What is Public- National Defense edition

National defense is the most common example cited as an economic public good. It is certainly the oldest public good, harking back to the times of kings and round tables, and even before. Allegiances were made, city walls built. But let’s see if it always meets the economists’ definition of providing a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

The name alone gives away that it is already a different something than, say, sunlight. Right off the bat the precursor ‘national’ tags the defense to a nation. So it is a service to one nation, excluding all outsiders. In this case being non-excludable really means the service cannot exclude citizens of the nation in question.

However, there also seems to be all sorts of exceptions to this rule. Take the Japanese Americans that were locked up during WWI. Around sixty-two percent of the internees were US citizens and yet a global conflict thrust them at odds with their nation. Recently Mike Pence criticised the President Obama Administration for not rescuing ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller. The claim being that this US citizen did not receive the protections of national defense that she and her family deserved.

Like any definition it only takes one counter example to throw the statement into question. Let’s consider whether the good is non-rivalrous: that the use of it by one consumer does not diminish the use of it by another. This seems right. Everyone in Philadelphia received the same protections against terrorism when Navy Seals took out Osama Bin Laden, as folks in Albuquerque. This mastermind of evil would do harm to any American which means his demise makes all Americans safer.

Yet, our history is riddle with military involvement in countries in efforts to preserve business interests abroad. In the early part of the twentieth century the US defense forces were repeatedly used in Nicaragua to protect business interests. Declarations against such activities include objecting to the use of a national resource to benefit a sub-group, the business community. (excludable) And since the military is run on a budget, the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912-1933 undoubtedly took away from expenditures on other national defense initiatives. The end goal of defending all citizens is rivalrous as there is always a menu of possible national pursuits that could drain the national purse.

It seems to me that there are no such things as goods that are solely for the public benefit. There are only goods, or rather goods and services. And those goods and services can be used by individuals or groups, for private or public objectives. Some goods, by nature, are more prone to be shared within groups. Some are more productively produced while strongly preserving private property rights. Groups with shared interests decide how to employ goods and services, where the groups can be as large as the human race all the way down to a couple.

Changing Priorities in the Neighborhood

Crime has been on the rise since May of 2020. In Minneapolis more than 400 people have been shot and 64 killed so far this year. It’s common to hear residents say they know more people that have been carjacked in broad daylight than have contracted Covid-19.

One neighborhood is organizing to do something about it. When a building in their neighborhood was slated to become a Salvation Army run women’s shelter, the moms went into high gear. Their priorities had changed and the folks in Near North weren’t going to have bureaucrats telling them what they needed.

Residents were vigorously opposed. A Mother’s Love went door-knocking in a multi-block radius of the Gordon Center and found no one knew about the proposal. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council—the official neighborhood association—filed an injunction to halt the process.

Council member Ellison showed up. Elected in 2017 on the promise “to imagine a future for the North Side authored by North Siders,” he apologized for poor public engagement and encouraged constituents to lay out their concerns. “I don’t at all take skepticism of this project as, like, an attack on homeless women,” he assured them.

Frustrated residents pulled no punches. There were already three homeless shelters within a mile of the Gordon Center, yet the North Side had been without a sanctuary for at-risk youth since the 1980s, they said. Many community-led proposals for the Gordon Center had been rejected over the years.

The residents, who were organizing on their own time, objected to the shelter not because they weren’t sympathetic to the cause. It’s just that in the ever changing landscape of neighborhood needs, the effect of increased crime was more damaging to the youth than the needs of the women.

“I’ve lived here for 43 years,” said Willard Hay resident Esther Adams. “I’ve seen kids shot on this corner, I’ve seen kids killed on this corner. We’re just trying to help the kids here.”

In addition to the granular differentiation of need, the resources necessary for a youth center is thought to be considerably less than the homeless shelter.

The Gordon Center (homeless shelter) will cost more than $4 million to convert into a shelter, but peace activists like Clemons’ group, A Mother’s Love, believe it would cost considerably less for a youth center because of the way the building is designed. For one, it already has a playground.

In this case the system worked. The neighborhood did the work to voice a preference between services for their group. It was close though. The building permit had already been approved for the homeless shelter. If the moms had been too busy to put in the time, or their council member too distance from his constituents or the county’s ambition too strong, there could have been four shelters and no youth center.

It just seems like there should be some general tracking of these things by neighborhood. A hospital wouldn’t go into an area with three other hospitals. Even a McDonald’s wouldn’t have four franchisees within a mile of each other. Some sort of indexing of the mix of services provided to not only serve residents, but also to be sure that various age groups and household formations are being supported.

The Ratcheting up of Regulation

The enforcement of norms is an everyday event. Whether through disapproving looks across a bin of oranges at the grocery store in response to a parent’s disciplining techniques, or the scoff of disbelief at your friend’s new beau’s use of culturally insensitive language, or showing up to work with a card and flowers for a co-worker who recently lost a spouse. The behavior of shaping, criticizing or supporting of each other is judged and metered out with eye movements, gestures, and offers to help.

Once an infraction is deemed serious, it is made a law- you shall be prosecuted if you leave your toddler in a hot car while you shop. There is a lot of ground covered, a lot of degrees of severity and risk in parental actions, between scolding a toddler over a pyramid of piled up produce and locking someone up for child endangerment. But everyone can agree that we are all better off by formally acknowledging a certain threshold of acceptable behavior and enforcing persecution against those who cross over.

We are all better off knowing we can drink tap water from the faucet and that our houses won’t crumble overhead, and we can feed our kids hotdogs from the concessions stands at the Little League games. Accepting these standards and counting on a system, comprised of a series of reportings and enforcements, will maintain the freedom to move in and between communities safely. This is a social advantage we often take for granted.

It can also be shown that at some point there are diminishing return to regulations as their burdens cause detriments that are costly. Most of these arguments set up a discord revolving around health and safety (often tied in with the environment) versus the ability to supply families with income from a job. But this source of monetary capital also affects a person’s ability to lead a healthy safe life. You end up with this big teeter-totter where on one side all the variables set to maximize production of industry are weighted, and on the other, all the variables set to maximize social concerns piled up. What we want to find is at what point where the board finds balance.

Since this topic will be the question of this century, let’s start with a wide angle view in considering the use of regulation to keep the teeter-totter level.

Regulations for commercial enterprises seem to ratchet-up more freely than to release and reevaluate. There are many indications that the systems in place which regulate commerce, (often bureaucracies like Departments of Commerce and Federal Administrations, but cities as well) are not getting the feedback necessary to properly account for all the downsides to their actions. Things at the city and county level work fairly well. Yet, I propose that in the case of big business the intended beneficiaries of the regulation are removed from the system. They do not receive an accurate evaluation of the issues nor a proper accounting. And except to become activists at times of tragedy, they fail to regularly communicate with the regulating agencies.

For purposes of contrast, first consider water quality which is administered at the city level. Complaints about the water filter up through the city council and can be voiced at open city council meetings. Elected officials respond to constituents, especially those who show up. Even city staff feel the pressure when the seats are all taken in the normally hushed city council chambers. Other than the very notable example of Flint MI (and undoubtedly a few under-reported incidents) potable water is successfully provided to 331 million people in the US.

Take hot dogs at a concession stand. The county public health people have the power to decide the cleanliness of the two-windowed, wood clad concession stand with its pretzel warmer and popcorn popper and slushy machine. It is in their power to have it to meet the same standards as a science lab, of they so choose. But the regulator, who is more than likely a part of the community, knows that if the rules checklist becomes too long, making the workload too great for the already tapped, completely volunteer workforce to handle, it will shut down. No concessions, no extra money. No extra money, no new uniforms or dugouts, or pitcher mounds. Do ballfield concession stands or Rotary pancake breakfasts really need to be run at restaurant level standards of cleanliness to keep people safe? Or is there some other level that is ‘good enough’ that won’t squelch to whole endeavor?

Regulation of businesses, however, are missing the community tie-in. Commercial enterprises are regulated by bureaucracies, where people develop careers and other monetary incentives to successfully develop and implement regulations. It’s their job. The purpose of the position is to protect the consumer, where more protection always seems better.

This system removes the citizens that show up at the council meeting both in favor and against city action from the system. The bureaucrats judge and evaluate. They search for evidence to justify their position, not from the public, but from other detached experts. The consumer who can best express the complete picture of tradeoffs for their particular lot in life, has no routine forum. The next closest party to the transaction is the business person who hears and tries to comply with the requests of the consumers. Yet he/she is considered tainted by a money motive, and hence regarded with suspicion or often disregarded.

With the absence of a consumer evaluator, there is no system wide continual assessment of the costs and benefits of the regulation. There is no dynamic information being provided to determine when the regulation has gone too far and is causing too great of a burden.

So what to do? One solution is to consider how people live, by considering their revealed preferences. Testing, if you will, where the new standards are in relation to what the population expresses as their acceptable risk level. For instance, say you have a city that imposes a rental property review based on a scoring system comprised of a four page list of items. Missing smoke detector 5 points, missing receptacle plate 2 points, no furnace tune-up in the last year 5 point, ripped window screen 1 point, etc.. When the property scores 20 or more the renters must vacate the property as it is deemed inhabitual.

Now let’s say the assessment is used on the other 23 homes on the block. If 75 percent of them failed then it seems that the review checklist is too stringent. The regulator are basically saying to its own constituents that their standard of house maintenance are inadequate and they must move. (How do you think that would go over?)

Think of how this came about. The property regulators were trying to do right by the tenants, trying to get rid of the slumlords. They developed a tool that would allow them to put a handful of bad actors out of business. They get little community objection. Even very acceptable landlords are going to stay quiet when heavy handed regulation is in the mix as they are fearful of retaliation. But by setting a standard well above the average accepted living conditions, the regulators have raised the cost of providing housing. Since cost is reflected in rents, this causes undo pressure on affordable rentals.

Indexing off a general-population-standard may not be the end-all-be-all, but it would provide a starting point for the group. If analysis showed reasons for regulators to require more out of a subgroup (rental property), than at least this could be publicly discussed and agreed upon. But forcing the landlords to provide housing units at a higher standard than the average, and hence places undue costs on the provision of housing, avoids a proper accounting. This leads to endless circular discussions about the lack of affordable housing and whose to blame and whose to pay.

Furthermore when regulations don’t match the populations expectations, people resort to go-arounds until the formal rules are disregarded entirely. The highway speed limit debate that started in the early seventies left the public conversation once States set their driving limit to how fast motorists tended drive.

As a part of the system, development, implementation and enforcement of regulations need to be influenced by all actors. When a bureaucracy takes on an agency of their own, which allows them a power position which in effect rebuffs feedback from the general population. Using an indexing method for the group would at least reveal an average standard. It would provide an initial means of analysis. Ideally, even in situations of complex issues there could be a greater transparency with all the costs at hand. And in this way the average citizen could participate in a continual feedback loop while they assess their costs. Without this participation we are simply creating a power void ready to be filled by bureaucratic czars.

We’ve lost track of regulation by allowing it to jump out of the mechanics of the entire system. Lack of transparency and convoluted agency keep any meaningful accounting of the tradeoffs. In the same way that the business community’s opinion of the issues at hand are tainted by the money motive, so are the bureaucrats. They are incented to build their agencies, find new safety concerns, beat back business with zeal. So why are we surprised when they do so?

Pop quote!

These are all matters of incremental trade-offs to find an optimal amount and kind of safety, in a world where being categorically safe is as impossible achieving 100 percent clean air or clean water. Incremental trade-offs are made all the time in individual market transactions, but it can be politically suicidal to oppose demands for more clean air, clean water or automobile safety. Therefore saying that the government can improve over the results of individual transactions in a free market is not the same as saying that it will in fact do so. Among the greatest external costs imposed in a society can be those imposed politically by legislators and officials who pay no costs whatever, while imposing billions of dollars in costs on others, in order to respond to political pressures from advocates of particular interests or ideologies.

Throw in your best guess! No cost to play and a grand prize awaits the winner. Hint. Extracted from a 2007 book where on the rear jacket cover the WSJ says, “Clear and concise…Among economists of the past thirty years, (your guess here) stands very proud indeed.”

Messing with Time

Such a long list of public statues have been pulled down, defaced, and parkways and buildings have been renamed, that the whole culturally sensitive activity has become banal. Standing in line to do their part are student activists at the University of Kentucky who have been demanding the removal of a mural from the 1930’s, one depicting the settling of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. But not everyone is sympathetic. Long time climate activist, writer and poet, Wendell Berry, is suing.

Now, Wendell Berry — the writer, farmer and longtime Kentuckian — is suing the university over its decision to remove the mural, arguing that because it was created through a government program, it is owned by the people of Kentucky and cannot be removed by the university. (Mr. Berry knew the artist of the mural through his wife, who is a niece of Ms. O’Hanlon. Mr. Berry’s wife, Tanya Berry, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.)

Perhaps it is time that the courts weigh in on the issue. The period where the passion of the moment, the outrage, perhaps has expired. Voicing a need for change is acceptable, it is desirable. The public square, whether physical or over electronic media, is part of the system. Yet at some point the voicing process is over. At some point destruction to emphasize the severity of the issue becomes destruction to feel powerful. At some point attention to the issue at hand starts to itself erode other worthy causes.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion regarding the appropriateness of alining time with the crime. Even if the law changes at a later date, it ruled that the perpetrator cannot be exonerated if the deed was unlawful at time of conviction.

A defendant is not exonerated within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd.
1(c)(2) (Supp. 2019), when his conviction has been vacated based on a later clarification
of the law, when the conduct violated the law under existing precedent at the time the
offense was committed.

Shouldn’t it follow that the reverse should also not be allowed? That today’s cancel culture cannot convict based on revisions to laws dictating new standards which make historical actions unlawful? Those artists (in this case a woman-which in and of itself should be revered) and their subjects and the commissions which hired the work be done were operating within the guidelines of their time. Not some future reality yet to be conceived.

If anything these artifacts should be kept around because they are there to tell our story. Sir Bertrand Russell wrote an essay offering some ideas on what history should do for the general reader. Here is a section that points out that a history is needed precisely to address the ever changing nature of ‘human affairs.’ It appears in Portraits from Memory and Other Essays.

Our human story is ever evolving. We operate on a time continuum. Thus it seems, that if for no other reason than to avoid making complete fools out of ourselves, we must evaluate events under the conditions in which they occurred.

Is it Public or Is it Private?

Marginal Revolution University is an incredible source of economic knowledge. In addition to the course work there are videos and games. Here’s one designed to help distinguish between public goods, private good, common goods and club goods. At the end of the game there is a cheat sheet of how to classify these goods and services.

Pure Private Goods/Services (excludable, rival)
● Haircut
● Pizza
● Website design
● Table service at a restaurant
● Snuggie
● House


Club Goods/Services (excludable, non­rival)
● Netflix
● Amusement park
● Uncongested toll roads (highway)
● The movies
● YMCA membership


Common Goods (non­excludable, rival)
● Busy city street
● Hospital E.R.
● Tuna in the ocean
● The meadow where your sheep graze
● Wildlife
● Forests


Pure Public Goods/Services (non­excludable, non­rival)
● Wikipedia
● National defense
● Uncongested city street
● City fireworks
● Air to breathe
● Google
● Asteroid defense

To understand the economic arrangement I talk about in this blog, these categories have to be rearranged. I ask people to consider that there are two natures to every product: public and private. The nature is dependent upon who, or which group, has access to the goods.

Let me give you an example. A haircut seems like a pretty straightforward private good. The exchange is between two individuals where the customer clearly owns the hair. But what if the haircut was given to disadvantaged kids in an elementary school by a barber who was providing the service as a gesture of community involvement?

The purpose of the activity is to enhance a child’s self esteem and in doing so increase their productivity at school. The barbers work for free so no money is exchanged to make this a private transaction. There are no production reports, nor does this get measured as a part of GDP. This service is done as a public service not a private transaction. Mind you not just anyone can get the free haircut. Only the kids at the elementary school in question. Everyone else must pay. So the public nature has to be attached to that grouping: it is a public good for the elementary school kids.

This is the reason a haircut cannot be classified exclusively as a private service. In due time, I will sort through this whole list of goods and services to convert you to the new classifications of public and private! In due time.

Who is NOAH anyway?

It was three to four years ago when the acronym NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing) started appearing in presentations and in print. The sale of a 698-unit apartment complex in Richfield, a modest first tier suburb adjacent to South Minneapolis, and the subsequent fallout from tenants having to relocate in light of the new owners’ ambitions to rehab the ailing structure, brought this situation into focus. The term emerged from the realization that there can be a time when both landlords and tenants benefit by rents low.

Analysts talk about housing like it is a static product. How many units are for rent, with how many bedrooms, and how many square feet. People talk about housing as if the most interesting thing about it is its physical parameters. But properties change over time. What is brand-new, mechanically up-to-date today, becomes tired and dated in the course of a dozen years. People change over time too. A single adult transitions into married life and a family changing their housing needs.

Housing structures have a cycle. New means no repairs but new also means (relative to comparable used properties) the most expensive. As properties age they can become dated and repairs can start to be overlooked. Usually used properties are supporting some mix of these two: the roof is new but the furnace midcycle; the counters are granite but the appliances from a decade gone-by.

Wear and tear and maintenance can also vary depending on the tenants. A drive around any large University campus will show off some student housing that is a little worse for wear. And some landlords are better than others at keeping up on property demands. It can be that the owners are at a later stage of their investment and are happy enough to keep doing repairs instead of replacements, and ignoring the dated carpet runners in the hallways. As long as their renters are happy with stable rent, all parties allow the property to age.

Keep in mind the economics of the lower rent. The owner, by letting improvements slide and just getting by on minimal repairs, has in effect allowed the building to decrease in value. The lower rent is a transfer of building value to the renters. The decreased building value in the open market attracts an investor who is then motivated to do the renovations. And with this the new investor attracts renters who can pay for them.

This most probably describes the evolution of the large apartment complex in Richfield. Other expenses can also impact an owner’s decision to sell.

Dickens sees NOAH threatened across the region, and said landlords get no choice when property values — and thus taxes — rise. Maintenance costs and upkeep also climb, with costs typically passed to tenants.

Is it not beneficial to the community or the renters for a building to deteriorate to the point of condemnation. So the process of an investor rehabbing an aging building in and of itself is a good thing. The reality is that structures depreciate over time, and repairs can only be ignored for so long. NOAH wasn’t a discovery of something new, it just revealed a situation in the open market where both the provider of the housing and the residents found an agreeable equilibrium. For a time.

The biggest takeaway from the acronym is that there is no secret money tree that will appear and save the most vulnerable from their housing burden. NOAH occurs as a situation where an investor tolerates some devaluing of property which is then reflected in lower rent to tenants. But it cannot be sustained without the building becoming a teardown. In the end, when people can’t afford their housing expense, some other group will have to cover the difference.

Wood Ducks

I often stop at local parks, especially when I’m in an unfamiliar part of town. First off it is an incentive to maintain a regular walking regime. And you can almost always glean some insights into a community from its parks and trail system.

Yesterday I stopped at one which featured Nature Center in its name. Yet there was no building next to the forty by forty spread of asphalt off a deadend road, perhaps a half-mile from the heavily used I694 loop around the cities. Only the entrance sign confirmed I was in the right spot.

The trail led under a gorgeous canopy tall oak trees. Through all the dead fallen wood you could see a pond down to the left covered in a thick coat of pea green.

The signage was ambitious, from the greeting sign and then a series of signs denoting stations along the walk, pointing out the flora and fauna along the circular path around the pond. They were faded, and the plastic coverings cracked and damaged.

As the path descended down toward the water the noise of ducks alerted one to a large grouping of fowl. I first spotted a nice looking mallard. Then, hacking through the brambles and low brush to get a better look, a gaggle of no less than thirty wood ducks came into view.

If you’re a bird watcher seeing a glimpse of just a pair of these birds, with their exotically detailed plumage, is exciting. This site caught me spellbound.

My first impression of this park led me to feel sympathetic for the folks who must have spent so much time getting this 24 acre green space established. How disappointed they would be by the overgrowth and neglected beamed steps cut into the hill bank, washout at points here and there.

But I’ve changed my mind. Those folks, having invested work into this vision would probably be delighted not disappointed. For here was a habitat in the middle of a three and a half million people metro, where families of wood ducks floated contentedly on a pond.

Reminder to self: don’t be too quick to judge someone else’s point-of-view.

Meet the Met

The Metropolitan Council was conceived a little over fifty years ago with the foresight that the Twin City Metropolitan Area of Minneapolis and St. Paul would benefit from a multi-county planning entity. Large infrastructure projects like transit and water/sewer in particular would be best coordinated regionally in lieu of by an aggregation of cities. The 17 member council serves at the pleasure of the sitting governor. Here is a nice fact sheet providing an overview of the council’s latest accomplishments.

The council wields a tremendous amount of power for an unelected body. Over the years objections to this structure have been voiced by champions of both the left and the right. But for the time being, it is a structure which continues to influence the growth of residential settlement through patterns of transportation provided by bus and light rail, and through the provision of city and water.

In a presentation last week, Charlie Zelle, the chair of the council stressed that his agency is responsible for planning. In light of this spirit, I would like to propose a new way to frame up some of the research.

There are two new infrastructure projects which will offer circulation options for residents. First off, a new interchange off interstate I94 will provide direct access to the city of Dayton, a third tier suburb. Dayton, with a population of 6,302, was bypassed for development and become donut hole to suburban expansion while the populations of neighboring communities grew: Maple Grove to 71k, Champlin to 25k and Rogers to the NW to 13K. The mayor of Dayton touts the economic potential that will be unlocked by the anticipated increase in vehicle traffic from the off ramp.

The second infrastructure project is the Southwest Light Rail which recently received its Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration. This transit option links the four SW suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie to the City of Minneapolis.

Excitement around Southwest LRT in not just confined to transportation advocates, already the alignment has seen hundreds of millions of dollars of private investments along the line. From affordable housing to commercial centers, Southwest LRT is making an impact on the state’s economy a trend which will continue far into the future.

Both of these projects will allow a new pattern of circulation for residents. One will experience growth and transformation from rural low density to suburban. The other will allow a built community to circulate more readily to and from the downtown core.

Whereas commuters and businesses are often the focus of the benefits to transit, I would be interested in seeing how all pubic goods in these communities fare following the completion of these two projects. Are there effects to public safety? Are the public schools over-loaded or better-funded? Are people healthier due to better access to medical care?

Maybe part of the concern regarding representation within the Metropolitan Council is for this reason; for the need to voice both the positive and negative impacts of transit and water/sewer infrastructure (restrictions) on the suite of public goods underwritten by a city. Elected officials, especially mayors, manage a boutique of goods for their residents, and they are not seeing the Council take all of them into consideration