It’s silly to rob Peter to pay Paul

Kenneth Ahrens recently wrote a paper, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, The Redistribution of Wealth Caused by Rent Control. He was kind enough to join the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors in a zoom call to present the material. It’s of particular interest in our market as he uses the effects of a recent ballot measure in the city of St. Paul. The paper is written in clear plain language and starts with a nice historical review of rent control in the US. It’s well worth the read. Here is the abstract.

Abstract

We use the price effects caused by the passage of rent control in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2021, to study the transfer of wealth across income groups. First, we find that rent control caused property values to fall by 6-7%, for an aggregate loss of $1.6 billion. Both owner-occupied and rental properties lost value, but the losses were larger for rental properties, and in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of rentals. Second, leveraging administrative parcel-level data, we find that the tenants who gained the most from rent control had higher incomes and were more likely to be white, while the owners who lost the most had lower incomes and were more likely to be minorities. For properties with high-income owners and low-income tenants, the transfer of wealth was close to zero. Thus, to the extent that rent control is intended to transfer wealth from high-income to low-income households, the realized impact of the law was the opposite of its intention.

Ahrens mentioned that his peers were wondering why he was working on demonstrating the problems with a policy that has been shown to have greater negative impacts than positive ones. Experiments with rent control in the 50s and the 70s are long forgotten. A new generation of problem solvers and activists are reviving old ideas despite their flaws. The focus seems to be on preserving a renter’s ability to stay in their apartment by capping rent increases. This in turn transfers wealth from the landlord to the tenant.

Although the intent might be to have a one-for-one transfer from the pocket of the property owner to the renter, Ahrens points out that it is not that straightforward. “Basic economic theory predicts that rent control causes both transfers of wealth and deadweight losses (DWL) for property owners. These losses can be divided into a direct capitalization loss and an indirect negative externality loss.” A deadweight loss might derive from postponement of maintenance and repairs due to lack of income. “The sum of these effects is observable as a decline in the market value of real estate, as the property can no longer generate a market rate flow of income and fewer repairs to the property mean a lesser quality building.”

Furthermore, the transfers benefit the wealthy and hurt the less wealthy. In their findings, the lower income owners realize the greatest decline in home values- 8.52%- than any other transfer.

Excerpt from Table VII

There have already been meetings in St. Paul to adjust the stringent rent control measures passed last November. But there is no talk of reversal. Constituents seem to feel that renters in some way are not getting a fair shake.

Maybe I can take a run at the reasoning. Renters play a role in the community as do property owners. They are not as vested as they are more mobile, yet they too can be good citizens. Perhaps they go to city hall to petition for a road safety concern, a new playground, or more observance of a problem property. Perhaps they are the bus stop mom or the football coach. Perhaps they help maintain a safe light rail system or advocate for better bike lanes. For all that personal time spent on city infrastructure, they enjoy an improved environment. Yet the homeowners enjoy greater home values. And renters face the possibility of being priced out.

Of course, homeowners do not always enjoy greater home values. I remember a period of three years following the great recession where most sellers brought a check to closing to buy out their remaining mortgage balance. Sellers also feel a pinch in their bottom line when cosmetic updates have not been done, or repairs deferred. Renters find it far less costly simply to move to a newer updated unit. Such are the differences between ownership and rentals.

Maybe there is a new framework to consider. One that takes into consideration the economic issues of civic participation yet still tallies the risks of ownership. What’s clear to me is that if economists do not come up with analytical tools that better express the motivations and incentives constituents are expressing in their political decisions, then we will continue to suffer through cascading unintended consequences of bad policy.

Economists as Coordination Consultants

In her latest book, Cogs and Monsters, Diane Coyle takes a long hard look at the discipline of economics. She offers substantial proof that many things we care about are left out of the accounting in a traditional analysis. It’s a topic she is familiar with as she wrote another book about GDP which relays a history of the measure and suggests there are some missing pieces to the analysis.

Her peers are not to be persuaded. Frustration ensues when novel ways to approach issues are shuffled under a pile of papers and surreptitiously ignored. Here is the story of the shopkeepers versus energy waste through open doors.

As you walk down a high street in the winter, you will find many stores with their doors wide open blasting out heat in the entrance. This is not a desirable state of affairs either in environmental terms or in terms of the stores’ energy bills. So why do they continue to do it? Their fear of discouraging ambling shoppers from entering their store, when every competitor’s door is open, outweighs their desire to cut the electricity bill, or reduce emissions. No shop can shut the door unless the others do so. It is a classic co-ordination
problem, and the campaign aims to co-ordinate actions, but cannot succeed until a critical mass of door closers has been reached on every high street. A regulation banning open doors would achieve the same, and more effectively because individual shops could not backslide.

In today’s parlance, there is a tension between the ability of small business owners to make a profit and an edict from the state to preserve energy. It’s Mainstreet versus the government (or the activists, or the greens). The positioning is that people in business just care about making money and don’t do enough to contribute to social problems. The counter arguement is that businesses are suppose to look after the bottom line- that is the how the system works. Due to this dichotomy, a proposal to regulate shop doors is considered authoritarian. We the lofty intellectuals have made a calculation that- you- the lowly shop keepers must sacrifice for the greater good and close your doors!

If you read Coyle’s book closely, however, she has more to say. From what I understand, the mandate to shut the shop doors is meant to ignite the coordination of a beneficial activity. Clearly, shopkeepers care about more than their businesses, just as everyone does. They may choose to make concessions for all sorts of socially beneficial reasons. Perhaps their brother-in-law is a supplier, but not the cheapest supplier. Perhaps they close on Sunday for religious reasons. At every turn, business choices are made in unison with other interests. And there is a very good chance many care about the wasted heat slipping out their front doors.

The policy to regulate the shutting of doors isn’t a heavy-handed state mandate. What it does is give the group a chance to start a new norm, one which they would be open to if they had assurances that everyone would follow through, Once underway, the theory is that shutting of the door becomes a voluntary social norm with compliance and enforcement.

To see it in that light, it is necessary to put it on display in the public goods market. The fear is that one shopkeeper closing their door bears an external expense for her commitment to a social interest. Unless there is a good chance that the majority of the group are so environmentally inclined, the efforts will inevitably be circumvented and the efforts will fail.

So here is the important part. Coyle is making a judgment in a marketplace of energy-conservation interests that not 1-out-of-10, not 5-out-of-10, but 9-out-of-10 of the Mainstreet businesses will find this a favorable action with assurances. The question should be, how is she evaluating that market? Where does she see the numbers that say this group will go along with this policy, or that group will not?

Consumers of resources are regularly making calls about how much they are willing to sacrifice for their children, their environment, their commutes, and their churches… These are all done in shades of grey and not in thumbs up or thumbs down moral decisions. To implement successful coordination policies we need to be able to read the market so that the initial assurance of participation is followed by the development of a new voluntary institution.

Altruism- San Fransisco Style

Should fulfilling social goals tend more toward the push system or the pull system? Half a century ago less advantaged people were often ashamed of their poverty and were reluctant to ask for help. In a small town community, there was a shuffling of donations so that they would appear discretely at the home of those in need. This momentum of first demonstrating a need and then delivering some supplies to the designated beneficiary was done on the pull system.

Complete definition[edit]

There are several definitions on the distinction between push and pull strategies. Liberopoulos (2013)[5] identifies three such definitions:

1. A pull system initiates production as a reaction to present demand, while a push system initiates production in anticipation of future demand.

2. In a pull system, production is triggered by actual demands for finished products, while in a push system, production is initiated independently of demands.

3. A pull system is one that explicitly limits the amount of WIP that can be in the system, while a push system has no explicit limit on the amount of WIP that can be in the system

Wiki

In today’s world, it is common to hear those who work with the poor deny the necessity for those who come to a food shelf, say, to demonstrate a need. It is thought to be disrespectful. The intermediary agencies, whether the county, the food shelf, or the Department of Ed (school lunch) are responsible for determining demand. This is a bureaucratic push system.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The pull system is more efficient, but some families may refuse to come forward and others feel shame. The push system is bound to attract theft. If a push system becomes elaborate over a long periode of time, then it may become its own little economy (we could call it a platter).

Nellie Bowles has an article in the Atlantic, How San Fransisco Became a Failed City, which illustrates such an economy in her hometown of San Fransisco.

On a cold, sunny day not too long ago, I went to see the city’s new Tenderloin Center for drug addicts on Market Street. It’s downtown, an open-air chain-link enclosure in what used to be a public plaza. On the sidewalks all around it, people are lying on the ground, twitching. There’s a free mobile shower, laundry, and bathroom station emblazoned with the words dignity on wheels. A young man is lying next to it, stoned, his shirt riding up, his face puffy and sunburned. Inside the enclosure, services are doled out: food, medical care, clean syringes, referrals for housing. It’s basically a safe space to shoot up. 

Not only are material services provided in abundance to any addict who shows up in this iconic American city- but advice is also spun out free of charge.

She recognized him (a homeless man) as someone who regularly slept outside in the neighborhood, and called 911. Paramedics and police arrived and began treating him, but members of a homeless advocacy group noticed and intervened. They told the man that he didn’t have to get into the ambulance, that he had the right to refuse treatment. So that’s what he did. The paramedics left; the activists left. The man sat on the sidewalk alone, still bleeding. A few months later, he died about a block away.

A whole bouquet of social service agencies has sprung into action. In some sort of warp incentive system, the services attract addicts, which in turn attract services.

Here is a list of some of the organizations that work with the city to fight overdoses and to generally make life more pleasant for the people on the street: Street Crisis Response Team,  EMS-6, Street Overdose Response Team, San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team, Street Medicine and Shelter Health, DPH Mobile Crisis Team, Street Wellness Response Team, and Compassionate Alternative Response Team. The city also funds thousands of shelter beds and many walk-in clinics.

In the 90s there were stories of social workers in Chicago giving the needy bus tickets to Minneapolis as they knew there were services available upon arrival. If there is migration of those in need to an area simply due to the known availability of welfare, then the push is pushing too hard.

Voilà- transformers

Here at Home-Economic, we want to be rid of the traditional economic analysis where a good or service is only allowed to be public or private. We want you to entertain the idea that goods and services are continuously changing their loyalties. Lighthouses are not only for the common good, and pop cans for instances don’t have to serve just the individual. Let me give you a few examples.

Even though there was political unrest in Ethiopia in the 70s we still were able to travel around the country. Once on a hot afternoon of hiking, I was surprised to hear my dad tell my brother it was OK to toss his empty pop can out the window. Back in the US the Give and Hoot and Don’t Pollute campaign was in full swing. Cranking down the window and throwing sandwich wrappers and whatnot out onto the freeway was not permitted. Littering on the dry open savannah seemed equally gauche.

Awash is a 3–4-hour drive to the east of Addis Ababa

But my dad explained that what was garbage to us was a useful tool for someone on the arid plains of the Awash Valley. Sure enough, as our car sped down the road and the can bound off the asphalt and into the red-tinted ditch, a young boy appeared. He chased down the empty can and took it with him. The can which was a consumer receptacle for my brother was transformed into a club good used to bring water to a family. An action that was a negative externality in the US created a spillover effect in Ethiopia.

Here are some other examples of easy-to-see transformations of goods and services from very private applications to public ones.

  1. An attorney is paid as such during his day job- private gain to him. He also uses his skills to save his homeowners association in a legal matter- club gain to his neighbors.
  2. Bell Labs paid their employees a salary and gained privately for their work. The extent of the technological advances spilled over and created advancements in many industries for a public win.
  3. Platforms use the internet to connect communities so they may engage in commerce for private gain, ex Uber, and AirB&B. The platform also acts as a regulator determining the acceptable forms of behavior, serving as a club good for all those who venture onto their platform.

In traditional economic analysis goods and services are stagnant. The problems assume an isolated environment where the players interact just within the realm of the examples. The relationship and nature of the products identify only in the context described. There is a depth and richness to be found if- Voilà- you see how things are transformed.

Embedded is not the right word

I think it was Karl Polanyi who coined the term embedded. In The Great Transformation, the philosopher mulls over the notion that not all worthwhile interactions are adequately represented in a transparent market setting. he drew people’s attention to the influences of family relations, obligations to a tribe, and so on. He did not deny that the allocation of resources through a market process was beneficial. He claimed that all activity is embedded in the social circumstance of the actors and in that way influenced the outcome no matter how remotely

The definition of embedded is:

  1. (of an object) fixed firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass; implanted: “a gold ring with nine embedded stones”

It’s like society and its institutions form a big glob of clay and the market trading apparatus is a shiny gold nugget glittering against the thick, slow, clay substance. The muddy substance can shift and nudge the glittery mass but embeddedness promotes the idea that each substance is separate. You’re either a part of the bling or the mud. Each exists in a realm that cannot be interconnect. Society can influence, rock, tug and tip but not breach the market.

Fast forward four score or so and people are talking differently about interactions between private market transactions and duties to the public. There are many personal stories in the newly released book Speed & Scale by John Doerr. They provide specific examples. Tensie Whelan is a journalist who was covering sustainable development issues when she made a discovery.

One big flashpoint at the time was McDonald’s practice of sourcing beef from Costa Rica. It kept U.S. hamburger prices down, but the added grazing also led to deforestation. Environmental boycotts led McDonald’s and others to stop sourcing beef from there, but that did not stop the deforestation. People turned to slash-and-burn agriculture to put food on the table. That got me interested in how we could help people pursue sustainable
livelihoods. The Rainforest Alliance was founded by Daniel Katz. He was moved
to act after reading that fifty acres of rainforests are destroyed every minute, and two dozen species become extinct each day.

Tensie Whelan- Speed & Scale

The environmentalist had successfully dissuaded McDonald’s from importing beef from Costa Rica, which, it is implied led to higher prices of US Beef. The expense of the attempt at stopping deforestation was realized in the market. Yet deforestation still occurred because the owners of the forest still needed to eat and thus put the land to that use. As a group, their action, rightly or not, created a negative externality to the world as they internalized the benefit of a harvest. Tensie Whelan’s firsthand accounting of the tradeoffs helped her understand the situation as she pursued other strategies of collaboration with the local people.

The 1990s saw considerable progress on deforestation, but it wasn’t fast enough for Tensie. It was a long, hard slog to go through the developing world farm by farm to collaborate with local growers and Indigenous peoples. Tense promised money for people to protect the rainforests instead of destroying them. She won farmers’ trust, and sign-ups rose each year. By mandating safe working conditions and fair pay, the program also caught on among farmworkers.

This time instead of forcing a corporate player to pull out of a market, the strategy was to buy out the benefit of farming the deforested areas. In effect, the rain forest is being maintained as a world club good through a buyout. The locals are made whole by internalizing the cash.

The next story comes from Laurene Powell Jobs. In this case the movement between the nugget of gold and the clay is between Silicon Valley’s semiconductor market and the health and environment of a neighboring town. The glitter of tech commerce doesn’t sit nicely atop an institutional environment, it penetrates the lives of East Palo citizens and throws cost on them in the form of their health expenses.

Thirty years ago, when I was getting my MBA at Stanford Business School, I found out that just a few miles away the city of East Palo Alto was a disposal center for Silicon Valley. A lot of semiconductor debris was dumped there, along with biomedical waste. The
city was paid for this disposal, but it was not done properly. This happens across low-income areas all over the world. There were all sorts of toxicity in the water table, with high levels of arsenic and radon. It gets transmitted into the food that’s grown there, it’s in the gardens, it’s in the drinking water. Since we fund local education through property taxes, the schools in East Palo Alto were far inferior to the ones in West Palo Alto. They don’t have a robust tax base. They couldn’t afford good roads and sewage systems. They didn’t have a grocery store. They didn’t have a bank. They didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that would yield a healthy community. In 2004, I started the Emerson Collective on the belief that all the issues we work on, all the systems that touch our lives on the planet, are interlocking.

Laurene Powell Jobs- Speed & Scale

Embedding implies a lot of nudging and cradling and massaging. But the spheres of economic activity between the private sector and public groups (or clubs) is very porous. As Whelan points out, the impulse for action is not taken away when the large corporate entity withdraws. The action is running on its own group incentives. When pollution is externalized onto a neighborhood the medical expenses can be accounted for. When companies improve standards to reduce or eliminate the pollution, they internalize the cost to cease the externality. The price of their product now includes the reduction of pollution to the nearby community.

These are dynamic interactions between two spheres of economic activity. They can be identified, accounted for and evaluated. There’s nothing embedded here.

Auctions for fun

Mackenzie Scott was in the local news last week after donating six million dollars to the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. That might be a drop in the bucket for the ex-spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “The donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities is one of a number of no-strings-attached gifts Scott has made to charities and racial-equity causes. In all, Scott has donated more than $12 billion to more than 1,250 nonprofits since 2020.” But it is equal to the annual budget of this worthy non-profit.

My son’s frat, SigEp, supports the organization as well. That’s how I ended up with my family at a fundraiser on behalf of Big Brothers last fall. I used to avoid galas because I didn’t find them fun at all. After a few turns on the dance floor, I’ve learned how to enjoy fundraising auctions.

My family at a SigEp organized fundraiser for Big Brother Big Sister

First, give yourself enough time to review the offerings. As in any purchase situation, it’s good to have options. I try to find things I enjoy but often don’t purchase as other more practical uses for money always seem to take precedence. At this event, my interest was piqued by four tickets to a Wolves game at the Target Center.

The whole idea of the event is to raise money. And there is an expectation that parents will participate in the fundraising (not obligatory, of course, but expected). So, there is a demand to make some sort of expenditure. You can always buy those certificates for eateries at face value, but that’s not very fun.

Most auctions are played out through an app. Once you start bidding you gauge the number of buyers for the item based on the response time on a counter bid. If two parties (or more) are bidding up the price without your participation, it might be a good choice to look for another auction item. If only one bidder is countering your bid, stick with it. Let them hold the high bid.

At this event of about three hundred people, the cutoff for bidding on live auction items was fifteen minutes into the presentation. This made it easier. In the last minute of open bidding, the high bidder was listening to the emcee while I placed the winning bid. It was exciting! First, because I had bought something I normally would put off purchasing. Second, I could feel good about playing my role as a parent. And lastly, it was nice to support the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

It was a three-for-one transaction!

UBI and collectively provided goods

In a recent broadcast of Econ Talk with Russ Roberts, economist Diane Coyle (Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be) expresses dissatisfaction with universal basic income, or UBI, as a policy solution. She reasons that the $10-$15K a year could not be used to purchase collective goods:

But what you can’t do with an Universal Basic Income is buy collective goods. And, to the extent you care about communities and improving the chances of those who are the least well off, then it’s often those collectively-provided goods that matter a good deal–the transport network, the quality of the public schools, the quality of the healthcare that you can access.

So, a lot of these classic public goods or traditionally collectively-provided goods are very important; and you can’t, with your individual $10,000 or $15,000 dollars, go and purchase those.

Econ Talk

I too feel that UBI is an unsatisfactory policy intervention.

When I was a few years past out of college, one of my classmates had used some family money to purchase a vehicle most would say was beyond her income level. I don’t remember if it was an Audi or a mid-range convertible. She admitted straight out she enjoyed how she was treated differently when she pulled up in a luxury vehicle versus a second-hand compact. She claimed she received better service. In other words, she felt a disproportionate outlay of her monthly income on a vehicle bought her into a higher level of service network.

Indeed, you can’t buy your way into, say, a network of moms who trade-off watching each other’s kids. Similarly, one of the moms can’t just decide to sell all the reciprocal arrangements she has stored away through her mom friendships. Money is mostly used for unfettered transactions, whereas chits of return favors are the currency of collective goods. But money can buy you the Lulu Lemon leggings that all the moms wear, or a membership to the gym where they work out and spend time by the pool in the summer months. Money helps get to the networks even if you can’t use it to buy your way all the way in.

My reason for disliking UBI is slightly different, yet similar. I too think that people who are not wealthy could benefit more from social structures than cash. UBI is just half a transaction. Giving people a monthly stipend does nothing to teach them how the social side of the economy works: exchanges, reciprocity, feedback, and the like. Simply transferring money to people, without having them think through and evaluate a selection of options, without experiencing the pros and cons of various relationships and outcomes, robs them of the experience of the market.

If you really want people to become wealthy, you would take the time to show them how.

Biden supports mobile homes

As part of his efforts to ease housing costs, President Biden is proposing to facilitate financing of mobile homes:

Supporting production and availability of manufactured housing. The majority of people buying new manufactured homes rely on personal property financing (chattel lending) rather than conventional mortgages. This type of financing typically costs more than traditional mortgage financing due to higher interest rates and shorter loan terms. Freddie Mac has announced that it will complete a feasibility assessment for the requirements and processes necessary to support loan purchases of personal property manufactured housing loans. If FHFA approval is obtained, Freddie Mac will purchase these kinds of loans to assist with product design and support future loan purchase capabilities. Beyond personal property financing, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises), in their Duty to Serve Plans, also released revised purchase targets for manufactured housing loans, which will have the effect of fostering greater liquidity for manufactured housing and increasing delivery of manufactured homes. Finally, recognizing the cost and development time savings provided by manufactured housing, HUD is making it easier to finance new units and helping manufacturers update their designs to meet changing consumer demands. This includes working to increase the usability of FHA’s Title I loan program for Manufactured Housing, supporting greater securitization of Title I loans through Ginnie Mae’s platform, updating the HUD Code to allow manufacturers to modernize and expand their production lines, and helping manufacturers respond to supply chain issues.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/16/president-biden-announces-new-actions-to-ease-the-burden-of-housing-costs/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email

Mobile homes are a valid housing option. And opportunities for financing are more limited than a brick and motor structure so to speak. But the other big obstacle in this form of shelter is the ownership and operation of the park- or the land upon which the homes are parked. As metro areas grow the pressure to vacate the land and use it for other purposes increases. You never see new mobile home parks enter a city, so once they are gone, that’s it for that type of property.

It seems like it would be more acceptable to neighbors to allow small scale mobile home parks, perhaps a site with half a dozen homes. I suppose the management of the site, on such a small scale, would not be profitable. This is where a city would need to confer with its non-profits to see if there’s an interest in covering what can’t be successfully achieved in the market.

Trading Laundry

Perhaps thirty years ago, I was a loan officer at a large local bank. In those days we sat behind oversized mahogany desks in the open lobby of branch buildings located all over the metro. Clients would wander in, pull up the guest chair, and have a chat about whatever type of financing they had in mind. If they were organized, they would have brought in all their tax forms and bank statements, and we would apply pen to paper and go through an application together.

I was working at a site located on an old-fashioned main street in a town that had been swallowed up by urban growth. A late middle-aged woman with an unassuming presentation sat down across from my desk with all her papers ruffling out of a manila folder. She owned the dry cleaner a few storefronts down the street. New environmental regulations were going into place addressing issues around the chemicals used in the cleaning process. She had some colorful words regarding the changes, stating that they were simply meant to put small business owners out of business.

When I did the write up for her loan (we manually underwrote loans as algorithms were still fifteen years off) I was taken aback by her barebones income. I rarely saw advertising for the brick fronted building that housed her operation. It turns out she had inherited the business from her parents and was simply hanging on, doing what had always been done before. I remember wondering at age twenty something how it could be worth being a small business owner if you weren’t in it for the money.

As it turns out, social situations are a large part of business.

I have no way of judging whether this woman enjoyed running her parents dry cleaning business. If so, then how she spent her workday was a good match despite the low income. If not, what could have been done to loosen the emotional ties which fettered her to a life of dealing with chemical solvents? Selling a small business is a little tricky as it is hard to know what they are worth. Better information and connections with other people in the business might have led to a trade. Perhaps she never investigated other business ventures or careers.

The point is, that whether it is to attain a higher level of satisfaction from one’s own life, or whether the motivation is to put a business to a higher and better use, facilitating and coordinating transactions is part of the equation.

Post Covid

I was driving past a full parking lot the other day, distantly thinking that it was odd. Pulling the thought to the forefront of another narrative running through my head, I realized it was because the lot is used by those who take our suburban commuter bus downtown. People are returning to work. After Target announced it would no longer be requiring employees to report to their downtown head office, I thought other employers would follow suit. Apparently not.

My late afternoon errand was uncomfortably delayed by the first traffic jam I’ve been boxed into in two years. Dreadful. Stuck between long lines of vehicles crawling along a freeway. No- I didn’t check the mapping app to see if there was a better route. I haven’t had to for so long that it didn’t even occur to me. Rush hour is back, and it is ugly.

As the few masks I’ve kept handy in my purse are pulverized at the bottom of my Kate Spade handbag I realize that I haven’t worn one in ages. And I’m thankful.

Land for sale?

With war being out of fashion and colonialism a relic of a bygone era- how is a country is to acquire more land?

Even on a small scale, purchasing property that is owned by multiple independent parties is a messy business. In the middle of this satellite photo, you will notice fifteen five-acre homesites which were surrounded by open land twenty years ago. Developers in the home building business can spend years negotiating with neighbors to sell in unison.

These homes also happen to be fairly substantial. This just means that their values as stand-alone parcels are strong which pushes the buyout price higher than say a dilapidated tear-down property. Over time, however, if an owner thinks it is inevitable that their home will be torn down, they refrain from improving the property. It feels like a waste of their money. When the exterior starts to look run down, the neighboring properties are also affected. And slowly, the owners succumb to the pressures of an expanding metro, get used to the idea of living elsewhere and sell out to a builder.

This story is a way of suggesting a scenario where land could be sold between countries.

  1. If the land is being used in an obsolete manner, owners over time could be persuaded to convert to a higher use.
  2. If the buyer country had more infrastructure to offer, the owners’ material situation improves with the sale. It has become fashionable to take shots at British colonialism, but no one seems to complain that the occupied countries received British passports and the privileges it bestows.
  3. Plan on the process taking time, as in generational time.
  4. As long as the land is low value and underutilized, there is most like a buyout price (speculative, of course!)

15$/hr will do?

Proponents of a 15$/hour minimum wage claim this wage will provide a worker with a livable wage. This is a little hard to swallow this as an across-the-board benchmark as standards of living change across the country. Even within Minnesota, the wage may be considered a decent amount in the outstate areas to just above starting wage in the cities. Price setting or creating artificial bounds in economic systems inevitably creates more problems than they solve.

Setting a floor based on a threshold of a plucked-from-the-air minimum standard of living assumes that each worker is supporting themselves on this one job. High school kids would receive the wage and they are supported by parents. The stay-at-home spouse of a family unit might pick up a job for a while for extra cash, not for the core flow of funds to pay the bills. These workers may not want to work to the level of getting paid a higher wage, or as teenagers, not be qualified for a higher wage. So, let’s set these two groups aside.

For the workers who need to support themselves on one job, a minimum wage could provide them with a bit more money. But there would be a loss too. Pricing is a source of information. If a full-time worker cannot command a sufficient wage in the market to meet their basic expenditures, people should be asking why– not topping off their salary and sending them out in the world. What would they need to obtain the job at a better wage, and what would it take to get it: education? a connection? flexible hours?

Say there was a pattern of a whole set of workers who were unable to secure sufficient work. And it became clear that the reason was geography, transportation, or language skills. Would it make more sense to supplement their wage with a stipend until the restricting constraint was lifted? Would it make more sense to overcome the reason for below-par wage offers so that they may be confident of higher wages in the future?

Don’t mess with the pricing system. It’s valuable information. It provides all the insights necessary to help people progress towards self-sufficiency.

Changing forms, changing agency

Steinbeck is known for writing from the vantage point of those who struggle on the edges of society. In The Grapes of Wrath, the reader travels along with a convoy of Americans fleeing the dust bowl-ridden southern states for better opportunities in California. The estimated three hundred thousand people who traveled across the country were of little means. They would simply pull over to the side of the road at the end of a day of driving and camp for the night.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby. In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one. They grew to be units of the camps, units of the evenings and the nights.

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck

This passage effortlessly describes a transformation that occurs when people share the same mission and experiences. While in route the families keep their possession to themselves and head west. Once they gather for the evening, the individuals meld into a group. This impacts how resources are shared.

The families learned what rights must be observed–the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted, the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick
to transcend all other rights.

The use of the word ‘rights’ probably has some of you cringing as it parallels the language of today’s activists. Others are about to be dismissive of this depiction as it is one of a simple commune. After all, experimentation with communal living in the 60s and 70s proved repeatedly to be a failure. But transformation into a group of one is only a temporary situation. And at times groups with similar interests are better to ban together and share resources under provisional rules.

The agency of the group becomes more important than the agency of the individual, at least while they are on the road. Every morning each family unit gathers up their few possessions and straps them onto their truck. And in the evening, they rejoin the other travelers. In this morphing of individuals, small groups, and mass immigration of the recently destitute there is a non-pecuniary tumbling of resources in order to pull everyone forward.

Consider another example of resource distribution. It is notable in its discord with traditional economic thinking and is used by clergy to offer another avenue of economic reasoning. The parable in the bible describes how a landowner chooses to compensate his workers.

Matthew 20:1-16
New International Version
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like(A) a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.(B) 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came,(C) the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble(D) against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat(E) of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.(F) Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’(G)

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”(H)

A current vision of the workplace challenges this story as compensation does not correspond to hours worked. Each worker is an individual and each hour worked is a unit to peg on a tally sheet. And this is often the most productive way to accomplish workplace projects.

But I think here, the message is that the landowner has a different goal in mind. He challenges those that say it isn’t fair as he lived up to the bargain he struck with them at the beginning of the day. The motivation behind the landowner continuing to hire workers until the last hour cannot be judged from their perspective. I feel the story asks you to consider the workers as a set, where each one is offered the daily wage.

Forms and agency of a communal nature have always, and will always, be a part of our economic landscape. They play an integral part in the progress made toward goals such as pollution reduction, safety, and thousands of social and cultural objectives at play in our lives. The goal is to understand their shape and impact on the process.

Being fair to your kids

There’s a lot of talk in policy discussions about fairness and how it is evaluated. One angle of the conversation that can’t be underestimated is the accounting or measure for the item at hand. There’s a propensity to measure everything in dollars. But the nature of public goods resists such restraints. Here’s an example.

Say one of your children was destined to be an engineer, and the most prestigious engineering school in your area was part of the big ten local university. The child is accepted and successfully completes a degree. Now say the second child’s career will be optimized by obtaining a liberal arts education. The top school in this regard is a private college which costs thirty percent more than the public university. The second child succeeds, as well, at completing their degree and both children are hired into their desired professions.

Does the parent owe the first child the 30% differential in tuition for the four years of private college? An argument for fairness might include an accounting of dollars spent on each child. Then child number one could make a claim for the additional funds. Some might find this manner of divvying up resources as fair.

On the other hand, both children attained the goal of a secondary education which allowed them to maximize their professional lives. In this manner, they both received the intended objective of their secondary education. In this case the fairness moves away from the money spent versus the achievement of the goal.

Note that in this story there are some assumptions made about the overarching available choices. Both chose from the surrounding area and did not compete to enter institutions farther afield at greater expense. There’s a reasonableness that the children are staying within the same zone of options. To switch to another layer of economic choices could alter the fairness consensus. Which is why this issue gets so sticky so quickly.

Differences between culture, institutions, and platters

When people talk about the culture it seems like they are referring to a product. It is something you can point to and see its shape. For instance, the term popular culture conjures up images of the latest doo-wop band or a well-viewed film series or the latest forms of dance. It is the culmination of artistic products consumed by the masses.

High culture on the other hand tips a hat to a cappella choir singing St. Mathew’s Passion accompanied by a local chamber orchestra. Or to well-dressed patrons sipping white wine at an art gallery opening. The idea of culture summons up what there is to be consumed in a city dedicated to the arts. It is the experiential outcome.

Institutions also reside in the societal space. But the term emphasizes the commitment rather than the outcome. Political institutions are those dedicated to the appropriate functioning of a political system. The institution of the family refers to the rules and norms which enhance rather than detract from family relations. There are institutions which support the armed forces, or the justice system, or k-12 education.

Since institutions are defined by their objective, they are often qualified in terms of being strong or weak. This qualification refers to how well the society in question is meeting its objectives. Whereas culture is the end product– a work culture, a drug culture– institutions are the social goals people are willing to organize around and enforce at a high level. Yet both of these terms are used in the broadest sense. There is a vagueness of how it all works beyond naming the task at hand.

The one thing we can say about both cultural goods and institutional goods is that they are both public goods, in the modern sense. If a neighborhood has a drug culture, it may roam through all its streets. If a business has a paternalistic culture, all its employees will benefit from matching pension plans or flexible family leave. We are not talking about individual agents; we are talking about individuals who are just one in a group of many.

What both terms fail to include is any type of tie-in to resource limitations. And that is where platters come in. For the purposes of analysis, one must narrow down the view. One must pick a passion and a people and account for what they have to contribute to such endeavors. And once you do this it is easier to see how the competing interests in people’s lives only allow for so much dedication to cultural activity or institutional enforcement. The platter is a slice of communal activity to be placed under a microscope and analyzed.

Activism in lieu of Church

A few weeks ago, John McWhorter appeared on a talk hosted by St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community. It was entitled Antiracism as a Religion. He’s not the only public intellectual drawing lines between the needs of the woke and the services of religious communities. But he did write a book about it, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.

Edmund Santurri, the moderator, a philosophy professor at the college on the hill, seemed genuinely offended that McWhorter aligned a practice imbued with a holy sacrament with secular activism. And I see his point. Although the faith aspect of religious identity is only a portion of a relationship to a church. Many people attend worship in congregations where they do not agree with the entire catechism. The church going families I know participate in the church for the wide breath of community interactions both between congregants and with the greater public.

In a recent Bloomberg column, Tyler Cowen theorizes that this natural desire to be part of shared interests is what drives many tech workers to the Woke.

Wokeism does. In fact, this semi-religious function of woke ideology may help explain what many people perceive as the preachy or religious undertones to woke discourse.

You might wonder why this shared culture is left-wing rather than right-wing. Well, given educational polarization in the U.S., and that major tech companies are usually located in blue states, it is much easier for a left-leaning common culture to evolve. But the need for common cultural norms reinforces and strengthens what may have initially been a mildly left-leaning set of impulses.

Developing such a common culture is especially important in tech companies, which rely heavily on cooperation. The profitability of a major tech company typically is based not on ownership of unique physical assets, but on the ability of its workers to turn ideas into products. So internal culture will have to be fairly strong — and may tend to strengthen forces that intensify modest ideological proclivities into more extreme belief systems…

Marginal Revolution

All of this goes to support the theory behind this site. In the same way there is a human tendency for greed, there is also a tendency for compassion.

When people are isolated in their daily lives from those who could benefit from their good works– such as in the scenario of a company full of affluent highly educated workers– they are left with services that have no destination. It is plausible to say there can even develop a sense of unease about how much has come their way when well aware of the plight of many others. When denied that weekly outlet of giving that a church could provide, the wealthy workers may seize up with guilt.

And of course, it is all good and well that people should get involved with many of the non-religious associational affiliations like professional associations and company sponsored non-profits. It is recommended! Unfortunately, these can seem mundane. So when activists come along with promises of REAL CHANGE at revolutionary tempos, it’s all very appealing.

Getting More Properties to Market

As the new listings plunge to pandemic-year levels, an obvious question is how do we get more properties to market. Where are they, and why isn’t the regular turn over in ownership providing opportunities for new buyers to acquire property?

I’d be curious to see a study about the effects of the capital gains tax on people who own less than four properties. Say an individual held onto a condo or townhome after they got married. It was fairly easy to rent, and the years roll by as one gets busy with family and life. Before you know it there is a couple hundred thousand dollars of equity tied up in the rental. Now if the owner were to sell, they would have to recapture depreciation and pay capital gains. And this is substantial.

If this tax is holding back sellers from releasing their property to market which in turn disallows wealth growth by a younger generation- perhaps it is more of a societal detriment than a source of income.

How many triggers are in this post?

It won’t take much googling to find out about the recent dust-up around Ilhan Omar’s illusion of quasi-universal American racism against Muslims. Instead of being distracted by the inflammatory nature of the post and reposting by a competitor for her seat for office, think about the mechanism she is using and how, in the past, it worked to her advantage.

First, you’ll need to know a little background information about the place where she grew up. As MPR reports, “Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali population, numbering 74,000 with 46,000, or about 62 percent, estimated to be born outside the country.” But it wasn’t always that way. Omar arrived with her family in the mid-’90s. By 1999 only 3% of the state’s population was of African American heritage and 8% of minority background. In the latest census, over 20 percent of Minnesotans are considered non-white.

The average Minneapolitan is politically blue- but many people have supported immigrants from the start. Church groups sponsored and supported families coming from Asia as well as Africa. But an increase in such a great number is bound to upset some taken-for-granted norms and expectations. The remedy for this is to advocate tolerance for that which you do not know. But how can you know what you do not know?

This is where the trick comes in. If you don’t know how people on an airplane will react to Muslims praying in an airplane, then you can be led to believe the worst in people by the expert local politician. Furthermore, a Minnesotan with little exposure to being abroad may feel obliged to go along with the outrage and turn on themselves (mysteriously the same people who nurtured the immigration process to start). This I’m-going-to-tell-you-how-horrible-you-are strategy has worked in a naive crowd who could in fact find a few horrible people to point to.

Things have changed. People are remembering that there are a lot of good people out there- in fact, most people are kind and decent. Ilhan seems to have lost her touch with reading the room. It will no longer be enough to be the beautiful rebel, sword in hand a la Jean d’Arc, on a quest against any evil human monster she chooses to pursue.

Tax Day USA

Today is the day you must file your taxes in the US. Expats are also required to file no matter where they live abroad. We pay federal taxes, as well as state taxes, which are established independently. Here’s an economist’s estimate on taxes ranked by the amount paid:

If I had an opportunity to influence tax policy, I would pursue two objectives. Create a process that a high school graduate can accomplish independently of any professional services. Create a process where taxpayers experience, in some way, the cause and effect of payment and services.

The money doesn’t make it to its destination

I doubt it is a surprise to anyone that Black Lives Matters cannot account for $60 million of the $90 million they received in donations following the death of George Floyd. A recent purchase of a 6500 square foot mansion with pool, studio and many other flashy features drew attention to the organization’s finances.

The report has further fueled questions about BLM’s finances barely a year after it released the first look into its finances. The foundation said it collected over $90 million in 2020 alone and committed $21.7 million in funding to various BLM chapters and grassroots organizations. With its operating budget set at $8.4 million, more than $60 million was unaccounted for.

Black Lives Matter purchases $6 million property with donation money

The group didn’t always attract large sums of money. It started as a hashtag #Blacklivesmatters in 2013. The call to arms took hold and grew into the rally call for protests following detrimental treatment of black Americans by the police and justice system. For many years the work involved organizing protests following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

If the social product is to reset conduct toward a minority group in and around criminal activity, BLM is the marketing arm of the industry.

In 2020 social media drew world-wide attention when a teenage girl filmed the death of a black man while a police officer held a knee to his neck. The dramatic unfurling of anger, protests, outside influence, sabotage, precinct burning, national guard intervention were all branded by the Black Lives Matter hashtag. When people (consumers) wanted to respond to unfair treatment to fellow human being, as the natural human response leads them to do, they sent their resources to BLM. But this is the same as sending money to the advertisers who create TV ads (sorry I’m old!) instead of paying the company in question directly and receiving a good in return.

BLM is an activist organization, a group that wants to shed light on an issue. The $90 million went to the advertisers not to actors within the system which needs correcting. And since they are not in a position to really change anything within the police/justice schematic, the money is too easily grifted.

Minneapolis Fed Series

 

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve has started a regular zoom offering. Today’s event was part one in a rent stabilization series. Libby Starling from the Fed was the moderator. Edward Goetz, of the UMN and author of Clearing the Way, is known for favoring rent control. The two other panelists, Sophie House (NYU) and Jenny Schuetz (Brookings) offered new perspectives on the issue.

One objection stems from an efficiency issue. Creating an across-the-board rent control rule means that those who do not need a subsidy receive it anyway. Instead of targeted benefits to people in need of assistance, all renters benefit from an increased restriction. In fact, it is noted that all the rent-controlled apartments remaining in Manhattan are occupied by wealthy New Yorkers.

I like the image that a community has only so many dollars to devote to the financial support for people who can’t afford their housing. Worrying about the efficient allocation of this bundle of cash will keep the system tight and free(er) from fraud. Blanket rules mess with the market for rental housing. Targeting benefits while maintaining the natural flows in the shelter business will distribute resources based on priorities in an entire system.

Conjuring up a bag of cash marketed as subsidy housing money is one new framing. Another is to group types of consumers. The story of rental restrictions is always told as the battle between the poor and the horrible greedy landlord. These conversations seem more about taking money away from the investors (determining a *fair* appreciation) than trying to get people into the best housing situation. Mainstream buyers are not thinking about their seller’s finances when the make an offer on their home; they are thinking about the great kitchen and the short commute and the great schools for the kids.

When we’re trying to house the least advantaged, public dollars should be leveraged to put people in close proximity to the public services they need most. If they have kids, offer a subsidy to keep them in the same school district for the remainder of their children’s K-12 education. If they are a lower wage worker, see if the companies will participate in a subsidy which keeps the workers close-by. If the recipient of the subsidy is in need of regular medical care, have their stipend be tied to buildings close to significant medical facilities. Match the group of people the lowest rung of income to the neighborhoods which are best suited to notching them up and out of this social stratosphere.

There are some rotten landlords out there. And they need to be pursued for a higher level of service for any of the tenants who live in their buildings. But don’t tie up the bag of subsidy cash with buildings. This wastes social dollars and doesn’t get the intended recipients into the best match of housing supply.

More from Downs

Anthony Downs wrote Neighborhoods and Urban Development in 1981, yet this quote is as applicable today as it must have been then.

Each city’s strategy must balance two sometimes conflicting objectives. The first is encouraging renovation, since it upgrades residents environments and benefits the city government fiscally. The second is minimizing harm to low-income renters. In loose housing markets, city policies can encourage maximum revitalization, since displaced households can find alternative accommodations without suffering much harm. But tight housing markets pose a cruel policy dilemma, because revitalization may then cause severe hardship for poor displaced households. They probably cannot easily find alternative accommodations without paying much more for them–if then.

A tension exists between two groups of housing consumers, each interested in the same option: the bargain-priced property. What isn’t discussed in time. If transitions are in sync with the natural timing of residents giving up their homes, then it is a win for the city to benefit from stronger housing stock, and the poor who has moved to better circumstance.

My concern is that there is a little public commentary about helping the disadvantaged to match with neighborhoods best suited to meet their public goods needs. The conversation always seems to be about keeping people put, …in dilapidated housing.

Let’s go for the double win. We have the capacity.

Old Fashioned Theft vs Social

Most people have a pretty good grasp on theft. An object belongs to one person and someone else takes it. There’s an ownership issue and a transference of the item or cash to another without knowledge or permission. For instance, a few weeks ago the news carried a story of an employee at Yale stealing electronic equipment. She ordered equipment over and above what was needed, sold the surplus, and pocketed upwards of $40Million. That’s a lot of cash.

One can only assume that she was able to get away with the scam for that long because she was in a position of trust. The status of employees was beyond reproach and hence normal protocols of employees taking at minimum a week’s vacation were waved away. This last part is social theft. It’s distinct from material theft.

Let’s take another example. Bernie Madoff plead guilty in 2009 to running the largest Ponzi scheme in the world and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Taking people’s money and not giving it back to them is old-fashioned theft. The social component of Madoff’s scheme was to rely on his community ties to feed his graft. Wikipedia calls it affinity fraud.

Madoff targeted wealthy American Jewish communities, using his in-group status to obtain investments from Jewish individuals and institutions. Affected Jewish charitable organizations considered victims of this affinity fraud include Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the Elie Wiesel Foundation and Steven Spielberg‘s Wunderkinder Foundation. Jewish federations and hospitals lost millions of dollars, forcing some organizations to close. The Lappin Foundation, for instance, was forced to close temporarily because it had invested its funds with Madoff.[109]

When an actor internalizes a benefit received by being a member of a public group and then steals, the deceit is double.

What is public, Sidewalk clearing edition

When I started writing more extensively about the economics of neighborhoods, I thought a good place to start was by dislodging the concept of public and private from the old school delineation. This version says that certain goods are public by nature, as in the notorious lighthouse whose beams bring all boats to shore safely. And it is right for the government to administer public goods which make up the public sector.

My view is that societies determine what they (they can be the citizens in a democracy or a dictator or an elite group in an autocracy) want to be public and what they desire to remain private. I wrote about it in a little lengthier piece, Our Problem is a Problem of Design.

How people come up with what is private and what is public is interesting from a resource distribution standpoint. But it isn’t money that is usually the driver for what is public. It is personal safety. The Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis started out as a private endeavor allowing for crossings across the mighty Mississippi in the early years of the grain mill district. But repairs and safety concerns, in the end, pushed the overpass to transition to the city. Transport, in general, seems to fair better in government hands.

Let me bring you back to the snow removal story. One would think it parallels a consumption model of, say, water delivery. The household uses so much water and is billed for it. This isn’t accurate as there are no other means of obtaining water. The city acts a monopoly supplier of the good. And it is fairly straightforward and uncontriversial to bill by consumption.

Presently many residents do clear the sidewalks fronting the road to their homes. Let’s spitball it at 75%. This is labor provided at no cost to the public out of civic mindedness. If the city chose to take on the removal of snow as a public good, they are walking away from .75 x $20mil (the cost of the program) or $15mil. Plus, it seems with a little leadership, and city council support instead of neglect, there would be a capacity for folks to voluntarily pitch-in and clear more walks.

The thing about public goods is that they must be provided to all. Once a good is publicized, then the cost for the entire community is borne out by the public. In this case, the analysis points to further civic engagement rather than adding to the already full plate of demands on the city’s budget.

The story of the snow on sidewalks

When it comes to neighborliness it’s hard to get concrete numbers. There is a general sense that pitching in and helping out is a good thing. But does it count as economic activity? Here’s a story about snow falling on sidewalks that helps demonstrate the cold hard cash of being a good neighbor.

Sidewalks are common features of residential areas allowing the public to walk along the road. People stroll for exercise; they walk their dogs; they catch a bus at the bus stop. Residents are sometimes surprised when the concrete needs to be replaced that they are responsible for (the relatively costly) expense. The long-established norm is that the owner of the building behind the walk is the caretaker of the public walk. In a winter climate, the household also must clear the sidewalk of snow. Failure to do so can be hazardous as melt and refreeze makes for icy walkways.

The city of Minneapolis has been suffering from a lack of interest by residents to tackle to forty feet runs. A March 23rd editorial opinion in the Start Tribune calls a spade a spade, “let’s acknowledge that Minneapolis has an unacceptably large population of residents who feel no particular obligation to keep their walks clear.” It was written in response to a proposal that is making its way through city hall for the city to embrace the chore. The instigating motivation is people’s safety– “An unshoveled walk gets in the way not only of walking, but also of sightless navigating, of wheelchair maneuvering and other modes of travel that most of us need not master. When walks are covered in snow, a blind woman using a white cane cannot tell the difference between a residential street and an open field. A man in a wheelchair cannot negotiate the snow and ice, and might choose to risk traveling in the street instead.”

Please be aware that there are already serious repercussions in place for the n’er-do-wells who find it difficult to put their hands on a shovel. Here’s a violation letter:

I spoke with the crew who was clearing snow one morning. The gal said they can co up to thirty front walks in a day. Let’s see, 30 x $229= $6870. Paying six employees for eight hours of work only comes to $1680. It seems like a good money maker! But maybe they have to wait until someone complains to justify going out and shoveling.

This isn’t the first time shoveling has been a news feature. In 2018 the president of the Minneapolis City Council, Lisa Bender, was sited. Two of her constituents got creative and made an instructional video.

Another factor in shovel-gate might be the proportion of renters to owners in the city which runs about 53-47%. Owners receive the violation letter, but renters are in many cases responsible for snow removal in single-family homes, duplexes, and tri-plexes. Perhaps the process would be more effective if the $229 fee was directed at the residents of a dwelling.

Some argue that folks are disabled and for that reason cannot clear their walks. The US Census reports that 8.8% of city residents fall in that category. One would think that there is a capacity amongst city residents to lend a hand and help the few who can’t fend for themselves. But instead of pursuing a culture change, the city is looking into publicizing (my word, nationalizing at the city level). As one can imagine transferring a job to a bureaucracy is a little pricey. They are anticipating $20 million in this case.

Just to review the dynamics here. Most cities count on the goodwill of neighbors to clear walkways for the public. This is unpaid labor. For cultural reasons the residents of Minneapolis resist this norm. Instead of working on converting the mindset and showing people that it can be rewarding to lend a hand to someone in need, the city is pricing out the service. This process of making public something that was handled privately is called publicizing (the opposite of privatizing). The process will not only be more expensive, but it will also forgo the capacity of citizens to participate in their community. Publicizing is a change of structure not just a form of payment. It eliminates the possibility of citizens to see how simple gestures go a long way in communal endeavors.

And the price of neighborliness- for all you economists- is $20 million.

The age of infrastructure

Actor Will Smith got a little attention at the Oscars on Sunday. And I’m not talking about the negative attention, but rather the recognition for playing the part of father and coach to Venus and Serena Williams in the movie King Richard. It’s the inspirational story of parents who make things happen for their kids. But what does that entail exactly? The trade of all the family’s extra resources and time to the sole focus of advancing, in this case, the girls’ abilities to achieve greatness on the courts.

I like to think of this as the mom job, the I’m-there-just-in-time-for-whatever-it-is-you-need job. The support worker in a family makes sure everyone gets fed and to their doctor’s appointments. After the priorities of food and health, they follow up on extracurricular interests. And if time permits, they volunteer in those organizations which advance the family’s interests. While some people are making fun of home economics majors, Hollywood is rightly pointing out the power of the position.

Infrastructure jobs are turning out to be a powerful tool in fighting wars. No longer is the tough-guy action figure the primary hero in a foreign war narrative. Now the people greeting refugees at the train station, communicating the number of beds they have available on cardboards signs, are heroes. You can be recognized for giving shelter over the internet too, through a donation to Airbnb. Patrons are booking weeks that they do not intend to use, and the hosts are return notes of gratitude.

It seems that the secret is finally out. You don’t have to be the front man to be valuable. You can be a support worker in a family or in a community and be powerful. So instead of pursuing a politic of tearing down, let’s use social infrastructure to build up. And create some cool new stuff.

*Neighborhoods and Urban Development*

Tony Downs (1930-2021), an economist known for voting patterns and transportation, wrote about real estate. I thought it would be fun to dabble in his 1981 book Neighborhoods and Urban Development to see how the material holds up some forty years later. I must also point out that he matriculated from one of our best local schools, Carleton College, located in the bucolic town of Northfield about an hour south of the Cities.

In the beginning pages of the book, the author tackles delimiting what is meant by a neighborhood. I suppose to set off balance anyone who thinks a locale is simply a set of buildings, stale structures set upon parcels of land, he claims that neighborhoods are awash with the constant motion of resources.

Three aspects of urban development are fundamental to that understanding. One is the dynamic nature of urban neighborhoods (urban includes both city and suburbs). Each neighborhood experiences constant inflows and outflows of residents, materials, and money. Consequently, neighborhood stability can be achieved only by balancing these opposite flows, rather than by stopping them.

I don’t think Downs would care for NIMBYs as they are transaction busters. Although he doesn’t call the influx of resources, and the outcome of what is done with those resources, transactions. No matter. The key concept is that groups of people are moving in and out of areas. Data describing snapshots in time provides little insight as it is the movement and progression of interactions over time that is informative.

As his second descriptor, Downs points out that there is a dual nature to neighborhoods. The first one concerns the dwelling as a place to live. This is a privately titled structure, cared for and accessible to its owner. Yet at the same time, each dwelling is linked to communal services like expressways. The activities imposed by the road system can put strains or add features to the various units of housing.

The second aspect is the dual nature of urban neighborhoods. They are not only places to live, valued for themselves, but units of urban development inextricably linked to all other city neighborhoods and to the entire metropolitan area. For example, a new expressway connecting downtown with the suburbs may cause multiple shifts of activities and people. Industrial and retail employment (including some displaced by the highway) moves to the suburbs; office employment grows mainly in the downtown area; low-income inner-city households displaced by the highway shift to neighborhoods farther out; households initially living in these neighborhoods emigrate to new suburbs. Thus a major transportation improvement affects the population and land use of dozens of neighborhoods, including many nowhere near the new highway itself.

To review, Downs describes a landscape where economic activity occurs in a dynamic manner across neighborhoods via interactions of people, resources and cash. In the process of these ongoing exchanges, there are effects to private property as well as the communal property that links them.

Note: The third aspect has to do with the split between city centers and suburbia. We seemed to have progressed past this rigid divide as metropolitan areas have grown and morphed to the point that thus rigid distinction has faded.

What was normal then, may not be now

In recent years a ton of political capital is being invested in promoting the idea that homes are too expensive and virtually out of reach for most Americans. This seems like an exaggerated position, so I went to the US Census to see if the information is corroborated with data. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area is a geographic area that enlarged its composition to include thirteen counties. For the purposes of this chart, I pulled just the original five-county area.

Comparing the total number of households (1,112,883) to the total number of housing units (1,170,643) leaves a generous surplus of 57,660 units. Of course, there is a need for a certain number of vacancies so people can circulate. But as long as there are vacancies it is difficult to make the argument that sellers and landlords hold a monopoly in the marketplace. As long as there are landlords with empty units then tenants impact the pricing through their choices.

US Census

Perhaps more importantly than availability is how the monthly cost of housing stacks up to monthly income. And in all three counties, the median debt-to-income ratios fall in what bank underwriters consider a comfortable range of 21-27%.

The cost of homes has indeed been on the rise. Many argue that the prices are simply regaining their position after plunging so deeply following the great recession. Perhaps the complaints that we are hearing so much about has more to do with the framing of where people think they should be able to live, rather than price.

If we go back one hundred years, families found shelter in properties similar to this one. 

According to the tax records, this home has a foundation size of 660 square feet and a total above-ground living space of 1120 square feet. For a point of reference, that footage allows for a living-dining room, kitchen, and small room on the main level and a loft bedroom or perhaps two sleeping spaces upstairs as it does have a dormer window. The lot runs right along the railroad tracks and there is an outbuilding in the back of the property where they kept chickens.

I happen to know the history of this home. It was built in 1923 with insurance money. The original structure housed my grandfather’s family of seven kids and was destroyed when lifted off its foundation by a tornado in 1919. In all, forty-four city blocks in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, were destroyed. Families lived in a state of disrepair over several years until the funds came through for construction.

By mid-century, the one-level home (we call them ramblers in Minnesota) was the dominant style of choice. Huge tracks of land were parceled out into what became known as suburbia. Some would have you believe this was the result of a conspiracy, an evil plot to spread out and consume a lot of land. But the only force in play were families’ desires to live in two- or three-bedroom dwelling with one bathroom on a parcel they could call their own. Tour the new construction homes of today and you will note the conformity to consumer demand.

Both of these types of homes are available throughout the Twin Cities. Some are expensive, some are not. It all depends on their location. The dissatisfaction in the available housing seems to be about more than the structures of the homes. People seem to want to have more choices between areas. It’s not that there is no housing, it is that they feel the housing they aspire to is too expensive.

This story is compatible with what we see in the census numbers, but it doesn’t help those who desire a higher standard of housing. The solution here is to better match households with the neighborhood amenities which benefit them the most. Because what is acceptable at different stages of life will dictate where one finds the most suitable housing. And this should make people feel there is more value in their living situation.

The outcome of all this political interest in the cost of housing can be damaging. Recently the city of St. Paul established the most restrictive rent controls in the US. The data doesn’t support it. And already there are signs of disinvestment in housing projects. Activism without a cause always leads to inefficiencies.

Power players are not just politicians

One afternoon, years ago, when I was going in to pick up my now college-bound daughter from daycare, the girls were seated at a dwarf-sized table. A leader in the group had already emerged sputtering out the rules to the game underway. I was fascinated that the quest for power showed up at such a young age.

But since then, I’ve noticed that as soon as a few folks cluster, a power player emerges from the shadows. Sometimes it is a most unlikely candidate. And it’s a good thing too as many of these jobs are not of the high-profile glamorous types.

When the PTA needs a notes taker-secretary for their meetings. The gala needs a group to go out and hit up the businesses for donations. The youth basketball association needs a tournament director. Lots of work, no pay. What you do get is to have the final say and a little bit of recognition for pulling it off.

Insecure power-seekers (PS) are not so nice. They are often self-appointed directors of social events who like to manipulate who can come and who gets left out. Often casual get-togethers serve the same function as rounds of golf for businessmen: it’s a time where some voice concerns or needs and others step in with solutions or resources.

Often PS’s are not the best at anything specific. They have instincts on how people congregate. They have skills in re-direction. The talented ones are really good at people. The untalented ones are annoying.

What I’m trying to get around to saying is that people who enjoy and work the power levers are at all levels of society. Any model built to represent the infrastructure of cooperative interactions must take this into account.

A real estate agent’s agency

In Minnesota real estate agents are required to give clients an Agency Disclosure at first substantive contact. The commerce department’s concern is that salespeople, being all friendly and personable, hide who they are really working for in the transaction. A buyer’s rep sitting in a Parade of Home’s model, for instance, is working for the builder. Their agency is to secure the best price and terms for the contractor. A buyer who walks through the door may think they are working for them.

It is important for consumers to know the structure of representation. But not only in a real estate transaction. People hide their representation all the time. Take the on-going Minneapolis teachers’ strike. The message pouring out through social media is that ‘it is for the kids.’ (Thirty thousand in total who have not been in school since last week.) Yet the head of the teacher’s union reveals her true agency is to fight the patriarchy and capitalism.

Her intentions are misrepresented. In fact, one relative calculus might show that her actions are at the expense of the kids.

She is not the only organizer whose primary sphere of action is at odds with the cause they claim to represent. John Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle depicts the organizers of a strike for farm laborers as separate, even outsiders, those they claim to represent. The (communist) party members’ objective, or their agency, isn’t to the workers but to the destruction of the power players, the Fruit Growers Association.

It might seem like a fine distinction, but through their actions one can see that it is not. The organizers in Steinbeck’s novel have no compassion for laborer who get hurt, or whether, in the end, they will be better off. The leader of the strike does not care that the school children, many of whom were already behind in their learning, are once again out of school. Their only objective is to unseat the power structure.

Perhaps the commerce department should oblige these organizers to pass out agency disclosures. Because the cost of their action is costly to our communities.

When responsibility tips

Communal arrangements are mostly nested. The family unit secures the primal position. Then surrounding neighbors (I like to think of this as the size of an elementary school district) create a group, then the city/suburb, county, state and so on. Overlayed in various positions of priority are people’s associations with religious affiliations, work associations, general interest groups and passions.

For instance, at the federal level there is the US Department of Education with a primary function to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” Then each state has their Department of Education which gives direction, collects data and funnels money to the School Districts. Despite all these layers of oversight many decisions are left to the most basic unit. The administration of Covid rules, for example, was determined at the building level of a district.

The situation in Ukraine highlights the difficulty in determining when a nested structure requires an outside intervention. In the case of war there is an impulse to violate political delineations, drawn into the foray due to an associational compact of humanitarian compassion. But rupturing the divides between units of responsibility is always controversial. It is not clear when to breach the boundaries of a marriage in the case of suspected domestic assault. It is not clear when to intervene in the administration of a failing school. It is not clear how to restructure a department of human resources which repeatedly fails to administer benefits resulting in human tragedy.

The foundational reason not to intervene is that the unit will come out of a challenge stronger for the experience. A neighborhood which comes together to reduce crime through block parties, cooperative interactions with police and the courts will develop methods for working together. Once they realize the rewards of safer streets, the recompense for their work will further encourage the efforts.

But at some point, the outer group has to call it, and step in. Unfortunately, this often does not happen. The cost/benefit logic says that if the subgroup school is performing at such a low level over a generation or more, then the outer group is taking a hit. The need to interfere is justified in order to maintain a pre-determined threshold.

In Minnesota there is a political debate at the moment regarding the timing of the National Guard’s intervention during the riots following George Floyd’s death in 2020. The mayor of Minneapolis claims he requested help early on. The Governor claims he wasn’t given authority to intervene in the city. This last argument seems to fall flat when three miles of a city in his state is set alight. At some point it is clear that the greater group is obliged to step in.

I believe there is a relative calculus for these tipping points. We just have to find them in the numbers.

Pricing a lake view

The inaccuracy of Zestimates and the failure of Zillow to make money from their i-buyer program are both reminders that real estate is difficult to price. The standard method used to appraise property is to search out similar structures in nearby neighborhoods and then make adjustments based on the variation in features. This works well when there is significant turnover in property. The market activity provides a number of ways to bracket properties into price ranges.

Things get a little more complicated when the home sits on a premium lot, in particular lakeshore lots. There’s only so much waterfront property. The surcharge for the land is further complicated by the variation in possible approaches to the water. There are steep drop-offs which offer striking elevated views, yet some people don’t wish to tone their calf muscles through stair stepper exercises. There are flat lots where the home is set back to the point of a creating a tunneled view. There are marshy shorelines and pristine-clear-water-over-sand shorelines.

More often there is not a suitable comparable of the complete package of lot and building, so you have to do a separate analysis using the nearby non-lakeshore homes and then adding a premium. Otherwise, you can further afield to a somewhat similar lake and structure and come at a price from that direction. With less data, the span over which the price may settle becomes larger.

In the end an assessment is just an estimate of what the market will bear- the price is ultimately determined between the pool of buyers and the seller.

The social side of price

I think it would be hard at this moment to refute the notion that there is a social side to price. The ongoing conflict in eastern Europe provides ongoing evidence for the incorporation of both pecuniary and communal aspects of trade in a free market economy. It is clear that a barrel of oil at x price is not simply a barrel of oil at x price.

As countries who support a liberal world order scramble to reorient their trading partners for their energy needs, Americans in particular will see themselves underwriting this institution at the gas pump. The price paid for Russian oil was too low as no thought was given to the risk of dealing with people who blow up children’s hospitals. No accounting set aside a reserve.

This isn’t the first revelation of this kind in the last few years. Covid made clear the added expense of relying on overseas markets for things like protective wear and pharmaceuticals. The cost of a drug is cheap until your foreign supplier cuts you off. Then, as the commercial goes, it’s priceless. I think it’s plain to see there is some other equilibrium. And this includes a social cost component of price.

Just to further dig into the structure of my theory, let’s get back to oil and how there came to be a dependence on an unsavory trading partner. Although the US is capable of being energy self-sufficient, there are pressures for climate activists to halt pipelines and oil drilling operations. What’s wrong with that is they are advocating to solve a public problem in the wrong public. Climate change effects the globe and the public is the human race. Hence the economic implications are also global.

To isolate one country and feel good about cutting off their production while still consuming the good, just sourcing it from another country is, an aberration of a solution. And as most people who follow these things can point out, to force an inappropriate solution, simply means you pay elsewhere.

Tragically, this exchange is paying for the tanks and the bombs and the shells which are falling in Ukraine. Let’s become better accountants.

Tipping at Windmills

I have to say I’ve never read Don Quixote but the drawing of a slender man holding a spear, sitting astride a horse, with a windmill on the horizon quickly comes to mind. A one-line plot synopsis goes something like this: “Don Quixote is a middle-aged gentleman from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in books he has read, he decides to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked.”

As the self-appointed knight goes looking for a fight he runs into all sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells. He brings trouble upon himself and accomplishes little on behalf of the needy. So- here’s the question. Do high morals come first and then the search for those in need? Or is it best if those in need show themselves, so that their situations can be rectified? Perhaps Cervantes was trying to tip his hand indicating cards in favor of the later not the former.

Indeed, there is a story breaking in the Twin Cities right now that indicates if supply of funds is made available with lofty intentions, the criminals show up for the taking. And take they do. The Sahan Journal reports:

Between 2018 and 2021, Feeding Our Future accessed $244 million of federal child nutrition money. The FBI alleges that little of this money actually went to feed children. In a series of search warrants, the agency lists tens of millions of dollars allegedly redirected toward personal spending, including luxury cars, expensive property, and high-end travel. 

Part of the quarter of a billion dollars went to fourteen properties including $2.8M for a Minneapolis mansion, $500K for a fourplex, $500K for an apartment in Nairobi, $2.5M for a commercial space on Lake St, $1.1M for two lake lots in Prior Lake, $575K for a home in Savage, $14K on lawn care, $87K on vehicles, $49K to travel agencies and the list goes on….

And what was it the non-profit professed to be doing in order to access those federal dollars? They claimed to feed 60,000 children in November of 2021 out of a small one-story building. Did the logistics of how all those children were descending on that location not occur to those in charge of dispersing funds?

It was just back in 2015 that a similar con was discovered involving fictitious daycare provision in the same community. The restitution at that time was reported at $4.6M but there were allegations that $100M had been funneled out of the country. Yet instead of calling out criminality, this is how the politician representing that the district responded.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said she’s troubled by the reports of childcare fraud, but notes that the fraud investigations wouldn’t be possible without communication between DHS and the Somali community.

“Vilifying an entire community — as stories like this often do — does not serve justice or get results. Collaboration does,” said Omar in a statement responding to the Fox 9 story.

It seems to me that when administrators go looking for a cause they create a market which someone steps in and fills with a demand. Want a woke endeavor but can’t find one? – We can fix that! And sure enough. That kind of cash flow will find a pocket to line. I hope they realize Don Quixote was a bit mad.

Market Failure- Or tapping to a different tempo?

If you are too young to remember when Julia Roberts came into her own as an actress, rewatch Erin Brockovich. No one can flash a smile as well as Roberts. And the zesty character of an everyday single mom taking on corporate America in a David and Goliath story is a perfect match for Julia.

But this real-life tale is a redemption tale for markets. Wait- you don’t have to go googling the plot to confirm the intent of the story was to exemplify market failure of the classic kind. The firm (in this case the Pacific Gas & Electric Company- but there were many) in an effort to maximize profits, refused to look into claims of contaminants seeping into the neighboring soil and water. In order to keep track of things, let’s name the marketplace with the anchoring of the firm. Let’s call this traditional collection of goods, customers and firm, M1. PG&E is striving to provide goods and services to their consumers at the best prices. It’s a win for everyone in M1!

But not so fast. Erin Brockovich steps in as an activist and donates hundreds of hours of her (unpaid) labor to help determine that the residents near the plant are suffering from externalities of M1. This is where most people stop and claim that capitalism doesn’t work because M1 has not taken into consideration the surrounding community. Truth be told, they just haven’t finished watching the movie. Because it is soon readily apparent that M1 is contained in M2. And it is in M2 that Brockovich and her law firm and the community residents are going to form a common interest and push back on M1.

Here’s a good spot to encourage the reader to look back through the menu to categories explained at Home-Economic. The activity in a social sphere is governed by groups sharing a common interest, and the efforts or sacrifices they are willing to contribute towards that goal and the ongoing and updated norms which guide their behavior. The young paralegal revved up the M2 by going to the group (audience) and educating them to the claims at hand. This spurs on further efforts to make M2 more efficient by rectifying the public health concerns being externalized by M1.

As many law firms know, if claims of this nature are successfully demonstrated, the courts will order a balancing of accounts through a financial settlement. This not only pays those harmed for the externalities, it also makes it clear to other firms that being negligent will end badly. In this case it took $335 million in 2006 to bring M2 back into balance.

Note too that this process also occurs for positive externalities. For instance, a company produces widgets in M1 at a certain cost to consumers. Then there is a technology improvement in a broader market, call it M2. Once the firm has access to the public good of knowledge of a new process/technology, then product prices drop and consumers in M1 internalize the benefit through lower prices.

The question isn’t whether the market is failing. The question is what market are we in and where is the inefficiency.

Vigilance for identifying and cleaning up pollutants has a long history.

Bonus to those who move

Cities around the US are paying people to relocate to their town. Marketplace recently ran a success story out of Bemidji Minnesota. They featured two families who took the city up on the offer of $2500 to cover the move. It seems that is enough money to risk the relocation expenses. Bemidji is getting pretty far north, not to the Canadian border but definitely that direction.

I pulled the demographics just to give you an idea of the landscape and was presently surprised by two things. First- the median age is a lot lower than I would have guessed. (For a generation or more these towns were aging) And furthermore, births are exceeding deaths by almost two to one. This is quite a switch.

Bemidji has a total of 11,917 people and of those residents there are 5,547 males and 6,370 females. The median age of the male population is 25.3 and the female population is 30.8. There are approximately 585 births each year and around 304 deaths.

https://www.movingideas.org/bemidji-mn/

These two families cited the work/life balance, a change of the pace of things, as the reason for moving to a smaller community from Topeka and Phoenix. Of course, the costs across the board are lower, but the lifestyle change is another way of saying they recapture more of their time. They can use their free hours to raise more children, get involved in civic projects, or simply have more fun pursuing hobbies which enrich their lives.

Since many writers and ambitious folks chose to live in the big coastal towns there is often this assumed bias that everyone wants to live in NYC or San Fransisco or LA too, they simply can’t. The reality is that a $2500 bonus will get people to choose a much different way of life.

Borderlands

There is a space where the private market slides up next to the public goods market. This is where decisions over which products and services are best produced under an esprit de competition and which are best served through cooperative efforts are flushed out like pheasant from the wayside ditch. A Minnesota writer, Aaron Brown, wrote about this landscape in a piece entitled The troubled border between consumption and conservation. The issue on his mind is the ongoing tension between the desire for jobs from mining and the environmental impact they create.

How countries have handled these two spheres in their political choices is not what is being discussed here. This is more local than sweeping observations on governance directions towards socialism or communism or capitalist democracies. (Even though, it might be observed with a bit of irony that China has shown the agility of a communist state to profit from capitalist models. And whereas NIMY and YIMBY forces tie US cities into knots, China is using more private enterprise to build its cities.) Brown leads your focus past levels of national governance, past levels of state governance, past overlays of activism, and bring you right down into his back yard.

Bears fall limp on trampolines. Moose tangle in hammocks. Tourists lose themselves in the woods, their dying cellphones lighting a doomed path even deeper into the wilderness.

Then the helicopters come, looking for the source of the signal. They scare up the birds as their blades sweep across the marsh reeds. The metal dragons return to their dens. So it goes along the borderland.

There is a need to micro-manage your attention because this is a saga has been in the air almost as long as All My Children. And at all levels, political players will attempt to obscure the choices, to pull your support to their side. The weapon du jour is a miscasting of identity. If you value communal interest, then you must be a communist. If you voice support of one political party, then friends may find reason to exclude from their next dinner party. The activist entreats you to wear their hats, wave their banners. At all levels teams are built to harness political voice

This last round was at the national level, as two days ago the Interior Department revoked a lease for a mining project. The 2019 renewal of the lease during the previous administration was considered improper. There was no new evidence of environmental harm.

Twin Metals, in its own statement, excoriated the Biden administration and called the decision “a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law.” 

https://www.courthousenews.com/interior-department-revokes-minnesota-mine-leases/

The campaign to save the boundary water’s chair declared this a “win.” One might as well be following the sports section.

That’s why Brown needs to capture your attention, pull you away from power plays and home runs, and back to the arts. He paints the issues out in more romantic depth than the Hudson River School of American artists. He wants you to consider choices over a variety of time frames. The spaces where public and private choices intermingle have cascading impacts and generational persistence. I wish more writers lingered here longer.

The borderlands are where interesting questions are answered. Aaron Brown lays some groundwork on how to navigate the space between two competing spheres of human interest.

Monopolies in the private and in the public

There is a watershed moment in the works as a Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, and a Republican, Chuck Grassley from Iowa, are teaming up against big tech.

Over the last twenty years a lot of leeway has been given to companies who needed control of frameworks in order to build what we know now as an ecosystem on the internet. A century ago the railroads were given similar leeway as they laid down tracks from east to west across the country. But now there is an appetite to disengage the big players from their power positions and open up opportunities for smaller players to get in the mix.

Most people agree that monopolies in the private sector work against the consumer. If producers gang up and set prices, then consumers have no choice but to pay what is asked of them. When producers compete for their customers’ business, then they become lean in an effort to provide the best product at the best price. The private interest of each individual producer is isolated from the private interest of a conglomeration of producers.

In this blog I describe a transformation which takes place when a group of people acting in a public interest compete for products against other groups acting in their public interest. For instance, during the early days of the Covid N-95 masks were a hot commodity. Minnesota and Iowa and Oregon were all out in the marketplace trying to secure orders from abroad. All were attempting to pursue the public interest of safety for Americans, yet in acting as groups, they bid up the prices of the masks. The appearance was a pursuit of a public good, yet since each were interacting at the state level, the economic behavior followed the private market mechanisms.

Could the same be said for public school unions, that they appear to be a public interest whereas they are truly private? The k-12 schools are provided on behalf of a public interest in an educated citizenry. And although many teachers carry a civic spirit, everyone would expect them to look after their private interests when negotiating the terms of their employment. Certainly, there was a time where the amplification of speaking as a group, with the help of a union, was necessary.

But the teachers’ union has grown in scope and power. They not only dictate teacher contracts, but get politicians hired and have greatly influenced the opening and closing of schools during the pandemic. And in those activities, they have failed to act in the public interest of the children’s education, as they are by essence guarding the private interests of their teachers.

I think I’m not alone in categorizing the teacher’s union as a monopoly in the k-12 industry. I doubt teachers can influence or overturn membership. I doubt that all teachers stand behind their union. I know many parents don’t. If you want to break up tech, why not break up the teachers’ union? They both show monopolistic behavior over a public utility.

Why aren’t more developers building?

I listened in on a housing forum discussion today and in the chat a question appeared: “Why are developers not building more housing?” Below is a graph representing the nationwide trend. The trend follows here in Minnesota.

As you can see during the recession of 2007 the industry went from a production level of 2,200 to 500 (thousand). Or the production dropped by over 75%. And still hasn’t recovered a decade later.

The story of why can be told by thinking through what that drop between 2006-2008 meant for thousands of individuals whose assets and livelihoods were tied up in new construction. It’s common for land developers to spend several years of work, from conception to approval to shovel in the ground, before collecting earnest money checks for a new-build that takes another six months to close. The recession left thousands of projects half done with foreclosure notices piling up at the county. Development is a high risk, with a lot of upfront costs, type of business. Once you fall off that bronco, it’s hard to climb back in the saddle.

Others were bit too hard to forget that time period. Building requires all types of workers from framers to concrete contractors to plumbers, electricians, and finish carpenters to name just a few. If three quarters of the jobs closed down, then just as many workers were caught unemployed. This meant looking for jobs elsewhere. Many from the Twin Cities went up to work on the oil fields up in North Dakota. This tore families apart who were already reeling from financial pressures.

Maybe an industry could get back on top of these objections after four or five years. People forget about the past and remember what it was they liked about their previous occupation. And new construction permits have gone up mostly lead by large national builders. Undoubtedly another constraint is the annual upping of regulatory requirements. Builders have to explain these extra costs to the consumers and simultaneously know that they are often framed as greedy, profiteers. That probably gets old.

The public may not remember the wind-swept developments with foreclosure signs, but I’m sure the investors do.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

$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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet

Taking full advantage of the long weekend here in the US, I read my softback copy of Maggie O’Farrell’s new book lakeside. It’s easy to find praise for this fictional story of Shakespeare’s domestic life in Stratford-upon-Avon, so I won’t dwell on the wonderful prose and endlessly interesting historical references.

Since this is a blog about home economics, I can’t help but key into the detailed transactions which are laid out in the book. Specifically the family relationships and obligations which landed Shakespeare in London. For without the The Globe to provide the stage, and the city to provide the audience, it is hard to say how the bard’s career would have evolved.

As a lad of eighteen, Will marries a woman eight years his senior. She has a dowry and a faithful brother to support her wishes. He comes from an established merchant family that has some financial struggles. They are both odd ducks-

Will’s mother Mary is required to make room for her daughter-in-law, to take her into her household and help with the care of the grandchildren. And it is Mary who objects the loudest at the plan for Will to set up an extension of the family glove business in London.

…At which Mary could say three things: Agnes is no girl. She is a woman who enticed a much younger boy, our boy, into marriage for the worst possible reason. And: You forgive her too much, and only because of that dowry of hers. Don’t think I don’t see this. And: I am also from the country, brought up on a farm, but do I run about the place in the night and bring wild animals into the house? No, I do not. Some of us, she will sniff to her husband, know how to conduct ourselves.

“It would help matters,” her son is saying, airily, insistently, “help all of us, to expand Father’s business like this. It’s an inspired idea of his. God knows things in this town have become difficult enough for him. If I were to take the trade to London, I am certain I might be able to “

Before even realizing that her patience has slipped out from under her, like ice from under her feet, she is up, she is standing, she is gripping her son by the arm, she is shaking it, she is saying to him, “This whole scheme is nothing but foolishness. I have no idea what put this notion into your father’s head. When have you ever shown the slightest interest in his business? When have you proved yourself worthy of this kind of responsibility? London, indeed!

The plan had been instigated by Agnes’ faithful brother. There is some outstanding obligation between the families which allows him to influence the father, to allow for Will’s departure. It is the extraction of a chit which he plays on behalf of his sister.

What if William Shakespeare, thought to be the greatest dramatist in the English language, had not made it to London? What if his life had been denied matrimony and fatherhood? What if one of the players in the economic distribution of inheritance and obligations to marriage and family had set an imbalance in the transactions?

What Maggie O’Farrell accomplishes is a flushing out of the possible infrastructures which may have contributed to a brilliant man reaching a pinnacle of performance.

What rent control won’t do

This fall both the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul will have questions around rent control on their ballots. The latter’s proposal is the most straightforward. It asks voters for the right to cap annual rent increases at 3% with no exceptions (an exception might be to increase rent at a higher rate after a major renovation to the property, for example). This, I’m told, would be the most restrictive rent control measure in the country.

Minneapolis’ proposal beats around the bush a little bit as the ballot question simply asks to allow the Minneapolis City Council to investigate rent control stabilization. Many people feel that should this request pass, then the city council would simply move forward on any initiatives they felt appropriate without further input from constituents. (There’s that Minnesotan passive aggressiveness again.)

The movement seems to find momentum from the social justice warriors. We’re going to protect the citizens from the capitalists!

There’s no interest in considering price signals as a way of communicating resource allocation, or a neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses. And maybe more importantly the relative power of the public goods in each little nook of the city. Clearly there’s no interest in comparing prices and using those relative differences to match prospective renters to the areas which would offer the greatest capacity at meeting their short comings.

The only issue at stake here is whether the stabilization controls rent increases. Because this is thought to be economically beneficial to the renter.

Capping rents however does not make a landlord keep a property in good repair; it does not prohibit them from collecting rent and not pay their mortgage. Rent stabilization does not make a landlord vigilant about the heating and cooling system, nor replacing aging appliances. It doesn’t stop them from hedging on the required time notice for entering the unit, nor being adept at keeping the noise down in the building.

Capping rents does not make the bad landlords more responsive in any way.

But most importantly, rent stabilization does not transfer any wealth to renters in times of steep real estate appreciation. When prices are climbing as they have in recent years, it does not alleviate the feeling that some folks are being left behind.

Helping transition renters to owners, showing them the ropes on caring for and managing their own home, does put them in a position of gaining wealth. And that’s the goal good-willed people should be setting their sites on. Not arbitrary price fixing.

A supply chain for progress

Why do men like metal and women like fabric? I’m not sure. So when I had children I tried be a gender neutral toy provider. Despite my efforts, my son liked anything with wheels and my daughter clung to her blankies and dolls.

In the last few years I’ve had two experiences where access to a machine was a game changer. Advice from a trusted advisor to purchase a Lenovo Yoga opened up a whole new level of work and writing. The mobility of internet ala hotspot made any park bench my office. It changed the timing of how I interacted with clients. I became more efficient as there was less remembering and follow up.

The impact was multifold and multilayered.

Why hadn’t I done it sooner– or why don’t women in general do more machinery? When I was young I remember an incident when we were stuck in some foreign outback. The details are foggy, but there was the necessity to clear the road of scree. I had gloves and was digging in when a male adult asked for them. He could do it better! He wanted my tool and assumed he’d secure them. (He didn’t.)

Perhaps it is a silly story. But weren’t women’s sports disregarded for years as boring? Aren’t the beginners at anything shrugged offed as irrelevant and uninteresting?

Machines also need maintenance. There maybe tricks to getting it started, like the lawn mower in the spring with old gas in its tank. If you have a friend to call, the fix can be easy; a couple pushes to the primer. If you don’t, you may give up on the machine and decide it’s easier use the old push blade mower that spins and slices a choppy lawn.

Two buddies who enjoy each other’s company can trade off helping each other with their projects while learning new tricks. A solo attempt can lead to discouragement, and abandonment of the machine that seems too much trouble. The ongoing supply chain of support and knowledge, success and overcoming setbacks is what facilitates progress.

A roto tiller is a great help in the garden. One can create a bed all along a wooded edge by spending an hour watching a gas powered blade turn the dark brown clumps into finely grained soil. But one needs a truck to fetch the instrument from the hardware store, and perhaps some muscle to load and unload it.

The point is, that it is about more than just the machine. It is a process. To an inexperienced farmer a tractor is of limited use. As soon as it requires maintenance, parts or a good kick to the tires, it becomes a burden instead of a boon. There isn’t a product result that will solve a systems problem.

Finding a way to quantify the meaning of different pieces of the supply chain is a way to see the gaps, discover better matches between groups with capacity and groups with potential.

Food deserts, and other not so silly sayings

The term food deserts is about as silly as affordable housing; both try to capture the notion of a thing instead of the understanding of a system.

A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food, in contrast with an area with higher access to supermarkets or vegetable shops with fresh foods, which is called a food oasis.

The idea goes something like this. People who live in high poverty areas, which often- if not always- are high crime areas, have fewer choices in grocery shopping. Hence it is the obstacle of getting to a supermarket which causes a poor diet and resulting health problems such as obesity. The policy solution thus is to bring a product, fresh fruits and vegetables, to the neighborhoods. Problem solved!

In time of yore, or my grandmother’s generation, farm families across rural Minnesota spent the winter without access to fresh food. It isn’t until June that early lettuce comes in and can be eaten from the garden. Most vegetables are harvested July through early September. Of course strawberries are plentiful in late June, but the apple tree branches don’t bend with fruit until fall.

Tomatoes are still canned (the process of storing produce in a jar with an airtight lid for use through the winter) by many today who enjoy the fruits from their gardens for things like salsa and pasta sauce. And cabbage is converted in some mysterious process to sour kraut. The Red Wing Stoneware Company produced crock pots of various sizes for winter storage in cool cellars.

The point is that many people across the world find ways to store the makings of a balanced diet for consumption through out the year. Eating from a healthy menu depends on a process of accumulating, storing, preparing and eating. Home economics, as it was taught in school a half a century ago, was designed to address this topic.

One of the classroom experiences was to make simple meals like a hamburger goulash. A pound of ground beef, elbow macaroni noodles, a can of tomato soup are its readily available ingredients which are easy to store. You can even purchase such items at many convenience stores.

Now, it seems, we don’t want to teach lifelong skills. Problems are deemed to be the lack of a product, a purchase, a consumable good. And if the government simply puts that good in the hands of the poor, then all will be solved. Or not.

How does that verse go?  “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Mathew 4:19.

Architect/Builder in Kenya says:

Here are some comments from an architect/builder, Sacrinos. (@dnahinga), in Kenya regarding the obstacles to building housing for the average Kenyan. Interesting throughout, especially the land use comments:

The pricing model in Kenya's Construction Sector/Real Estate is Colonial and Punitive.

It is akin to trophy pricing. All clients become as pricey as elephant tusks.

Let us reason together.

Short Thread 1/n.

After the Colonists grabbed Land and the Means, they quickly put up roadblocks to Home Ownership.

One being approvals for Self Expression

A house is the most express image of the Builder. Thus his native language

It was no longer possible to just build

2. Now if you have lost acres of communal and individual land, it is virtually impossible to Express your wealth as a fraction of the same Assets you lost.

You do not have the wherewithal.

So, it is a scorched earth where everyone must rebuild their wealth from scratch.

3. As the First Gatekeepers would have it, it's professional #misconduct to charge unprescribed fees.

A board has all powers to make laws, "for the scale of fees to be charged by architects and quantity surveyors for advice, services, and work done."
AQS Cap 525 (f)

Walk with me.

This is the formal housing cost structure in Kenyas #RealEstate.

So, the Colonists became the Levites in the sector. Basically taking a tithe from everyone that wishes to Build or be Adviced to Build.

What is the market effect? Facebook and Quacks* step in.

These powers need to be returned to the Free Market Mechanism.

This does not in any way encourage anti-competition but allows for competence, supply and demand to calibrate the lowest and highest prices people are willing to pay.

Intellectual Assets do not need Price Fixing.

Price Fixing of Intellectual Assets makes the Consultants unable to offer their services to the people below a Certain Wealth Threshold.

It also ensures and guarantees a thriving Black Market for Unprofessional Services.

It stifles growth in the Sector. We need to ReThink it

The current Top Down Board Sanctioned Pricing Model assumes all people who want to build have all the money.

All the Consultant has to do is to check a schedule and prescribe a % Fee.

It treats housing as a Noun and not a Verb.

Unfortunately, the next generation of Home Owners are:

1. Struggling with Savings.
2. Have practically little to no Assets to extract a %.
3. Can successfully build incrementally.
4. All the insider knowledge is NOT with the Gatekeepers. How will you stop people from building?

Reality Check.

Colonial Natives are now Digital Natives.

We innovate or die.

It is time to let the market mechanism allow for creation of an efficient, profitable way to serve the less affluent so we can stop looking forward to building towers only.

Set Architecture Free!

Dear Architect, Engineer, QS et al.,

Q. Have you lost clients because you tried to charge prescribed fees?

Dear Client. Have you lost a Professional because the prescribed fees was Impossible?

Let us see.🙏🏿🏡🏘🔨

If the 1933 Pricing Model was followed, Real Estate consultants would be controlling between 5% to 10% of all value created from their Consultancy Work.

Hypothetically, every 11nth Client would make the Consultant wealthier than any of the previous 10.

Project Value being K.

Originally tweeted by Sacrinos. (@dnahinga) on August 19, 2021.

Paul Erdos~ couch surfing problem solver

Paul Erdos was of my grandmother’s generation, born in the same year, 1913, yet half a world away in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His genius revealed itself early on. “By the time he was 20, he had found a proof for Chebyshev’s theorem.[14] In 1934, at the age of 21, he was awarded a doctorate in mathematics.”

Erdős published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed.[6] He firmly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians. Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erd%C5%91s

Paul Erdos committed his life almost exclusively to the mathematics community. For his own reasons he chose not to have a family of his own. Although allowed to travel at will to his country of birth, he chose not to settle there, (until his death as he buried next to his parents “in grave 17A-6-29 at Kozma Street Cemetery in Budapest.”)

… Paul Erdős, became perhaps the most notorious mathematician of the 20th century. Erdős spent nearly his entire life crashing on other mathematicians’ couches and subsisting on the small sums he received for giving talks at universities around the world. He also had a fondness for devising math problems and offering bounties to anyone who could solve them.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/cash-for-math-the-erdos-prizes-live-on-20170605/

So dedicated to his pursuit of mathematics, he used cash prizes to lure others into joining him in its unraveling. By providing a private incentive he wished to enrich the public he enjoyed so much. His prizes still survive today.

Erdős continued that tradition. Over the course of his lifetime he offered rewards for hundreds of problems that he himself dreamed up. Amounts ranged from $25 into the thousands, depending on how challenging he thought the problem was. Today Graham controls a small fund left by Erdős, who died in 1996, for the purpose of making good on those bounties.

In 1974 Erdős paid off his first major sum: $1,000 to the Hungarian mathematician Endre Szemerédi for a problem Erdős had posed some years earlier. Szemerédi tackled the problem because “he said he could certainly use the money,” said Graham. Decades later Szemerédi would win the Abel Prize, commonly regarded as the Nobel of mathematics, for work that stemmed primarily from his solution to this Erdős problem.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/cash-for-math-the-erdos-prizes-live-on-20170605/

For most people, their primary or first degree community is their immediate family; those housed under the same roof. This mathematician cared not for real estate. His community thrived on the images of abstract notions brought down to earth in formulaic representation, sketched out on paper.

Stories with Family Trees

A millennial in our family is a natural story teller. He captures the room, and doesn’t disappoint. The yarn maybe local or from abroad, it may include self-ridicule and human foibles, but it will always tease out laughter from the crowd. There are the words of course, but the delivery is timed, the pauses on point, the gestures and facial animation delightful.

He’s not one of those center-of-attention people either. The ones who propel themselves forward on a wave of egocentricity. So I was a little surprised when he started ribbing his dad over his style of narration. “It’s just that you and R always dive deep into the whole relations thing. This person was related to that, then they were divorced, and those two are second cousins to this that and WHATEVER.”

“Get to the story,” the middle aged man lamented. What’s the purpose of all these relations?

His father and uncle would mull, hesitate and then correct themselves as they identified each individual, who happened into their story, by clan. And quite often there was an off-shooting telling of why they lived on this farm and no longer lived on that one, or who they were married to way back when.

This wasn’t Christmas after all, so why replicate Matthew, Chapter 1?

For people like his uncle, who had lived his entire life in a community, knowing the relations is part of the story. It fills in an understanding that otherwise leaves questions unanswered. It tallies up and equals out exchanges that only make sense against a backdrop of community history.

The urban youth has no sense of such lingering ties, except perhaps in his own immediate family. But to live in a small town is to carry a ledger of chits and repayments.

Cherishing free speech

As a young adult I couldn’t figure out why my other liberal arts college friends rejected Wal-Mart for the more upscale Target for their basic shopping needs. Prices were better at the first (at least back then) and after living abroad where open air markets and shops with expired grocery items were common, lights, electricity and working refrigeration seemed luxury enough.

I was standing in line for the cash register one evening, after a long day at work, when it became clear. A few customers back in line, a mom taunted her toddler’s bad behavior with something intended to be discipline. Predictably, a wail spewed forth from the chunky cherub who was probably as tired as the rest of us. (It isn’t necessarily the big red carts which roll noiselessly over polished floors that make the bullseye more pleasant.)

Or, most of us have been at a social gathering where a couple simply can not contain the anguish currently residing between them. One throws an upper cut in the form of a small quip. The other gives an eye roll or swallows a guffaw. Their negative energy swills around the party on commentary and off the cuff remarks.

When I was at college we never framed each other up by political orientation. Well– almost never. There were a few jokes at the expense of the president of the Young Republicans (very ardent!). And the sandal wearing, longhaired hippy whose clothes billowed out marijuana odors might have been the butt of a joke or two. But nothing remotely similar to the angst experience on campus prior to Covid.

A mom is free to reprimand her child in public, but I’m not sure it is as productive as waiting until they get back to a quiet one-on-one setting. A couple is free to duke it out at a social gathering, but will find themselves alone with their problems once at home. Students can sign petitions, and march and jeer at the opposing parties. And here, I am sure they are ruining part of the experience that is called college.

All the hoopla around advocating for one’s political opinions has not proven to be all that productive either. If the taking of a knee, the shouting through a bull horn, the waiving of a flag is not advancing the cause, then it’s only being profitable to the petitioner. It’s really a privatization of a public concern.

Freedom of speech is precious and should be cherished. An audience can be receptive to the grifters who use it provocatively, or we can gently suggest a more appropriate place for personal conversations.

Are homes infrastructure?

WASHINGTON (July 15, 2021) – A top official from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development joined policy experts from the National Association of Realtors® on Thursday to discuss solutions for the nation’s historic housing supply shortage. The virtual policy forum went in depth on research commissioned by NAR and authored by the Rosen Consulting Group, which found that the U.S. is in the midst of an “underbuilding gap” of around 6 million housing units dating back to 2001. The report, Housing is Critical Infrastructure, has taken center stage in national conversations on housing policy, particularly after President Joe Biden last week reiterated his administration’s focus on housing as part of its broader infrastructure push.

https://www.nar.realtor/newsroom/once-in-a-generation-housing-inventory-crisis-in-focus-at-realtor-policy-forum

There is definitely a shortage of homes. Are they infrastructure? By definition infrastructure is a good which is shared by many– and for this reason it is inclined to be a public good. Bridges could all be fee based private goods with a toll booth taking up collection at either end. But they are provided in an open public manner because their nature lends itself to public consumption.

Homes lend themselves to private consumption. Every effort toward public housing has failed. Which leads us to pursue homes in a private goods market. The role of the public is to assist those who find themselves in need, by supplementing their ability to obtain housing in the neighborhoods which provide the greatest access to amenities which match their needs. Hopefully, with the long term goal of self sufficiency.

As far as the public’s role in fanning the coals on housing production, that is done by rolling back restrictions and costs involved in the home building process. The mumbled language of infrastructure and rehabbing unit dances around the two actions which would improve the lives of those without adequate shelter.

Hedonic approach vs user frequency, which is better?

The paper, Recreational and Resource Economic Values for the Peconic Estuary System, by James J. Opalueh, Thomas Grigalunas, Jerry Diamantides, Marisa Mazzotta, and Robert Johnston was written in 1999 as a study of the value of the Peconic Estuary system on the eastern end of Long Island. They used four methods to estimate value, but let’s compare just the first two: the hedonic pricing method using home values as the dependent variable, and a travel cost study. Here’s their introduction:

I.B. 1. Introduction and Overview


No single method can capture the value of the variety of services provided by the natural assets of the PES. Recognizing the many uses of PES natural resources, we designed and implemented a suite of four non-market valuation studies in order to provide estimates of the value of particular services:


(1) A Property Value study examines the contribution of environmental amenities to the market price of property. Using the Town of Southold as a case study, the Property Value study was designed to measure values of amenities to residents living in the immediate vicinity.


(2) A Travel Cost study uses original survey results to estimate outdoor recreational uses in the PES and the economic value that users have for four, key PES outdoor recreation activities: swimming, boating, fishing, and bird and wildlife viewing. This study also examines the impact that (A) water quality has on the number of trips and the value of swimming and (B) the effect of the catch rate on recreational fishing, important recreational uses of the estuary and activities much affected by water quality and resource abundance.

page 11.

Now this report looks at a fairly significant natural amenity, but isn’t the idea that residents place value on any public open space going to be subject to the same analysis? Whether a park with playground equipment, a lake with a swimming beach or a ravine with hiking trails; all these open spaces are valued both by homeowners who live in close proximity as well as others who come just for a visit.

The first approach the authors use to estimate a value of the public amenity is to calculate the portion of the home sale prices which can be attributed to the proximity of the natural resource. The idea behind the process is, if you could have exactly the same home, how would the value of the home change as it moved away (or toward) the public amenity.

We apply economic methods using the property value (or “hedonic” method) to a database comprised of all Southold real estate transactions in 1996 and GIS parcel coverage data for the town. Briefly, the analysis estimates correlations between property values and levels of valued environmental attributes, including open space.

page 27

Here is a further explanation on how the regression model works:

The Property Value technique is based on the assumption that a relationship exists between the market value of a property, and the characteristics of the property. The Property Value method uses a statistical technique called “multiple regression” to assess the impact of each characteristic on the market value of the property. The technique simultaneously compares a large number of properties with different prices and different levels of each characteristic. The method establishes which characteristics are associated with higher values, which are associated with lower values, and which have no significant impact on values. The model also estimates the dollar magnitude of these impacts–that is, it estimates how large an impact is likely to be caused by a specific level of a specific characteristic. Using this technique, the impact of different environmental amenities on nearby property values can be estimated.4 The technical details of the property value model (or hedonic technique) are presented in Appendix A.

page 16

Please read further through their paper for the statistical details, but what I would like to focus on is the equity, or capital, which is captured in each home due to its association with a public amenity. Buyers and sellers in a well functioning marketplace are bidding on the homes and thus determining what the market will bare for this infrastructure (not sure why it is considered a non-market approach). There is a premium in the offer price for greater access, hence they are pricing out the desirability of the public good.

In addition to what the authors derive as dollar figures for the market value retained by residential properties, they also note that there is value to people who use the estuary from a distance. This value is derived by a second process in step two. It is done by estimating number of visits, or trips made to use the open space. In a sense it is a user fee estimation.

I think they go awry by shifting from a capital perspective to a user perspective. We pay our water bills on a user based system but that does not represent the value of having the pipes in place to pump fresh water to all residents. And certainly metro user fees do not equate with the cost of installing mass transit. Analyzing visits more appropriately syncs with management issues such as how many lifeguards to have on duty, how often the trash bins need to be emptied and so on.

I offer a platter perspective for the inclusion of the value to the greater public who use the estuary. The residents adjacent to the estuary, who enjoy a view over an open space and a walking trail out their back yard, enjoy one level of access. The group of people who live in the local town have another relationship. And people who visit from across the county may derive yet another coefficient in front of the data which represents access to natural amenities within their reach.

At each level exists in an eco system- or platter– and a data set representative of the value of these public goods.

Home buying and hedonic regressions

Here’s a fun game you can play if you are presently in the market for a home. One could consider a variety of home characteristics, but if you are in the market for a school district, the pricing lines should be very crisp. And you must be in the market for your own family. Speculating on what others will do just isn’t the same.

If you are not familiar with hedonic regressions, it is a mathematical process where given a set of data, which is subjected to an equation built with defining characteristics, the numbers reveal the various levels of importance of each feature. If we are looking at housing prices, the coefficient in front of the school district data will tell how much of the home price was dedicated to that selection.

But you don’t have to be a math geek with access to a bunch of data to come up with a result! I’d say any buyer who is seriously evaluating this choice can shoot from the hip (after looking, bidding and seeing the values the properties commanded at close). Ideally you want to be considering two school districts which both contain similar homes to choose from within their school boundaries– say a 90’s built two story with four bedrooms up and a nice yard for the kids.

Even non-number types of buyers will be able to discern the differences when their money is in play, or their abilities to access other ideal features. School districts can swing a home value price as much as 15%, so on a home of $450K, a $67K difference. That’s noticeable. And consistent opinions about districts, which affect a great number of buyers, filter out in the numbers.

Buyers do not need regression models to calculate the price of other features. The distance to job centers, for instance, or the premium for a prestigious neighborhood. People will pay to be closer to work in order to spend less time in the car. They will also pay for neighborhoods with corner restaurants, quaint historical business crossroads and neighbors with recognizable names. The numbers here are large enough so that no pointy pencil needs to scratch out a calculation.

But there are hundreds of neighborhood features which are priced out in the offer on a home. And many of these could be better understood with the help of a little math.

Carbon Credits for Me, more work for Thee

The title Minnesota Farmers: Cashing in on the carbon bank, fighting climate change? says a lot about the direction this article takes. Farmers in the Mankato area are taking advantage of a new Biden initiative towards climate change.

President Joe Biden said he wants American farmers to be the first in the world with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. How they might achieve that goal is still unclear — but one idea getting a lot of attention involves paying farmers to store carbon in the soil.

It’s called carbon banking, and some see it as one way to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While the concept has been around for decades, it’s still finding a foothold in ag-heavy states like Minnesota.

The mechanics of this deal goes something like this. When farmers extend the extra effort to bury carbon in the soil, they get paid for their work from corporations. In exchange for the dollars given to the farmers, the corporation receives a credit which allows them to pollute. Net result: the farmers don’t pollute but the corporations do.

Lilliston agrees that the work and money farmers like A.J. Krusemark invest to store carbon will have long-term benefits for the environment. But he argues that all that work won’t do much to help mitigate climate change if big companies are then allowed to buy those carbon credits to offset their own pollution.

This arrangement probably won’t last for long as the farmers are going above and beyond their compensated efforts, while the corporate credit purchasers are not. One group is working toward a mission, one is buying their way out of the mission. The incentive signals are all wrong. Furthermore, the groups are poorly delineated. We all have an interest in global climate change, but voluntary cooperative efforts seem to work better when the players are closer and can see progress.

Skeptics of carbon banking practices say that, in order for it to have real climate impact, the carbon storage must come in tandem with reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — not as a replacement for that pollution.

Avian Objections

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

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

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

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

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

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

And anger–eventually.

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

Can houses be made anew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platters III

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

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

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

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

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

Sparks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incentives for vaccines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skin in the game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose on title- does locality matter?

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

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

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

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

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

But I’d be curious to know.

Arguments for cooperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

All that make markets go around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mothers, do they Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who pays for lot remediation?

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

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

So who usually pays for remediation? It depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do Math, you do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed the troops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply-side shelter

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

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

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

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

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

Revolt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Suess Addendum

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

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

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

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

First Laura now Seuss

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

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

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

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

More on Millenials

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

The top 5 metros ranked by millennial homebuying popularity 

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

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

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

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

Suburban sprawl in the time of Jesus of Nazareth

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

The Apostle by Sholem Asch

Try something new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers, pictures, and what they tell you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesthetics and Solar Roofs

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

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

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

NorthStar MLS

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

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

credit: Patentscope

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

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

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

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

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

Below surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Moving

It’s old news that folks having been abandoning New York and San Francisco. Not surprisingly many of these coastal creatures are staying in the east or the west.

LEAVING NEW YORK CITY

Top destination cities for U-Haul customers leaving New York City during the pandemic include Bridgeport, Poughkeepsie and New Haven. Outside the Northeast, the top destination is Chicago in the Midwest and Atlanta in the South.

The top 10 states DIY movers from New York City are migrating to are: New York (outside NYC); New Jersey; Pennsylvania; Connecticut; Massachusetts; Virginia; Maryland; Florida; Rhode Island; and North Carolina.

LEAVING THE BAY AREA

Top destination cities for U-Haul customers leaving the Bay Area during the pandemic include the Sacramento/Roseville corridor, San Diego and Stockton. Outside of California, the top destinations are Reno, Las Vegas, Portland, Phoenix and Seattle.

The top 10 states DIY movers from the Bay Area customers are migrating to are: California (outside the Bay Area); Nevada; Arizona; Oregon; Washington; Colorado; Texas; Utah; Idaho; and New Mexico.

What’s nice to see is the middle of the country states filling out many of the spots in the top 20. A bunch have also moved up significantly in their standings.

4.Ohio (7)
7.Missouri (13)
11.Arkansas (23)
12.Indiana (9)
13.Wisconsin (41)
14.Oklahoma (14)
18.Kentucky (37)
20.Minnesota (15)
https://www.uhaul.com/Articles/About/22746/2020-Migration-Trends-U-Haul-Ranks-50-States-By-Migration-Growth/

Back to tenements for the poor?

While the government will need to employ short-term measures to avoid a wave of displaced households, one major step toward resolving the underlying problems in the housing market would be repealing an obscure 22-year-old addition to the Housing Act of 1937, the Faircloth Amendment. Passed in an era when the reputation of housing projects was at a low, the amendment prohibits any net increase in public-housing units.

Opinion | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Knows How to Fix Housing – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Ugh. When politicians are too young to remember the mistakes of the past.

Can we see some numbers, please?

Say an individual, Bob, is concerned about a public good, like the environment. He decides to make a new year’s resolution to do something about it. Over a two to three year period, he activates others in his industry to legislate a testing requirement that costs the consumers, say, $200 on average per transaction. Note that this organizing and petitioning and writing communications and attending meetings was all done outside of the pay-check sphere of life.

One of the objectors to the added commission-for-the-public-good points out that, other than providing information, the testing will not give rise to any tangible reductions in green house emissions. Bob and his cohorts respond that doing something is better than doing nothing. Is he right?

Now let’s say that instead of doing the testing one could give the $200 to the client to not use their personal vehicle for a month, or to not take an airplane trip. In both scenarios there would be a measurable and immediate impact on green house emissions. Given these choices, it’s fair to say that there are other ways to spend $200 which would result in a greater impact on the goal to reduce global warming.

Numbers must be run so the public has a means of comparison. While everyone is working on (lobbying for, debating in favor of) one idea, other more valuable ideas are neglected, omitted from the realm of public consideration. Even though no one received payment for their time, the capacity of a community to engage and respond was tapped. So despite Bob’s sincere interest in climate change, doing nothing is, in fact, better than advocating for an unsubstantiated claim.

Now let’s say Bob was particularly talented at organizing and galvanizing folks around a cause. And due to this success he continued to seek approval and status through this type of work. The impetus for action transforms to status seeking, increasing Bob’s private persona, versus the stated tangible impact to any group concern. Now, in an error of commission, a form of corruption, starts to germinate.

The answer is not to stop the Bobs of the world. Hardly. The intent of this blog is to encourage the meaningful enumeration of choices; to clarify the resources used as inputs and record the increases in public capacity and capital; the intent is to provide the information necessary to steer Bob’s ambitions to the most productive choices.

Probability title deed

In South Africa a start-up called Bitprop is helping with affordable housing by building and securing tenants for backyard rental units (in return for a percentage of the income stream from the rentals for a set number of years).

Our duties include locating investors, drawing up professional building plans, sourcing reliable local builders, and enforcing good environmental practices. Furthermore, we work with the homeowner to develop landlord, financial and entrepreneurial skills. 

How micro property development could transform townships in a big way | OUR FUTURE CITIES

It is estimated that 30 million people in South Africa do not have formal property titles to their homes. So a significant outcome of the process is securing a recordable claim to the property for the owner.

Bitprop works to “Enable micro property development at a macro scale”. We want to prove that previously ‘invisible’ property assets, which are not recognised by normative legal or financial institutions, can be developed into valuable investment opportunities. We do this by taking each homeowner that we work with through the process of securing their title deed.

How micro property development could transform townships in a big way | OUR FUTURE CITIES

The focus is on generating income from the renters. But property ownership does more for homeowners including incentivizing repairs and improvements. Perhaps, more importantly, the titling process enables people to buy and sell their property more freely should their circumstances warrant a change. If Bitprop is as successful as they wish to be, they will create a valuable public good.

Our dream is that we do this so well—because we have the commercial incentives to do it well because if we do, the risk in our property investment goes down—that we, on a voluntary, private basis, start mapping land, step by step, and then we get the council to acknowledge this as a low-cost, digital- and- technology-based title deed.

20 Minutes With: Carl Sammeli, C0-Founder of Bitprop | Barron’s

This is a story to follow.

2020 is a Wrap!

This afternoon, as a lingering glow alights the World Trade Center and the lights go on at the Empire State Building, as the glimmers extinguish off the Hudson River, and the sun’s rays slide down New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, across the prairies, and silhouette the mountains of the West until finally slipping off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, as the rays sink past Hawaii and into the Pacific, we say goodbye to 2020 with a wave. And a wish that we could give it a good kick in the petuti.

But this year allowed me to start this blog and I am very thankful for that. Readers have shown up in the hundreds, well over my expectations. I have relished every like and comment. Thanks so much for visiting.

The most popular article hands down was Is it so simple? A response to Nathaniel Rachman’s article in Persuasion allowed me to unabashedly promote the view that drives me to write this blog. These last three months have been devoted to laying some ground rules to how things work. There’s really no point to continue, if folks don’t see the definitions clearly of the economic nature of public and private transactions.

Since this is an economic philosophy I need to get around to tying it to material values, and I will get to such an accounting in due course. I could bring in the numbers, and show how they are assigned to forms of capital. But should people not accept the actors and the types of activity they do, all will be explained away, talked over. There will be references to cloaking and embedding and behavior.

For people to see the hard cash, they will have to see that private individuals employ time and resources to public endeavors everyday throughout; that governments are riddled with private transactions everyday throughout; that businesses develop goodwill on their balance sheets and accommodate labor demands everyday throughout; that associations are motivated by private ambitions while supporting the group’s goals everyday throughout. Until there is an acknowledgment of this type of dual structure–there is no point to assigning slices of material wealth to each and every activity.

Economics is not just represented with dollars. There are two natures to transactions. The value does show up in capital and dollars, most obviously when being externalized or internalize. Although-that moment is but a snapshot in time, a frozen price point, that could be simultaneously the result of the in-hand trade as well as the tapped capacity accumulated over generations. Hence the necessity to understand time.

For a generation, those who control the public purse have developed a party line, with nationwide control of talking points. They’ve developed an activist type of one issue dominance, with the devastating inability to see subtle trade-offs. They’ve basically obliterated the concept of varying degrees of importance. Covid has made this glaringly obvious.

So happily ring in the New Year! And ring out the old ways, while keeping an open mind to the new.

Primer Podcast for Affordable Housing

Lots of great topics covered in this Econ Talk podcast with Katherine Levine Einstein. Russ Roberts and the assistant professor of Political Science at Boston University tackle the obstacles developers face in building higher density homes, as well as affordable housing units.

Katherine explains that the title of her new book, Neighborhood Defenders, comes from the notion that people who show up at city council meetings feel they are speaking on behalf of their neighborhood; they view themselves as representatives of that public.

So, first on the motivation side, the term NIMBY implies sort of a selfish motivation. It implies, Not In My Backyard, a very individually motivated view. And, in our research, we actually find that the folks who show up to oppose the construction of new housing often view themselves as representing their community’s interests and are motivated by protecting their neighborhood, their surroundings. Right? So, their motivations are not so individualistic.

The conversation flushes out the reality that people who have time to devote to the work of public affairs do not necessarily reflect the width and breath of the constituency. In fact there are noticeable groups missing from these planning and approval meetings. As Russ says:

So, talk about that tension between the idea behind saying ‘a public hearing.’ Wouldn’t you want a public–I mean: Let the public be heard. And yet it’s not really the public.

Groups are further delineated in the failure of the California legislature to approve SB 50 which would have streamlined the approval process for developers. It seems that the environmental folks found common ground with NIMBY’s.

So, one set of interests, which doesn’t surprise anyone, would be opposed to something like this is communities like Beverly Hills. Like, very privileged places with lots of white homeowners who are strongly opposed to the construction of new housing. So, those folks were like, ‘No, we do not want to have fourplexes all over the place here.’ So, they were a natural oppositional constituency.

But, other groups also came out in opposition. So, Sierra Club and a few other environmental groups were strongly opposed because they thought this would lead to the degredation of sort of existing green spaces.

And, that I think, and this is the oppositional group that was to me most interesting, is sort of left-leaning tenants’ rights organizations and some of the socialists organizations in California that are quite powerful, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Those groups worried that this up-zoning would actually lead to gentrification. If we think about areas in Los Angeles that are near transit stops, that many of those are less -privileged areas with larger Latin X or black populations. And, that those were places that might face development pressures, and, you know, the construction of new luxury housing, should zoning codes be relaxed.

And, so those really diverse constituencies all came together. Both times they killed SB-27 and they essentially killed SB-50 as well.

As they pull apart the thorny issues around community support for affordable housing, they not only talk groups, interests and work, but also how the public’s impact on timeframes have economic consequences.

Usually it would take like three to six months, I assume, to build a grocery store–I don’t know, maybe. But, for some reason it takes forever. And, of course the answer is, ‘They didn’t get the permit yet. They’re working on it.’ But, talk about–these things, some of them are ten years. And, after the 10 years, they get a building of four units down to three. But these are often 90 units of affordable housing were planned and they end up with, like, 40, ten years later.

In addition to these public sphere definitions and mechanics, they talk externalities and corruption. Well worth a listen!

Doing Laundry–Real Estate Edition

The November 2020 tally of Realtor members of the National Association of Realtors totaled 1,460,397, making it the largest trade association in the U.S. There are just shy of 21,500 Realtors in Minnesota alone. The group is nonpartisan with a stated “mission … to empower REALTORS® as they preserve, protect and advance the right to real property for all.”

Maintaining property rights, so that their clients can buy and sell homes and investments, is an unwavering shared value amongst this group. Not only because it facilitates their clients’ and in turn their own private interests, but also because stagnant unproductive real estate becomes a drain on public interests in the form of crime, blight, and inefficient use of public infrastructure.

The good and the bad of it is that once you build an open and reliable system, everyone wants to use it–including the criminals.

Globally, real estate is one of the “laundromats” of choice for criminals seeking to legitimize their ill-gotten funds. Using shell companies and other shady venues, they annually funnel more than $1.6 trillion into real estate investments around the world. Despite federal efforts to crack down on the illegal transactions in the United States, money launderers continue paying top-dollar for purchases, driving up real estate prices in many cities. 

NAR and other housing groups are urging Congress to stem the tide of dirty money by passing effective anti-money-laundering legislation. The organization is also launching an education campaign to help Realtors® identify the risks to their businesses and use best practices to protect themselves against liability.

MN Realtor

More dollars chasing real estate means higher prices. Since a pricing system is dynamic and interdependent throughout an entire network, it means higher prices across the market, not just in apartment buildings or the venue of choice for foreign or domestic racketeers. So we could say that money launders are externalizing unaffordability to lower income homeowners, while internalizing the benefits of our property rights institution–including the work done by NAR and its members.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the tranche of the value that illegal activity adds to the price of a home, apartment or investment property? Even if it were only an estimate. Across a metropolitan area this maybe a small amount say half a percent, or around $1500 on the Twin Cities’ median priced home. Barely perceptible with all the other costs and expenses involved in a home.

But if the criminals did their business primarily in one neighborhood, (a neighborhood where people don’t have time to wonder why a property is left vacant, nor know where to file a complaint for snow covered sidewalks) their stake could have an outsized impact. It is in these locations that a large number of REIT’s and creatively named groups tend to appear, especially since the recession of 2009. If a large sell-off of their position swung pricing, say ten percent, it would have a destabilizing effect, especially if that neighborhood was already experiencing a variety of negative externalities.

Note the groups. There is the overall housing group of buyers and sellers (personal or investors) who are buying real estate to be used as places to live. The pricing system is a reflection of the value property commands as places of residence. The criminals are not participating in that market. They bring money into the market because it is reliable environment to launder their funds. While the criminals internalize this as profits, first time buyers in the large group can no longer afford to buy a home.

The presence of washermen (and women) in the marketplace also necessitates an increase in the stream of funding used to subsidize those of the larger group who are unable to provide for their own housing. It would be useful to know some of these numbers. Knowing the financial drain of the money launderers on our real estate market tells us how much the Justice Department can spend to pursue and capture these ne’re-do-wells. This is the housing justice we need to see happen.

Gentrification-a swear

Not by dictionary.com’s definition: [ˌjentrəfəˈkāSH(ə)n] NOUN the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.

That doesn’t sound too controversial. People go in and clean up an area, make it more livable. There must be more to it to explain how the word gets heated up and shot out like a bullet. This popped up on the CDC site under Health Effects of Gentrification:

Definition:

Gentrification is often defined as the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Displacement happens when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes.

Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.

I’m truly not sure how the Center for Disease Control underwrote a housing topic. Gentrification= Disease? (to be fair, they do start the page with this disclosure: “This website is archived for historical purposes and is no longer being maintained or updated.”) However this definition does a great job of setting up the issues which incite a passionate response. And setting up the issues is all this first post will do for this complex scenario.

Straight off, in the first line, is the accurate observation that the process of replacing roofs, tightening wobblily rails and putting in new windows increases property values in a neighborhood. This should not be controversial–ideally owners at all levels of housing can keep up on maintenance (and if you own a home you know that this is a dependable demand). The controversy arises when the change in the value of property, and hence rents, makes it unaffordable to the current residents.

Be sure to understand that this is about value, and who ends up with it. The motivation to build equity drives, in part, the purchase and renovations of a home. A home to do with as you choose and to make your own. Property owners increase their net worth when more buyers want to move in. So gentrification is a good thing, not bad for those whose names are on the deeds.

The passionate objection to gentrification lies in the garbled mess of the second paragraph. Let’s try to pull it apart–but first understand the scenario. An investor, or a homeowner, has to receive some compensating factors to dive in and do the work to repair a home which is begging for all the big ticket items: new heating systems, siding, windows, roof. And that’s before you even get to all the interior stuff like new kitchens, bath, maybe even rewiring the old knob and tube wiring which is known to cause house fires. The compensation is a higher valued home.

To turn a whole neighborhood, where the majority of houses find themselves in a similar state of deferred maintenance, would take a while. We’re not just talking one spring sales season following a year of living with contractors coming and going. Elevating a neighborhood to a new standard is pushing a decade’s worth of work.

Gentrification is described with a sense of immediate turnover, which simply isn’t how it happens.

What is upsetting to people is that a sweeping renovation to an area produces a negative externality for the folks who were benefiting from the low cost of substandard housing. Furthermore, if these renters leave the area, they may leave behind favors accumulated through other social groups with geographic anchors. They take a loss for the chits left on the table for non-fungible work.

At the core of much of the renter’s rights activism you will find this concept of value and who gets it. There is a sense that despite contributing to their neighborhoods of their time and activity, renters fail to earn value. Only property owners do. So the policy is to divert equity from property owners to renters through initiatives like TOPA.

We can do better. But first we have to understand how to calculate value.

TOPA – Links

TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act), a proposal to offer renters the first right of refusal when their landlord wants to sell the property, is back on the front burner at Minneapolis City Hall. Some politicians see giving tenants part of a landlord’s property rights as a way to mitigate the expense of housing. The only perspective where this is at all rational, is from the view that property owners are simply sitting on a sack of gold coins which they refuse to share.

A story which is meant to support the tenant’s first right of refusal as a valid policy is told here: Tenants of Five Minneapolis Buildings Now Own Their Homes. Yet this suite of buildings was owned by a truly poor landlord. And because the guy was a fraud, the tenants acquired the buildings without TOPA. It will be interesting to watch the unfolding of this tale as more than likely these properties are run down and will have expensive repairs in the coming years. I’m expecting buyer’s remorse.

To understand the process and in turn the length of time a property could be tied up before sale, here are TOPA process charts from Washington DC. The financial power behind owning an asset is the ability to sell it and obtain your investment. When that ability is in question, markets do not respond well, hence value is affected. The TOPA process is considerably uncertain.

I attended this TOPA forum at the UMN presented by CURA. The presenters were Dominic T. Moulden is a longtime resource organizer at Organizing Neighborhood Equity and Michael Diamond, Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, teaches corporations, contracts, and a seminar in affordable housing. The non-profit housing community in attendance seemed skeptical.

NBC news covered how TOPA rules tie up the sale while parties arbitraged the TOPA rights to the highest bidder. (video) Although in effect since the 1980’s, it was more or less forgotten until Andrew McGuire Esq started a business ‘getting renters maximum dollar’ for their TOPA rights. He estimates it’s a 100 million a year market.

In San Francisco they call it COPA. And it is not the tenants who make the purchase but a pre-selected non-profit. Also from 2019:

If approved, the COPA would give the first right to purchase (this includes a first right to offer to purchase and a first right of refusal to match an existing offer) vacant lots or residential rental buildings with three or more units to nonprofit housing organizations.  This means that when an owner of a multi-unit building puts it up for sale or has received an offer to purchase, nonprofit housing organizations that are pre-selected by the City would have a chance to bid on the building first or to match an existing offer.

Oakland is considering something similar- January 2020.

The externality of overdoses

Externalities can be difficult to calculate. What is the cost per person to a community exposed to smog, or the damages from water laced with lead in Flint? Often times these figures are settled in court. But management consulting companies can also be in on the game. Take this story about Purdue Pharma as reported in the New York Times.

When Purdue Pharma agreed last month to plead guilty to criminal charges involving OxyContin, the Justice Department noted the role an unidentified consulting company had played in driving sales of the addictive painkiller even as public outrage grew over widespread overdoses.

Documents released last week in a federal bankruptcy court in New York show that the adviser was McKinsey & Company, the world’s most prestigious consulting firm. The 160 pages include emails and slides revealing new details about McKinsey’s advice to the Sackler family, Purdue’s billionaire owners, and the firm’s now notorious plan to “turbocharge” OxyContin sales at a time when opioid abuse had already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Later in the article they tally those deaths up to 450,000 since 1999. Those, of course, are just the fatalities. There are no numbers offered for the hours that went into counseling the addicts before they OD’ed, or all the lost productivity an addict can bear on their support group. Neither of these costs were the costs concerning the McKinsey accountants. The number crunchers were concerned with the amount necessary to buy Purdue Pharma’s distributers, the local pharmacies like CVs or Walgreens, out of the discomfort of grieving mothers.

The presentation estimated how many customers of companies including CVS and Anthem might overdose. It projected that in 2019, for example, 2,484 CVS customers would either have an overdose or develop an opioid use disorder. A rebate of $14,810 per “event” meant that Purdue would pay CVS $36.8 million that year.

I’m not sure how one of the most prestigious consulting company in the world came up with $14,810. I’d truly be curious to know what went into the formula to calculate this externality. What dollar transfers were tracked between the group of heartbroken survivors and their pharmacies following an overdose that added up to $14,810? How did the rebate get summed up and presented to Pharma’s management as a viable expenditure in the form of a rebate?

Maybe the point is that an accounting of this nature is already in play. If a market price was calculated for a social cost buyout in this scenario, most probably it is a frequent calculation. So what is the McKinsey method? Inquiring minds want to know.

The battle for the kids

Parochial schools are doing well, from what I hear, in the battle to attract and maintain a student body. They opened on time in September with increased enrollment, and have stayed open through this Thanksgiving holiday. There will be a break in in-person learning now (like all other schools and universities in the area) until January. My sources report no sizeable outbreaks or health concerns for either the learners or learned.

The 91 Catholic schools in Minnesota compose the 4th largest district in the state. This unexpected swelling in enrollment is a benefit to their bottom line. As they do not receive the per pupil funding which finances the public schools, they are on their own to market within their faith community as well as to those who value smaller class sizes. In some cases, sports families are attracted to an increased probability that their athlete will make the varsity team.

The use of direct mailings to reach families throughout the area seems like a good fit. However, when a large public school district, where attendance is dictated by place of residence, pummels direct mail right over school boundary lines, it feels objectional. Why is that? Both the schools are in the business of delivering education, both require funds to operate. Attracting students is the same as attracting customers–no?

Customers use private funds to purchase a good or service. The parochial schools are offering a service, one that complies with the standards set by the state, but has been customized to the requirements of a specific community. The funding that follows a child to the public school district they attend is not private, it is taken from a pool of funds which is collected under mandate to educate all Minnesota kids.

Plus– it isn’t just the funding allocated per child that is lost when a family sends their offspring out of their district. Since busing is only offered within the school boundaries, it is a given that one parent is available to drive them to and from school—or will once the whole virus thing wraps up. By self-selection these parents often donate their time to school activities, fund raisers, and all those extras efforts that make an educational community stronger.

So when a school district pumps a bunch of dollars into a direct mail piece with messaging along the lines of, ‘Hey, we’re better, come on over,’ they are drawing students as well as high-social-capacity families to their district. Which means they are draining adjacent districts in an equal amount. On net, the dollars spent on this type of private business marketing is not fulfilling the state mandate to educate all students. But rather is congregating the haves and leaving behind the have-less’s.

The parochial schools are working in a private sphere even though they are fulfilling a public obligation. So it is fitting for them to use private strategies. Public schools are working in the public sphere so using private methods sets up externalities.

Real estate in times of Covid

All things considered, it has been an incredibly strong market for residential real estate sales in 2020. The spring started strong but was shut down along with everything else in March when the virus leapt the oceans and appeared in great numbers on the US coasts. Home sales were considered an essential service, but the apprehension of allowing strangers into sellers’ homes for showings slowed down the process.

This data from Northstar MLS shows the dip in April and then the take off of activity starting in June.

Issues that seemed to be on buyers minds when they came through open houses were 1. room for home offices 2. new flexibility in distance to job location 3. downsizing out of larger homes to avoid maintenance concerns. This broad range of interests led to almost all types of properties being snatched up, often in competitive bidding. Which has led to a sharp decline in properties available for sale.

In almost all markets, except the downtown Minneapolis condo market which is up 21.3%.

I think there is little dispute that Covid has dampened the amenities which a downtown offers. The lack of night life and restaurants, the lack of need to be blocks from work or near light rail for a quick trip to the airport. By displacing the relative value that residents place on these features versus a whole host of other variables that go into a home purchase decision (including square footage, proximity to family and so on), more owners are exiting the downtown community than joining it.

Nailing down the market prices on each of these amenities one-by-one would take data that is not readily available. Data sets for the performance of public sector goods would have to be statistically spun out to reveal levels of significance. An analysis of prices of these and other amenities which overlap through a variety locations would provide an opportunity for index setting. Due to the extraordinary living conditions in 2020, there is an opportunity to obtain counter factual data for many core neighborhood utilities. It is a unique opportunity.

Brass and Tin Pots

My son is an engineering student, but for his liberal arts requirement he is taking a course on Imperialism. The course work tells the tale of western European economies growing so that they ventured past their countries boundaries to extract resources from Africa and Indo China and the Caribbean. The model describes a dominant group taking hold of a subservient group to help themselves to resources for commercial gains. Extraction isn’t just for the history books. Consider this fictitious story.

Let’s say there is a fairly large association for a trade group. It has a sizable staff and a fair number of members volunteers. There is also a multi-decade volunteer–let’s call him/her Jo Johnson– who through time and understanding has proven agile in eliminating dissenting voices and bullying staff. There are also dues, and committees, and boards, and political action.

The associational group has clout in a community due to its size and ability to organize. It also has some resources to pledge toward those seeking local office. Jo Johnson’s influence at the association serves to direct funds to candidates who, in turn, respond with business referrals. This action of using a group resource and trading for a private commercial gain describes a process of internalizing a public asset into a private, fungible transaction.

Now some may say–this shouldn’t be so! There are ethics to think about.

But– this judgement, this evaluation of the trades in play, is best evaluated by members of the group–not outsiders. Some members maybe thrilled that Jo Johnson is able to devote countless hours wage-free to the association, and thus, any extracting done is small compensation. The members of the group may feel the clout of the group is maximized in this very fashion, giving each member the best possible slice of the overall pie.

It is really all about transparency. If members knowingly make the decision to defer to Jo, then all is right in the world. If decisions have been made for them because Jo Johnson has become so skilled at shaking loose the opposition by throwing up all sorts of meeting delays and rescheduling (it is a volunteer activity after all), and has the power to develop allegiances by promising titles like a board position (a dusty old king of sorts selling titles), then the peasants should revolt.

The process of extracting value from a group and in doing so moving a resource from a public sphere to a private transaction occurs all the time, in many different scenarios. It is a trade. Whether a trade is in equilibrium requires, not moral judgement, but transparency and an ability to evaluate the options at hand.

Judging tin pots from afar is a risky business.

A model to consider

Given this is my 55th post I’d like recap the home-economics model. As explained on the About page, this site addresses the mechanics of value creation in the pursuit of pubic goods. In order to show these features, I must persuade you to shrug off a few established notions. The first is that the nature of goods is not public, nor club, common, or private (the purpose of the What is Public-What is Private posts). All goods can be employed in either the public or the private sphere. The second is that there is no such thing as market failure.

To start at the beginning, all of economic life is restricted by the resources this crusty old orb offers us along with what we can make of them with our time and talents. Limited resources applies both to goods employed in a private environment as well as those contributed toward community needs. Within these confines there are two types of activity creating a public sphere and a private sphere. One looks inward, behaving with a public (non-exclusionary) nature and the other activity looks beyond the group behaving in predatory fashion. This private sphere is well studied.

Let’s work backwards on some posts. Yesterday’s topic–Money and Safety— centered around the city’s approval process to fund more police force hours. Consider the groups. The defunders would argue that city money for police has resulted in providing safety for the racial majority (Gr 1) of the citizens (Gr 3) yet is failing to do the same for the minority groups (Gr 2). In light of this objection these city council members refuse to fund the police.

As an aside, this claim does not hold true. For the past five months the political climate in the city has severely limited the police’s capacity to maintain peace. The result has been a tragic loss of life primarily in Gr 2. This a new set of data contained in Gr 3 shows that it is group Gr2 which reaps greater (despite severe flaws) benefits than Gr 1. In addition to loss of life, Gr 2 has also disproportionately experienced a loss to businesses, where it is estimated 200 businesses burned or were damaged during the riots. The businesses suffered an externality from (lack of) services from the public sphere.

Consider the post A table set for adversaries. The outdoors women and men (Gr 1) are often at odds with urban arts people (Gr 2) over issues like gun control which increases the cost to own firearms without a clear benefit in reduction in crime, and funding for cultural events which requires subsidies to be viable, and outstate regulation of the environment which cuts jobs. Although Gr 1 and Gr 2 are often competing for resources they hold together in conjunction with all Minnesotans (Gr 3), by showing where Gr 1 and Gr 2 had a common interest, a funding stream was extracted from two very different associational groups.

Fire Station 2 speaks to the structure of firefighters (Gr 1) who devote their time and expertise at a reduced rate to protect the lives of property of their community (Gr 2). They get paid a below average hourly rate, which is a private transaction. The firefighters’ extra wage potential is community (Gr 2) work. Their services are made available to everyone (Gr 2) which makes this a public service.

Having established the need to look for groups, and identify whether the groups are engaging public or private economic activity, I’ll be posting more on externalities and internalizing. Both of these terms describe the appearance of positive or negative effects which show up in one sphere from a transaction in the other (Ex. private corporation pollutes the water causing a negative expense to a public good owned by the surrounding community). Then we can get to the fall of market failure.