—Letter to Henry Oldenburg (18 Nov 1676). In H. W. Turnbull (ed.), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 1676-1687 (1960), Vol. 2, 182.
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Category: Public Education
Stacking priorities and coordinating benefits
Two legislators and one Minnesota senator gave a town hall talk last Saturday. With majorities in both the MN House and Senate, a swarm of bills has been flying through committee and onto a vote. Let’s have a look at them.
Education: The schools are still (and always) underfunded. They need dollars. The plug’s been pulled from the bathwater as there was no depth offered to describe relative priorities, to meeting public expectations, to backing winning strategies.
Abortion: Many didn’t believe abortion was on the ballot until the votes were counted. And sure enough, the topic occupied the first hours of the legislators’ work. The right to an abortion all the way through the third trimester was codified into the MN constitution (not sure what they mean by codify, it’s their word). Winners: feminists and women of childbearing age. At risk: unborn babies and paternal rights. Losers: Religious ideology
The Surplus: The promise to return a portion of the surplus to the taxpayers is echoing more and more faintly. It really never was a return but a redistribution where people of lesser means received the most, middle income some, and wealthy folk nothing. Instead, the audience at this town hall was told of failing bridges and infrastructure. When you want to spend bring up the tangibles. There is more resistance to human services than to maintaining nuts and bolts public hardware. No offer of project eval or expenditure return on public use. The pols always declare the need, and steer clear of distinctive comparisons or hierarchical demand for public dollars.
Universal School Lunch: One might wonder if it is the best use of funds to pick up the lunch tab for those who can and might still provide their children’s meals.
Paid Family Leave: I’ve never heard a peep on how it was determined that enough folks were locked out of taking care of a few personal errands during work time to make a law worthwhile. Nor is there a whisper regarding whose pocket this human resource benefit will come from. I’m sure some people live in this uncomfortable pinch between time and money. Making a universal law benefit is great if most people need it. If it is given to everyone when one a handful are struggling, you have to wonder whether the donations to public funds would be best employed in another manner.
This is where I have to give my legislator credit. Here the school districts are being given additional funding only to have it taken from them to cover the paid family leave. Schools are public only in their function to educate children. Public institutions are employers as well. The legislator acknowledged she was hearing from her friends at the MN Teacher’s Union. Turns out that publically funded entities are employers too.
Which highlights the importance of coordination. Elected officials are only exposed to very limited voice. There’s got to be a better format to express the desires of the constituents in the manner public funds are allocated.
U presidents and privatizing public dollars
So many dust-ups in the education business seem to be about an employee’s level of dedication to the public interest since their wages are paid by public dollars. The strongest union in the state of Minnesota protects school teachers from being asked too much from the public.
Now it is the president of the University of Minnesota, Joan Gabel, who has been forced to forgo a lucrative board position:
Even though Gabel has a five-year contract with the UMN, which is a private agreement for wages in return for labor, she does not own the cloat necessary to pick up a cool $130K as a board member. That influence still is in the hands of the public. And the public said no to the side gig.
It happens the other way around too. Teachers find themselves working amongst the public when they teach in front of the classroom. Their position is a private contract that gives clear instructions on what is to be taught in the curriculum. Yet some teachers cross all sorts of lines working in personal views on history, the family, or gender.
The point of all this is that there is not one clear-cut private transaction and one clear-cut public transaction. The private incentives among public employees work in the same way as in the private market. People are always juggling a mix of both personal reward and dedication to groups of interests.
With a 17 Billion dollar surplus piling up in the Minnesota coffers, there will be a lot of public spending in the next few years. The message coming from the Governor’s office is a commitment to make Minnesota the best place to raise a family. This is actually what this state is known for and is near and dear to Minnesotans. Often young people will go explore the rest of the country after college and then return home once it’s time to raise their families.
There is a segment (a set, a group) of Minnesotans whose kids are not doing so well. In fact, they are scoring lower on standardized tests than their compatriots in Mississippi. One can quibble about whether these evaluations are a reflection on the state given how long these kids have been in our school systems. Or one can make excuses for the effects of Covid lockdowns, second language struggles, and general distractions from joy-riding friends. But one thing is for sure- a lot of people are not happy about it.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say the majority of Minnesotans want these kids to do well. There is pride in not only school performance but public school performance. Most people support public schools. So there should be no problem dumping a whole bunch of cash into the schools, right? Well, no. The Minneapolis school district, educator principal for this group of children already receives $4,610 (35%) more per child than the average MN student. Putting more money into institutions that are failing to perform seems a fool’s errand.
If you ask teachers what their biggest impediment is in the classroom they will often say disruptions. Their instruction time is spent on a few instead of teaching to the crowd. Others say the disruption originates around attendance issues: either showing up late or not at all. And lastly, they express the set backs from issues of disruptive behavior.
Instead of funneling dollars through a massive bureaucracy (trickle down doesn’t work so well) why not pay the kids directly to show up and sit still for a few hours every day? Make it worth their while. Let’s say $50 is paid out every other week. That would only be $900/kid which seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers seen above. Maybe they could even cluster and have special events based on who’s pulling in the best attendance records. Make it fun- kids like fun!
The average Minnesotan wants to see these kids succeed. Kids will respond to incentives. Who knows, maybe the people will even pay more, and give more of themselves and their resources if they see a glimmer of success.
Pay attention to the children
I’m not a fan of the ‘cost-burdened’ framing used when discussing housing. The resulting claims just don’t sync with the other indicators. For instance, Minnesota Compass, a research organization funded by the Wilder Foundation claims that one quarter of Minnesotans ‘pay too much for housing.’ This doesn’t square with personal experience. One in four Minnesotans cannot pay their bills, purchase cars, or pay for groceries? That’s bunk.
If you want to talk about houses, talk about houses. Why does everything need to be framed with respect to income?
I’m interested in whether there are enough physical buildings to provide shelter for each breathing body who finds themselves within the state’s boundaries. The census lists the number of units to be 2,517,248 as of July 2021, which is up 31,690 units from the 2020 Decennial census. Of course, not all of those units may be in use. Some may be vacant or second homes.
According to the 2021 census, the number of households in the state is 2,281,033. So on the face of things, it appears there are enough shelters for the residents.
But that brings up the issue of whether the physical structures are the right kind for the width and breadth of the households that are housed there. If every building is meant to accommodate a large extended family yet the population numbers denote all single individuals wanting to live independently, then there is a serious mismatch. This makes it necessary to know how many dwellings there are and what type of households they most comfortably accommodate.
And then of course one must acknowledge that the state of Minnesota is the fourteenth largest in this big USA territory. This may mean that there is a lack of structures in Worthington (down by the Iowa border) to house agricultural workers even though there is an abundance of well-built craftsman bungalows up in the mining country. So already it is clear that a more specific accounting of houses is necessary to keep on top of this issue of housing.
But what must be our most pressing concern? Who needs help today? (And not the quarter of the cost-burdened gobbly gook.) The public attention on this issue goes to the homeless with children. The estimates vary but single parents with kids need to be settled today. Not tomorrow. Those kids need to be lined up with a school district community that is dedicated to making it so worth the parent’s while to stay put, that they don’t move for the twelve remaining years necessary to get those children through the k-12 education. Those are the numbers that need the public attention.
New construction improves a neighborhood w/out price increase to entry rentals.
This is so obvious to anyone who watches real estate or is in a real estate-related industry. Renewal of a nook of a city due to capital improvements helps- not hurts- everyone down the line.
When I was in a planning session, I was taken aback when a person of just these qualifications was nodding her head that new development hurt affordable housing. If this person, who I thought well of, had this view, what was I missing?
A Theory of Baselines
I think what happens is standards are elevated and in that process, those on the lower end of the scale continue to feel left out. Real estate development and change happen slowly, over three, five, and even ten years to transform an area.
In the fifties, skid row was where affordable housing was located. Then the sixties brought about urban renewal, including bulldozing all these decrepit buildings. Without much research, I can guarantee that the housing provided to people today is far better than that in the 50s. Yet it is a far cry from standard mainstream housing.
With all public goods, there must be a baseline to measure progress. Otherwise, those who are not achieving in school or housing or health will always feel worse off than the average. But are they better off than yesteryear?
Intelligence for me but not for thee
It’s fun to hear about Hayek’s life in this interview from 1978 with Armen Alchian. For instance, A young Hayek almost ended up accepting employment as a dishwasher when he arrived in New York for a research assistant job. His prospective employer had asked his university not to disturb him. On the eve of Hayek’s debut in suds and china, the university professor had resurfaced and was in touch
But the beginning of this segment is hilarious. Alchian inquires after Vera C Smith, as she apparently was Hayek’s student. He asks about her relationship with another economist Frederick Lutz, concerning their romance in particular. Had Hayek played matchmaker. Furthermore, Alchian notes, that Vera must have been quite attractive as a younger woman (yikes). Hayek confirms but qualifies her beauty by saying she wasn’t very ‘female’ as she was very bright- “She had too much male intelligence!” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Sigh- there was a time three decades or more ago when I would have found this depressing. Times are changing.
Books with Maps
I love books with maps. This one is on the inside cover of Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. He writes about settlers in Montana at the end of the nineteenth century. Scotts were partial to the state as its vast, remote beauty reminded them of home. At the center of the tale is a reluctant school teacher who, out of necessity, accepts the position of corraling the kids into an atmosphere of education, and plays out all the ways in which the education system reaches into family life. It’s a lovely book by a poetic writer.
Is there more to it than mincing words?
When I was in college I steered clear of philosophy. The intricate hairsplitting was more than a little off-putting. Plus the numbers and problems in my math classes were more fun than words, or at least more reliable. It is only now, later in life that I see the need for it. I still am partial to philosophers who talk through examples instead of building some analytical castle in the sky. That’s why I like Bertrand. He said:
Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims it is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg, 2004)
Descriptive words can paint out the details of your examples, but precisely defined words are necessary to hone the edges of the properties which settle in together and erect a model of activity. And words are slippery things often showing up in other ways at other times. It truly is a project to draw it all out for people to follow.
It seems there is a renewed interest in the discipline. Instead of being the butt of any graduation party, “What are you going to do with a philosophy major? Become a barista at a Parisian cafe?” People genuinely express a desire to understand foundational principles in order to participate in the public conversation.
It would have been helpful through the years to have a little sidebar in that History of XVII Century Thought book or an Anthology of Literature from the Caribbean outlining a view of the philosophy of the day. Most centuries had predominant views on how to think and reason. If these would have been laid out alongside a history of events, I might have started getting the picture earlier that there was more to philosophy than tedious quibbling over definitions.
Learn some geography, have some fun, play Tradle!
And that’s a wrap
Thirteen years of fundraisers, parent teacher conferences, science fairs, ski excursions, accelerated math, staffing changes, PTA meetings, moral busters, youth sports, homework tracking, parent teacher conferences, orchestra, attendance calls, recognition events. It’s all done.
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.
What’s in a house price
All we’ve heard for the last several years is how the price of housing is going up. Up. UP! And for the most part that is true. Whether it is because Millennials are finally getting on their feet and need a place to have their own families, or whether the baby boomers are not moving to the lower priced condos and giving up their family homes, there is no doubt that there is a housing squeeze.
But seriously, for as long as I can remember, except in deep recessions, people have thought housing is expensive. Because it is! It is the largest portion of people’s monthly budget. And this distraction about the cost of a home is the most uninteresting fact one can take away from home prices. House prices are a rich reflection of the revealed preferences of a community.
An economist in the early part of the twentieth century by the name of Paul Samuelson came up with the idea that when consumers chose different products, they reveal what best suits their needs. This differed from theories up to that point which placed the burden on policy makers to decide which goods provided the greatest utility to consumers.
Samuelson’s relationship with economics is lengthy. This excerpt paints the broadest brush of his brilliance. “In receiving the Nobel Prize in 1970, Mr. Samuelson was credited with transforming his discipline from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”
One economist, his junior by twenty years, heard the clarion call for greater mathematical representation of economic theory. Zvi Griliches contributed to a publication called Economic Statistics and Econometrics published in 1968. In a paper called Hedonic Price Indexes for Automobiles: An Economic Analysis of Quality Change, Zvi pulled apart the prices for automobiles so that he could show how much consumers were paying for improved engines or length of the vehicle or other features. By comparing the components of the cost of vehicles he distinguished between inflation and consumers revealing a preference for higher quality provided by advanced technology.
But back to real estate. The economist credited for using this statistical method (taking the price of a complex product and using data to divvy out the weighted values of its various components) was Sherwin Rosen in his 1974 paper Hedonic Prices and Implicit Markets: Product Differentiation in Pure Competition. Now this is exciting! The price of a house can tell you how much one school district is favored over another. It can tell you the value effects of violent crime, or proximity to mass transit.
The implicit prices tell us that we trade in public goods as well as private goods. We shop for city services and good roads, for youth programming and parks, as well as for good schools and safe streets. The implicit prices tell us how groups of people choose bundles of public goods. Real estate prices are incredibly rich with feedback.
So can we stop with the “They are so expensive.”
Squeezed out of the house
Most coursework taught in a classroom setting under the guise of real estate is centered on one of three aspects: appraising, financing, and legal underpinnings. In fact, most of the reports generated around real estate feature these same three topics. The recent sales data is sliced and diced along with market times and the rates offered by the mortgage brokers.
Cornell University proves to be an exception in its course offerings which include a wide range of topics on all aspects of real property. In addition to the oh-so-common Finance and Investment class, there’s a taxation course and one on hospitality real estate finance. There is analysis of transaction and deal structuring, and advanced project management for real estate development. There is an emphasis on flushing out the business side to real property.
But the courses designed to teach the work which happens(ed) in the home has been severed from the neighborhood and become Policy Analysis & Management (PAM). The evolution of the 1920’s department of the Department of Household Management is depicted in the flow chart below. Clearly 1969 was a breaking point from the quaintness of home, a throwing off of the apron in favor of an upwards and onwards momentum to a more distinguished framing.
Another course offered at Cornell is Urban Economics and Real Estate Markets. The course description reads: “A theoretical understanding of the economic forces affecting urban land market change and development is needed for decision-making in the real estate profession… The two core models at the center of the course are the model of urban spatial structure that stems from the work of Alonso, Muth and Mills…” (Alonso, William (1964) Location and Land Use. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.)
A few years before the functions of health and human services were being detached from the geography of cities and suburbs, Alonso noted that the location of a central business district (CBD) created a spatial relationship within a city which affected real estate. While a model based on jobs and income and the commuting of a workforce was used and developed in the interplay of real estate uses in a city, the jobs of a homemaker in educating and feeding and educating her children found a new home in the Health and Human Services Departments across the nation.
This was unfortunate timing.
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.
An example of a public acting private
The claim I make is that entities which are primarily public in nature can be transformed to act like a private enterprise. Here’s an example.
A few years after I gave birth to my son, advertisements started filtering through our postal mail claiming the accolades of a variety of schools. The Parochial schools had the upper hand on morals and strong values. The charter schools within the district offered Spanish Immersion or a science and engineering focus. The International School of Minnesota, a private school, offers a nurturing environment for a level of education geared to compete on a world stage.
I get that the Lutherans and the Catholics need to advertise to be sure people know where they are. And advertising specialty schools within a district follows the same getting-the-word-out need that is the business of ad campaigns. But it was somewhat off-putting when the public school district to the SW of us started a direct mail campaign designed to raise questions the adequacy of our own district with the objective of luring families like ours to open enroll across district lines.
In Minnesota, funding follows the child. So by recruiting kids along the neighboring district boundaries, the school district is vying for additional funding. They are acting in a private market manner, using advertising dollars to draw streams of money and the stronger family units to their enterprise.
In my mind this manifests the same economic form as the bidding on masks by state instead of as a country. The school districts are operating under a Minnesota mandate, yet by delineating the interest group to school districts, their actions outside of their district takes on a private nature.
So what’s the harm in it?
Using a private mechanism within a communal goal can gut out the ability of part of the group to be successful. If all the strong families (both in an educational sense and in an extra-time-to-help with education resources sense) shift over to the adjacent district, then the balance of talent and resources and parent time required will be substantially weakened for the families left behind.
This process works against the state mandate to educate all kids. The districts can act as private as they like outside the state mandate with entities like textbook vendors or playground equipment manufacturers. But the communal structure of all those who fall under the mandate should make it clear that direct mail marketing with the deliberate intent to shift funding dollars across district lines is counter productive to the expressed agreement.
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.
When math is not your friend
Let’s say everything in your life, that was summed up by numbers, did not add up in your favor. It would be like being on the team that always had to be the good sport and loose to all the other teams. At first the players might simply be happy to be on a team, out practicing and attending games. But then the scores keep starkly representing the loosing side, and it is harder and harder to keep up moral.
Or maybe you’ve tried to learn the game of golf. There’s the mulligan on the tee off shot. Then you loose your ball in the long grass. Ooops– one plops in the stream cutting across the fairway (after a dramatic twelve foot bounce off the boulder rip rap). As you approach the green there’s hope for a two put finish. But it is not to be. A couple of chip shots over and back. But who’s keeping score anyway?
Now what if everything in your life was like that. Your parents struggled when the numbers didn’t add up in their favor when it was time to pay the monthly bills. There was concern at school when the numerical representation was not favorable for your school work. How do you think you would feel about math?
Math shouldn’t be out of reach for so many of our students. God’s gifts are sprinkled around throughout a population and not divvied up by socio economic designations. If a whole group is coming up short of math majors we should really try to figure out why. It will effect their whole lives. It will make our educational system subject to the grifters who filter in when there is demand for a service and yet no supply.
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.
Timing a move
People move households a variety of times throughout their lives for a variety of reasons. Depending on your data source, Americans move every 7-9 years, with more frequent moves in young adulthood and more sedentary behavior in later life.
This makes sense. As folks move through different stages of life, both from an income stand point and a lifestyle standpoint, they want a different combinations of neighborhood amenities. These are not questions of ‘good’ things versus ‘bad’ things. These are simply mixtures of choices.
When you are young you may want to live near entertainment and restaurants. Once there are kids in the household, going out to shows and restaurants quickly takes a back seat to prioritizing daycare, schools, and after school activities. Stability of residence can be important at this stage as rearing children benefits from consistency.
If the norm is to move, to seek out new living arrangements that better suit new objectives, than wouldn’t incentives that lock people into a location be holding them back? Financial incentives such as rent control do exactly that. It discourages mobility.
And I’m not saying people who need help shouldn’t still receive help. I’m saying that paying people to live in the same set of living circumstance through all stages of their lives goes against the norm. Which leads one to believe it is a drawback in the long run, for a perceive protection in the short run.
Nesting, Public Goods and Price signals
Public goods often exist in a nested structure. The household, the neighborhood, the ward, the city, the state. The classroom, the elementary school, the district, the states’ Department of Education. At what point is it clear that a rung on the ladder needs help in its delivery of the good?
Earlier in the month it was reported that a charter school, Cedar Riverside Community School, would be closing. It serves a neighborhood of high rise subsidized housing nestled between downtown and the University of Minnesota. Lauded as culturally sensitive in its delivery of education to a mostly Somali immigrant community, it has been plagued with threats of closure due to poor performance for more than a decade.
There are many good intentions, hopes and aspirations at the ground level for these types of grass roots public goods to be successful. But when are the price signals strong enough to cause the rung up the ladder to engage, and supplement the production of the good. When is the loss great enough to tip the efforts away from the local level and demand services from a superior level?
With the bright flood lights of the world stage focused on our metro and its racial disparities, it’s hard not to imagine that the closure comes in the wake of last year’s events. It seems pretty costly and inefficient to wait for a crisis to fess up to the fact that these kids were not being served by their neighborhood school.
Maybe the better question is what are the powers in play which dampen or misalign the the signals of lost public good delivery? What stops the natural interactions of feedback and improvement that occur through the system elsewhere?
I can only speculate from afar, but it seems to boil down to two components: structure of (for pay) jobs and positions of power. An enterprise, whether a company or a school is composed of an interlocking group of paid employees. These are entities composed of W2 workers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the boat afloat. A company will sink if it fails to attracts consumers. As long as a school has a pool of students within its attendance boundaries, it will receive funding.
In a typical neighborhood, people with school age children will leave the neighborhood if they feel the schools are inadequate, while others would-be-buyers into the neighborhood will look to settle elsewhere. The dynamics is a little different in a neighborhood like Cedar Riverside as many of the residents are tied to their housing through subsidies. The lack of mobility creates a type of monopoly on the residents both for their support of the school as well as the political structure.
The end result is that the price signals–the signs that the pupils are failing to receive the public services which inevitably are an expense to them and their communities later in life–are muted. They are not able to exit. Their presence in the group is taken for granted by those in paying jobs and those with political power.
There were a lot of things I liked about going to French schools as a youth, but one that stands out is the discipline of recitation. A student prepares a poem and delivers it in front of the class. You were graded on tone and inflection, on cadence and emphasis. The French take their language seriously, and you are to deliver the words just so.
Scratchy pencil markings on Le Rat de ville et le Rat des champs show where to slow down, where to come to a full stop. Scribbled in are indications of the rhythms. While holding the little book in front of my peers, I most likely kneaded my sweaty fingers into the cover as I plied back the binding. The activity may have alleviated some trepidations of being front of a crowd.
It is delightful to say the words just right, to have them tumble out and be heard amongst an audience. It is not the same as reading the text in one’s head, in the same way as reading a play falls short of a production. It’s really a shame that the US school system lacks this emphasis on performance and language. Completely contrary to saying there is only one way to get one’s tongue around the words, as perhaps the French do, it is about how words are articulated to add meaning. The delivery is a disclosure of more than the words themselves.
Fables, whether by Aesop or by La Fontaine or La Fontaine’s version of Aesop, are subtle in their meaning. Some might say Straussian. There are of course the sweet little creatures having adventures. The Tortoise and the Hair, or the Lion and the Mouse. Creatures not like each other interacting to tell us that outcomes are sometimes unexpected. That we should not presume to know everything.
La Fountaine along with his contemporary Moliere were well known for cloaking messages, designed to instruct without offense. Both were successful in their lifetime for although their subject matter thrived on human foibles, the ruse of concealment let each audience member interpret the piece as they desired.
An instance vs a life-time
The world of Twitter and Instagram promotes the power of a snapshot. It’s a small-package delivered to pack a punch. Not only is it how a lot of information is disseminated to audiences in the millions (in small frame, limited view, no historical placement setting) but has also become the most popular vehicle of public debate, or hollering.
Recently there has been lot of admonishing of our north star state with data claiming Minnesota has the largest achievement gap between majority and minority populations. Let’s consider how this datagram could mean something good instead of assuming it means something bad.
If Minnesota abruptly welcomed a large group of immigrants with no English language skills to the state, the state would be celebrated as humanitarian and good. But of course, for a number of years (how many? ten? a generation?) Minnesota’s numbers for minority education performance would be affected, as not knowing a language is a serious impediment to learning. That makes Minnesota a bad place for minorities.
Minnesota also achieves very high performance amongst children with long time residency, which makes Minnesota is a good place to live. But of course this exacerbates the difference between scores with those who have come more recently, less well equipped, which once again makes Minnesota a bad place for disparities.
It is like the comic strip with an angel and devil on each shoulder whispering their arguments in each ear. Each little creature gesticulating wildly while the face between them looks comically confused.
Raj Chetty is an economist at Harvard who studies, among other things, equality of opportunity over time and place. After all, what we want is a culmination of activity to produce a result. One time snapshots capture a measure at a particular time. A piece of information. They are woefully barren of any wisdom.
His research shows that the Minneapolis area is in the lead among large cities in cultivating the greatest income growth for children of poor families, by age 26.
The issue of time and setting must be made part of any half intelligent conversation about these issues. The public goods a city provide can’t possibly be evaluated in moment-in-time snapshots. And people who to try to navigate this path are more likely activists out to promote one point of view, not for a public benefit, but for their private initiatives.
San Francisco comes to its senses
San Francisco schools have decided not to spend the time and money to rename 44 schools.
The San Francisco Board of Education will ultimately keep the names of dozens of public schools in a case of high-stakes second thoughts.
It seems we are seeing a turning point in the ridiculous posturing against ghostly foes of yore. And the objections came from a wide selection of practical folks from both sides of the aisle.
The reversal was met with relief and enthusiasm by disparate critics united in their opposition to the project. Conservatives characterized the effort as cancel culture run amok, while liberals decried the woefully poor research conducted by the blue-ribbon panel that led to the lengthy list of school names to be changed.San Francisco School Board Rescinds Controversial School Renaming Plan : NPR
Here in Minnesota, we are experiencing an attendance problem. Now that buildings are opening up again, it’s time to try to lure the 17,000 Minnesota kids, who left public school, to get back on the yellow busses. Some may have settled into parochial schools, but the vast majority, according to reports, are being home schooled. Or at least are at home.
Let’s hope these families return to valuing our teachers, the socialization benefits of in-class learning, as well as the extra curricular activities. At an approximate revenue of $14K a pupil, there’s a $238 million dollar missing entry in the public school income ledger.
Equality at odds with Progress?
There’s a new paper, Lessons from Denmark about Inequality and Social Mobility, by James J Heckman and Rasmus Landerso. Here’s the abstract:
Many American policy analysts point to Denmark as a model welfare state with low levels of
income inequality and high levels of income mobility across generations. It has in place many
social policies now advocated for adoption in the U.S. Despite generous Danish social policies,
family influence on important child outcomes in Denmark is about as strong as it is in the United
States. More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally
available programs. Purposive sorting by levels of family advantage create neighborhood effects.
Powerful forces not easily mitigated by Danish-style welfare state programs operate in both
What I find interesting is the framing of their analysis around neighborhoods. They find that even though teachers in Denmark are paid the same salaries, there are still different outcomes for children which appear to be a result of families sorting themselves by neighborhood.
One good example of this phenomenon is the quality of schoolteachers by clusters of parental
characteristics. In Denmark, teacher salaries by neighborhood are mandated to be equal. That is
a force for uniform quality of schools across neighborhoods. However, uniform quality is not the
actual outcome in Denmark.
The sorting continues down through to the teachers.
There is a strong positive association between the characteristics of parents, on the one hand, and the characteristics of teachers on the other, despite equality in wages.
Even with an equalization of monetary compensation to the educators, the more established families gain the preferred access to education. And thus equal opportunity to education is not being realized.
But is this one of those everything-should-be-equal that makes sense or is counter productive? Are the measures and classifications and groupings done in a way that divvies up into a state of balance?
I don’t think it is a controversial notion that those on the lower rung of academic performance are more likely to be motivated by seeing themselves in their teachers and mentors. And until those teachers and mentors are brought along into this higher level of academic delivery, the system that looks for those mentors will have unbalanced delivery systems. By choice. And this may very well be the best delivery for that moment in time.
Here is a scenario where fine tuning and focusing in on what is thought to be an issue of equality maybe sabotaging the path for greatest progress. By drilling down to the tier of the individual, one dismisses the group. To bring along the child can only be done by bringing along their larger group, including their parents and teachers.
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.
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.
Some words or phrases latch onto you like thistles while walking through blooming prairie grasses. They tag onto your pant leg until you notice them and pluck them off for a closer look. Labor wedge has such a nice visual, a separation between what a model is predicting and the empirical data, I think that’s how it wedged its way into my thoughts.
It seems to be a fairly new macroeconomic term, defined at the start of a paper by Loukas Karabarbounis, University of Chicago, as:
Do fluctuations of the labor wedge, defined as the gap between the firm’s marginal product of labor (MPN) and the household’s marginal rate of substitution (MRS), reflect fluctuations of the gap between the MPN and the real wage or fluctuations of the gap between the real wage and the MRS? For many countries and most forcefully for the United States, fluctuations of the labor wedge predominantly reflect fluctuations of the gap between the real wage and the MRS.https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w19015/w19015.pdf
At different time periods, American households have found it advantageous to substitute out paid work for something else. They preferred to spend their time, perhaps at home, performing valued activities for their families. Or perhaps the value was found in associational life of another nature. De Tocqueville said years ago that Americans are apt at associational life.
More interesting are the measuring questions. How do we categorize where people have the opportunity to perform duties which build capital for themselves and, most probably, their communities? Where are they exerting energies in lieu of showing up for a paycheck?
Sorting by their economic benefit seems sensible. If the ambitions fall under health related activities (staying out of the workforce to care for an aging parent) then the credit goes to pubic health. If education (during these Covid times people are staying out the workforce to supervise their children’s education) is the goal then shuffle those hours to the public education column of the ledger. If governance (people are choosing to spend their time on park boards or citizen commissions instead of working) is where the hours are spent, then register the tally under civics, and so on.
A better understanding of these motives and ventures will smooth out the prickly problem of labor wedges.
The Crafter, The Contributor and The Covid Tracker
This week’s local neighborhood newspaper reported on a mom type volunteer doing the homey thing and stitching up masks for anyone who needs a buffer from the virus. She puts a plastic bin of them on the sidewalk in front of her home, and only asks that you donate an extra cotton shirt if you have one to spare.
On Wednesdays, Moira Knutson sets out two big plastic storage totes on the concrete walkway of her home. One is empty, for donations of 100% cotton shirts, and the second is full of patterned masks. Anyone who happens to be walking by is welcome to take a mask from the bin, free of charge.
Like many people, Knutson was first motivated to sew masks for health care workers when the pandemic began but is perhaps unique in that she never stopped. By her “guesstimate,” she’s made about 2,000 masks since March.
Wikipedia was founded almost twenty years ago and has thrived on a volunteer-contributor model. A paper written by Benjamin Mako Hill while at MIT evaluates this form of collective action. His analysis studies why Wikipedia succeeded whereas seven previous attempts, which involved the general public giving of their time to build an online encyclopedia of knowledge, did not. The paper is called Almost Wikipedia: Eight Early Encyclopedia Projects and the Mechanisms of Collective Action.
Abstract: Before Wikipedia was created in January 2001, there were seven attempts to create
English-language online collaborative encyclopedia projects. Several of these attempts built sustainable communities of volunteer contributors but none achieved anything near Wikipedia’s
success. Why did Wikipedia, superficially similar and a relatively late entrant, attract a community of millions and build the largest and most comprehensive compendium of human knowledge in history? Using data from interviews of these Wikipedia-like projects’ initiators and
extensive archival data, I suggest three propositions for why Wikipedia succeeded in mobilizing
volunteers where these other projects failed. I also present disconfirming evidence for two important alternative explanations. Synthesizing these results, I suggest that Wikipedia succeeded
because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to
many potential contributors, while innovating around the process and the social organization
Note that last line: “…because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to many potential contributors.” The shared objective was clear.
The Covid Tracker
Bloomberg reports on the Covid tracking project which has been run mostly by volunteers -or- Data Heroes.
Since then, the Covid Tracking Project—run by a small army of data-gatherers, most of them volunteers—has become perhaps the most trusted source on how the pandemic is unfolding in the U.S. The website has been referenced by epidemiologists and other scientists, news organizations, state health officials, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and the Biden transition team. There are other reliable sources for pandemic statistics, but the project stands out for its blend of rich, almost real-time data presented in a comprehensible way. “I think they’ve done extraordinary work and have met an important need,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which publishes its own set of pandemic data (and draws some information from the Covid Tracking Project). “They’re tracking things that aren’t being tracked.”
The project is a demonstration of citizen know-how and civic dedication at a time when the country feels like it’s being pulled apart. Yet it’s confounding that, almost a year into the pandemic, the Covid Tracking Project is doing what might be expected of the U.S. government. “It’s kind of mind-boggling that it’s fallen to a group of volunteers to do this,” says Kara Schechtman, one of the project’s early volunteers, who’s since become the paid co-lead for data quality.
Work–Not for a salary, but for the public
The crafter, the contributor and the Covid tracker all have something in common. They engaged their services once they found a worthy goal. This, in combination with extra time on their hands, as well as a skill that could clearly be leveraged toward a windfall result, motivates the workers to step up. Notice that the goals fall into public benefits such as (pubic) health, (public) education and (pubic) governance. And this just-in-time response, especially when the need is great, out performs the established bureaucratic system.
These are all examples or work in the public sphere.
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.
Put me in title
In the is-it-private-or-is-it-public game, I agree that a home is a private good. The event which makes you a home owner is a closing, which in Minnesota, is usually held at a title company. On the chosen day the buyers and sellers sit down (pre-Covid) and the buyers sign up for a mortgage to finance the purchase while the sellers sign over a warranty deed. Done deal. No take-backs. The fees include a little state tax and filing fees so the documents are filed publicly in the county recorders office.
The process almost seems trivial but it so powerful. This singing over of a title and its public recording in a government office is the most significant feature of private wealth in the US system.
Interestingly, there are a whole assortment of local norms and customs revolving around closings across the United States. Most states either close at the table or over an escrow period. In Wyoming, however, real estate agents conduct the closings. Also specified and unique to almost every state is a foreclosure process. Most weigh heavily on consumer protection. And here is an interesting table breaking down all the nit picky processes and fees.
Owning a home is a staple of the American dream. Owning a home ties you to a community where you participate in measure of all public venues: public safety, pubic schools, public transportation, parks trails and the environment, governance and civic pride.
In a recent post, which challenged whether national defense is a public good, I suggested that sunlight was a public resource. Then I got to thinking about height restrictions in new construction, and in particular about a luxury high-rise development that was squashed by neighboring residents. A few years ago plans were underway for two residential towers on the west side of Southdale Center which is in an up-scale suburb of the Twin Cities. When over 200 folks filed into the city council chambers, there were more opposed than in favor.
But dozens of residents spoke against the towers, listing issues with everything from its height to the shadows it would cast.
So you see sunlight can be privatized. The owners of the 50’s built one-level homes to the west argued that the new apartments would steal their sunlight. The two towers would privately claim the warm beams, leaving them in the shadows. In economic terms, the new high rise would externalize shade.
There is a cost to shade. If you sell condos you know that southern exposures are more desirable than northern (though thankfully some feel a south view is a tad too warm). Being that there is more demand for this exposure these condo garner a higher price than those pointed north.
Here’s my original post challenging the breakdown of goods into public, private, club and common. Today I’m challenging the idea that fireworks are a public good. One would think that no-one could be excluded from seeing the fireworks. At least, once you already assume that you really mean no-one who is already close enough in the first place, can’t be excluded. An assumption which in itself, makes it a private good when you live one county over.
Realizing it has this private good, say the city lures people to move to their downtown by advertising an amazing fireworks display on the Fourth of July, shot from a bridge over the Mississippi. By fall the new residents have moved into a beautiful condo overlooking the stone arch bridge which spans the mighty river. By the following summer, however, a new condo building has been built which blocks their view.
Mr. and Mrs. NewRes show up at City Hall hotter than a hornets nest and demand compensation for being denied their access to a public good. After all it was the city that approved the permit that allowed the building to steal their view of the fireworks.
Here’s where I say be careful to identify your public, be careful to know your groups. The fireworks are public to those who show-up in a public space within sight of them. And you say I am splitting hairs. But am I?
When we tell families their children have access to a uniform public education for grades K-12, are we offering fireworks that can’t be seen by everyone? We all know that there are different levels of school performance all across the districts. At least a portion of that performance can be attributed to work done in the neighborhoods which support the learners and the educators in ways that are not supported elsewhere. So when the state says all learners will be provided ‘the same’ public good, is the state committing to make-up for the difference in the neighborhood support? Because that would tally quite a hefty tab.
Who Killed Home Ec?
That’s the title of an article in Huff Post which pens some interesting history on the discipline. Go figure the first women admitted- Ellen Swallow Richards— to MIT is credited with generally credited with its development back in 1876.
Far from regressive the aim of the coursework is described here:
At the Women’s Laboratory, Richards turned her scientific attention to the study of how to make home life more efficient. According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “Richards was very concerned to apply scientific principles to domestic topics — good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning.”
The categories under the umbrella of home economics today have expanded to seven: Cooking · Child Development · Education and Community Awareness · Home Management and Design · Sewing and Textiles · Budgeting and Economics · Health and Hygiene .
An enhanced understanding of these directly effect community engagement from health to housing, governance to safety. Such a shame to have lost fifty years of home focused education to a stigma.
Fungible is more Fun
What does it mean for a transaction to be fungible, or non-fungible? Here’s the dictionary’s definition for the word when googled;
fun·gi·ble/ˈfənjəbəl/Learn to pronounce adjective LAW adjective: fungible
(of goods contracted for without an individual specimen being specified) able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.”it is by no means the worlds only fungible commodity”
Wikipedia talks about fungibilty in this way:
In economics, fungibility is the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are essentially interchangeable, and each of its parts is indistinguishable from another part.
For example, gold is fungible since one kilogram of pure gold is equivalent to any other kilogram of pure gold, whether in the form of coins, ingots, or in other states. Other fungible commodities include sweet crude oil, company shares, bonds, other precious metals, and currencies. Fungibility refers only to the equivalence and indistinguishability of each unit of a commodity with other units of the same commodity, and not to the exchange of one commodity for another.
In the sense of a transaction being fungible or non-fungible I offer the following understanding. If you buy your gas at a Holiday station, whether it is on the corner leaving your neighborhood, or the one near your place of work or the one half way to your vacation destination, the transaction is the same. One purchases a indistinguishable commodity which is paid for with some form of currency of consistent value. The transaction starts and ends in a matter of minutes. It is fungible.
Now consider a different type of transaction, one that happens in a neighborhood. Every morning nine to ten kids gather at a bus stop to catch a yellow bus to the local elementary school. School starts at 9am and ends at 3pm. Most kids stay for after school programming so their parents have a chance to get home and pick them up before heading home to pull something together for dinner.
Now say it is mid January in a northern climate, and a mega storm develops predicting twelve inches of snowfall. The schools close at noon before buses full of children slide into the ditch and the roads are gridlocked as the snowplows can’t keep up with the descending flakes. Afterschool programming is cancelled leaving working parents in a bind.
One of the parents, call her Amanda R, works third shift at the hospital, and has the means to contact everyone as the families went through Baby-and-Me classes together at the community center. She lets them know she’ll be at the bus stop to collect the first-through-six-graders and let them hang out at her house. “Drive safe!” emphasises the text.
If the families would have taken personal time from work to the tune of four hours each, that would have amounted to thirty-two work hours. (With an average wage in Minnesota at $58K/yr, that comes to $892). Amanda R doesn’t expect payment for her offer. She knows that over the course of their elementary school experience there will be a track and field day, and the third grade band concert (which only a parent can appreciate) and the fifth grade science fair and the list goes on. There will be plenty of opportunities for parents to stand in for each other.
The work Amanda R did to allow parents to stay at their jobs while keeping their kids safe from harm was a non-fungible transaction. She won’t receive any immediate payment or exchange for her time. She can’t trade those hours with another neighbor down the block. What she’s betting is that she will receive assistance many times throughout her kids’ school experience.
Certainly it might be more fun to work for cash and spend it on concert tickets or new clothes or a trip. But the beauty of non-fungible transactions is that they are held within the group and often engaged when the stakes are high.