Assumptions and Assurances

Quite a few years ago when I was at the Carlson School getting an MBA at night, I recall a foreign student from Sierra Leon, or thereabouts, and I shaking our heads at the chatter of our fellow classmates. They were all off on a tangent on how easy this or that would be to accomplish. The foreign student and I were ticking off the number of implicit assumptions which held our fellow students’ ideas together.

The structures which support commerce in America are taken for granted by those who have experienced nothing less. We take it for granted that our money will at the bank, for instance. (Or even that the bank will open on time as I recall the Sierra Leonian noting) Most consumers not only anticipate the ability of financial institutions to keep our funds safe, but never bother to balance their accounts, as the bankers do all of that.

When I was a loan officer sitting behind an oversized wooden desk, my clients, from across the high gloss polish, would sign their mortage papers but never read them. They listened politely as I highlighted the terms and obligations for repayment, nodded, and then put pen to paper. In exchange for the blue ink on the promissory note which detailed possible foreclosure action for non-payment, they happily received a check. And so, it goes in America.

The fluidity in the marketplace and lack of concern with lengthy legal documents can be attributed to regular assurances people hear from all those around them. Their parents have bought a home, and it all went OK. Their friends used such and such mortgage broker and despite an inconvenience over some last-minute documentation, the rate and fees were as expected.

Of course, there are situations that lead the consumer dissatisfaction as well. A while back there was that interest free financing for six months at time of purchase of furniture or a large TV. But then the credit card didn’t send the statement with the balance in time, so the consumer was charged retroactively for 180 days of interest. More often than not these gotcha gimmicks get brought to the attention of the attorney general, and even though the duped don’t get repaid, future misleading advertising is curbed.

With the little bit of work and an audience for stories of assurances, the institutions which make for reliable financial services is maintained.

Moving Chains Paper- offering new housing opportunities throughout Helsinki

City-wide effects of new housing supply:
Evidence from moving chains

by: Cristina Bratu, Oskari Harjunen, Tuukka Saarimaa*

Abstract
We study the city-wide effects of new, centrally-located market-rate housing
supply using geo-coded total population register data from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The supply of new market rate units triggers moving chains that quickly
reach middle- and low-income neighborhoods and individuals. Thus, new marketrate construction loosens the housing market in middle- and low-income areas even
in the short run. Market-rate supply is likely to improve affordability outside the
sub-markets where new construction occurs and to benefit low-income people.

As far as why a paper, which many would think of as addressing common sense, needs to be written. This tweet best explains it best:

This might seem obvious if you’ve ever read the literature (this process is normally called ‘filtering’) or indeed if you’re a renter who has moved around a lot, but the theory gets a lot of critique from those who don’t like what it suggests about the need to build more…

… And because you need access to the whole population address history in order to *prove* that market supply frees up more affordable homes for lower income households, it’s hard for researchers to do (lack of data/privacy issues). So good to have this extra empirical evidence!

The paper also has some interesting findings on the role of social housing as well. Tl;dr all new housing supply has a good impact across the city. Lots of interesting charts too!

Get the feeling most of the people giving me reasons it’s wrong haven’t read the paper, since they are arguing against points that a) this paper doesn’t make, and b) are irrelevant to the findings of this paper 🙃

I’ve had people saying “housing in Helsinki is expensive, so this paper is wrong & we need socialism” AND “the reason housing in Helsinki is cheap is because of socialism”.

… the paper is not about what prices in Helsinki are. And it supports both market and public housing.

Originally tweeted by Anya Martin (@AnyaMartin8) on January 14, 2022.

Sorting: Home Price is not the same as Rental Price

It’s more expensive to live in New York City than Omaha Nebraska. If you are only going to relocate to Denver for a couple of years, you should rent instead of buy. Housing prices suffer in Baltimore due to high crime rates. These are all statements that don’t need an explanation. Living in a city full of opportunity is going to cost more than in a city a fraction of its size. The commitment to purchase a property is both financially and emotionally taxing for a short stay. And high crime rates make just about any neighborhood a tough sell.

It is easy enough for consumers to observe these strong market indicators. But if we want to start digging deeper into what market prices of housing can tell us, than we must be a more careful about sorting.

If we wish to look at housing costs in an open market environment and break the values down in order to find market preferences for attributes tied to the neighborhoods, then we must choose between either (residential) home sales data or rental data. Otherwise, the statistical outcome will fail because these are two different market transactions.

Purchasing a property is a multi-year commitment. Renting is generally a year at a time. The rule of thumb on how long a buyer should anticipate staying in their home has varied over the years. Back when I first got in the business the benchmark was seven years. Between real estate fees to move- perhaps around 7.5% of value- and the closing costs of financing, a buyer requires several years of appreciation to break even on purchasing versus renting.

But I’d argue there is more to it than this sketch of dollars and cents of the buy versus rent decision. For comparison’s sake let’s consider the actions taken by a homeowner or a renter or an Airbnb occupant. They are all enjoying shelter in the same location of a city. An individual walks by an alley and there is a body lying near the dumpsters. The Airbnb people will probably finish their stay and not mention it to anyone, although they will probably rethink their choice of lodging for the following visit. The renter may or may not call an authority like the police. If bodies in alleys become a routine occurrence they will probably move.

I think you know where I’m going with this. The homeowner is the most likely to get involved and not only notify the authorities but follow through with contact to a city council member and so on. This is work done on behalf of the neighborhood with no financial compensation. It is a job taken on as an investor in the neighborhood who aspires to live in a safe and desirable environment. The homeowner is willing to make this investment whereas the Airbnb and renter are progressively less likely.

The relatively transient nature of renting can affect price in other ways. A consumer maybe willing to pay more to be near key features, especially arts and entertainment venues. The reasoning goes that they know this is a temporary situation so why not enjoy something that they will not have access to once they have to come down to earth and purchase a property. Or they choose over-the-top structural amenities and a higher level of finishes, again not available to them once the concession of a long-term purchase stretches their resources in other directions.

The analysis of rental prices in determining the implicit prices of neighborhood amenities are valuable. But will not yield the same results as the analysis of home prices since consumers are not purchasing the same items.

But what should be worth a mind-blown emoji and seems to be greatly ignored is the reliable impact of public goods on home prices. In addition to knowing a school district is worth $xxx of a home’s value, and all those other observations at the beginning of this post, just about anyone can run a regression on a laptop. Just go into the county records, collect the price of 100 similar homes by area, plug them into Xcel columns as well as FBI crime data relevant to area and school test scores for the property. Then go to Data Analysis>Regression>Ok and generate a lovely statistically significant relationship.

The relationship of price to crime and school performance is so strong it doesn’t even need the most general of sorting. But most other things will.

Mystery writer discovered

Trust me when I tell you that thrift stores are the perfect place to meet new favorite authors. I’ll often stop into the shop after having dropped off a back seat full of neglected household goods and clothes that no one seems to wear. Days like these are relaxed, otherwise I never would have been sorting through closets, piling the items in my car and delivering them to the drop off window.

Sometimes the book shelves are organized, sometimes the books are tipping off the shelves. No matter. I scan the shelves for titles I know or covers that look interesting. If I’m unfamiliar with the author I google their name. I’m sure that’s how the Ruth Rendel book ended up in the basket of books by the overstuffed armchair in my living room. The search reveled that she has over sixty titles to her name and is one of Britain’s most recognized mystery writers. Well, that was news to me!

Friday evening when I was looking for some non-screen entertainment my hand landed on it where it had been waiting to be read. It succeeded on all counts. There is suspense. There are interesting settings (or maybe I’m just nostalgic for Europe). The level of character development is of greater complexity than commonly found in the genre. The author strings you along until the last few pages with red herrings and dead ends.

And I doubt I would have found Ruth Rendel except for the wonderful recycling effect of donations to a thrift store.

Economic man was lonely

Welfare economics ran into market failures because of economic man. The view that all transactions are performed by an individual actor looking only after his own interest is relevant for the pursuit of private goods, but not public. If the problem isn’t structured from the point of view of a group, then it all falls apart due to freeriding. If the economic analysis isn’t contained within a sphere of voluntary reciprocity, then the desire for each and every to fulfill only their needs tells a story of everyone taking and no-one giving.

But we don’t live as the caveman did defending a little hilltop. We live in families, tribes, cities and countries. We participate in work life and school life and sports life and associational life. When our diplomatic family would show up at a new post halfway around the world, we’d be met at the airport and driven to our housing by a couple from the embassy. Co-workers would be sure we knew where to shop, how to get the kids in school, and other pressing local customs. I was recently reminiscing with a military guy who nodded knowingly when I relayed how, for years, I had missed the strong ties of service personnel when I got out into the work force.

And because these are lifestyles, the assumption of the group and its obligations can be taken for granted. The compacts of who takes care of whom at different stages of life, over decades, makes for messy accounting. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tracked. It just means we have yet to do so. It’s taken forty years, since a little rebellion in the 70’s, to name a labor wedge. And now there’s credit for sweat labor. And then there are the Wikipedia contributors, and many more cooperative types making cool stuff.

The independent actor, however, is so ingrained in the US psyche that the conceptualization of a group as a consumer and supplier slips easily out of the analysis. To further muck up the landscape, an institution thought to be public, acts as an economic man with regard to anyone outside the group. Take the teachers’ unions actions regarding COVID as an example. The focus is on the public health and well-being of the teachers, and the teachers alone. The initiatives of their efforts do not include the public health of the school children nor their families. There is no consideration of other public objectives or benefits to keeping children in the classroom. The services the unions are negotiating are only public to dues paying members.

Economic man is a lonely notion. Have no fear, he lives in groups! But his behavior traits are accurate and, as it turns out, groups can be selfish too. To keep it all straight, one must declare an anchoring point of view in any analysis.

The Survivors- Movie Review

I clicked on this 1983 comedy with Walter Matthau and Robin Williams on a bit of a whim. It is not highly rated, but I’ve been curious about comedy and what I failed to see in it back when I was younger. Much of humor is derived from subtle plays on social norms. If you are not from the area or lack proficient language skills or are not in tuned with current political situations, the laugh often slips right on by you.

Walter Matthau is admirable (I am just realizing what a tremendous career he had!) and keeps the movie together. Robin Williams is not my favorite even though he pulls offs some great lines and gestures. But mostly what I found interesting is the harsh review of US bureaucratic services. This was a time of high interest rates and high unemployment, and the discouraging mood is present throughout. As a result, one does come away impressed with the speed and fluidity of the disbursement of Covid relief funds.

The home seller’s POV

In order for all those home prices to end up on a list at the county recorder’s office, both buyers and sellers must agree on the exchange. The idea of revealed preferences tells us how the buyers are viewing, evaluating and reacting to, not only the physical characteristics and conditions of a home, but also what type of neighborhood infrastructure is in place to educate the kids, and to collect the trash, and to obtain potable water and so on. When price is equated against relevant quality indicators, a number will indicate what type of weight buyers put on each of these factors.

Now let’s think about the sellers. Sellers of course would like to secure the highest financial bid on their home. But this isn’t the only consideration. Since there is a four-to-six-week lag time between signing a purchase agreement and closing on the property, parties to the transaction consider the buyers’ level of earnestness, as it is a great disappointment should buyer’s remorse creep onto the scene. Sellers also take into account the financial viability of the buyers to be sure the lender will show up at the closing table with a suitcase full of cash.

A seller is no longer thinking about the public goods in their neighborhood because they are soon to exit the networks which rely on and participate in the production of those goods. But when they accept the money for the sale of their property, they are receiving payment for any participation they may have done over their residency. If they petitioned the city council for traffic-quieting-turn-abouts for safer streets or set up a tennis association to get people out exercising or led the kids out on a Trick-Can-Treat to gather up canned goods for the food shelf, it is at time of sale when they receive payment for their labor.

From my point of view, the equity in their home which accumulated during their ownership due to all these types of activities and investments is social capital.

A house as a bundle of implicit prices

Yesterday’s post was about how the implicit price for neighborhood public goods, or what some people call amenities, like schools, parks, city services are a portion of the final sticker price of a home purchase. Buyers in the housing market consider square footage, beds, baths and the level of landscaping, but also make choices of financial consideration when comparing the infrastructure in the neighborhood and surrounding area. Just how long it will take to get to work or whether there are medical facilities close by are all contenders in the battle for the right bundle of components wrapped up in the final purchase.

The mathematical technique used to identify these bits of the final sales price, each dedicated to an amenity, is to solve for a hedonic equation. That is to line up a set of prices against data thought to be considered by consumers prior to purchase, and then solve. For instance, the violent crime rate is a very strong indicator in metering out a buyer’s sense of safety, and k-12 test scores are faithful representations of feelings around schools. When an econometrician equates prices to this data it is called running a regression.

Of course, there is much to this statistical process, and many mistakes can be made or avoided depending on how the problems are structured. But what I want to talk about is conceptionally what the coefficients, the numbers dictating the value (or maybe impact is a better word) of each amenity. It feels like a price since the unit of measure is dollars. For example, if a home in one school district were compared to the same home in more favorable district, the natural log of the coefficient gives the value as a percentage. In considering a purchase the buyer could say they would have to pay ten percent more for one home over the other. Or that there is a forty-thousand-dollar premium (on a 400K home) to purchase in the better district.

Sherwin Rosen who first wrote about this process in the ’70’s warned against thinking of implicit prices (the prices of the categories which make up a product) as an actual price since they come together as a bunch. In housing this is particularly true. One can’t make a wish list of features and tell a manufacturer to build it, like your latest laptop. One is not able to blend a prespecified structure and plunk it down just anywhere. For the most part consumers often bend on some desirable features in order to get others.

Buyers are also attracted to a variety of public goods at different times if their lives. Families with children in the home care about schools. Working stage of life folks need daily commuting infrastructure. Later stage in life people may want access to medical facilities. And it is these groups of people who are vying and competing for the homes which best offer the desired benefits.

Home economics is a study of bundled goods and grouped consumers.

What’s in a house price

All we’ve heard for the last several years is how the price of housing is going up. Up. UP! And for the most part that is true. Whether it is because Millennials are finally getting on their feet and need a place to have their own families, or whether the baby boomers are not moving to the lower priced condos and giving up their family homes, there is no doubt that there is a housing squeeze.

But seriously, for as long as I can remember, except in deep recessions, people have thought housing is expensive. Because it is! It is the largest portion of people’s monthly budget. And this distraction about the cost of a home is the most uninteresting fact one can take away from home prices. House prices are a rich reflection of the revealed preferences of a community.

An economist in the early part of the twentieth century by the name of Paul Samuelson came up with the idea that when consumers chose different products, they reveal what best suits their needs. This differed from theories up to that point which placed the burden on policy makers to decide which goods provided the greatest utility to consumers.

Samuelson’s relationship with economics is lengthy. This excerpt paints the broadest brush of his brilliance. “In receiving the Nobel Prize in 1970, Mr. Samuelson was credited with transforming his discipline from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”

One economist, his junior by twenty years, heard the clarion call for greater mathematical representation of economic theory. Zvi Griliches contributed to a publication called Economic Statistics and Econometrics published in 1968. In a paper called Hedonic Price Indexes for Automobiles: An Economic Analysis of Quality Change, Zvi pulled apart the prices for automobiles so that he could show how much consumers were paying for improved engines or length of the vehicle or other features. By comparing the components of the cost of vehicles he distinguished between inflation and consumers revealing a preference for higher quality provided by advanced technology.

But back to real estate. The economist credited for using this statistical method (taking the price of a complex product and using data to divvy out the weighted values of its various components) was Sherwin Rosen in his 1974 paper Hedonic Prices and Implicit Markets: Product Differentiation in Pure Competition. Now this is exciting! The price of a house can tell you how much one school district is favored over another. It can tell you the value effects of violent crime, or proximity to mass transit.

The implicit prices tell us that we trade in public goods as well as private goods. We shop for city services and good roads, for youth programming and parks, as well as for good schools and safe streets. The implicit prices tell us how groups of people choose bundles of public goods. Real estate prices are incredibly rich with feedback.

So can we stop with the “They are so expensive.”

Grandpa and Sam McGee

Opa grew up dirt poor in northwestern MN, one of a large family of Swedish immigrants. He was more or less orphaned when he was sixteen, so he persuaded a couple of buddies to see if they could winter off the land up along the Canadian border.

Whenever the temps and wind chills dig into the minus twenty, minus thirty range, I wonder how they pulled it off back around 1923. It’s no wonder that one of his favourite poems was The Cremation of Sam McGee. He knew it by heart and needed little prompting to recite it to you.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

What squatter cities can teach us

I really like the first half of this TED talk by Stewart Brand (0-8:00). He captures the progress of people coming together in cities to provide public goods, like a marketplace and schools, cable and water, so that they may pursue their private desire to navigate the opportunities of large urban centers.

“These people are valuable as a group, and that’s how they work.” Stewart Brand (3:31)

Settlements in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are shown as an example (6:58). When we lived in Dhaka in the late ’60’s this region was one of the poorest in the world. By the time this video was made in 2006 progress was underway. But just this year all indications are for continued success

From today’s Dhaka Tribune:

He (Minister Muhammad Tajul Islam) said when the Awami League came to power in 2009, per capita income was hovering around the $700-mark. It increased to $2,554 in a decade under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. 

He added that it may increase to $3,000 in 2022.  

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2022/01/09/lgrd-minister-per-capita-income-to-exceed-3000-by-2022

Brand’s predictions for a prosperous outcome for the people filling up the slums came to fruition in Bangladesh. Yet I take issue with how he refers to the economic activity as an informal economy. This term is a bit slippery, but its most prevalent definition is taken from the viewpoint of the political state. This, for example, from Wikipedia: “An informal economy (informal sector or grey economy) is the part of any economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government.”

The activities specified by Brand in the development of schools is a story of parents pooling money to hire teachers to educate their children. There’s is a cash element to this procurement of the public good, as well as a non-paid time portion from the parents involved in organizing and managing the teachers. But there’s nothing hidden or under the table in these proceedings.

Education is known to be the most important contributing factor to pulling people out of poverty. How it is described in the TED talk does not matched the definition of an informal economy. The state did not provide a public-school education in the slums, but I think we’re all past the notion that government has a corner on this sphere of the market.

Public goods are traded throughout the west as well as the east within groups of people who share a common objective. This is accomplished with a combination of paid and voluntary positions, with an input of shared and private resources.

Finding family more valuable

People in the prime earning years of their work careers are leaving it all behind. Some have no plan at all except to be done with what they used to do and look forward to perhaps consulting options or other opportunities. Others resigned with the intentions of helping with their grandkids as the burden of at home schooling and work and having something of a marriage was taking its toll on their kids. The numbers for the Midwest are clear, with quit rates climbing to all-time highs, as shown here by FRED.

For some the virus has made life too stressful. The uncertainty of whether your kids have a reliable place to be during work hours is a significant concern under any circumstance. The last minute need to take leave from paid employment to look after a quarantined kid creates an entry on the positive side of the on-going debate whether the family would be better off with one worker dedicated to family affairs.

Many people settle into the extended family model where grandparents or aunts and uncles show up for a childcare shift throughout the week. This also alleviates the stress of transport to and from daycare in twenty below weather sliding over ice covered roads. The anxiety of a worker when faced with being late to pick up their infant is palpable.

People are making quality of life choices. It appears that Covid has drawn people up short on past choices about paid employment versus employment which allows greater time spent building equity in family relations, or flexibility to pursue other associational interests. Once people start sharing such ideas with others, a little self-reflection can set off a chain reaction.

Labor, like any commodity, is compensated by a mix of pecuniary and social rewards. Where individuals, couples, or extended families find the balance of enough cash and enough time to keep the family support systems in play so that everyone is safe and fed and healthy. And then there’s the altruistic side of people who feel the sheer reward of adding to the public goods market whether through education or their many other talents.

Accountants are underrated

Numbers people are underrated. You probably have not heard of Amatino Manucci or Luca Pacioli, but they played a key role in the development of commerce though without the glamourous appeal of the adventurer types like Marco Polo or Vasco da Gama. They made contributions to the double accounting system.

Manucci kept the accounts for Giovanni Farolfi & Company, a merchant partnership based in Nîmes, France. Manucci was a partner for the Salon, South of France branch. The writing, entirely in Manucci’s hand, is neat, legible, and mostly well preserved.[3] Financial records from 1299—1300 survive that he kept for the firm’s branch in Salon, Provence.[1] Although these records are incomplete, they show enough detail to be identified as double-entry bookkeeping.[1] These details include the use of debits and credits and duality of entries.[1] “No more is known of Amatino Manucci, than this ledger that he kept.”[3] Amatino Manucci did not invent the double entry system, that was a 100-year process (perhaps a 9,000 year process). 

Wikipedia

This was about the time that the Papal seat was moved to Avignon, just a short distance from Salon. The area, known for hilltop fortified villages, was surrounded by sophistication and learning.

Luca Pacioli, an Italian mathematicianFranciscan friar, collaborator with Leonardo da Vinci (there’s someone we know), came along a couple of centuries later accomplishing the great service of putting the method into a textbook.

The first published work on a double-entry bookkeeping system was the Summa de arithmetica, published in Italy in 1494 by Luca Pacioli (the “Father of Accounting”).[21][22] Accounting began to transition into an organized profession in the nineteenth century,[23][24] with local professional bodies in England merging to form the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in 1880.[25]

Wikipedia

The double accounting system improved the accuracy of the bookwork for transactions. Keeping proper records goes a long way to maximizing profits and use of time. Having a running tally of the monetary movement also leads to confidence amongst parties to a trade. There’s a history, a verification of how things were done as a reference.

What is exciting is there are new efforts afoot to better account for intangibles in business such as “the value of business owners’ time and expenses to build customer bases, client lists, and other intangible assets.” Our very own Ellen McGrattan at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, along with Anmol Bhandari at the U of MN, had a paper published in May 2021 which finds that the accountants have been missing a sizable amount of business assets. From the abstract:

We discipline the theory using data from U.S. national accounts, business censuses, and brokered sales to estimate a value for sweat equity in the private business sector equal to 1.2 times U.S. GDP, which is about the same magnitude as the value of fixed assets in use in these businesses.

Sweat Equity in U.S. Private Business∗

In the concluding paragraph of the authors suggest that there is a problem with how this capital is categorized.

Most of the applied work focuses on one attribute at a time and imposes a strict dichotomy on the nature of the asset: alienable or inalienable, specific or general, tangible or intangible. One of the key messages from our work is that sweat capital does not fit neatly in these dichotomies. Furthermore, the fact that these assets are a substantial part of private business value will likely necessitate a review of some of the classic results concerning the boundary of the firm and its capital structure.

A portion of the efforts and energies a business owner puts into his/her company is not the same as the work an employee is paid for to show up for a job. The labor of the owner has a non-fungible bit which is retained in the business. The later transaction, cash for time worked with no further obligation, is fungible.

It sounds like McGrattan is recommending a new accounting system to keep track of these entries.

Valuing persistence

Melissa Dell, an economist at Harvard, writes about persistence. One of her studies considers evidence of the effects of colonization in Indonesia. The Dutch controlled the archipelago caught between the South China Sea and Australia starting in 1610 with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. Although the trading entity evolved, control of the territory and its resources lasted into the twentieth century.

Dell finds that the European presence left behind some societal benefits which persist to the present day. From the abstract of The Development Effects of the Extractive Colonial Economy: The Dutch Cultivation System in Java.

We examine these in the context of the Dutch Cultivation System, the integrated industrial and agricultural system for producing sugar that formed the core of the Dutch colonial enterprise in 19th century Java. We show that areas close to where the Dutch established sugar factories in the mid-19th century are today more industrialized, have better infrastructure, are more educated, and are richer than nearby counterfactual locations that would have been similarly suitable for colonial sugar factories.

Using a method of comparison between two similar geographic areas, the researchers were able to prove that the existence of factories and supporting works carried forward as a system, even after the colonizing power departed. It appears that the economic value of the factory extended beyond the daily production of the product at hand; that there is a residual benefit beyond the export produced (to the benefit of the Dutch) which remained attached to the land.

We also show, using a spatial regression discontinuity design on the catchment areas around each factory, that villages forced to grow sugar cane have more village owned land and also have more schools and substantially higher education levels, both historically and today.

Modeling this in the public/private-externalize/internalize framework would start by identifying three groups: the Dutch, the in-Indonesians and the out-Indonesians. The story of colonization which has been popular of late only involves one transaction. In this case it would be the Dutch reaping private monetary rewards from the sale of sugar to all the ports on the sailing route through the Straits of Malacca, around past Ceylon, past the Cape of Good Hope and on back to Europe. And although this is true, it leaves out a bunch of other trades.

Dell’s work indicates that the in-Indonesians (the ones who worked in the factories) ended up better educated. Their interactions with foreigners included being taught skills required of the job. Because it was to management’s benefit, time was spent to provide a public good to the locals which they then internalized. Similarly, because it was a benefit to the Dutch in a private sense, significant investment was made in transportation infrastructure, as noted here.

The analysis thus far has focused on the private sector, but public investments may also be an important channel of persistence. The historical literature emphasizes that the Dutch government constructed road and rail networks to transport sugar to ports. The Dutch made large infrastructure investments precisely because it was profitable for them due to the extraction of a surplus, and they would have been very unlikely to make these investments elsewhere in the absence of extraction

These public facilities were a public good to all the Indonesians who chose to use them. But Dell goes further in her analysis to suggest that the in-Indonesians persisted in developing infrastructure after the Europeans departure as they were simply more in-tune to the process of petitioning government for improvements. Perhaps their higher level of property ownership also motivated them to pursue a public good as they themselves would privately benefit.

To tell a story as a one-sided transaction does not do history justice. A complete accounting of all the transactions needs to be in play to evaluate whether everyone came out better off, or not.

Easier to see, when seen from abroad

Tim Taylor, an economist across town at Macalester College, was taken by poet Roya Hakakian‘s lengthy description of voluntary efforts to support associational objectives. If you were doubt whether individuals voluntarily give time and resources towards public goods, this list should set you straight. Everything that follows is taken from Tim Taylors blog the Conversable Economist:

I was also intrigued by Hakakian description of being surrounded by a nation of fund-raisers for small causes:

You used to give a coin or two to the poor of your city, or drop a banknote in the collection box at your place of worship, or help a neighbor or a friend with a loan. But these were a few small exercises at best. Here, people give regularly. Squirrels collect acorns, and Americans raise money. It is as natural as any instinct for them. Children offer lemonade on sidewalks to raise money for the kittens at the animal shelter. Girl Scouts go door-to-door selling cookies so other aspiring girls can become Scouts too, and do the same. Mothers organize bake sales to help pay for a new neighborhood playground. Teens give to the GoFundMe campaign of a filmmaker working on a documentary about the endangered aardvarks of Angola. Even Santa, the nation’s gift giver in chief, appears at the threshold of major department stores every December, ringing a bell at the side of a siren-red donation bucket. Overworked cashiers will not scan your items before listlessly asking if you would like to donate a dollar to the fight against something or other. Once a year, arsonists take a day off so firefighters can stand at intersections holding up their rubber boots, charming drivers into pitching in a few dollars. At the registers of greasy gas stations, two things are always guaranteed: the noxious smell of fuel and the cardboard quarter receptacle for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In some movie theaters, films cannot start unless the ushers have walked aisle to aisle passing the empty popcorn container to collect money for whatever the star in the public service announcement
urged the viewers to donate to. Entertainers hold telethons to raise money for this disease or that. Rock bands compose songs for disaster victims and give them their proceeds. Radio broadcasts are interrupted so the hosts can make appeals for a donation, which the local attorney or dermatologist matches. Runners run, bikers bike, and comics crack jokes, all to help raise money for the needy. Politicians bombard their supporters with emails, asking them to give five, ten, twenty, or more dollars toward making a better tomorrow, when, in addition to a higher minimum wage and universal healthcare, there will also surely be more emails asking you to donate again. Corporations have charitable arms. Dignitaries ask for money to build homes for the destitute. In television commercials, celebrities, holding doe-eyed babies in their arms, urge viewers to adopt a child on another continent through a monthly contribution. Anything is possible in America, even raising a baby by subscription.

When Americans do not raise money, they raise necessities. They have book drives, blood drives, food drives, turkey drives, even car drives. If they cannot solicit you in person, they send you letters. Heaps of envelopes arrive in America’s mailboxes every week asking the
citizens to donate to one organization or another. Fundraising is a behemoth as vast as any industry. … You may be naturalized already, but unless you begin writing checks for people you have never met, living in places you would never visit, you are not a real American.

No nation so rich has ever asked for more money. They do not need the order or the permission of some authority to tell them what to raise and for what cause. They take matters into their own hands and wage campaigns to save the pandas, protect the bees, or reverse beach erosion. What is at the heart of all this fundraising is the same thing that is at the heart of all other perfectly American things—an irrepressible self.

For interested readers, here’s the full Table of Contents for this most recent issue of Capitalism and Society, with abstract and links to papers.

Squeezed out of the house

Most coursework taught in a classroom setting under the guise of real estate is centered on one of three aspects: appraising, financing, and legal underpinnings. In fact, most of the reports generated around real estate feature these same three topics. The recent sales data is sliced and diced along with market times and the rates offered by the mortgage brokers.

Cornell University proves to be an exception in its course offerings which include a wide range of topics on all aspects of real property. In addition to the oh-so-common Finance and Investment class, there’s a taxation course and one on hospitality real estate finance. There is analysis of transaction and deal structuring, and advanced project management for real estate development. There is an emphasis on flushing out the business side to real property.

But the courses designed to teach the work which happens(ed) in the home has been severed from the neighborhood and become Policy Analysis & Management (PAM). The evolution of the 1920’s department of the Department of Household Management is depicted in the flow chart below. Clearly 1969 was a breaking point from the quaintness of home, a throwing off of the apron in favor of an upwards and onwards momentum to a more distinguished framing.

Cornell University, the History of PAM

Another course offered at Cornell is Urban Economics and Real Estate Markets. The course description reads: “A theoretical understanding of the economic forces affecting urban land market change and development is needed for decision-making in the real estate profession… The two core models at the center of the course are the model of urban spatial structure that stems from the work of Alonso, Muth and Mills…” (Alonso, William (1964) Location and Land Use. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.)

A few years before the functions of health and human services were being detached from the geography of cities and suburbs, Alonso noted that the location of a central business district (CBD) created a spatial relationship within a city which affected real estate. While a model based on jobs and income and the commuting of a workforce was used and developed in the interplay of real estate uses in a city, the jobs of a homemaker in educating and feeding and educating her children found a new home in the Health and Human Services Departments across the nation.

This was unfortunate timing.

Back to School

Kids go back to school tomorrow after a two-week holiday break. There’s been little chatter in our area about school closures due to the new virus making the rounds. The kids do wear masks while in school and are asked to stay home if they are feeling ill. But there have been no further formal responses to the pandemic.

School performance and school boundaries are a significant consideration to families looking for a home. People can be open to several districts or specifically interested in one particular school. But the list is in place, and it delineates the possible selection of homes. Or at least this is true for those attending public schools, which runs about 88% of the student population in Minnesota

This number is reflective of the number of kids who attend private schools nationwide. One standout statistic is the range of spending per pupil. Vermont had the highest per student spending at $23,205, whereas Utah had the lowest at $8,352. Their graduation rates were different as well. Vermont pulls in a rate of 89.1 whereas Utah only has 86 percent at their lower rate of spending.

In Minnesota we’re right in the average at $13,456/pupil.

Two Books Reviews

Being that today was a holiday and it is ten below outside, I settled in with Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik, a local Minnesota writer. It was published in 1995 and is still the author’s best-known work. The story of two sisters growing through various stages of their lives in the ’60’s and 70’s is nostalgic for those of us who have seen the Twin Cities grow over the last four decades.

The book is rich in geographical references as Landvik describes where her characters’ lives play out above bakeries or small shops, on parkways that front the Mississippi River. Some of those small-scale brick commercial buildings have fallen to make way for larger apartment buildings, as a city ages, grows and changes. But the relationships that are made between people of different backgrounds who live in close proximity stays the same.

Lorna Landvik will walk you down the sidewalks of the predominantly Scandinavian community and out to Lake Nokomis and over to Minnehaha Falls. She’ll show you where the wealthy live and the corner bar where the not so wealthy enjoy a brew or two. If you’re curious about passive aggression or how families simply keep plugging along through adversity, you will find it a good read.


Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, is a book which will slow you down as it is caulk full of wonderful references to all sorts of rich texts. Some I had read; some are now on a list. I first took note of Francine Prose when I was perusing an article in the Atlantic her words lulled in my ear. The crispness and informative conveyance of material is in high gear in this book about writers. It’s like someone has taken you into one of those amazing libraries stacked high with books, and as you walk along together in front of the stacks, she feeds you a stream of choice bits from each one.

She’s broken the book into paragraphs entitled in a manner to suggest her intended audience is composed of those who aspire to write a novel: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and so on. But you can ignore all that. The absolute best part of this book (for book lovers that is) is that she plucks out the loftier parts of a work and shines a light on the sheer beauty of it. She pulls a bucket out of a deep well of knowledge and has you take a sip. The book closes with a reading list of BOOKS TO BE READ IMMEDIATELY.

Now I have my check list for 2022. Happy reading.

End of Year Greetings from MN

As the first full year of this site comes to a close, I am thankful for all visitors who have stopped by and taken a look around. The international reach of the audience has been heart-warming. Over fifty countries are represented in the views. The largest share originated from the US at 54%, India comes in second at 20% and then South Africa at 7%. Even my brief, childhood, home country of Ethiopia pulled in at 2%- Tenayistilign!

I really appreciate the visits and the likes!

I’ll close out the year showing you a little bit about what we do for fun here in the tundra.

Keep reading. Keeping walking. Peace, health and goodwill to you in the new year!

The USPS provides neighborhood data

If you are looking for micro level data on a particular neighborhood, you’ll be happy to know that it is available curtesy of the United States Postal Service.

As a service to businesses who would like to mail marketing pieces to homes, the Every Door Direct Mail program allows you to search by mail carrier route to get a feel for neighborhood composition and level of income.

In this first screen shot the light blue line delineates a collection of 246 residents on Lake Harriet, one of the lakes in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. The average income of the occupants is reported at $142.89K (if you are from a coastal region this may sound average, but it is high after cost-of-living adjustments).

A couple of miles away, another mail carrier route shows a different density and income level. With 392 residents contained in a similar surface area, we can imagine smaller lot sizes. The adjusted income indicates more modest housing.

When working with big data sets, the details are often averaged out. A tool such as this one allows you to test the numbers and see if they are consistent across a larger area.

Or you can just use it to check on your neighbors!

The Three Goals

By David Budbill

The first goal is to see the thing itself in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing as unified, as one, with all the other ten thousand things. In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals, to see the universe and the particular
simultaneously.

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.


An Echo

The first goal is to show that the individual has agency and free choice.

The second goal is to show that the individual is also a part of kin and kith, without fail, with no exception. These groupings are varied and vast and remake through time.

The third goal is to demonstrate an interaction between the individual and their communities such that there are private and communal benefits in a consistent fashion, operating under predictable forces.

Regarding this one, I’m working on it.

Checking in on Harvard’s real estate report

In June the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard puts out a national report. Six months on, I thought it might be interesting to check in on a few of the trends.

If you were involved with anything around new construction in 2021 you were acutely aware of the steep uptick in lumber prices. By spring market builders were writing upcharge clauses into purchase agreements allowing them to carry that cost back to the consumer at the end of the build. This did not always go over well.

I called a lumber yard recently regarding a bid on some pre-stained poplar for a tongue and grove ceiling. The guy on the other end of the line said prices had edged down a bit but he thought this particular product was still carrying a 22 percent surcharge over a year ago. He couldn’t predict into spring but said they all hoped the prices would ease and availability increase.

The other big news of the last eighteen months is the continued pressures on price. Even coming into the winter months new listings are selling in multiple offers. That said, I’m glad the study includes the second chart which shows how the cost of housing lines up with the income available to homeowners to make their payments. The cost of housing is not out pacing the potential to pay for it, but simply keeping pace. This should ease concerns around bubbles.

This last chart was news to me. I was not aware that new construction trends have been above historical averages for over a year. This is encouraging! I’d say we need an even bigger push for more units as millennials are finding their way to household formation. At least the numbers are trending upwards.

Several pieces of data that I would be interested in tracking is 1. how many units are idle and not in use 2. the trends for people aging out of home ownership making those units available, and 3. the number of units thought to be inhabitable. All of these numbers would help track ongoing availability of shelter.

A cure for car jackings?

The last two years have seen a terrific rise in carjackings in the Twin Cities. Loose numbers for the trend in the city of Minneapolis come in at 84 for 2019, 388 and 610 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Whereas the crime was mainly centered in the city, now offenders are venturing out into the suburbs. Whereas the perpetrators were mostly unarmed, now they are mostly armed and often inflicting bodily injury.

Out of the 610 incidents there are certainly a portion inflicted by career criminals. But at our holiday potluck last week the conversation focused on the number of juveniles involved in the activity. One story concerned a recent incident in a wealthy third tier suburb carried out in broad daylight. When the car was apprehended later in the day, all the occupants were under fifteen years of age. Here are a few other reports which follow the same lines.

The day after Frey’s press conference (12/16), two teens pleaded guilty to multiple carjackings across the Twin Cities; in a separate incident, a pair of juvenile suspects were arrested in association with violent attempted carjackings outside two Lunds & Byerlys locations. One suspect is still at large. 

Bring Me the News

As it has progressed to a larger geography, residents have organized to express their concern. Just over a week ago a community crime prevention meeting drew three hundred participants in a suburb abutting the city of Minneapolis. The mayors of five western suburbs compiled a statement and action list to address the issue. The role of the county attorney was questioned.

“We think the message being sent to criminals is you can commit this (kind of) crime this afternoon and be out by this evening,” he said. “From what I understand from the police officers, that is not far from the truth. I think we want the county attorney’s office to relook at that.”

https://www.eplocalnews.org/2021/12/18/suburban-mayors-meet-to-develop-response-to-
increasing-crime/

We’ve come full circle. The county attorneys had loosened penalties for low level crime in response to demands for social justice. Kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods get in the system, the reasoning went, and then they are hindered from progressing up through the regular channels of entry level jobs and on up the chain to self-sufficiency. Take formal charges off the table, and the balance will be set right. Unfortunately, releasing the penalty for low level offences has increased the number of kids getting into the carjacking business 6-fold, not decreased it.

Perhaps Minneapolitans would tolerate this increase in crime and see it as a penalty paid in order meet their social justice ambitions. But it is already clear that there is little appetite for such things further afield. More importantly, the loss of life amongst these budding ne’er do wells has been tragic.

Two teens are dead and three others in the hospital Thursday morning after Robbinsdale police say a reportedly stolen SUV crashed in Minneapolis.

The incident first began around 6 p.m. Wednesday (12/8) night, when a Mercedes SUV was stolen in an armed carjacking near the area of 12th Avenue North and Fremont Avenue in Minneapolis. ….

Police said five people were inside the fleeing SUV, all of them teens. One occupant was declared dead at the scene of the crash, and the other four were taken to nearby hospitals, where Robbinsdale police confirm that a second person died. Robbinsdale police captain John Kaczmarek told KARE 11 that the other three suffered significant injuries but are “up and talking” in the hospital.

MSN

As people puzzle over this escalating situation many of the same solutions are bantered about. But I say look to those suffering the greatest loss. To raise up a child to fifteen or sixteen years of age and then see them, on a whim, end up in a car which veers off the road and takes their life, must be a serious blow. These are the folks with the most to lose. A group of parents who have recently lost a child to this nonsense must have ideas on how different circumstances could have pulled their loved one in a different direction.

Daybreak on the love of children

Morning glory

Daybreak on Christmas day was spectacular. The glittering golden beams broke the horizon with an explosion of color. How appropriate on the anniversary of the birth of the world’s most famous baby; the baby born in a manger; the baby who grew into a man who would bear the sins of His people upon a cross.

No matter whether you believe in this tradition, you can’t deny the mystery and magnitude of the feeling which takes hold of a parent upon the birth of their child. “Nothing like it,” one would say. “I thought I knew love when I married my spouse, but I had yet to lay eyes upon my child.” The magical relationship between parent and off-spring is undeniable and universal.

Yet for a generation or more, the west has argued against children, against large families and the hubbub that surrounds them. Too expensive. That’s the first objection. Some sort of calculation which tallies the dollars necessary to raise and educate a child. Stratospheric.

Too time consuming! Babies will change your life. True. But I don’t see how it is a bad thing to be transformed from a self-consuming single to a service provider to the next generation. Those sweet babies who, when you are 75, 80, 90 plus years of age, will be responsible for the upkeep of the world.

You will have to forgo your career, your passion, your ambitions! Maybe you could manage with one, but certainly not more. A combo of one child to two parents is doable. But a family would be too great a sacrifice. Then the children control the agenda not the adults.

And on it goes. It’s not the right time; they are not the right sort of parents; there are already too many people in the world! Reasons not to pursue the one extraordinary and unrelenting bond in the world- the love between a parent and a child.

A college educated adult maybe employed from the age of 22 to age 66, or over a 44-year time frame. To get a gaggle of kids through the high intensity young-years time of life might round into twelve or fifteen years. Then they are off with friends freeing up time for other pursuits. A third of the working career years are laden with child duties. Seems like a fair trade for help in the senior years, rather than a sacrifice.

Children are beneficial in the long game. We can find all sorts of motives behind a generation who only considered the short term. But that doesn’t matter now. It’s a new day and the beauty and mystery and enduring love between parent and child is a premise to hold onto.

What Child is this- 1983 Edition

The St. Olaf Choir is a premier a cappella choir based in Northfield, Minnesota. Founded in 1912 by Norwegian immigrant F. Melius Christiansen, the choir has been influential to other church and college choirs for its performance of unaccompanied sacred music.[1] Conducted since 1990 by Anton Armstrong, there have been four conductors in the choir’s 109 year history.

Wiki

A tribute to the Mother Mary

I’ve been a fan of Walter Russell Mead’s writing since I came across his blog entries at the American Interest a bunch of years ago. In addition to his frequent entries about international affairs (he is now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal) I was captivated by his annual Yule Tide Blog. One entry in particular has stayed with me, one about the Mother Mary.

I hope it’s OK that I reproduce some of it here, as we approach Christmas. I had never read such a heartfelt celebration of a woman in a Christian context. Mead is the first to shine a bit of Jesus’s light back toward his mother.

Jesus is nothing if not paradoxical. On the one hand, Christians believe, he is the Second Person of the Trinity. But, say Christians, Jesus is also a human being. How does this work? Like the Trinity itself, the nature of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ is a complicated idea, and over the centuries has been described in very technical ways by theologians much better educated than me. With some notable exceptions, most Christians have held that Jesus has two natures combined in one person. He is fully divine, fully human—and still somehow just one person, one self. This idea was not formalized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, but the implications for Mary were already clear enough that twenty years earlier she was proclaimed Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus.

Theotokos can be translated into English several ways: the most common is “Mother of God” and a very large majority of Christians around the world considers Mary to be, literally, the Mother of God. Since Jesus’ two natures are combined in one person, she must be considered not only the mother of his “human side”; she is the mother of the whole person. God’s love knows no bounds; his decision to enter history was so unlimited, so unconditional, and so total that God became the son of a human woman.

The Mother of all Meaning

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is another segment.

I like to think that there is something more: from what the Bible tells us about Mary, we know that Jesus was the son of a strong and independent woman. Steeped in the ethical traditions of Judaism, she was passionate about justice and willing to stake everything on her sense of God’s call. She had a soft spot for social outcasts—after all she was once in the position of being an unmarried, pregnant woman in a censorious and traditional society. She was thoughtful and meditative, but capable of swift and decisive action when the time came.

She was unflinching and courageous. She followed God, not social convention. She was ready to be snickered at and pitied by the gossips of Nazareth and to risk her relationship with Joseph to respond to God’s call. She followed Jesus to the cross and watched her son die; her loving presence would have been one of the few comforts he had during that final ordeal.  She was ready to respond to the unexpected, to have her life wrenched out of a comfortable and traditional groove when God showed her that He had something else in mind.

Only someone raised by an equally compassionate and kind woman could have written such a beautiful tribute. It would be nice to thank him one day for putting pen to paper.

Our Lady of Lourdes

A premise

As a kid I really liked math because no matter the school curriculum, or country I happened to be in, the numbers were always the same. The problem sets followed a format as well. The givens were presented first off, and any other relationships, then you used theorems to generate answers– or rather one right answer. That was delightful! In customs and cultures there were never ending answers and conditions and expectations to keep track of.

In a philosophical argument, instead of givens, there are premises or premisses. Yet here, one must be ready to stand behind their validity.

premise or premiss[a] is a true or false statement that helps form the body of an argument, which logically leads to a true or false conclusion.[1] A premise makes a declarative statement about its subject matter which enables a reader to either agree or disagree with the premise in question, and in doing so understand the logical assumptions of the argument.

Wiki

This would be all well and good if language were precise. But it’s not. The project seems doomed for perpetual hair splitting. Unless of course one has some sort of authority so that everyone simply nods to their wise ruling and agrees. (yet, I’ve always been suspect to authority as too many people in lowly positions are in fact far brighter than those in lofty positions to which authority is often assumed)

For the argument I make here, at home-economic, a primary premise is that individuals have freedom to make choices. In a free and open society this seems indisputable, but then a questioning starts. What about the poor, or the homeless or children or the elderly or, for that matter, the breadwinner who feels trapped in a place of employment? Does someone living under a bridge really have choices? Yes.

And I would even take it further and say that those who are so removed from the circumstances in play, folks who stand too far back to be able to note the distinguishing characteristics of choices, these people have little to contribute to the conversation. For if one cannot or simply do not acknowledge the framework within which a particular group is living than, for lack of understanding, their interference is likely to do more harm than good.

Here’s an example given in Viviana Zelizer’s book The Social Meaning of Money at the start of Chapter 5.

IN THE NEW TALES told by social workers during the early twentieth century, money was recast as the modern “white hat” of the charity saga. Consider the life story of Mrs.  Czech, featured as the rhetorical centerpiece of an influential article published in The Survey in 1916 by Emma Winslow, home economist at the New York Charity Organization Society. Mrs. Czech was a widow who, for three years after her husband died, “was not obliged to use money in any way. “A charitable society provided her and her six children with food and clothing and paid their rent and insurance. And yet, despite such “theoretically…perfect care, the Czechs floundered. The mother “apparently … had no interest in the appearance of her home or of her children.” Nor did she care about their food. Soon, the children’s health deteriorated, their faces becoming “sallow and pasty.” At this point, the charity society decided to shift the method of relief into a weekly cash allowance, instructing Mrs. Czech “to do her own buying.” Soon housekeeping “became a delight,” the children’s health flourished, and the formerly indolent widow turned into a “remarkable… domestic economist.” And all because she now had the cash “to buy what she wanted when she wanted it.” 

In this case substituting cash for a pre-selected bundle of goods allowed an actor to benefit from choice. Please don’t misread this to say I advocate for cashing out of all social circumstances. Far from it!

The premise I am trying to highlight is freedom of choice. That optimal solutions occur when individuals are free to make choices as they filter through the various economic marketplaces of their lives.

Emily Dickinson, measurer

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long – 
Or did it just begin – 
I could not tell the Date of Mine – 
It feels so old a pain – 

I wonder if it hurts to live – 
And if They have to try – 
And whether – could They choose between – 
It would not be – to die – 

I note that Some – gone patient long – 
At length, renew their smile –  
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil – 

I wonder if when Years have piled –  
Some Thousands – on the Harm –  
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –  

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve – 
Enlightened to a larger Pain –  
In Contrast with the Love –  

The Grieved – are many – I am told –  
There is the various Cause –  
Death – is but one – and comes but once –  
And only nails the eyes –  

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –  
A sort they call "Despair" –  
There's Banishment from native Eyes – 
In sight of Native Air –  

And though I may not guess the kind –  
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –  

To note the fashions – of the Cross –  
And how they're mostly worn –  
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own – 

Poets.org

Thinking of friends who have experienced some out-of-the-natural-course-of-things deaths in recent years. Wishing them peace in this holiday season.

Women in Government, now and back then

Friday evening I went to a seminar entitled Women in Government hosted at the high school by two student groups. It was really well done! In addition to video presentations by Senator Tina Smith and Lieutenant Governor Flanagin, four accomplished women made up a panel on a stage edged by an American flag: a federal judge, a county prosecutor, a state senator and a media personality.

Turn the clock back to when I was just graduating from high school, or even into the first years of college, the only woman in US politics who stands out in my mind is Geraldine Ferraro. She was the US representative from New York and was Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate in 1984. Highly visible, outwardly successful women were few and far between. And those who did venture onto the big stage were pestered and heckled mercilessly. Fortunately, there has been a steady infill of female politicians since that time.

First off what struck me about each of the professionals in the auditorium is how they talked freely about their children, and from the sounds of it each had more than one. They spoke with ease about family life. One expressed thankfulness for the balance and objectivity the birth of her children had given her. Another told how her professional life had intermingled with a stay-at-home mom life, a follow your husband abroad life, and then back to a professional life.

This is a significant change from when I was one of the girls in the audience. Family life was not talked about and diverting one’s ambitions to support a spouse would not have been admired. Back then the statistics bantered about were that women with graduate degrees were doomed to spinsterhood. It seems we’ve progressed past necessitating a choice between job or family, and past a jealousy of a partner’s career.

When asked to offer advice to their younger selves, here are a few of their responses:

  • Be open to people who are trying to help you.
  • Gossip is not about you, inevitably it’s about the one trying to spread it.
  • Relax and don’t stress about everything.
  • Be open to your path changing course, as it most probably will.

There were quite a few adults in the audience as well. And I think everyone took away something useful from the experience.

All work isn’t the same

Jobs jobs jobs. Politicians love talking about jobs. But they might consider singing a slightly varied tune as 2021 has been the year of take-this-job-and-shove-it.

The Harvard Business Review reported:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. Resignations peaked in April and have remained abnormally high for the last several months, with a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of July.

The great resignation should be some sort of indication to politicians that people are rethinking JOBS. The jobs where you are hooked to an employer and you have to do what they say and then you get a deposit into your checking account every two weeks. That kind of job. The kind of job that is referenced in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The greatest percentage of resignations come from mid-career professionals, people who probably have a lot on their plate. They are probably juggling kids and aging parents. And yet they are chosing to quit their jobs.

I think it would be worth the effort to figure out what other work they will be doing instead of the work-for-money job they just quit. Wouldn’t that be good to know? If a voluntary workforce was being formed to address delivery of health care, wouldn’t it be useful to track these efforts and the results that follow?

Or maybe it isn’t the joint goal of better health but instead the shared goal of furthering early education. I think is would be valuable to understand how many presently unaccounted hours support young children’s advancement in learning. Then in a decade we could all understand the results. Or maybe people are leaving their jobs to be present in the neighborhood and be vigilant in the deterrence of low level crime. Counting the number of working hours devoted to this cause, and the ensuing results, could draw some conclusions as to the capacity of an area to improve public safety.

You see I don’t believe people, in the prime of their lives, are quitting jobs to sit around on an overstuffed sofa and nibble on snacks. I believe they feel they have something more valuable to do with their time and efforts and expertise. Wouldn’t we all be better served if the government helped with a structure to channel those aspirations and in turn track the outcomes?

The old structure of government taking money from one side, arguing for two years before handing it off to the other side is getting boring. Why don’t they think with a little more dynamism. Jobs don’t have to pay rolled. They can be mission based. Think of what could be accomplished with a little structure and an energized population wishing to do good.

Tom Stoppard is so talented

His play Travesties is set in Zurich during the First World War. In this brief exchange, both the artist Tzara and the diplomat Carr talk sense and nonsense.

CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean? Not that it has to mean anything, of course.

TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause.

CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.

TZARA (articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.

CARR (slight pause): Oh, what nonsense you talk!

TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else,by the war.

CARR: You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodphurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on-the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture-until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambswool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

Written in 1971, it premiered at the Aldwych Theatre in London in June of 1974. In addition to playing on the historical happenstance of three great figures living in Switzerland on the cusp of global conflict, Stoppard also mirrors aspects of one of his character’s works, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I can thank the Guthrie theater for introducing me to Stoppard. A friend was visiting town and wanted to go rush to see whatever was playing, which happened to be The Invention of Love. The crispness of his words arrested my attention and held on through the entire production.

Plays are sometimes hard to read. (I really struggled with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.) But Stoppard’s writing is dense with innuendo and word play and format changes. It’s delightful!

What will happen to commercial real estate?

Nature had been a disrupter long before the tech giants took up residency in northern California. The world-wide pandemic both challenged old ways of life and taught us we were more equipped, perhaps than most people thought, at using technology for daily tasks without the need of travel and face-to-face contact.

Just like with the tech sector, some disruptions proved the old ways were too good to let go. Printed books were thought to go the way of stone tablets, yet more than a decade after Nook and other on-line readers were launched, soft cover novels are still sold at airport newsstands. On-line k-12 school has not proven to be an improvement in so many ways. Both teachers and pupils fail to connect, learn and be mentored for larger life issues.

Workers who transitioned to the work-from-home venue have embraced the change. From recaptured commuting hours to flexibility, they rightly feel they are better off sitting in front of a computer in a residential setting rather than a commercial one. Hence it is not surprising that the leases on downtown office space are not being renewed.

The story doesn’t stop there however. As employees go to even greater lengths to profit from the new flexible arrangement by moving to lower cost states and capturing higher quality of life attributes, employers are making noises of adjusting salaries. Why pay coastal salaries to those who live mid-country? The market is adjusting and where the new balance will settle is still in play. But it is important to note that the private salary is priced out with consideration to the employee’s access to public goods at different locations.

The future of downtown space is also in play. Which groups will see the benefits of high density, proximity to arts and music venues, walkability to all the new restaurants which are bound to reopen once we finally conquer the virus? Will lower rents bring in a new wave of occupants?

Slack in the System

There’s a portion of interstate in downtown Minneapolis that funnels through a tunnel. When the interstate was built in the sixties, the congestion at this SW corner of the city warranted the expense and logistics involved in sinking in the subterranean passage. That was 1969, and in 1971 the neighbors threw a party in the below ground venue celebrating its completion.

Fast forward to the here and now and the congestion has returned. In 2018, according to one estimate, 185,000 cars passed through the tunnel every day. And not always successfully as the video clip shows. The end result is that there is often a back up from the feeders that bring traffic through the tunnel.

As a motorist approaches the city from the west during peak hours, and the downtown skyline takes shape above the dash, there’s inevitably lineup to exit on a right hand ramp to the tunnel and destinations beyond. Vehicles can start queuing up a couple of miles before the turn. Well before the green overhead placards announces the interchange.

As you sit behind the wheel, see-sawing down the right hand lane, there are always those drivers. You know the ones. They bypass the two mile wait, dart in, merge in, or arrogantly come to a full stop on the interstate, blinker pulsing, and wait until someone lets them in. (Do they realize they are at a full stop on a freeway?) I used to get irritated at such line jumpers. I used to pull up so tight to the bumper in front of me so as to deny them any chance of sliding in.

But time has altered my view.

Most skippers pull into spot ahead of trucks. There’s a slight incline on the bypass and the trucks can’t gear up fast enough to keep the line tight. There is often the space for several vehicles ahead of a semi. Then you have the putterers, so conservative in their driving that they leave ample room between them and the car in front. The darters grab those opportunities and fill those spaces. It dawned on me one day, maybe as the late afternoon sun reflected back on me off of one of those glass paneled high rises, that the line jumpers actually make the process more efficient, not less.

Of course it doesn’t work so well if no one conforms to the norms of courtesy. But the thing is that in group activities, you don’t need everyone to follow the rules at all times. In the case of freeway sharing, this example indicates a little bending of intentions makes the system flow a little freer. We just need most of the people pointing the same direction. Not every last one.

Which is one way of saying we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape by the few objectionable sheep in the flock. Spend time an energy on the majority, and keep moving forward.

Date Night- a worthy comedy

Steve Carell has grown on me over the years and his skills are in high gear in this comic yet action-adventure-themed tale of a married couple’s big night out in the city. In addition to Tina Fey and Taraji Henson (Empire) being strong supporting actresses, a very young Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) makes an appearance.

There are a variety of ploys which will make you laugh, but the film is really an ode to couples who have been together for a while.

Network Connector

We have a little suburban newspaper that shows up in the mailbox on Thursdays. It’s called the Home Town Source and runs letters to the editor about local issues, covers the city council and school board races, and devotes three spreads to high school athletics. This morning an article about a Plymouth man caught my eye. He’s a perfect example of a connector.

Students in Ghana received more than 16,000 books last week as part of a collaboration between the African Diaspora Development Institute and Books For Africa, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

The effort was led by Plymouth resident Jote Taddese, a former Books For Africa board president and a board member of the African Diaspora Development Institute. Taddese is also director of diaspora engagement for Books For Africa and a vice president of engineering at Optum Digital, a United Health Group Company.

The common interest here is literacy, an interest that transcends geographic boundaries. And the connector not only has ties to another continent through birth, but also experienced personally the benefits of picking up a book at a young age.

“As a person who was raised in Africa and educated in the diaspora, I am a living example of when we put a book in the hands of a child, we not only help fulfill the potential of the child, but also change the impact on the lives of individuals and the global communities that child will touch,” Taddese said. “This is my life experience that always inspires me to support kids in Africa with books.”

Taddese was born and raised in Oromia, Ethiopia, and immigrated to the U.S.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be employed by an organization whose mission parallels so nicely with their private life. And the non-profit’s accomplishments are notable.

Last year alone, BFA (Books for Africa) shipped 3.1 million books, valued at over $26.2 million, and 224 computers and e-readers containing over 650,000 digital books, to 28 African countries. More than $3.1 million was raised last year to ship these books to the people of Africa.

But this story isn’t particularly new. The living standard differences between the two continents is so significant, and the lack of basic tangible goods like books so clear, that there is little to complicate the direction of the goods and services in arriving at their destination. The books in fact are what I call idle assets, sitting amongst a community unused, available at no cost except the work to get them to their new location.

Markets become trickier when the difference between groups vary less, when resources are not idle but need to be drawn upon, when ‘need’ is voiced loudly by people other than the intended recipients. In these cases we will need to rely on benchmarks for guidance.

PADI- an associational case study

Say one wanted to figure out the impact of participating in affiliations with the professional association of diving instructors or PADI. First off we could identify three groups that are major players with the association: the dive shops, the instructors or dive masters and the divers who show up to be taken down to the ocean floor.

As I’ve attempted to sketch out each of these groups which internalize (listed inside the circle) and externalize benefits and costs in the relationship.

The divers, for instance, are willing to pay more to go on a two tank dive with a PADI shop and may adjust their travel plans or hotel selection to coordinate with the shop. But they do this because they feel they will experience a safer dive and see more sea life.

The dive masters who took us out in Kauai all had worked elsewhere including Honduras, Texas and the Caribbean. They also showed an active interest in the health and quality of the reefs in Hawaii and abroad. Just like so many outdoors men and women, they are important supporters of the environment they so enjoy, externalizing that knowledge and concern in so many ways.

Lastly the dive shops are able to charge more and internalize those profits but also must externalize the support and higher standards observed by the association.

Each of these actors are evaluating trade offs and making consumer choices in both fiscal matters as well as the degree of voluntary work or other concessions made in order to be part of the association.

A two tank dive isn’t simply $150USD. To get a grasp of the complete transaction would necessitate tracking all the components at time of exchange.

The other interesting aspect of this type of analysis is to see how externalize factors can be transferred between the groups of actors which come in touch with each other. For instance the dive masters are passionate about reef environment. As divers come through their work place there may be ways to capture idle assets to further reef preservation.

It’s about the land

I stuffed Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx in my knapsack purse at 3am when we had to leave for the airport to catch our flight. I wanted something I knew I would enjoy to fill the airport and flight hours on our rather lengthy itinerary to Kauai. It’s a coming of age story of a young man who sets out to establish himself by taking a job as a land scout for a corporate hog producer.

If you aren’t familiar with Annie Proulx, her writing veers to the eclectic. Embellishments are generously layered on like thick butter on a slab of freshly baked bread. I love that about her writing, which I first discovered in The Shipping News. But this book is chock-full of local characters. They parade across the pages leaving an imprint of the bit of their lives which made the panhandle what it was when Bob Dollar showed up in search of hog sites.

Luckily for me the lack of a nightstand stacked with alternative reading options kept my eyes on its pages. Not until well past page 377 does the author get down to the business at hand. Who is it exactly who owns the land? Bob Dollar sets out to meet landowners, and to get to know them before asking them to entertain the idea of selling and leaving their former neighbors with the smell and dust of a hog operation. He tries to explain to his boss how the locals feel.

“But people down there in the panhandle feel like if they own property they have some say in what happens on it and next to it.

“You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that-lip service. What rules the world is utility-general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail. You know that highway departments can take property against the owner’s’ will to widen the thoroughfare for the general good. It’s a similar situation. And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community.”

The business man proffers the rational response. The pressures of a market of needs will push the land to be used for the greatest good. He gives the example of indemnification for a roadway– which doesn’t quite ring true. The greatest good of a private hog producer doesn’t exactly parallel with the good of a public works project. But it doesn’t matter to the corporate guy, as he simply needs to sell his young scout on the idea that he is part of the greatest good. Perspective.

And Annie Proulx does justice to the perspective of the local farmers who have lived their lives on the poor quality land. When Bob suggests to his prospect that she would be happier moving elsewhere, she tries to unwind their story for him. Their residency is not the same an apartment rental. Their tie to the land is generational. Their stay is the result of decades of work and interactions which make place a part of them and they a part of it.

“Where might that be? In a city, I suppose. We’re country people and we’ve been on this land for four generations. The city is not for us. We’ve been happy here and my husband has worked his heart out to keep this ranch in order. We can’t even run cows on it anymore. The cows can’t even stand it. Do you think it’s right that some mean hearted corporation can buy up panhandle land and force out the local people? I don’t know what we are goin a do. My husband says if he were a young man he’d set grass fires and burn them out. I do not know what we are goin a do. That state senator in Amarilla is no help at all. He’s on the side a corporate hog outfits. The corporations got the politicians sewed up in Texas, top to bottom. And down in Austin the panhandle is far away and folks think it is a worthless place any how-they think it is perfect for hogs. Tonight we will suffer with that stench.”

The author does such a great job at putting on display the complexity of land as a product that is bought and sold. One could substitute out the scenarios and the feelings would remain the same. The seniors who have enjoyed a particularly scenic piece of property are pushed out by higher taxes. The middle of the road business is pushed out by the likes of The Gap, Apple, the latest fad. Present as a lurking villain is the utilitarian need to put in new roads, to produce the food people eat, to pay taxes on the services which a greater number of people require.

The tension is always there. And Annie Proulx writes it all out in an apolitical hand with a tenderness for the history of place and a fair amount of humor.

Perspectives on Networks

Networks are often used as a paradigm for the analysis of how individuals access communal resources. A job search is an example. An advantage goes to the individual who is able to call on friends or family to get in for informational interviews, be tipped off first about the best positions, and have a ready pool of favorable references.

The old boys club is a notably resented network. Those in the club interact fluidly to fulfill their objectives. But the same can be said about the ease of interaction at so many organizational activities. Those who worship together know exactly when they will have an opportunity to bump into a fellow parishioner. And there are Rotary clubs, and Alumni Associations and boxes at the theater. All set times and dates where people gather and can be accessed.

But in this type of analysis the interaction is in one direction. An individual needs something, a job, a contract, a bid opportunity, and the individual taps into their network to see if they can fulfill this objective. The formulation is not one of a group, where part of the group is providing job leads, information, introductions so that another segment of the group can engage these resources. The perspective is from the individual extracting from the group for private purposes.

The other way to view a network is from a group perspective. When I was an exchange student in Avignon, I returned from being in town to tell my house mother a story about a vagabond I had seen. She had me describe him and when she recognized his traits she said, ‘That’s good it’s him, our town can’t handle another.’ Whether there was more good to be had from the townsfolk isn’t the point being made here. It is the thought that a group has only so much to provide, the economics of the group has resource limitations.

Networks are thought of in linear nodal models. This is a singular view of the pursuit for a private objective. From the view of the group, what’s important is the measure of how much the group can provide. It is not important which individual steps up, just that someone does.

Why yea to the infrastructure bill and nay to build back better

A couple weeks have gone by since the trillion dollar infrastructure bill was signed by President Biden. The bipartisan consensus for the deal appears to have been truly representative of public opinion as there has been little bickering or negative chatter since the announcement. However, politicians are balking at the Build Back Better plan.

I think the difference between the two forms of public investment is at the crux of why one is a yes and the other a no. The first package supports just about every form of durable infrastructure in the US today: roads, bridges, rail, airports, public transit, water, broadband. It is basically bonus bucks for all the things we have approved and used for decades. All notably in need of refurbishing. The dollars will leave the public sphere, and pay private contractors to pave the roads, install broadband, and beef up the power grid.

The second bill is not about durables. The second proposal is centered around the work that is done to provide public services such as child care, understanding and reducing environmental damage, health and wellness objectives, and the work to supervise who’s paying how much for what. The problem with agreeing to pay for such things is that we have little or no tracking which lends an understanding the return on the requested inputs. Call the American public a good consumer for wishing to be clear on their purchase before laying their cash out on the table.

The other haziness which obscures the ability to picture the second bill’s outcomes is the crude lumping of groups of people together by income. How children are raised in their younger years is accomplished through many different family arrangements and objectives- despite income. I think the fear is that throwing money around without discerning the work in play will at minimum be wasteful. And often when the dynamics of work is not understood, bad actors show up to ride the seams and take advantage of the ignorance.

The work to stay healthy and use health care dollars wisely, or to minimize pollution, or the work necessary to keep businesses on the up and up with tax payments, all of this type of work occurs in systems. There are groups with goals; there are incentives; and there is a dynamics to it. And to propose launching a whole bunch of cash at systems without understanding them makes for uncertain consumers.

The warmth of a fire

Since prehistoric man (and woman) sat around a fire, its flames provided warmth to those huddled around. Teepees made room for a central fire which drafted out through the culminating poles in the ceiling; medieval castles were fitted with mantels at eye level to accommodate large blazes beneath. The nostalgia of a crackling fire reaches back to those instances of communal comfort.

While the world is large and complicated some things will always fare better in collective use, while others will thrive under competitive forces.

The new era we’re entering is one which acknowledges and accounts for both circumstances and how they are blended. We are not returning to a lineage based power system, nor are we going to allow a meritocracy which blatantly ignores communal workers.

It’s time to allow for an accounting of both and an understanding of how they work in unison.

#givingtuesday

Did you know about Giving Tuesday? I didn’t. It’s a bit like Give to the Max Day, featured on this blog here. By creating a philanthropic holiday, a deadline is created to prompt procrastinators to write a check and send it in.

NPR ran an article about it today.

It’s #Giving Tuesday — a holiday marketing tradition inspired by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, but with a twist. Today thousands of charities are asking us to open our wallets. But how can we be sure the group we donate to is effective — that we’re getting the most bang for our charity buck?

That question was vexing Elie Hassenfeld several years ago. He worked at a hedge fund, and he and a colleague wanted to give money to charity. Since they are numbers-oriented finance types, they wanted to maximize the results from their donation by finding groups that could offer the biggest impact per dollar.

“We were shocked by how little useful information was available,” says Hassenfeld.

Sure there were the rating sites that show how much a given charity spends on overhead and point up any red flags suggesting possible mismanagement.

But that’s not what Hassenfeld wanted to know: There was “nothing that said, ‘this is how much a charity can accomplish with the donation that you give.’ “

What’s interesting is that the article is a re-run of an article published five years. It seems there is a lack of momentum behind the idea. Hassenfeld indicates that he needed more information about the returns his philanthropic dollars would generate. So he took matters into his own hands.

And so in 2007, Hassenfeld and his friend, Holden Karnofsky, decided to start a nonprofit called GiveWell. The mission: Come up with an annual short list of charities they can recommend based on hard evidence. But it turns out this data-driven approach has its own set of issues.

It’s not surprising that the charities on their list are mostly located in the third world where cost of living differences create massive upsides for local employment of USD’s.

But perhaps there is something missing from a return on investment analysis. Maybe that is not the key index when it comes to why people donate. In order for a more lively engagement of philanthropic dollars at all levels of donors, maybe there is another sorting in addition to information regarding the scope and reach of the charities’ work.

Travel Notes: Kauai

Kauai is the fourth largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is nicknamed the Hanging Garden. Its volcanic formation resulted in a serious peak, Kawaikini, which receives the most rainfall on the planet. This moisture drains into an elevated swamp, the Alawa’i Swamp, which drips moisture down onto the island. The tropical beauty and mystic peaks made it the perfect backdrop in the Jurassic Park movies.

The flight schedule is a little cumbersome from Minnesota. The western states have great service, but the central states must transfer through a hub. And of course there is the four hour time change which messes up one’s schedule for a few days. Covid wise, things are more favorable than going to Canada. Vaccines are required to avoid quarantine, and there is a government app that needs info, but no 72hr testing.

The weather has been spectacular with temps ranging between 70-85 degrees F. It’s not as damp as the Caribbean and not as dry as Cabo. Perhaps we were just lucky- but it’s a good thing as there are beaches at every turn to enjoy. The inlets allow for sheltered swimming and snorkeling, whereas surfers paddle out a bit to catch the waves.

We had wonderful experiences with the scuba folks on three different two tank dives. The first focused on highlighting the giant sea turtles. Many are snoozing down on the reef, but some will come out and swim with you for a while. A boat dive took us out to a reef with a large variety of fish. And we ran into a couple dozen dolphins on the way back to the small craft port. Finally our night dive opened up a whole new selection of wildlife that prefer the later hours like a ghost octopus.

All three dive masters were interested in sharing their love of the underwater sealife and took care to show us the different species. They had a bunch of hand signals to communicate en route as they pointed to a rock looking thing that fluttered away with colorful fins (devil scorpion fish) or they used an open and close puppet motion to indicate a spotted eel. The wildlife is abundant and they are please to welcome you to their world.

Captain Adam was our boat captain who talked pretty steady. He’s fishing when he’s not driving the scuba tanks or taking tourist around to the Na Pali coast. There’s a rhythm to his speech that islanders get even though he looks like he could be from Wisconsin. The way the multi vowel Hawaiian words rolled off his tongue seemed to say he’s a lifer.

One thing you notice right away is all roosters wandering about. In fact you hear them before you even see their assorted feathering patterns. They are protected as the import only feature of the island has created a creature unique to its environment. This is true too of some regional fish, in particular the state fish of Hawaii, humuhumunukunukuāpua (yes, real name for a trigger fish with distinctive markings).

Hiking is a feature attraction as well. The diverse landscape offers many distinctly beautiful settings to stretch your legs. Although the trail infrastructure isn’t quite what it is on the mainland, the roads are well paved and the shoulders are used by pedestrians. There is a maze of paths through the Waimea canyon.

Overall this island scored high on our preferred island adventure destination list.

Unknown Bird (1999)

by W.S. Merwin

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

W. S. Merwin (September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019) received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Shadow of Sirius. His many works of poetry and translation included Present Company (2007), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), and a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004).

From The Atlantic

Scuba diving is an underwater stroll

With the help of a vest and air source, a diver can sink to the ocean floor and have a look around. Instead of walking a trail and spotting robins and blue jays, the reefs spit out the whitespotted Toby, or the devil scorpion fish (my favorite), or the coffee table sized sea turtles.

Scuba diving is an enjoyable hobby which has gotten more and more popular in recent years. PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, reports that they hold certifications for 28 million underwater strollers worldwide. A certification is the end result of passing a course and an open water swim exam.

PADI® (Professional Association of Diving Instructors®) is the world’s largest ocean exploration and diver organization, operating in 186 countries and territories, with a global network of more than 6,600 dive centers and resorts and over 128,000 professional members worldwide. Issuing more than 1 million certifications each year, and with over 28 million certifications to date, PADI enables people around the world to seek adventure and save the ocean through underwater education, life-changing experiences and travel. For over 50 years, PADI is undeniably The Way the World Learns to Dive®, maintaining its high standards for dive training, safety and customer service, monitored for worldwide consistency and quality.

From either the PADI linked page or FB page

The organization was started in 1966 by a couple of guys who didn’t like the status quo and wanted to do something better. Given its worldwide reach, one can’t help but wondering how they got established and grew into the association of choice.

This isn’t a situation of government setting up a bunch of rules and allocating a means of enforcement. This is associational work. Why people choose this certification process would be something to consider.

Grateful for family

Sounds trite, doesn’t it? Of course you are grateful for your family. No more of a surprise than you love your kids, as fiercely as I love these two beach bums:

The term family is often reserved for those with whom we share a household. The people who do the housework for the daily routine of food and lodging. But as we sat around our Thanksgiving meal this evening it was clear that the genesis of our lovely circumstances originated beyond the four sitting at the table.

Being thankful for good health, for example, cannot only be a tribute to our personal efforts. One must reach back and be thankful for all the good genes that have been passed down through the generations. And the habits of selfcare that were taught with quaint proverbs, like an apple a day keeps the doctor away, didn’t just pop into the family routine one day. But saying isn’t doing. Those who came before also showed us they were willing to pay more for fresh fruits and vegetables; they were willing to dedicate resources to better health.

The multigenerational passthrough of profitable habits doesn’t stop there. When parents establish the custom of aiding with advanced education, the gift is meant to tumble on down to the next generation and then onto the one after that. The payment of tuition is done with long views over a whole life, not short returns.

But when these habits of investing across and over people, of participating in a system of beliefs and not of immediate returns, then we are no longer talking about family as a gathering of four people. When choices have been thought through and tradeoffs considered; when families have evaluated outcomes and set norms; when all this circulates through decades worth of relations, then we are talking about something else. We are talking about family as an institution, as an economic force.

That is the sense of family we were grateful for this evening.

How to choose an island

Considering travel options to islands for some rest and relaxation can very over time. There are many that may meet the basic criteria of tropical beauty, access to beaches of equal quality, opportunities for water sports and boating, and a comparable level of lodging. But choosing one over the other can hinge on boring basics.

Going to distant shores is appealingly exotic. Leave all the standard stuff for those who have no sense of adventure. The travel cost is more as the sheer distance is greater. And there is a surcharge for the extra leg of travel to get well off the beaten path. There is the additional minor inconvenience of time zone changes, mostly born out in the transition back to working life upon return.

The extra travel expense can be recaptured by more reasonable lodging and meal costs as the cost of living differences are often substantial. For this reason such destinations appeal to the younger traveler. At least it was for me.

But then, when young children come along, the idea of having a drug store just down the street with recognizable remedies for toddler care is pretty comforting. And it certainly helps to know that medical services are in place if something more serious comes up. To further facilitate the excursion being pleasurable with the offspring, being in the close to grocery stores with favorite foods makes mealtime more pleasant. It is meant to be a vacation after all.

All these extras tip the practical ocean front in lieu of the exotic. Distant and cheep is great as a youthful solo traveler. But when dependents are in tow, it is no longer exciting to get caught up short on the bare essentials. Quite to the contrary, the reassurance of infrastructures around health and safety become exponentially more valuable.

How fear ties knots of inaction

On the one hand people worry that improving disadvantage neighborhoods will cause the evils of gentrification:

Now planners are trying to figure out how best to weave through north Minneapolis on the way to the northwest suburbs. But many people along the route fear real estate speculation and increased investment will render their neighborhoods less affordable. Hennepin County hired the University of Minnesota to study potential gentrification impacts and recommend anti-displacement strategies along the route—a first in Minnesota transit history.

Sahan Journal email newsletter

On the other hand there’s dismay that property values do not increase in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here’s a headline and intro paragraph to an article in todays New York Times:

How the Real Estate Boom Left Black Neighborhoods Behind

While homeownership has been an engine of prosperity for white Americans, home values in places like Orange Mound in southeast Memphis have languished. What would it take to catch up?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the same forces against gentrification were perpetuating poverty in neighborhoods they thought they were protecting?

The Woman in the Window with Amy Adams

I have to say that when the credits for The Woman in the Window scrolled across our TV screen last night I was left underwhelmed. I am an Amy Adams fan, so it was easy to click on the film tile when it appeared on the Netflix selection rollout. A fire was lit. Dinner was on our plates. We were ready for a nice Friday evening at the movies.

The plot is more or less predictable. There’s a build up to a horror scene, which I’d prefer to miss. But today, scenes of Amy Adams dealing with various situations throughout the film had my brain retelling her tale. Her character is struggling with agoraphobia which is present as an outcome of a severe mental health breakdown. Her acting is the only flicker of light that holds the movie together.

I have no way of knowing the actress’s motivation in taking this role. But her skill in it made me extrapolate all sorts thoughts about the fears which are crippling so many activities in our society. The fear to leave one’s house becomes representative of the fear to take on a venture, the fear to move across the country, the fear to create and build upon something new.

Mental health is at the crux of many issues in this country. It is a complex and difficult topic, and not one people often want to tackle. Instead of your typical representation in a homeless figure, this movie takes the life a professional women to show how crippling a mental health crises can be. Amy flushes out the many angles of this experience in her portrayal of Anna Fox.

You’ll have to watch the film to see if she can turn her life around.

$34.4 Mil is a fair amount of cash

That’s how much was raised in Minnesota yesterday during Give to the Max Day. Here is how the Minnesota Holiday started:

In November 2009, Give to the Max Day was supposed to be a one-time only launch party for the new fundraising platform GiveMN.org with a goal of raising $500,000. At the end of the day, generous donors had given more than $14 million in just 24 hours, smashing the goal out of the water, and starting a giving holiday in Minnesota.

https://www.givemn.org/giving-events/gtmd21/totals

Gala and fund raisers are nothing new. Just ask development officers at any non-profit. And many of the techniques employed during yesterday’s day of matchmaking originated from them: a limited timeframe, matching incentives, live-counters adding up the tally to meet a goal. What is different, here, is that the platform opens up a marketplace of giving. The boundaries of where and who is trading in the assists of work in the community changed. The benefactor was no longer one cause; a theater, a shelter, a youth center. Nor were the donors just the flashy wealthy crowd at a glitzy event in a downtown venue. This market is open to all Minnesotans, who can then feel empowered by grouping with others to support their passion of choice.

People give when they see the need. Citizens agree to pay taxes as an acknowledgement of the need. But they also don’t want to be the only one giving- it is a communal activity. A formal taxation system provides assurances that others are also on board to assemble the public goods as intended. In philanthropy, a one day event provides the accounting, the final tally, which confirms success back to its audience.

One can’t help but notice the parallels to the concept of state capacity. This has been a salient term in recent years. Here is how one researcher put words to it:

The concept of state capacity—“the ability of a state to collect taxes, enforce law and order, and provide public goods”1—was developed by political scientists, economic historians, and development economists to illuminate the strong institutional contrast that parallels the economic contrast between rich and poor countries.

https://www.niskanencenter.org/state-capacity-what-is-it-how-we-lost-it-and-how-to-get-it-back/

On Give to the Max day, donors pay funds (a tax) to support their chosen community works producer, who in turn transforms the funds into their specialized public good. The enforcement of product delivery is partially enforced by laws, but mostly by the pressures of competition to be a good producer for those who depend on the services provided.

What the Give to the Max platform allows is a wider marketplace. What Give to the Max Day shows by the $34,390,470 collected yesterday from Minnesotans tall and small, urban and rural, rich or light in the wallet, is that we have a notable amount of state capacity.

Paper commentary- Surfers & the Wave

There’s a lot to like in this paper, The institutional foundations of surf break governance in Atlantic Europe, by Martin Rode. The author looks at how surfers handle the distribution of wave riding opportunities. Behavior can span from excluding outsiders from riding the best waves, to the use of established norms to divvy up the crests enabling the riders to show off their favorite form. Rode points out that who owns the wave is the issue at hand.

Both regimes establish property rights over common pool resources with no state intervention, creating a setting wherein users face the question of cooperation or conflict. 

It might seem obvious that the ocean is a common pool resource, but the locals undoubtedly think the portion of water beyond their local beach is in fact owned by their town. By them. Often we think property rights are clear cut when in practice the tentacles of ownership claims creep in from many arenas of life. Parents might think twice about selling a small business before checking with their kids. A sports team may find community push back at the mention of the team being moved to another city. It has been well established that neighbors believe in their right to control surrounding property development. Most all forms of ownership can be challenged by some other group interest, even if only in small part.

It is also interesting that preferred data is taken from a Wikipedia style contributor website. The voluntary input of surfer enthusiasts is considered more reliable than sites written under the auspices of earning money from the information, such as travel guides. And it is not to imply that the later is totally unreliable, it’s just to say that on a gray scale, one has to filter information depending on whether a fungible transaction is in play.

Information on all surf venues observed herein was obtained from the participatory open-access website www.wannasurf.com. That site provides detailed travel reports for thousands of surf spots around globe, with most of the information coming from local users. Reports are confirmed further by designated area representatives in order to avoid possible bias.

Rewriting the present in anticipation of the future

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in recent years about how history is told and what words may or may not be used. I was just listening to John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia (if you don’t know him look him up) on a Twitter Live interview expressing discontent with the transposition of an individual ‘being the victim’ of an event in lieu of ‘being a survivor’ of an event. The framing, he said, settles a lingering tragedy around a fellow.

In addition to voicing the negative rather than the positive, there have been demands to take the lives and accounts from many generations ago, and rework the fruits of their labor into a present-day-acceptable version. David Livingston was Scottish adventurer from the first half of the nineteenth century. He spent his life exploring Africa and reporting back on what he had found. He was awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in London and kept an association with the group for the rest of his life.

On Twitter today (yes it was only 37 degrees here) I saw this post celebrating the rewording of Livingston’s work. It extinguishes any credit to a man who spent a life exploring, documenting and passing along details on a large swath of a continent.

In fact the Livingston accounts couldn’t have been written in any other way. There were no maps of the area in and around Lake Victoria, by British, Arab or African geographers. So it would have been odd to write an account in an off hand, I’m just a tourist seeing things that everyone else has seen, type of way.

How exactly are historic figures from our past supposed to have predicted the future dynamics of civilizations and write their work to the correctness demanded in generations to come? Or is it up to us to take their work in the context of their time?

Walk, daily, philosophers do

In addition to being good exercise for your body, walking massages the mind. Jean Jacques Rousseau was known for walking. A search will happily provide you with pages of suggested JJ Rousseau walks.

Toward the end of his life he wrote a collection of ten essay’s which are thought to be some of his most lyrical writing.

The closing lines of Troisieme Promenade sure are pretty:

Mais la patience, la douceur, la résignation, l’intégrité, la justice impartial sont un bien qu’on emporte avec soi, et dont on peut s’enrichir sans cesse, sans craindre que la mort même nous en fasse perdre le prix. C’est à cette unique et utile étude que je consacre le reste de ma vieillesse. Heureux si par mes progrès sur moi-même, j’apprends à sortir de la vie, non meilleur, car cela n’est pas possible, mais plus vertueux que je n’y suis entré.

Infrastructure Bill- MN edition

There’s been a lot of celebrating today with the final presidential signature scratching ink across the infrastructure bill’s pages. It’s a lot of cash, that’s for sure. This was the speculation, a few weeks ago, on how the dollars would shake out for Minnesotans:

As with other recent large federal spending bills, the state has some idea what amounts will flow from the various categories but will have to wait weeks, perhaps months, for specific guidance on how it can be spent. The state usually spends about $2 billion a year on road and bridge work from fuel taxes and bonding and will likely receive an additional $4.8 billion over five years for that purpose from the federal law.

In addition to roads and bridges, early estimates are that Minnesota will also get $818 million for public transportation; $680 million for waterworks; $297 million for airport improvements; $100 million to expand broadband access; $68 million to expand electric vehicle charging networks; $20 million for wildfire protection; and $17 million to increase cybersecurity.

MinnPost

Compatibility, a review

I recently switched to an iphone after years of android use. It has been fun to compare their functionality. The ease of the transition is a tribute to Apple’s focus on the user experience. There is one feature, however, that I miss. It is Google Lens. My last phone was Google Pixel and the Google Lens icon is at the lower right hand side of the screen when you open a jpg. For instance, as I sort through some old travel photos from my youth, I often want to know where a shot was taken. Check Google Lens- Presto! It matches the image to ones on Google Maps.

Fath Ali Shah

I tried all sorts of methods to store and open this image from Iran on my new phone but gave up, and went back to my Google Pixel. Tapping on the picture on my old device summoned up web results which identified the location in seconds. The 4000 BC etching is located under a fortified wall at Rey Castle, near Teheran. Subsequent postings by the collective of google map supporters offered views of the image and surrounding landscape from multiple angles.

More than likely I’ll discover how to use Google Lens on my new device. But the fact that so many features are user friendly and this one is not made me reflect on how we are at the mercy of structures easily within our reach. And how we don’t make time (partly because we may not appreciate the benefits) of structures which we have yet to discover.

During the lockdown my family and I started a daily walk routine as it is good exercise and it was one of the few activities open to us. We used aps to monitor distances and times, and struck out looking for new scenic trails. I’m not sure how many times we shook our heads in disbelief that we had only now discovered so many pleasing miles in our figurative back yard.

On a recent trip to Calgary I discovered the ease and reliability of public transit. It was forced on me by the difficulty to secure a rental car in the era of Covid. This reminded me of when I took my kids on the Great Northern Railroad from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. The line runs from Chicago out to Seattle skirting the northern most border of the US States. It appealed to me as it gave me a break from road tripping with young children and I thought it would make an impression on them. Many of the other passengers from places like Minot, Culbertson and Wolf Point used the rail frequently. It was their preferred form of transportation.

The dominance of some IT structures has made me wonder about other patterns in my life which have steered my activities. Where else have decisions kept me from advantageous experiences? What other take-it-for-granted services are people not using optimally which would make their lives better? And how can we reveal those little connectors to better engage a just-next-door infrastructure we have yet to discover?

Serving up platters of truth

In the first of a newly posted set of podcasts entitled Minds Almost Meeting, Agnes Callard and Robin Hanson tackle the two horned paradox of honesty. Agnes explains that the first horn is to “hold up your communication to the standard of it’s being honest, which is to say, being as truthful as you can.” They define honesty as a form of communication which seeks to work toward actions which results in good. And this is where life is complicated as being truthful can be at odds with an action outcome from such communication.

On the one hand we have a standard for what it is to be honest, and on the other we have the desired action of a good outcome through honest communication. The tension occurs when the words, phrases or inactions are not uniformly applied. Here’s an example. Say the mom of the ace pitcher on a Little League teams says, “We’ll be there” in response to the coach’s tally of who will be at a final playoff game. Earlier that same day the mom told her neighbor, “We’ll be there” when asked about the couples’ interest in a night of canasta.

The same words. The same intentions. But not the same level of commitment. Being a no show to the playoff game is completely different than missing an evening with neighbors over cards and a few beers.

Let me backtrack a minute, to be sure your thoughts have not settled into the neglected neighborhood life, to be sure we are still talking about economics and not social niceties. Youth sports is known to have several benefits. Kids who participate learn about teamwork, prioritize their time, do better (on average) in school and exercise regularly. The persistent advantages from youth sports surface in public health and well being. (There are costs, of course, to the infrastructure which supports these games– but that’s for another post.)

Even occasional gatherings of neighbors for beer and a barbeque or game of cards can generate economic benefits. People hear about jobs or set up connections to contractors or suggest areas in the community which are in need of support. The network marketing that transpires at social gatherings is of value. It is not resented in the way that cigar smoke filled rooms at men’s clubs were in days of yore. The neighborhood is not exclusive in that way. In fact it is a priority to make attendants feel welcome and comfortable.

And for that reason when a guest wears a colorful dress with animals print, she will more than likely receive a compliment. Since the priority in this platter of economic activity is create an ambiance which is fun and upbeat, to be sure that the people are happy to be present, and thus will do their best to get along, little lies are very permissible. It is not a deceit as it goes towards the action of the good of the group activity.

Whereas social niceties is not what is expected for the Little League playoff game. The commitment here is to the team and to winning the game. A no show by any family would be a considerable let down.

Lives are big and messy. We are involved in many activities that vary throughout our lives. The paradox of dishonesty as presented by Agnes Callard is minimized when you align the various economic platters with their expected norms. It’s much easier to accept that in social gathering there will be a lavishing of less than honest flattery.

I do to the Individual, or to the Union?

My daughter came home from high school the other day questioning the appropriateness of a teacher (a math teacher nonetheless) in some way incorporating ‘obey thy husband’ in a conversation with a female athlete. Daughter was sure this was out of line. But as in many cases, the story was missing context. The teacher had switched out his identity. He was on the field as the liaison for the high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Still, daughter was a little taken aback by the submissiveness language.

I shared my own story of how decades earlier, while still in the wedding season of life, I had sat up a little straighter in the pew when the bride utter the Missouri Synod version of the Lutheran marriage vows. ‘Obey my husband’ is still pegged in there between ‘honor him’ and ‘keep him in sickness and in health.’ For the most part the Lutherans church keeps in sync with current trends. Yet this blanket submission seemed as archaic as gilded lettering on a manuscript, then as it does now.

As the teacher was working outside of his day job, he was within his prerogative to reveal a small part of his belief system. My kids had experienced an elementary school era of celebrating every other religion by name, while deferring to their own as a holiday celebration. This has conditioned them to think something is amiss if anything Christian is actually voiced above a whisper. The act has become paramount to a missionary conversion of some sort.

But what bugs me more than propping Christianity in a dark corner, is this attention to minutia which distracts from form. The quick objection to a few words of a ceremony takes away from the conversation of what it means to marry. This drilling down of a few words under the assumption that they will fasten a female’s will to some objectional subjugation is a distraction from the more fruitful conversation of the nature of the binding of two individuals in marriage. What does it look like when offset within a community of mutual cooperation? What form do they become when unified before friends, family and God?

I think it would be helpful to view the new couple and ensuing family as a grouping, a new unit. And within that unit the work its members will get done will more likely be based on skill than specific assignment. But from the outside what that unit consumes or contributes is based on the collection of their activities. If they choose to present their views to the outside world by giving one partner the microphone, this would seem to benefit all of them.

No matter the form of a grouping–a couple, a minority, an association– there are frequently others, on the outside, trying to manipulate their public voice. Trigger topics are metered out to stop conversation about form, the basic building blocks of social arrangements. Those few short words, or few awful people, are set out to distract, so folks divert their time to manufactured issues. And in the confusion their voice is stolen.

Last thoughts- Missoula

We had some extra time for a walk around Missoula. Parking the car on a spur of a road near the University, we struck out on this path leading us westward along side the Clark Fork River.
The trail infrastructure was quite good. Paths were wide and used by cyclists, walkers and runners. This pedestrian bridge allowed for a scenic river crossing.
If you’re going to have a bench- might as well create an artistic setting.
After getting in a good walk, stop in at one of coffee houses in the historic downtown for a latte and slice of pie.

Tales under open skies

There are two writers who come to mind when I think of the open plains and jagged peaks of the great state of Montana.

Ivan Doig writes of immigrants from Scottish Highlands taking to the land that reminds them of their home country. Between the covers of The Whistling Season and Dancing at the Rascal Fair, it is the ranchers and teachers and forest service workers who tell if their lives; the lives of those who pulled a wilderness into a habitable home.

Don’t bother with his books if you are not interested in descriptive language. A reader who resists words layered in a think paint of illustration should move onto Stegner. Because the beauty of Doig’s writing brings color and emotion into the landscape and lives of those who settled this part of the country with hopes of a better life.

Annie Proulx is another who writes of the American West. She is probably best known for writing the story behind the 2005 film Broke Back Mountain, directed by Ang Lee. There’s a quirkiness in her stories that keeps me interested. A reminder that life is rarely unfurled in a straight and orderly fashion.

Craft sales and trading posts

As morning breaks over the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana, the outlines of the craggy ridges materialize against the lightening sky. Big Sky. It’s the state’s motto. The blue atmosphere embraces you from all sides like a hug from a friend who will not leave you.

Montana is still remote enough to attract super stars who know the locals won’t be impressed by their presence. No autographs or selfies required. There are still craft fairs where the fine art is in the both besides Brenda selling her fleece lined choppers, made with used sweaters bought at thrift stores. She turned 83 today and we all sang Happy Birthday after the announcement came over the PA. She told me she didn’t have time to sit around. Idleness is not an option.

It’s hunting season and the locals are passionate about their public lands. Miles of it are open to hunters. They are out looking for moose, elk, prong horns if you are ambitious. Low lying clouds roll over the peaks. You can’t miss the beauty of the place. It’s all around you.

The Addis I Knew

Addis skyline in 1974 from the Hilton Hotel

Our posting to Addis was one of the longest in my childhood, so naturally I have many memories from our time there. We arrived in September, at the end of the rainy season. Since our housing wasn’t ready, we lived temporarily at the Hilton Hotel. This photo was taken from one of the upper floors. I believe that is Menelik II Ave rising up on the right side of the photo. If you google present day photos of Addis, you can see how the city has been transformed.

We were fortunate to have traveled across the country during our time. From the Awash valley, to Djibouti, to Lake Langano, up into the Rift Valley, and to trout fishing in the Bale Mountains.

I hope some day to travel there again. But the news update below isn’t encouraging. So for now, US travel is it has to be!

We are seeing the crisis/death of 2nd generation constitutions: Ethiopia with its diversity-sensitive constitution, federalism & self-determination clauses, mirrored in the angst and twitches in South Africa 2/7

Ethiopia reminds us of the limits of the “modernisation” (read big infrastructure ) model that “brings” development and nurtures cohesion through satisfied stomachs. It was rising until it fell 3/7

It also demonstrates that African dysfunction can’t always be attributed to the colonial experience. Ethiopia wasn’t colonised and led a highly storied war against the Italians 4/7

It shows that the existence of a large foreign presence in a country – a regional hub – is no inoculation against state collapse 5/7

Ethiopian conflict proves what has been observed in conflict literature: the best predictor of war in a country is a prior experience with war. Once you break your “peace virginity”, just expect more children down the line 6/7
📸EPA

Last, on a light note, having a Nobel winner ( PM Abiy & Wangari Maathai in Kenya) and great Gold-winning runners (Haile Gebrselassie or Eliud Kipchoge) is no guarantee of peace 7/7

Originally tweeted by Charles Onyango-Obbo (@cobbo3) on November 5, 2021.

Who’s highjacking Voice?

Since George Floyd was murdered on the streets of South Minneapolis on May 25th, 2021 the Minneapolis Police Department has been cast as the great villain in the story of racial injustice. The casting, directing and drumbeat against this service provider has been loud and persistent over the past eighteen months.

Democracy allows those who do not wish to be activists, and stand on street corners shouting their opinions, to express their will in the private ballot box. Thanks to the electoral process we can now see how the breakdown of broadly held opinions.

Question 2, regarding the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department, appeared on the Minneapolis ballot as follows:

Department of Public Safety

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot? 

It is not only interesting that the question was firmly rejected by Minneapolis voters in a 56% to 44% margin, but the breakdown of where it was rejected is worth noting. The heat map below shows how the question fared across neighborhoods. In very general terms the southern green portions is where most of the protests and burning of buildings occurred in the summer of 2020. The forest green knot in the mid-right range is the location of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

The quickest demographic map I was able to ferret out (from mncompass.org which is an excellent resource!) is this one, which also shows St. Paul. But it will do the trick. I want to point out that the top left hand section of the map is an area of Minneapolis strongly favored by minority residents. If you cross reference this nook with the map above you will see that these folks strongly opposed question 2. In other words they support the MPD.

Source: 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, adjusted to fit current neighborhood boundaries using the 2010 Census counts. The 5-year estimates represent averages of data collected over that time period. https://www.mncompass.org/profiles/city/minneapolis

It’s good to remember that the loudest voices can, and seem to often, highjack the voice of those who either aren’t ready or aren’t able to speak for themselves. This was true with the early feminist who chose to speak for all women. This has been true in the last eighteen months for those claiming to speak for the black community.

But the truth is fast friends with democracy, and eventually will find a way of expressing itself.

Yes to the incumbent Mayor, No to power to the Council

Minneapolis voters on Tuesday soundly rejected a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, crushing the hopes of supporters that outrage over the killing of George Floyd would translate into one of the nation’s most far reaching experiments in transforming public safety.

https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-voters-reject-plan-to-replace-police-department/600112156/

Humor me

Maybe you will play along with me, and entertain the spaces I want you to imagine.

The one we know well won’t be hard for you to conceptualize. The selfish one. The profit motive, cash intensive one. But there’s the second space too. It is outlined by time, energies and outlays for group things. The things we call public. So, if you can, hold these two dynamic spheres, one of initiating activities toward private profits and a second contributing to yields for the group, in your mind for a minute or two.

The first part of the story is familiar to you. It’s about how private equity firms (there are many big ones like Blackstone, Apollo and Bain) go in and buy up old or floundering businesses and rip away any remaining social ties that may cling to them. Pensions? Gone. Employment contracts? No more. A trustee companion to the surrounding community? I think no longer.

An alumni from my alma mater, Gretchen Morgenson, is a senior financial reporter with NBC and can tell you all about sphere one in her book, The Hidden Force Behind Wealth Inequality in America. In the clip below she focuses on the results of private equity firms becoming the owners and custodians of nursing homes.

The claim that the private equity firms live in the for-profit sphere, and in turn are destructive to social riches is irrefutable. But it is by design. Perhaps it serves the same purpose as the destruction of ancient Sequoia trees in a forest fire. This is part of the process. But most would agree that there are many possible points of optimization in the process of externalizing social contracts and extracting their value through dollars to shareholders.

To come at the quandary from another angle, try to imagine where the flip side of the activities of private equity firms reside. Where in the two spheres is the opposite enterprises underway? Instead of extracting dollars and putting social benefits to rest, dollars are inserted into a network of social activity to substitute for care, education, food and so on.

A place where, at every turn, a community is propped up, rather weakly I might add, by subsidies is also messing with the spheres of activity. And in such a neighborhood where 60-70-80% of the residences live below the poverty level– actors are being stripped of the possibility of engaging in mechanisms of self accomplishment and achievement.

Whether the misuse of money is in the private sphere or the public sphere, the net result is, as Gretchen postulates, a dark force behind wealth inequality.

Solving problems across the entire economic landscape is preferable. Looking for optimizations in multidimensions will provide greater insights. Sorting the industries which favor the nature of the communal or the nature of the private will point out short comings. Understanding the role of subsidy intervention and the power of group relationships will create leverage.

All of this can be stretched across a framework of public and private spheres.

Matrix is more than a movie

The movie Matrix made a big splash in 1999, propelling Keanu Reeves to stardom. He wasn’t the producer’s first pick for the lead, Neo, a programmer who senses something in his environment is not quite right. The matrix refers to a simulated reality, created by intelligent machines. As long as the lives of the actors were contained within this vessel of distraction, their bodies energized the mechanical systems.

The dictionary confers a similar definition for the word matrix:

  1. an environment or material in which something develops; a surrounding medium or structure.”free choices become the matrix of human life”

Once a surrounding medium or structure looses physical form it can be challenging to see, and we can start to question if it is still there. The mimes from my youth, following the lead of the famous Marcel Marceau, would stand on Paris street corners gesturing in such a way that you could visualize the wall their elbow leaned against, or the box that encased them. See for yourself.

In mathematics a matrix is a grid of numbers, like an excel spread sheet. The numbers are arranged in such a way that they represent value descriptions for a variety of features.

Say life was simple and one could devote free time (time away from a job for money) to one of three activities. Time caring for children ‘x’, time for keeping food in the house ‘y’ and time for exercise ‘z’. Collecting hundreds of these sets would generate some baseline numbers. But soon enough sorting subgroups reveal new environments. And further investigation reveals that groups can have a variety of properties when they interact.

What we are looking for are the numbers that go astray, that vault off the charts, that tell us “This is where we need help!” The numbers will spell out an environment that we cannot see, yet we can still be confident it is defined. And as such it can help us solve for situations that leave others behind. We have to let the matrices, like the mimes, form the space for this type of calculation.

Haunted Houses

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807-1882

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapoursdense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,—

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

Windfalls from Me but not from Thee

Is it just me or do others feel like the idea for a capital tax is about feeling a little green over business windfalls? Chance smiled on the likes of Bezos and Zuckerberg in the game of life, but they didn’t really do anything to deserve all that extra cash. They just happen to be at the right place at the right decade for the culmination of years of societal work. Or more importantly, they figured out how to tap it.

The COVID money was a windfall for some families. I heard more than one interviewee expressing an appreciation for how the unexpected chunk of cash enabled them to relocate, or search out new employment. One mom said she got her kids passports so they would be able to travel once the virus subsided. Without the windfall from the government subsidy, she wouldn’t have had the money for such luxuries.

Minnesota runs a state lottery. It was established by voter referendum in 1988. Its total revenue garners as much as $668.6 million per year. I always see people lining up at the customer service counter to buy their numbers when I’m at the grocery store. Here are some of the latest jackpots.

Minnesota State Lottery prizes

Windfalls used to entice tax revenue seem to be OK. Windfalls as a chance outcome from mass distribution of pubic funds during a pandemic seem to be OK. But windfalls due to business savvy and persistence need to be reined in by taxation. The accumulation of all that cash is villainous, an affront to all that is moral.

Windfalls, it seems, are good if implemented by me but not by thee.

Moving money & the unrealistic unrealized capital gains tax

Years ago a friend pointed out that it is easier to capture money when it is moving. As workers earn a wage, it is easier to capture a tax as funds transfer from the employer to the employee. At the time an asset is sold, it is easy to capture a tax from the dollars passing from one owner to the next. When purchases are made at a cash register it is easier to add on a sales tax. You get the picture.

And for this simple practicality, the asset tax or Biden’s wealth tax, was doomed from the get go.

There are other practical reasons that gum up the whole idea. Assets fluctuate in value over periods of time. So the years that the asset increases in value you pay a tax, but the years the asset decreases in value the government pays you back? Sounds like an accounting nightmare. Sounds like a scenario made for grift.

Maybe it’s more than just the practicality of money on the move. The severing of ownership leads to a settling of accounts, which includes an obligation to the greater group in the form of a tax. Use of assets for philanthropy, start-ups (basically business charity), endowments and so forth is a different type of supporting the greater group than the stream of funds channeled through taxes to pay for services.

The problem it seems is in the mechanism to draw the substantial assets to turn them over to political process. And maybe that a good thing.

In appreciation of HG Wells

I’m just now reading HG Wells. I wasn’t into science fiction as a child, so I never picked up The Time Machine when it was making the rounds amongst my brother’s middle school things. How fortunate to have left this work untouched, to be able to dabble in such writing today. Part of the appeal of novels like War of The Worlds was the terror of it. As captured in this passage where the British are fleeing from the invading Martians.

The legendary hosts of Gothe and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede — a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.

But I particularly like the descriptions which conjure up amazing visuals, such as this one.

Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents, gardens already derelict – spread out like a huge map, and in the southward blotted. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting out ramifications this way and that, now banking itself against rising ground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley, exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, ballooning allowed everyday folks to reach upwards to the skies. Leading his audience up to the heights of the clouds, in order to show them what lay below, must have enthralled their imagination. And those of generations to come. Just how many cartoons of your youth stole this visual of thick black ink spilling over a hand written map on parchment paper? I can think of many.

Movies of the story have also been made and remade. In all there have been seven films depicting HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The most recent feature, from 2005, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and stared Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. I’ll have to get around to watching it!

To hire a Mayor

In about a week elections will be held here in the US. The presidential spot won’t be on a ballot for another three years, but there are still some important races in the works. Like the Mayor of Minneapolis.

With the largest commercial center in the state also home to many government service centers, public institutions like the University of Mn (home to 60,000 students) and sports and entertainment centers, it’s sometimes hard to get your head around the fact that only the residents of Minneapolis vote on core services like who is in charge of public safety. (The city proper has about 420K residents whereas the entire metropolitan area has a population of 3.65 million people.)

The city of Minneapolis has been engaged in a very vocal discussion around this issue and in the following video clip you can get a feel for how the political positions have shaken out. The incumbent mayor has risen in his position since the death of George Floyd had him numb and silent. He is more confident and more assured about the path ahead and his contribution to the journey.

There are three other candidates in the conversation. One represents the left/Marxist progressive angle, then there is a the center progressive/climate action candidate, and lastly a very articulate representative of the immigrant community. All in all the clip is worth watching as it pulls apart some common themes seen across the democratic party more generally.

Minneapolis also uses rank choice voting, and the moderator raises the question of whether collaborative efforts on the part of two of the candidates fulfills the intentions of this form of democratic determination.

Jump to minute 17 to get right to the debate section of the hour long public affairs show.

Dark Forces

Dictionary.com is my go to for spelling and definitions. I get their word of the day in my email box and amuse myself (as time permits) taking their quizzes. Today they had a click bait section on the different names for Satan.

Perhaps the most well-known name for the Devil is Satan. This name appears repeatedly in the Bible, such as in Luke 22:3 when the Devil is blamed for Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ: Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. 

The name Satan is recorded in English before the year 900. The English word comes through the Greek Satán from the Hebrew word śātān meaning “adversary.” Whatever name he goes by, the Devil is said to be the adversary of God: the Devil is out to destroy God’s work or to tempt humanity into turning away from God toward evil.

Many of the references come from the Christian tradition, but fear not. A similar nefarious force appears across cultures.

Of course, the Devil appears in Muslim scripture as well. Ash-Shaytān comes from the Arabic al-Shaytān and is etymologically connected to the English Satan. The “ash” or “al” indicates that one is talking about the Devil (with a capital D) as opposed to a devil or demon.

The name Ash-Shaytān has several different variants in Arabic, including ShaytanShaitan, and Sheitan.

https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/devil-names/#1

I bring this up only because when people write about failed institutions the fall guy or gal is always a leader of some sort. The blame is laid at the feet of some the top banker, bureaucrat, general or prominent figure. I can’t really see how institutions fail due to one individual, powerful or not. The implementation of services and work following the guidance of norms rests with all the hundreds of individuals who partake in the activity.

Institutions can fail because humans are subject to weaknesses. Whether it is a Jinn sitting on a shoulder, or a dark force rustling through the trees, the inclination for each and every person to be tempted into a corruption large or small is real. Do you know of a teacher who has marked down a grade because they found the student arrogant? Or a banker who omitted to waive some promotional fees because the customer had been a you-know-what?

These are small corruptions. But they are real. The great recession of 2008 was a pyramid of small to progressively large corruption at every level of the mortgage industry; from the loan processors all the way up to packaging of the investment portfolios. Sure everyone wants to go after the high buck Wall Street guys, but $40/yr title closers were prosecuted for fraud as well.

Maybe due to my Christian background it is easy for me to accept that temptations are present and real. That human weakness is part of the deal. But it seems like the way the story is often told is that the average person is neutral to good, and only those with a lot to gain or loose can be tempted. It is erroneous in the the same way that the gift of charity is only considered a plus on the spread sheet of social accounting.

Whatever framework is used for the mechanics of institutional production, it must allow for negative numbers. For as dictionary.com reminds us today, there are evil forces everpresent amongst us.

Stories about visiting soldiers

I pick up used books in all sorts of places. When I drop off a load of goods at the Goodwill (I have no patience for hosting garage sales, all that storing and sorting and ticketing), I always pop into the retail part of the store to see what books have found their way to the shelves. There’s inevitably an eclectic mix. That’s where I might have picked up A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey. I had never heard of it. The cover said it had won a Pulitzer Prize and a few page flips showed it was set in Italy. The odds were in my favor.

It started slow. About seventy pages in I’m questioning who this guy is–he studied at Yale and Cambridge, then taught for several decades at Yale. He was born in China. Interesting enough to keep plowing through the story of an American major put in administrative charge of a small Italian town in the early years following the allied victory in Europe. The writing is clear but unimpressive.

Then some economics filters in. He starts with endearing stories about wine and hair cuts.

He traced the black market in wine to the house of Carmelina, wife of the lazy Fatta. The very first person who bought wine from Carmelina, on the very first night of the invasion, was Corporal Chuck Schultz. Carmelina’s story to the Major was that the Corporal had just handed her a dollar and walked away. Schultz’s story was that the Italian lady had haggled and shouted and threatened to call the police. In any case, Schultz paid a dollar. The regular price for that grade of wine before the invasion had been twenty lire, or twenty cents.

Four soldiers sauntered into a barber shop one morning, and made motions with their fingers around their skulls that indicated they wanted haircuts. None of them could speak Italian, so they based their payment on what they had last paid for haircuts in the States.
Each plunked down a fifty cent piece and said: “Keep the change, Joe.” The regular price for haircuts had been three lire, or three cents, shaves had cost two lire. Here in one morning’s work, the barber had made two hundred lire. He retired to a life of leisure, and refused to cut any hair for three weeks, till his money gave out.

Then the vignettes turn more somber. There are two economic platters, that of the American soldiers and that of the local Italians. The clash of the two is upsetting a balance of exchanges. The most basic needs of the villagers are put at risk.

The welfare of the town was really threatened by the black market in food. Peasants, instead of bringing their grapes and melons and fresh vegetables into the town market, would go to the various bivouac areas and hang around the edges until they could catch a straggler. Then, in the heat of the day, they would tempt the Americans with cool-looking fruits, and would sell them for anywhere from ten to twenty times the proper prices. It got so bad that city people would buy what little fruit did reach the town market, and would take it out into the country to sell it to the foolhardy Americans.

To stop, or at least to curb, the black market, Major Joppolo did three things: he put the town out of bounds to American soldiers, who from then on could enter only on business; he had the Carabinieri stop all food-stuffs from leaving the town; and he fined anyone caught selling over-price or under-measure three thousand lire– a lifetime’s savings for a poor Italian peasant.

Major Joppolo is struggling with how to manage the economic forces which drive fungible exchanges for commodities, such as the desire to sell to the highest bidder. When two very different economies intersect with one another, how does one straighten out the obligation to community versus pull of premium pricing? How indeed do other social commitments, such as those to far away marriages, all pan out when distance and time and groups live temporarily in close proximity to one another?

I will read on to find out. I’m starting to like this guy Hersey.

For C.W.B.

Elizabeth Bishop

                           I

Let us live in a lull of the long winter winds
      Where the shy, silver-antlered reindeer go
On dainty hoofs with their white rabbit friends
      Amidst the delicate flowering snow.

All of our thoughts will be fairer than doves.
     We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet.
We will build us a house from two red tablecloths,
      And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet.

                          II

Let us live in the land of the whispering trees,
    Alder and aspen and poplar and birch,
Singing our prayers in a pale, sea-green breeze,
    With star-flower rosaries and moss banks for church.

All of our dreams will be clearer than glass.
    Clad in the water or sun, as you wish,
We will watch the white feet of the young morning pass
    And dine upon honey and small shiny fish.

                         III

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,
    In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home.
Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork
    And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half-asleep, half-awake, we shall hear, we shall know
    The soft "Miserere" the wood-swallow tolls.
We will wander away where wild raspberries grow
    And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.

Skin in the game: Librarian Edition

Downtown Minneapolis branch of the Hennepin County Library system

Here’s a story about skin in the game.

I was a little irritated with the library folks during the whole Covid thing. I felt the restrictions on library access carried on well past the point of other ‘returning to normal’ trends. The buildings were completely closed to traffic for over a year and when they did reopen, patrons were allowed 15 minutes to retrieve their materials and leave. Finally, in recent months the branches have been open (with masks) for people to linger.

I had swung into a branch with tall airy ceilings and well spaced furniture to review a book that had popped into one of the blogs I follow. Skimming a book can give me a pretty good indication of whether I’ll want to devote time for the full read. In this case, I simply wanted to re-shelve it but given the sensitivity to the virus, I walked it back to the entrance area and book return.

I approached the lady peeking out from behind a large pump bottle of sanitizer gel (if I never smell sanitizer again it will be too soon), rubber gloved hands folded over each other just below her sky blue mask, with seemingly nothing to do. She pointed over to the book return conveyor belt. But next time, she said, I should go ahead and shelf the book myself. The protections, it seems were just for her. Protecting the next patron from virus germs I could have left on the book, did not rise to her concern. Gels, masks, gloves were for some show, but not the one that protects the public.

In order to reveal how people really feel on an issue, calculate what they will give up, if anything, to achieve their ideal.

Two sided games people play

There are many types of two sided games that people play. Say a politician devotes a large share of his time and energies to a light rail project which in the end is funded. He has a bragging rights to getting a project through, a resume builder. But in his own life he has no interest in using mass transit. It’s inconvenient. It’s time consuming and he’s a busy man.

Or consider the high-priced neighborhood’s reaction to the light rail line plundering down along a low use section of rail, right behind their carefully painted turn-of-the-century homes. No- no rail here when there are so many better routes! Law suits. Delays. The same folks who entertain mega-donors on verandas decked out with overflowing flower planters, raising funds for the morally upright party, have a thing or two to say about transit for the masses skimming exclusive dominium.

Then there are the folks who will use the transit for commuting as it is the best option for them. They will consider the location of the rail in the choice of their housing and their employment. Their lives are not devoted to political activism or moral considerations. Even though the thought of cleaner transport may appeal to them it is a straightforward balancing of accounts and utility which drives their decisions.

There’s a separate accounting for the time and energies and dollars for each of these actors in the development and consumption of light rail.

From great grandma’s photo album

I love this old photo of my great great grandfather Anfinson at a political rally. He’s the one holding the flag. What a motley crew of citizens out and about supporting their favorite politicians. And lest you think there are no women involved in the political process, take a closer gander behind the mule to the left. A covey of proper women folk are gathered.

If they can handle the maintenance and advancement of American democracy, then I’m sure we can too.

From my cousin: It’s definitely Cambridge, where he lived:

This pic is Main Street in Cambridge Iowa. The buildings match up.

Cambridge, Iowa, Main Street

I think they’re either campaigning for, or celebrating the victory of 

Frank Jackson, Governor of Iowa 1893

http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=194

This would make Anfin about 55 y.o.

Understanding the Problem

I so enjoyed using the light rail in Calgary that it got me thinking about transit and what it means to a city. Ironically it is Covid that put me on the bus in the first place. The rental cars were all booked, and I have family in the city, so I wasn’t dependent on public transport. I wanted to use it to give myself a little independence. What a pleasant surprise to find it so convenient, clean and timely.

(The other companion structural hardscape I noticed were the frequent pedestrian bridges arching over the thoroughfares. They lead people to the light rail stops, of course. They also bridge neighborhoods, which is very useful for parks and trail access. But I digress, back to transit.)

It is no longer controversial to say that real estate home values increase along light rail lines. Studies are easy to come by. Here is a section from a piece posted on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ site.

Property Values and Development

One benefit of light rail is its potential impact on nearby property values. There is much academic literature on this angle.

The research generally finds that rail transit has a positive impact on residential property values, although the impact is relatively small. One study found that property values in Portland, Ore., increased by $75 for every 100 feet closer a home is to a light-rail station, and the average home price in New York declined by about $2,300 for every 100 feet farther from the station.[1] In another study of the Portland rail system, the authors found that home prices increase as a result of being closer to a rail transit station, but the effect was only significant within 1,500 feet of the station.[2] Another study found that the typical home in San Diego sold for $272 more for every 100 meters closer to a rail station, but the distance to a rail station in Sacramento had no significant impact on residential property values.[3]

Saint Louis Fed

See the problem with the analysis? There is a pretty potpourri of measures. And the use of dollars (as opposed to percentages), as if property values in Portland are the same as New York or San Diego. The distances from the stations are in feet and meters. Then an observation is made that the effects are small– compared to what?

In math, every problem starts with definitions. You can’t very well solve for something if you haven’t determined what is at stake. We know that the public good transit exerts an externality on the private good, a home. But how does it work?

TO BE CONTINUED

Travel Notes

Connectivity notes: The upshot of the phone upgrade to an iPhone 13 Pro is that it appears to have been completely worth while. In past years I have had limited connectivity in the Calgary, Alberta area (through Sprint). This trip I had a signal virtually all the time- when we went for a horseback ride in Sheep River Provincial Park the data didn’t load until we hit some peaks. Now whether the improved connectivity was due to my conversion to the T-Mobile 5G network or simply due to a superior antenna in the iPhone 13 Pro, I will never know. No matter- the result is that I had far better service.

Photos notes: The photos captured my new phone are fabulous. It picks up the light, focuses properly and has an ease of use that allows my subjects to be captured in the moment. I am sure I will produce more fun stuff as I get to know the phone’s features better. And it sure beats carrying around a bulky DSLR camera, especially in the great outdoors.

One way to show the level of depth in every picture is to enlarge it several times and see how grainy the image becomes. You can see the shot at the lower right is still nice and crisp.

I’m excited to keep playing with my new phone toy to see what other party tricks are encased in its new blue finish.

Transit notes: Calgary transit system is quite good. The bargain price is $3.5CAD ($2.8US). Google maps provides estimate timing for bus and light rail arrivals which are remarkably accurate. This helps to reduce idle time in the use of mass transit which in turn lines it up more favorably against a car. I even looked up directions (Google Maps) by transit from the airport. The duration of the trip increased considerably– by forty minutes.

My first inclination was to eliminate the option. But then I started to consider how long it takes to rent a car. You have to get from the air terminal to the rental agency. Then you usually stand in line as other passengers are doing the same thing. All in all, renting a car often burns the same 45 minutes. I’ll revisit the option down the road.

Covid notes: Canada is still under a lot of Covid stress. You need to be vaccinated and show proof of a less-than-72-hour-old-negative-test result to enter the country. You need to create an ArriveCan account. You will be asked to show your vaccine card at restaurants. But it was the random testing at the airport, after arrival, that I thought was completely over the top. Oh well– they let me in and it was sure nice to be back in Alberta.

Being puffed up with knowledge goes way back

Taken from the Confessions of Saint Augustine:

But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made; and though cast back, I perceived what that was which through the darkness of my mind I was hindered from contemplating, being assured “That Thou wert, and wert infinite, and yet not diffused in space, finite or infinite; and that Thou truly art Who art the same ever, in no part nor motion varying; and that all other things are from Thee, on this most sure ground alone, that they are.” Of these things I was assured, yet too unsure to enjoy Thee. I prated as one well skilled; but had I not sought Thy way in Christ our Saviour, I had proved to be, not skilled, but killed. For now I had begun to wish to seem wise, being filled with mine own punishment, yet I did not mourn, but rather scorn, puffed up with knowledge. For where was that charity building upon the foundation of humility, which is Christ Jesus? or when should these books teach me it? Upon these, I believe, Thou therefore willedst that I should fall, before I studied Thy Scriptures, that it might be imprinted on my memory how I was affected by them; and that afterwards when my spirits were tamed through Thy books, and my wounds touched by Thy healing fingers, I might discern and distinguish between presumption and confession; between those who saw whither they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way that leadeth not to behold only but to dwell in the beatific country. For had I first been formed in Thy Holy Scriptures, and hadst Thou in the familiar use of them grown sweet unto me, and had I then fallen upon those other volumes, they might perhaps have withdrawn me from the solid ground of piety, or, had I continued in that healthful frame which I had thence imbibed, I might have thought that it might have been obtained by the study of those books alone.

Miscarriage of History

A friend and I met for dinner recently. As we sat on the outdoor patio with a woven fence providing a nice block from the concrete urban surroundings, we caught up on family and old acquaintances. Once those topics had run their course, the conversation turned to current events in the city. It’s hard for even the ardent supporters of liberal progressivism not to observe the denouement of crime around them. As cycles go, the recent swing has whipped the curve right off the edges of the paper.

“Jxx’s mom once told me that the best of intentions in excess, often mutate into the worst of outcomes.” She said, a forkful of Tuna Poke Bowl suspended midway between her plate and mouth.

Not just intentions, I thought later as our dinner conversation replayed, but those rallied by excessive analysis of history, and primed like a bonfire on the Fourth of July with the venom of anger unaddressed. No wonder Lake Street had been set ablaze.

History is a recall of the past, as a reminder of both the good, the bad, the productive, the detrimental, and how all of it came to be. History is to learn from, to recognize and to account for. To use the cognitive qualities of our brains, (those useful tissues which separate us from other mammals) to grow into something more than we were before.

I question who it helps to replay the worst of things again and again. Gnashing through history seems counter productive, erodes confidence amongst those who need their confidence rebuilt. Taking a group’s worst of times and displaying it on a jumbotron for all to relive, is, maybe even hurtful. And the motivation for those who rally such action may be spurred on by some inner and other anger.

Anger can turn a story into a saga. It may soothe one but create a burden on another, one of a younger generation, one in the audience. History isn’t meant to assuage miscellaneous anger, sending out sideway messages. History isn’t meant to be a tool to those who only wish to transfer their personal suffering onto a greater audience for their own peace.

New Tricks- BBC crime drama

I’m a sucker for cop shows. I find a new series and watch it through to the last episode while sticking to a diet of no more than one a day. Bosch was a recent favorite; a grainy late age LA detective with the stomach for justice over politics. He had a great side kick in Jamie Hector (also know for appearances in The Wire).

I was looking for a new series while trying to switch things up a little bit, and found something fun and new in the BBC production of New Tricks (also on Amazon). It’s a little bit older having been produced in 2003, but that doesn’t take away from the interesting mix of detectives with their foibles or their unique skills. A snappy veteran cop is given a threesome of retired detectives and assigned cold case files.

The story lines are clever instead of gruesome. There are no car chases. There is a dose of unsavory behavior. And a dash of OCD mania. In other words it is very British and very un-Hollywood. A perfect replacement for Bosch. Happy viewing!

Making Rules

One thing that bugs me is the lack of understand that making rules is more than making rules. A problem needs a fix. The answer is to make a rule for that! But requesting an audience to do something is foisting a power over them; it implies an authority and a compliance. It assumes that the work, or inconvenience, of following the rule has been judged to have a balancing positive effect.

More often than not, however, the rule making authority doesn’t follow through with compliance.

Recently, an acquaintance lamented that her town house association board was going through the complex, unit by unit, looking (most literally standing on the sidewalk out front in a little cluster) for unauthorized exterior embellishments. There was a rule on the books that owners were not allowed to litter the grass with such things as quaint stone benches, large urns overflowing with geraniums or petunias, or an artfully decorated signs bellowing WELCOME.

After a bunch of years of non-compliance, the residents of this twenty unit community were now going to be served notice to remove their horticultural self-expression. My friend didn’t want to give up her planters now that she had grown to enjoy them. Phooey on the rules!

How many municipalities set up ordinances which they cannot enforce and code compliances which go uninspected? Having the authority to do so, yet not following through creates complacency. Before you know it people are used to disregarding what is so carefully written down as community guidance. And worse yet, residents get angry and feel a suffered loss once enforcement action gets underway. If no rule had been written to start, wouldn’t the group be better off?

Writing rules, as a rule, needs to be taken seriously.

What should I remodel?

Clients who have been in their homes for a while will sometimes give their realtor a call to ask which home improvements they should tackle. Maybe they would really like a new kitchen but are afraid the expenditure would not be entirely reflected in the price of the home upon resale. This is true to various degrees for all improvements. The chart below gives you an idea of how much of a return one can get on various upgrades.

Of course these prices will vary depending on where you live, but it gives you a general idea of how the market reacts to different features. Kitchens are a popular upgrade as we all spend a lot of time in this space. When clients ask, is it worth it? They must be reminded that they are purchasing a kitchen partly for themselves, for their personal use. The return they eventually get at time of sale shouldn’t be as big of a factor as their personal enjoyment of the renovated space for the time they live in the home.

It is interesting to note that some of the greatest returns are generated by exterior remodeling such as a new garage door, siding and stone veneer. This drives home the value buyers place on curb appeal- the public face of the property. With this in mind we can hope to see, over time, that neighborhoods continue to line their streets with trees, fuss with a little landscaping and keep their home facades quaint and inviting.

Full Disclosure

Wouldn’t it be cool if every time a public figure spoke, and metered out their opinion, a subtitle line was ticker-taping across the bottom of the screen disclosing which identity the person was prioritizing in the rhetoric? I was just on Twitter and a few local policy types were out denying a certain support of Blah Blah Blah. But are they making such pronouncements as a member of a political coalition? As a citizen of the municipality? As a member of a family?

Because it would be helpful to know if statements are motivated by power positions or sincere objective evaluation of the issue at hand.

Mostly it seems to be about power for the ones with the loudest voices. This is unfortunate for the advancement of the public conversation. The merits, drawbacks and possible outcomes of amendments are not discussed as much as who can do what for whom. I know, I know, that is the political game.

But doesn’t anyone care about the actual results?

I always tell my clients that the only ones who know the market are the parties in the mix, making the decisions around the exchange. In political policy making the recipients of the benefits are only superficially involved in the conversation. It is always assumed the receipt of anything will be beneficial and well received. I think we are shorting ourselves out of feedback.

Political actors seem to respond more to power than to economics outcome. Being able to distinguish between rhetoric for themselves versus their parties versus their constituents would undoubtedly enhance the system.

Android versus iOS

For a couple of decades I was an android owner. The price differential was a three to one, yet for me the value wasn’t. I didn’t need an iOS to get my emails, text, and yes, even use it as a phone to talk to people. The androids were good enough.

Well… I spent the weekend setting up apps on my new iPhone 13 Pro. So here’s what changed and how things are going so far.

But first a little history. The other members in our little household have been ardent Apple supporters. As soon as grandpa upped the Christmas gift money, the first born consolidated some savings and bought his first iPhone. I thought nothing more about it than the need for adolescents to keep up with the other kids at school until we were on a road trip in rural Montana. All our phones lost service on the road, but the kids’ phones were the first to pick up a signal as soon as we hit Bozeman or Butte or Missoula. Given we were on the same plan, I had to admit their equipment was better.

With travel on the near horizon, the need for connectivity is an impending necessity. Upgrading to 5G and those experiences with rural travel had me reading through the spec list at the Apple counter. The kicker that brought the purchase home was the video editing software. I’ve been trying for a year an a half to clip and edit short video takes and had to bail (as often is the case when delving into new technology applications) on it as it was simply too time consuming to figure out. The iPhone 13 promised efficiencies.

Now that I’ve had it for a few days it is obviously a superior machine. It’s not just about image or style, but better features. At time of app setup you are given the option to disconnect from future ads. In skyping I noticed the superior audio. Reading the screen is easier on the eyes. I’m still playing with the camera but the first shots are quite good. I look forward to trying out all the settings at various times of day and night.

I have yet to get to the movie editing function. When I do I’m sure it will end up in a post.

Interesting architecture

I showed a house this week which had floor to ceiling plate glass windows, sight line views out every window onto nature, and a Wolf gas range which would make any chef perspire gently at the brow. It was also priced twice as much, quite literally, than other home of comparable size with similar lot amenities.

The name of the architect as well as the brand of each notable feature in the home was listed out prominently in the comments. And the quality of the materials and construction were evident– from the tiled heated driveway to the reflecting pool. But what exactly should one pay for artistic features?

First off, to state the obvious, there will be those who will pay nothing. They will prefer to allocate the extra expenditure to square footage, and purchase a mini mansion in lieu of designer small. Right out of the gate, the buyer pool is a subset of all buyers. But more than likely the final bid will come from a select few who follow and appreciate the particular architect. Which explains why the name is featured so prominently in the marketing materials.

One could say that their is a community of buyers who find value in purchasing a property of such a design. And since that community would be trading property amongst each other, that extra premium could be said to be non-fungible to the community. It will always exist amongst them.

Now this concept could be a hard sell if it weren’t for the recent popularity of non-fungible tokens, or NFT’s. This new fangled art is available for purchase for all those who invest in crypto currency. The value to those outside the crypto community is, well, zero. And what would happen if the crypto community disbanded, lost interest in a form of currency that requires mega wattage to mine? Then the NFT’s would be worth zero.

In the NFT example it is easier to accept the non-fungible feature as the technology makes a clean line between those who can buy, trade and value the tokens, and those who cannot. A home built by a particular architect has residual value not tied to its design features. But the premium people pay is non-fungible. It’s tied to the community who support and value the artist in question.

City councils and Core services

In the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a lot of city council people make their pitch for the upcoming election. What has struck me is the number of individuals stressing that city councils are non-partisan in nature and the goal of the (mainly) part-time citizen council is to oversee basic city services. Basic as in getting the streets plowed and the garbage picked up. There is a definite less frills more nuts and bolts type of vibe.

Which is as refreshing as a jump in the lake after twenty minutes in a sauna.

One vibrant gal from a suburb which was built in the 50’s, you know the ones with the oversized, heavily treed lots partially covered by one level homes, won me over immediately when she expressed interest in hearing from all sides of an issue. Her family moved to the area when she was one and she, in turn, had raised her kids blocks from a park with maples and oaks. In her view her role is to preserve what is good about the city so others would settle in, as her family had done.

One issue she mentioned relating to housing was the desire to catch homes that need repair before they deteriorate to the point of being irredeemable. The typical municipal reaction to this is to enforce a truth-in-housing review of homes at time of sale, along with a possible repair obligations. A policy that’s a nice, if not evanescent, thought with absolutely zero effect.

Only a small sliver of the housing in a city is sold in a year. Distress in a building is a process which happens over decades. A roof, for instance has a 22-25 year lifespan. Damage from a leaky roof would result following many years of deferred maintenance. Putting the spotlight on the properties going to market continues to leave those which need help in the shadows.

The concern is real even if the solution is opaque.

Similar homes can have a range of pricing depending on how well they have been kept. Ones with new mechanicals command higher prices. Most properties have some sort of mix; a new hot water heater, old furnace, and ten year old windows. These settle in the middle of the range. And at the lower end the buyers realize they will need to jump right in and start making updates. But in all three scenarios the home is habitable. It is a viable shelter for the new owner. And the price is substantially greater than the price of a lot in the same neighborhood.

When the deferred maintenance meets a threshold where the market no longer feels it is viable- the extra kicker maybe settling cracks in the garage foundation wall, then the price drops noticeably. It hovers only slightly about the lot cost– positioning it for a possible tear down. This is the point where a lot of equity goes wasted. If some of the core mechanicals had been better kept, or the kicker ‘last straw’ flaw been averted, one could dodge the price dip.

Here’s where the city could forestall the shift from habitable to the mainstream, to demolish and rebuild.

The city could first play a roll by abolishing any type of truth-in-sale which is a complete waste of time, and second by directing services towards homes that are on the tail end of a slide. Owners in these situations are likely to be better off living in another type of property. Perhaps they need help decluttering, or with estate sale services, or a variety of non-profits which help with such things. Perhaps health issues are keeping them from making the switch.

Offering information and connecting people to service providers could help them to move before the property becomes unacceptable to main stream buyers. This will not only keep the properties in better shape it will facilitate a difficult move for a resident to a residence better suited to their needs.

Understanding Cultural Codes- Football Edition

The Vikings beat the Seahawks yesterday 30-17. That may not sound like much if you don’t follow the Vikings, or the Seahawks. But it is a big deal. Russell Wilson has lead his Seattle football team right up to the threshold of the Super Bowl for the last three years running. Whereas the Vikings lost their previous game by going wide on an easy field goal in the last minutes of the game.

I was back in my twenties when I realized what it was to be a football fan, part of the football culture. I was working at a bank with a bunch of guys and the sports talk was nonstop. I couldn’t figure it out. It sounded as dull as the first line of this blog to anyone who doesn’t follow the Vikings or the Seahawks. What could be so dang exciting about the scores of athletic events that run on the TV throughout the weekend?

I started listening to their chatter a little closer. One day after work, we were headed over to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis (now long gone and replaced by the US Bank Stadium) as they had heard that Shaq O’Neil, a new rising basketball star, was in town and you could watch him practice. I was fascinated. They were so involved in the sport that they knew the youngest brightest player, and how to get a glimpse of him during a practice.

That was a watershed moment, when what it was to be part of the culture came into view. What was before me was multi-dimensional. It had history. It was not a bunch of scores and dates– even though that is the product which is most visible, most talked about. And there was the factor of time as well.

What gives sport fans emotion and compelling interest and utmost devotion to their teams is an understanding of what is being accomplished in the context of where the team has been. There’s the medical side of things with injuries and rehabilitations. There’s the training or education part of things with bringing along new recruits. There’s the stability part of things with the knowledge of the mature players. There’s the management side of things with coaches and agents. There’s economic side of things with trading and ginormous salaries. There’s a whole culture to football which is complex to follow.

That’s what makes it exciting. That’s what the fans are investing in their time and interest, supporting their favorites with viewing hours and ticket sales. They are the audience in the whole apparatus of football culture. And they love it!

An example of a public acting private

The claim I make is that entities which are primarily public in nature can be transformed to act like a private enterprise. Here’s an example.

A few years after I gave birth to my son, advertisements started filtering through our postal mail claiming the accolades of a variety of schools. The Parochial schools had the upper hand on morals and strong values. The charter schools within the district offered Spanish Immersion or a science and engineering focus. The International School of Minnesota, a private school, offers a nurturing environment for a level of education geared to compete on a world stage.

I get that the Lutherans and the Catholics need to advertise to be sure people know where they are. And advertising specialty schools within a district follows the same getting-the-word-out need that is the business of ad campaigns. But it was somewhat off-putting when the public school district to the SW of us started a direct mail campaign designed to raise questions the adequacy of our own district with the objective of luring families like ours to open enroll across district lines.

In Minnesota, funding follows the child. So by recruiting kids along the neighboring district boundaries, the school district is vying for additional funding. They are acting in a private market manner, using advertising dollars to draw streams of money and the stronger family units to their enterprise.

In my mind this manifests the same economic form as the bidding on masks by state instead of as a country. The school districts are operating under a Minnesota mandate, yet by delineating the interest group to school districts, their actions outside of their district takes on a private nature.

So what’s the harm in it?

Using a private mechanism within a communal goal can gut out the ability of part of the group to be successful. If all the strong families (both in an educational sense and in an extra-time-to-help with education resources sense) shift over to the adjacent district, then the balance of talent and resources and parent time required will be substantially weakened for the families left behind.

This process works against the state mandate to educate all kids. The districts can act as private as they like outside the state mandate with entities like textbook vendors or playground equipment manufacturers. But the communal structure of all those who fall under the mandate should make it clear that direct mail marketing with the deliberate intent to shift funding dollars across district lines is counter productive to the expressed agreement.

Every Word Leads to Every Other, and No Spaces Between

We do not speak of geography,

so shortcuts cannot affect our way.

I cannot even permit your saying “No shortcuts,”

because the blackbird must sing three notes

before it sings a fourth,

because there are (movements

to be passed through)

no shortcuts,

because the bubbles that rise to the pond’s surface

must work their way through the lily roots,

and each concentric circle touch the shore.

 

This is not geography,

because we cannot foretell

where we are going,

seeing as how we are carried,

and know only where we have come,

recognized if we are lucky

by where we were last.

The rose leaf has no destination

when it drops through the trellis

and could not land on the bench

without drifting by the hedge

and does not after all stay

 

anywhere. A breeze lifts it

beside the cat who comes round the corner

of the hedge to find the lizard,

a surprise impossible to fall upon

by crawling through the hedge

with any idea of shortcut.

I find myself

in a garden of no geography,

and could not have come another way

when I did not even know

this as a place where we would arrive.

Judith Lee Stronach (1943–2002) was a journalist, poet, arts patron and social activist. A leader in numerous human rights and peace organizations as well as Buddhist groups, she was also a great friend to Inquiring Mind and served as poetry editor for the past few years.

Forces and Forms

Yesterday’s post was about the two forces which influence how we use our time and resources. Sometimes what we do is heavily weighted by social implications, such as activities within a household or religious community. Sometimes what we do is almost entirely transactional like filling up a tank of gas– no thought is given to the vendor as price and convenience is the primary focus. These impulses or desires to satisfy the self or the group are always in play to various degrees.

What’s interesting is that groups of shared interest also act under the forces of the self or the community. Remember during the onset of the pandemic when everyone was trying to get their hands on the N95 masks? The weakness in the notion of an ubiquitous public became apparent when states started bidding against each other for imported masks, driving up prices. Each state formed a private bidding entity before the outcry of the on-line audience demanded the form change from individual states to the entire US. That the delineation of who was treated like community within the bounds, and who was treated like a private entity on the outside, shift from the state boundaries to country boundaries.

For decades the best known book written about cooperative behavior in groups was The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups by Mancur Olson. Buried deep in the book the author quotes quite a long section by Hans Ritschl, a German economist. This section best explains the two forces:

In the free market economy the economic self-interest of the individual reigns supreme and the almost sole factor governing relations is the profit motive, in which the classical theory of the free market economy was appropriately and securely anchored. This is not changed by the fact that more economic units, such as those of associations, cooperatives or charities, may have inner structures where we find motivations other than self-interest. Internally, love or sacrifice, solidarity or generosity may be determining: but irrespective of their inner structures and the motives embodied therein, the market relations of economic units with each other are always governed by self-interest.

In the exchange society, then, self-interest alone regulates the relations of the members; by contrast, the state economy is characterized by communal spirit within the community. Egotism is replaced by the spirit of sacrifice, loyalty and communal spirit… This understanding of the fundamental power of the communal spirit leads to a meaningful explanation of coercion in the state economy. Coercion is a means of assuring the full effectiveness of the communal spirit, which is not equally developed in all members of the community.

The objective collective needs tend to prevail. Even the party stalwart who moves into responsible government office undergoes factual compulsion and spiritual change which makes a statesman out of a party leader… There is not a single German statesman of the last twelve years… who escaped compliance with this law.

It’s curious that Mancur Olson takes the time to promote the ideas of a man whose work is not available in English on Amazon today. But in the following paragraph, Olson makes one thing perfectly clear:

Ritschl’s argument is exactly the opposite of the approach in this book. He assumes a curious dichotomy in the human psyche such that self-interest rules supreme in all transactions among individuals, whereas self-sacrifice knows no bounds in the individual’s relation ship to the state and to the many types of private associations. The organizations supported by this self-sacrifice are nonetheless selfish in all dealings with other organizations.

page 101 of the 1971 printing

Whereas I think the mask example bares evidence of the selfish behavior of the states. There’s the chronic complaint that the FBI won’t go the dance with local law enforcement. The CDC has been critized recently of having maintained too tight a reign on COVID research at the expense of the goal to protect lives from the virus.

The duality I speak of in this blog is about form. An individual or a group can behave as an economic unit both in a communitarian way from within and a private enterprise when competing with other groups on the exterior.

Combining forces

I got the title wrong on the post from yesterday. Dawkins describes how it is possible to obey to biological urges towards selfishness while simultaneously using the faculty of reason to weigh the benefits of cooperation. He observes that our human ability to conceptualize how better outcomes occur through advancing the group interest plays us against short term selfishness. It is long-term selfish.

What Richard Dawkins describes isn’t the duality I refer to, but the human characteristics which set the stage for duality. Despite the ever present desire to declare: ‘it’s mine!’ our conscience, our capability to withdraw and look back on ourselves, our recording of history leads us to understand the benefits of responding to altruistic inclinations.

This supports the idea that economic actions can be motivated by dual forces captured in one transaction.

Consider the factors which motivate a choice of professions, of career paths, a considerable monetary decision over a lifetime. If one chooses an employer closer to home for lesser pay, than there is a blending of the benefits brought to bare on the family over income. Or, say, one decides to be an overseas war correspondent due to a strong belief in the necessity for transparency. Society yes, family no. If one considers where people volunteer their time, the choice is between forgoing monetary income in support of a group benefit: firefighter, rotary member, church relief services.

Everyday resource commitments are made in a blended fashion between monetary flows and altruistic featherings.

The duality I speak of in this blog is of a transformative nature. It’s described by Hans Ritschl, a German economist from the early part of the 20th century. More on his insights tomorrow.

Richard Dawkins describes duality

It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious fore sight our capacity to simulate the future in imagination could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism— something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Final chapter of The Selfish Gene

The illogic of free riding

Free riding, benefiting from a collective good without having incurred the costs of participating in its production.

The problem of free riding was articulated analytically in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965) by the American political economist Mancur Olson. Relying on an instrumental conception of rationality, according to which rational individuals make choices that they believe will bring about the outcomes they most prefer, Olson argued that there is little rational incentive for individuals to contribute to the production of a public (or common) good, given the costs they would incur, because they will benefit from the public good whether or not they contribute. 

https://www.britannica.com/topic/free-riding

Mancur Olson makes the case that collective action goes contrary to human impulses, as the desire to look after oneself will induce all parties to free ride. This collapses a system where everyone takes and no one gives. Natural impulses, Olson argues, reduce or dispel the desire for collective action.

Collective activity to advance the economic objectives of a group are abundant, so there is little need to debunk the idea that cooperation amongst all sorts of groups is natural and ongoing. In fact, when you think about it, the system is most efficient when free-riding occurs.

Take the example of our neighborhood fence. Like many suburban clusters, a wooden privacy fence was built along the busier road which abuts the perimeter homes. This both distinguishes the area and lends privacy to those properties. At the turn in off the main road there is a sign and little extra wooden feature. A small association fee is due every year for mowing along the fence, insurance and upkeep of the entrance.

At some point the fence was aging to the extent of needing repair and possible replacement. Of course the interior neighbors didn’t feel they should pay, or perhaps not pay as much, as the perimeter homes as they benefit the most. About the same time a hail storm came through, as they often do, and caused damage to roofs and siding nearby. The association manager was also an attorney and was able to make a claim through the insurance policy for a complete replacement of the fence.

It’s likely that there were several residents who would have thought to have the fence assessed. But the manager, who gave his time voluntarily, was the one who initiated the project and saw it through. The rest of the neighbors were free riding off his time, education and experience. But how would it be efficient if everyone in the neighborhood had the exact qualifications?

The neighborhood is better off if there is a variety of skills available to the group, not only the business paperwork type of skills. The neighborhood doesn’t need an attorney in every house, it is better off having a mix. It’s more advantageous have a handful of home people to see that school bus pick up and drop off goes smoothly (especially when temps are bottoming out at twenty below). Older people can be prone to watching houses to the point of being nosey– but that helps keep crime down. Then there are the lawn perfectionists who lend out turf advice and fertilizer spreaders. Others may have job contacts or buddies in media who promote the local Little League.

You see free riding is what we all do if you look at everything from the individual lens. But as a group, it is best if everyone steps up voluntarily with their own unique skill or service. That’s called weaving a tapestry of community to catch everyone and bring them along.

Apples

Fall colors are creeping across the foliage here in the North Star state. Temps are dropping into the 50’s at night. And mums are appearing in planters snuggled up to front doors. This time of year families head to apple orchards for hay rides and hot cider.

Minnesota has a long history of cultivating varieties of apples. The sweet and tangy Honeycrisp still commands an extra $1-$1.5 a pound at the grocers. But if you’re wondering how best to use your apples, the Saint Paul Farmers Market has but together a flow chart for you.

Early learners find out that A is for apple. The apple has the dubious distinction of temping Eve into dragging all the rest of us into a world of lurking temptations. An apple was Newton’s famous inspiration. Apple Records was founded by the Beatles in 1968. Rene Magritte’s famous painting places a floating green apple in front of the face of a man in a dark grey suit. Now you can access your music through Apple i-phones. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Religion, science, the arts, technology, public health and education. The apple is well represented in the infrastructure of our lives.

It’s mine!

There’s a good chance that upon strolling by a pre-school classroom you’ll hear: It’s mine! The voice comes from a toddler who is grabbing the Preshool Playhouse plastic airplane from one of his chums. Ah- the battle over ownership starts young. There is a natural inclination, for some more than others, to own something. To be in charge of something. To have control.

Ownership around the house can be communal. The appliances don’t all have coin slots as the washer and dryers do in apartment buildings. Who ever is a part of the household makes use of most things. Perhaps within the confines of a bedroom, private items are stored which are off limits to the general public of the home.

Ownership of the upper-pay, prestigious jobs once belonged almost exclusively to ivy league educated men. Feminists from the 60’s and 70’s would have you believe that these jobs were public to all white men. But this is rather silly when you think about it. The club was a much smaller subset of men who smoked fat cigars in dark paneled rooms and who bought suits from the same clothier and who all shot below 90 on eighteen holes.

Isn’t the tussle over abortion about the ownership of the fetus? To whom does the baby belong: the mother or society?

Say hoodlums set up shop in a local park. Pretty soon none of the neighbors use the park as they are adverse to being mugged. The ownership of a wooded greenspace, that once belonged to a city, now is captured by a subset of the city. And they are not likely to relinquish their place of business voluntarily.

Ownership of a home maybe noted to a couple on the title in the county records, but all that space in between the homes is a joint concern. The effect even edges in over the maintenance of the front yards. Rules about grass height, number of vehicles in the drive all point to a view that the aesthetic of the street is owned by the neighborhood.

The Armed Forces will set you up with an education which you internalize for a private benefit, but not before you serve for four or six years. That way your employer can capture some of those employable skills. Other employers will match a stock option retirement investment in order to tie their employees into an ownership mentality.

The divorce courts have a lot to say about ‘That’s mine!’ Whereas each partner of the matrimonial union may be viewed as an individual by their employers, the court looks at the household when giving guidance on who owns what. You see you can be an individual as well as one member of a group all at the same time. And your ownership position maybe influenced simultaneously by this duality.

Ownership types are good to understand. Ownership by the individual or a group operate under different maintenance plans and incentives. So not only do we need guidance on the dissolution of group ownerships, but we can also be more effective in all sorts of trade once by utilizing the appropriate incentives and mechanisms for each type of proprietorship.

What smart people don’t get

When people refer to smart people they are generally talking about people who do well in school, people who go on to college, people who get professional jobs in fields like IT or legal or accounting or consulting. Those are the smart people. The ones who carried a high GPA, the ones who got into the best schools, the ones who decipher the paperwork that others can’t read. Smart people have high paying jobs with a fair amount of job security.

But aren’t smart people only really smart at book work types of things?

What smart people like to think is they are smart in ALL types of things. They are smarter than the guy who got a GED, until they have a flat on the side of the road and that guy comes to change their tire. They are smarter than the gal who had a baby in high school, until they are turning to that daycare worker for advise on the best finger foods for two year olds. They are smarter than the plumber who went to vo-tech until they can’t figure out the lack of water pressure in their pipes.

What smart people don’t get is that their self-appointed snugness creates an atmosphere of arbitrage when interacting with the less smart. What smart people don’t get is that, since they are in fact not smart in many practical things of life, those who are can take advantage of them without their knowledge. They can finesse a plugged j trap into a main drain flush. They can suggest the entire service door be replaced instead of just the rotted threshold board. They can recommend all sorts of more comprehensive solutions instead one that is simple and sufficient for the situation at hand.

What smart people need to get is that there are levels of smartness within each and every field. And thus it is to their advantage to treat with respect those who earn it within an occupation, instead of only respecting certain occupations.

Defund the Police- Update

There’s been a volleyball match all week in the courts to determine the destiny of a ballot question for Minneapolis voters. The issue at hand is the reporting structure of the Minneapolis Police Department, requiring its lead officer to be accountable to the mayor as well as the city council people. Presently the chief of police reports only to the mayor.

On Monday, Jamie Anderson, a Hennepin County Judge struck down the question for the second time in seven days. “The court finds that the current ballot language is vague, ambiguous and incapable of implementation, and is insufficient to identify the amendment clearly.” I think she even implied that it was deliberately misleading, but the quote eludes me now.

In the summer of 2020, eight of the thirteen city council people of Minneapolis stood on stage in a public park and made a pledge to Defund the Police. It turns out the pledge was the easy part. Little progress has been made in the crafting and architecture of a program that would replace traditional policing with something better.

Meanwhile crime has escalated citywide. Violent crimes are up about 20 percent. The police force is down twenty percent.

Two of the council members from this heady period are not seeking reelection, including the City Council President, Lisa Bender, citing family reasons. Still- an organization called Yes 4 Minneapolis plunders forward with a political answer to the city woes when a utilitarian one proves elusive.

One benefit of the bruhaha is that it has shown a spot light on the cleverly worded proposal meant to sound reasonable and caring. It has also risen to a loud enough public status that the Governor, and several state Senators have felt the need to weigh in against the city charter change.

Just a few hours ago, at the end of the work day, the Supreme Court of MN overturned the lower court ruling and granted the ballot question’s legitimacy. Just in time for early voting which starts tomorrow.

Praise for Emily

The brain is wider than the sky, 
  For, put them side by side, 
The one the other will contain beside.
  With ease,and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea, 
  For hold them, blue to blue, 
The one the other will absorb, 
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God, 
  For, heft them, pound for pound, 
And they will differ, if they do, 
  As syllable from sound.

Emily Dickinson’s mind was so much her own that there is nothing in literature quite like her unpredictable twists of thought and her trick of changing cryptic non sequiturs into crystal epigrams. She is inexhaustible and inimitable.

Lives of the Poets

The battle of Largs- the Vikings’ retreat from Scotland

The Battle of Largs (2 October 1263) was a decisive, albeit small, battle between the kingdoms of Norway and Scotland, on the Firth of Clyde near Largs, Scotland. Through which Scotland achieved the end of 500 years of Norse Viking depredations and invasions despite being tremendously outnumbered, without a one-sided military victory in the ensuing battle. That said, the victory caused the complete retreat of Norwegian forces from western Scotland and the realm entered a period of prosperity for almost 40 years.

Wikipedia

The battle for ownership of land and all things seems to be part of the human condition.

Lighthouses- are they public? And why not-

It was a few years ago now that I introduce these structural ideas of capitalism as a system subjected to simultaneous influences of public and private interests at every transaction. My first approach was to make the argument that pure public goods really don’t exist. The classic example of the lighthouse, which provides a seemingly non-excludable benefit by beaming its bright lights across the water, can be taken private. As can virtually all goods.

More evidence that public goods, as classically defined, falls apart under scrutiny is fully unpacked here in Our Problem is a Problem of Design. (Wow, written some four years ago. Where does the time go?)

But the lighthouse, along with any other good, can have degrees of public and private holds on their value. And so it isn’t the nature of the good which determines it’s ownership, but the way that it is used by individuals or groups of individuals. The division of capitalism as the system of private interests and politics as the system of public interests isn’t the correct demarcation.

The division is that capitalism is a comprehensive economic system of public and private interests, where the actors simultaneously evaluate their private and their group (public) interests at time of transaction. The mechanism in each sphere is different but the end choice is a blend of the two. The division puts politics in a separate arena which handles the style and substance of governance.

Structure, Milanovic, & Capital

Chapter Nine in A Book of Abstract Algebra by Charles Pinter starts off in solid math fashion, with definitions.

Human perception, … 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.

There are lots of cool things that happen when objects, whether tangible in the material world or fabricated through logical thought, share a structure. Properties that apply to one, apply in the same way to another. The natural numbers are a system of 1, 2, 3 which will always multiply add and divide in a like manner, whether they are counting buffalo, beans or bananas.

A professor of economics at Harvard, Branko Milanovic, identifies capitalism as the sole surviving economic system in his book aptly titled, Capitalism Alone. The structure in this case is an economic one: ‘referring to production organised for profit using wage labour and mostly privately owned capital.’ He proposes that the creation of value through production and trade occurs in this manner across the world.

The West, and the US in particular, is the cradle of capitalism, home to Ayn Rand. But now that China in particular has shown how a communist country can harness this economic system, the different categorization of structures needs to be flushed out. Milanovic offers Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism for the West and Political Capitalism as representative of the Chinese system. The Economist summed it up:

Milanovic outlines a taxonomy of capitalisms and traces their evolution from classical capitalism before 1914, through the social-democratic capitalism of the mid-20th century, to ‘liberal meritocratic capitalism’ in much of the rich world, in particular America. He contrasts this with the ‘political capitalism’ found in many emerging countries, with China as the exemplar. These two capitalistic forms now dominate the global landscape. Their co-evolution will shape world history for decades to come.―The Economist

The idea is that the pursuit of value through private trade is the core structure, and yet it can be pushed around and molded by political actors from liberal democracies such as the US, to social democracies in northern Europe, to authoritarian countries in the East. But in its original state, capitalism produces private capital. All the other efforts in society to provide public services, or safeguard the poor, or educate the young are done somewhere else- but not in the economy.

Here lies the weakness in this argument. It is well established that all sorts of social structures provide value to individuals and communities, and these too are economic in nature. There are resources, and labor and transactions. There is capital. It seems necessary to incorporate all fields of economics into one structure rather than push off the inconvenient ones on politics.

What I propose is that at the core of capitalism is capital, but not just private capital. At the core of capitalism is capital which is often in blended ownership of private and public interests. There is capital which is much more private and unfettered by social concerns, like currency, stocks and bonds. But even these instruments are in part valued by their country of origin. The legacy of their political backing influences value.

And then there is capital which is moderately blended by public and private interests. The buy local movement in produce of today, or the buy USA textiles and Ford or Chevy of yesteryear. If you pay extra for these items, than that premium is to support the public interest of a local sub-group. But the mixing doesn’t stop in commodities. Utilities are mostly blended between public and private. Capital, it seems, has a complex nature.

On the seriously social end of the spectrum there are goods that society resists assigning any monetary or liquid value, such as human kidneys. The trading in this case depends on a string of interlocking transactions between group members who all share the similar ambition of gifting an organ to a friend or relative. But a trade still occurs, the capital has a social dimension and the outcome results in tangible value.

What determines the sliding scale of private to public divisions depends on the political management of the country and the multitude of social arrangements present where the economic transactions occur. But the structure of capitalism, which dictates the rules of how the system works, contains private and public capital, not private alone.

9/11- Twenty years on

Twenty years ago, a blue sky day started the same as most days. With my infant child in his car seat behind me I drove the short distance to Golden Valley Lutheran where he attended daycare. He was four months old at the time and we had just started at the daycare, so I’m sure I was pre-occupied with the drop-off routine. As we walked in, with the car seat handle crooked in one arm and Aaron’s blankie in the other, I overheard a background conversation about a personal aircraft colliding into a skyscraper.

The sun was shining bright through the windows yet the atmosphere in the building was buzzing with electricity. I didn’t think much of it except to perhaps wonder about the level of concern in the air. Next stop my office. In that ten minute drive, the situation had unfolded. My office manager already had pulled out a TV in our conference room and other agents were gather around it on office chairs. The towers were on the monitor. One was smoking. People were trying to catch up to the story. We all sat mesmerized and the speck of a plane hit the second tower.

Now there was no confusion, only horror at the clarity of what was to become of all those people set up for their workday in Manhattan.

It gets fuzzy on how exactly the day went. One of my brothers made sure to call all of us, as we live in various locations across the US and Canada, to be sure everyone was OK. My husband worked in downtown Minneapolis at the time, and the employees were evacuated out of fear of cascading attacks. For several days following the event it was as if the ashes from the east coated our neighborhood with a quiet mourning. More homes flew American flags from their front porches.

I choke up even now at what happen to those folks. Their last phone calls to their loved ones. The doom that must have settled in as one building toppled.

Two years ago, for his graduation present, I took Aaron to New York City over a long weekend. We were on the upper level of the tour bus while going through Lower Manhattan when the fire trucks were called for a bomb threat. It was chaos. The fire engins could barely move through traffic. We were transfixed. The New York tour guy was thoroughly unimpressed. What his city had experienced twenty years ago will dwarf alarming incidents for decades to come.