economics within the family structure and the workplace. Cross-gender issues were squelched and hidden, leading to psychological detriments.

But as is still true today, activists needed to inflate the issues in order to have them recognized, filling the 60’s 70’s and 80’s with fervor for the dissollution of marriage.

Marriage and divorce in the US: What do the numbers say? (sas.com)

It’s wonderful to see the rates inch down in more recent decades. But I think there is a lot more work to do. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is about new love. A celebration of anniversaries and dedication to sharing the stages of family life with one partner is not only romantic, but provides vision to navigate family life with all its stresses and demands. Here’s to the Valentiniversary!

Ice Fishing

We’re hitting a record cold spell as a polar vortex nestles in over the bold north state. So what do people do when the temps don’t climb above zero and hit lows in the -30 range? Go fishing on the ice of course! (see Grumpy Old Men for the Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Ann-Margaret portrayal) For those of you who never get to experience cold climate living– this is for you.

Folks with false intentions

Ezra Klein: San Francisco is about 48 percent white, but that falls to 15 percent for children enrolled in its public schools. For all the city’s vaunted progressivism, it has some of the highest private school enrollment numbers in the country — and many of those private schools have remained open. It looks, finally, like a deal with the teachers’ union is near that could bring kids back to the classroom, contingent on coronavirus cases continuing to fall citywide, but much damage has been done. 

Eighty percent of my motivation to write commentary was due to folks like the ones described above. There was one in particular, who loved to call everyone a racist. But where did he send his kids to school?

So I guess I’m indebted to them.

Growing in place

I remember posting my first public comment. I was nervous. I must have read through it a dozen times, and felt so exposed once I pressed enter–no edit back then. The article, Met Council: More focus on growing in place, was an opinion piece by local journalist and urban design consultant Steve Berg, writing here in MinnPost

Ten years have gone by, but the gist of what I was saying remains the same. People trade with an understanding of both a collective benefit, as well as one of self interest. At least that it what I am here to convince you of.

I loved commenting on Steve Berg’s articles because there was so much substance to target. Things have changed a bit since then. He was a classic anti-car guy, which has been toned down since Elon Musk came along. And you don’t hear people harping on sprawl as you once did. Nor market failure for that matter.

Maybe people are listening.

Trades work is non-internet

I think most people would agree that the agility with which high paid workers were able to transition to remote work with the aid of the internet was nothing short of astounding. Had it been tried without Covid, I’m sure it would have been as difficult as getting teachers back in the classrooms.

Tradespeople have also been able to keep working as their work is most often socially distanced and out of doors. Road crews, roofers, delivery workers are all busy. None of these jobs rely on a quiet space with a lap top.

It seems a natural fit to connect the low wage workers into this workforce.

Can it be more than just about coin?

Biden’s 1.9 trillion relief plan is a little too enormous for me to get my head around. The magnitude of federal numbers just makes my eyes blur over the page. There is no anchoring the size of these things to my everyday life.

But if I can’t talk about magnitude, I can talk about structure. The goal of the bill is to engage the US economy as well as shore up people’s unexpected and uncontrolled loss of income; to keep their lives right side instead of upside down (which subsequently causes an economic drag on their greater groups). And then to get them back to employment where income can be feathered back in to the economic apparatus.

I’m all in favor of transfers for the first part. They work efficiently.

But I think there is a missed opportunity in the second part. Engaging idle labor from folks who are not destitute nor in need of transfers is low hanging fruit. As explained in this post about The Crafter The Contributor and The Covid Tracker, there are high skilled individuals available to donate labor if they are enticed by the objective at hand.

There are successful national service programs like AmeriCorps and the National Guard. Would it be so hard to have a property repair civil service? Ask any builder about the shortage of construction workers. What about a write-off for plumbers and sheet-rockers and electricians who’d be willing to have an apprentice tag along to fix a faucet at the local homeless shelter, sheetrock in a storage room at the food shelf, or replace all the gym lights with LED fixtures at the community gym?

A money transfer won’t teach a trade, nor will it make a connection between a potential employer and up-coming employee.

Below surface

Pioneer Press North Dakota had adopted a law, proposed by the state’s Industrial Commission that oversees oil, gas and mineral removal, that gave energy companies broad power to continue injecting salt water, an unwanted byproduct of their drilling, and added rights to pump carbon dioxide deep underground and leave it there for eternity. This is becoming important as the cheapest method of “carbon sequestration,” which is deemed vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The law was very favorable to companies wanting to inject. It stiffed owners of land overlying the areas that might be filled. This created strong opposition, and a landowners association challenged it.

North Dakota had made an environmental claim on the subterranean space, but the landowners, who felt shafted by the fracking boom, said not so fast. They wanted in on the deal that seemed to pad everyone else’s pockets. So who owns the ‘pore space’ and who gets to benefit from it economically?

In mid-January, a state judge amped up the controversy in a broad decision favoring the landowners. He struck down the whole law as violating both the North Dakota and U.S. constitutions. He ruled it was a “taking” of private property as banned by our Fifth Amendment.

One can speculate on the line of thinking the legislators in North Dakota may have been following. Since everyone would benefit from the purging of by-products into the depths of the earth, than the assignment of the use of pore space to the energy companies is fulfilling a traditional public good.

As I’ve said here many times before, I do not believe in natural public goods. And this is just another example. Although the act of burying the carbon dioxide has a positive environmental outcome for the citizens of North Dakota, it is the land and the rights attached to the land that are under discussion. The land is privately owned by the landowners.

My view is that what is pubic and what is private comes about through tradition and legislation and cultural norms. In this case the courts decided. As the author says, there will be more to follow regarding “pore space.”

Legal scholars will write scholarly papers and economists will construct mathematical models. There are precedents in water and oil laws going back decades, but compressed gases that should stay there for millenia differ enough to open new controversy and give topics to hundreds of grad students who need thesis topics. And the outcomes will affect all of us.

Yesterday, a birdwatcher saved a life

A little after two, yesterday afternoon, my phone made that intentionally obnoxious noise to signal an Amber Alert in our area. A grandma of nine had also gotten the notice. She happened to be watching a Jeep, through her front picture window, idling across the street. Grabbing her birding binoculars, she verified that the license plate number matched the one on her Amber Alert notice. She then called her daughter to confer, then the police.

Only 35 minutes elapsed between the alert going out and the one year old being found in an abandoned vehicle on a brutally cold day. Here’s a timeline of the events. A local journalist was in the area and was able to catch this senior on the move for an impromptu interview. (so sweet)

One might label this a one-off call to action, being in the right place at the right time sort of activity. Shrug it off as happenstance instead of recognizing it as work. But you’d be wrong.

A community, a group of people who share a public safety interest, need these types of eyes-on-the-street workers. Not everyone. Just enough to have capacity around to engage as needed. As annoying as they can be to those young first-time homeowners, the older retired types, just like our grandma here, make excellent neighborhood watchers.

Note that this work didn’t require a valedictorian or a particular muscular prowess or any technical expertise; this work is done by being present and caring enough to act. There can be misunderstandings and errors in interpretations, hence it is good to check with your direct sphere, which she did when calling her daughter.

Note that the motivation here is not political or monetary or for glory. Often it is done because we would want someone to do the same for us. And we become part of groups for this reciprocal reinsurance.

The Amber Alert counts on it. Sending a message out to everyone who owns a device spreads the word, looks to reach the ears of those who are in the right place and circumstance to engage these sentiments. The system doesn’t expect any one person, just someone in the group.

If the Amber Alert hadn’t gone out with the vehicle’s description. If the birdwatcher hadn’t grabbed her field glasses to verify the license plates. If her advisor hadn’t reinforced the proper course of action in calling the police. What would have happened to a twelve month old child in the back of a white Jeep in weather where exposed skin freezes in a matter of minutes?

It just takes one out of the group. But you can only help if you are close enough to touch. This isn’t a federal public good, nor a state public good, it telescopes in further than that. But this public good, the provision of public safety, relies on eyes-on-the-street workers.