Loosening of ties

This image of the G7 leaders in tieless attire is making the rounds on Twitter. There’s an observance that times are changing and the buttoned up look against the backdrop of some symbol of the halls of power is slipping away. Now the leaders are casual in their suits, almost sloppy if you look too closely at Boris Johnson. Perhaps old formalities are dropping to the wayside.

It used to be that public goods described activity in the public sector. Only economic activity administered by governments, such as the ones represented, were thought to fall inthis category. About ten or fifteen years ago people spoke up and noted that NGO’s also provided services when governments were failing. Instead of the funding coming from taxation, the money flowed from philanthropy.

The definition of a public good has expanded some more. Here is a peice from one version written by Tyler Cowen on Econlib, after the core concept has been flushed out.

Partially public goods also can be tied to purchases of private goods, thereby making the entire package more like a private good. Shopping malls, for instance, provide shoppers with a variety of services that are traditionally considered public goods: lighting, protection services, benches, and restrooms are examples. Charging directly for each of these services would be impractical. Therefore, the shopping mall finances the services through receipts from the sale of private goods in the mall. The public and private goods are “tied” together.

Here is the insight that private endeavors also envolve the provision of community goods.

If you’ve spent time on this site then you know that we feel that any good can be made public or private to a group. What is public to those inside the group is most likely private to those outside. All the households appliances are free to use by anyone from within the home but are considered private to those looking at the house from the street. The lines which encircle groups are many, some formal, some informal. But in order to calculate wealth held within communities, or their capacity to provide goods, for instances, it must be understood that all goods can be club goods.

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.

Speaking of Agnes Callard…

I happened upon a podcast Callard did with Ezra Klein. Of course, I was looking for another podcast in his suite of options at the Ezra Klein Show, but when I saw her name, I clicked on play and had my attention diverted for the next hour and twenty minutes. Serendipity.

The bonus of jumping into the flow of internet information is that you may discover the most wonderful things. In this episode, Agnes, in her causal yet laser-focused manner, explains the motivations behind what I call public sphere transactions. Here’s a link to the podcast. I think you have to be a NYT subscriber, so for those who aren’t I’ll excerpt some bits.

The conversation starts around the topic of status, which Callard defines as ‘how much value other people accord you.’ After some explanation of the games people play and how they are played to assess value, the topic transitions to meritocracy.

EZRA KLEIN: And so, in a way, that’s in contrast to what we have or think we have or talk about having, which is a meritocracy, which is the idea that where you get is a reflection of your virtue, of your work ethic, of your talents, and how you’ve used them. And you’ve done a lot of writing about this. And there’s been, particularly on the left, in recent years, a real questioning of meritocracy.

The thought that if you work hard and live a good life, you will advance into good things, is the explanation of how to achieve based on merit. It works really well in explaining how things work in the private goods market. You go to a job and make more or better widgets than the next guy. You gain in proportion to your output. Goods I consider prime for private production and consumption are all those things that are easy to count and trade without long term obligations.

But things that dwell in the more complex territory of lasting relationships appear to need an adjustment to the meritocracy model. It’s great when people succeed, yet when they fail, your duty as a supporter in their network, is to cushion the blow.

AGNES CALLARD: Yeah, so one thing I’ve argued for is that, at least, ideally, what would be nice is a non-punitive meritocracy, right? So you could think that the rewards that people get are the products of their efforts without thinking that the people who don’t get the rewards are culpable or blameworthy.

And this is actually how we interact with people. People find this weird to think about it this way politically, but it’s exactly how we interact with our friends, right? So when our friends have some achievement, we don’t say, oh, well, you started off lucky. Of course, all our friends have various forms of luck, but we don’t emphasize those when they achieve something. We say things like, well earned, you deserved it. This went to a great person. I say this all the time on Twitter when I see people getting things, and I’m happy for them. And I think it’s great, right?

On the other hand, when I have a friend get a paper rejected from a journal or — it happens to me all the time — we have various failures, and we might try to give them suggestions about how to improve for next time. But we don’t say, well, this is your fault. 

The example of helping an academic friend is non-controversial. But we use this same reasoning for helping those who are down on their luck. If a person loses their job, their employer has no further obligation to them. The relationship is severed. But the greater society evaluates this in a non-punitive meritocratic manner. Everyone can suceed to their ability, but if you fail, unemployement insurance is in place to cushion the blow. The same motivation support victims of natural disasters, or support for those who have suffered under oppressive circumstances.

Callard and Klein delve much deeper into interesting aspects of human inclinations in this direction (very much worth the listen). What I’m just trying to point out here is that out there in the marketplace of resource allocation, there are two environments, or categorizations, or (my preferred word) spheres. The private sphere swims in meritocracy and competition whereas the public sphere is cushioned by altruism and network entanglements. They coexist and are both alive and well.

Because Callard likes color

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.

In Memory

Memorial Day is a holiday for reflection. Officially it is a time when a nation recognizes the soldiers who died while fighting to preserve a country’s most pressing values: liberty, fraternity, and the pursuit of happiness. This isn’t just done in the nation’s capital but all over the 1.9 billion acres that constitute the continental United States. If anything, there is greater attention paid to the monuments placed in honor of fallen soldiers from small communities than in large metropolitan centers.

The process of remembering brings history to a family’s doorstep. People review why their uncle was drafted, and how the events unfolded. Perhaps the pain of the ultimate sacrifice still aches a bit. The recall of the story and the memory of the tradeoffs is a beneficial exercise. It is hard to see how things balance out if not told within the context of the moment.

Today, many people will feel an impulse to spend a few silent moments at their relative’s gravestones. After all, we are a product of what our grandmothers and grandfathers did with their lives, in both productive and unproductive terms. Our parents’ reaction to their upbringings in turn influences how in time and effort they contributed to our own. Some of this we may find lovely and some of this may be unpleasant. But there is no separating the unrolling of events.

To take a peaceful moment or an hour and reflect upon the circumstances of their situations, to give credit for their accomplishments within the constraints of their lives and be an impartial observer of all they had to work with is fruitful. At different stages of our own lives, we are perhaps even more appreciative of what was done or not done, and how it all played out. It’s difficult if not impossible to evaluate people’s choices as if in their shoes.

It’s more difficult to know where you are going if you don’t know where you came from.

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.

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.

Institutional marketplaces

When you think of institutions, you don’t think of the definition of the word as much as examples: marriage, the family, the justice system, or the education system. These are commonly recognized as they exist across all societies. Even criminals have their own justice system. Institutions are loosely defined as the formal and informal rules that organize social, political, and economic relations. But if one wanted to use institutions as a defining element of economic activity, it is worth teasing out a few of their components.

If there are rules, it is implied that there is a group of people who both agree to the rules and maintain them. It is also logical that the rules are put in place to maintain or protect a shared value, a common interest. So, in talking about institutions, it only makes sense to state which group is attached to the rules and what exactly is their objective. Furthermore, if the group must take action to support or defend the rules, then we will call this work.

Consider the institution of marriage. The joining of two people by a vow of devotion to one another varies considerably across society. The impact of this variance can help delineate subgroups of institutional marriage groups. For instance, the swingers who find the swapping of partners at a poolside party are probably not spending a lot of time with couples at Good Shepard Lutheran Church in many a midwestern town. Which is a way of saying that the institution-M for the party people, sub-S, has a different social contract and obligation for W work, then the M sub-C who sing hymns on Sunday morning.

I don’t think anyone would challenge the claim that these two groups live and work on their marriage in different realms. But what can we call these special places where rules are created and enforced, where groups of people meet to work in the effort of securing a value for their social commitments? The word institution has too broad a reach and leaves out the notion of an ongoing exchange.

I like the visual of a platter. All the swingers are out there tipping on a platter, mixing with new members of their loosely held marital vows. While the church people recognize marriage time and again at weddings and baptisms and anniversary potlucks in the church basement. If there is a loss of life, people deliver casseroles. If there are signs of discord, the kids get invited out so the parents can work on the issues of discontent. The contract isn’t only to one another but in support of the institution.

These eco-socio-platters are the marketplaces for institutions. Failing to define them can lead to uncomfortable misunderstandings. According to my new book club book, Are Economists Basically Immoral? (Heyne) Laurence Summers got himself into a bruhaha by mixing platters.

Lawrence Summers, the chief economist of the World Bank, got him. self in serious trouble last December when he sent a memo to some bank colleagues arguing that polluting activities ought to be shifted from developed to less developed countries. He argued that the demand for a clean environment has a very high-income elasticity: which means that people become keener on it as their incomes rise. He said that wealthier people are ordinarily willing to sacrifice more for aesthetically pleasing environments than are poor people. Moreover–and I suspect this is what really got him into trouble- he claimed that the health effects of pollution are less in a poor country than in a rich country because the forgone earnings of people whose health is adversely affected by pollution are so much lower in poor countries, because of both lower incomes and shorter life expectancies. Someone leaked that memorandum to an environmental group and a hail of criticism descended on the World Bank and Lawrence Summers. Summers protested that his statements were designed as a sardonic counterpoint, an effort to sharpen the analysis.”

Making comparisons across vastly different eco-socio-platters will more likely make you look bad than good. By taking a stark look at the economic circumstances of poor people and propping their platter up next to where the rich people live, the audience could only feel outraged. Not because the observations were wrong but because they are empathetic to the plight of the poor more than the truth. Being so bluntly presented with the fact that people of meager circumstances have different life outcomes invokes a sense that all is not right in the world. In the public or institutional realm, this is the fuel that ignites action.

It’s not helpful, however, to have false comparison made which instigate action. And that is the fundamental reason why we need to define our platter. Swingers and Lutherans don’t mix.

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.

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.

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.

Downs talks more about the public and the private

In his book Neighborhoods and Urban Development, Downs makes the case that a certain number of run-down neighborhoods are necessary in an urban area to house the poor. He presents a life cycle view of housing that says the wealthy buy new construction as it is the most expensive, the middle class settle into the midrange homes, and the poor find the least expensive housing in properties that are nearing the end of their useful lives.

Through the 60s, many slummy areas in the US were bulldozed. Minneapolis razed an area called the Gateway District in the name of urban renewal. By the 70s there were already regrets about this unscrupulous destruction of a city’s history. What Downs is saying is that these areas are necessary for affordable housing. Yet in his day, cities did not want to host such services and competed to let other municipalities bear the burden of this public service.

As a result, every municipality is engaged in a competitive struggle with other municipalities in its metropolitan area, each trying to get rid of its deteriorated housing and to avoid accepting any more. These struggles are hidden by the unwillingness of anyone to admit that a certain amount of deteriorated housing is necessary to house the area’s poorest households. Instead, all espouse the myth that deterioration could be completely eliminated if only everyone tried hard enough. That would in fact be true if nonpoor households were willing to pay the public subsidy costs of helping the poorest households occupy housing that met middle-income standards.

From an analysis standpoint, it is important to note that different levels of government act as a private parties even when engaged in public objectives. The citizens of a municipality share the resources of that city, but they are perfectly happy to push off other obligations, even incented to, on a neighboring city. In the same way, school districts compete for students from strong supportive families. There is a morphing within the levels of governance depending on whether the analysis is inward-looking (a public action) to outward-looking (a private action).

The change to note from when Downs wrote this book in the early 80s is that there is a different view of homes or buildings in poor condition. Probably due (at least in part) to his insights, policymakers realize a property in poor condition can be a source of affordable housing. There is even a name for them, NOAH, naturally occurring affordable housing.

Competition still exists between cities around affordable housing issues. But now it is in securing state levels funds from Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to make new mixed-use housing projects feasible. Due to the expense of new construction and the lower-income from below-market rents, a subsidy is needed at all levels to make these buildings work. At least the syncing of the public objective aligned, though not always I grant you. Instead of pushing low-income housing off on others, wealthy cities can find themselves competing to house the poor through a mixed-use project. Unfortunately, they tend to lose out on the support necessary to fulfill their obligation to the needy.

*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.

Culture that is Minnesotan

The Andover Huskies pair off against the Moorhead Spuds. 

It’s high school hockey time in Minnesota. It’s a big deal. People take the whole week off work so they can attend the games which are played on the same ice which hosts the NHL teams. And just like for the pros, their stats are published in the Start Trib.

The arena is packed, and the sections are color coordinated with spirit wear. The announcers know the players and the players’ parents. They know the rivalries and the record holding winners.

But the most talked about hockey topic is Hockey Hair. See for yourself.

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.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

I seem to come across two types of articles about real estate. The first is straightforward but rather boring as it simply reports the latest price movements in a ticker-tape-announcement sort of way. The other is a much more complicated, rambling article which touches on every aspect of housing that one could imagine. These remind me of a parable which originates out of the Indian subcontinent. The story describes a handful of men trying to address an issue by groping at it from all sides. It goes something like this.

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

Wikipedia

Pricing and homelessness and house maintenance and building restrictions and greedy developers and disgruntled renters and building equity and housing density and parking and so much more can all be jumbled into one passage about, real estate. It’s too much.

We need some rules.

Most of the population of the area under consideration navigates and open market system of securing housing. They are as much of a price setter as the sellers, including the developers. Who has the upper hand in the market goes through cycles and it noted by things like time on market or number of properties taking a price reduction before receiving an offer. We’ve been in a sellers’ market for a number of years and people have seemed to forget that a buyers’ market will be here in due course.

But the brings up a second category of conversation. The number of dwellings versus the number of households in the area of interest is rarely printed. It seems like looking into this metric would be helpful. Otherwise, it is unclear what happened to reduce the dwellings or to increase the households and thus forcing the increased expense. It would also bring into better focus what groups of people maybe hanging onto unused properties. For instance, if the issue were that older folks had transitioned into assisted care yet couldn’t come to terms with letting go of their property, perhaps there would be some inducement to make that happen.

The third category is around how groups of people learn to live side-by-side. This brings in all that comes before a city council. There are, and rightly so, rules made at the state level as well. In Minnesota we have an intermediate level of governance, the Metropolitan Council, which controls the expansion of the metro. Logistically the number of layers of governance from an HOA to a city to the Metropolitan Council to the State has led to some significant inefficiencies. There is work here to be done to better coordinate these providers of public services.

On the flip side you have all the private activities that go into building new and maintaining existing structures. This makes up category four. The motivations and markets that drive these efforts reside in the traditional economic realm, and rightly so. Contractors, plumbers, electricians, homeowners, carpenters, landlords, banks, and so on all how this operates, and for the most part it runs well.

However, at some point, someone decided that category five, those that need help with their housing, should be the wards of the housing developers. I think it came out of the political language: “We need to build more affordable housing.” New construction is not affordable, it is the most expensive type of housing. This destined-to-fail concept was laid at the feet of those that construct buildings. The real conversation here is not how to fit xx many affordable (by who’s standards?) units into a new project. It is who and how will the entire public (city, state) pay to subsidize the rent for those who can’t pay for themselves.

The final conversation is about taxation. But that’s too complicated to tackle on a Friday evening. But maybe we can turn the elephants back into the jungle?

No Asymmetry- just- what is public and what in private

All urban neighborhoods have rules. The garbage cans, for instance, in our neighborhood must be kept inside a garage or behind an enclosure of a certain dimension. The can might always sit on the private lot, even while down by the curb on collection day. Yet the city residence at some point gathered up in the city council chambers and voted that garbage bins are unsightly and hence violate the public enjoyment of our streets.

Although property rights secure ownership of the home and plantings and outbuildings, the neighborhood considers the outer appearance of the street as a shared good. And hence feels it reasonable to set some guidelines for those who don’t pick up on the nuances of social norms. To be sure these vary from place to place throughout a metro area. Some cities are fine with RV’s in the drive, while others do not permit extra cars in the drive and require garage doors closed while not in use.

Changing times present changing issues. The advent of Air B&B led to concerns around properties being used for entertaining instead of everyday life. Although the use of the short-term rental property is just for the structure, the noise and traffic that come along with vacationers is a negative externality to the neighbors. They are interfering with the public space shared amongst the group. And that is how it ends up on the city council persons’ agenda.

So how about the other way around? If a neighbor uses private resources to do a project which has positive externalities, is it reasonable for them to knock on the door across the street and ask for some equity payback, for having increased the value of the neighborhood? Can they say, “See the lovely $70K custom landscape job, with perennials bordering a gorgeous paver driveway and the welcoming front patio? I just increased your home value, so get your checkbook out and give me a little of that extra equity you’ve got tucked away in your house value.”

The error in the thinking here is in categorizing the goods as public or private. The activity which was done (hiring a designer, picking out the plan, hiring a landscape firm) was achieved for private purposes. The activity did not touch the neighbors’ private goods, like damaging a basement through flooding or perhaps taking down a tree that was right on the lot line. These landscaping transactions are in the moment and fungible.

Improving the facade of your home and thus elevating the ambiance on the road also directly impacts the neighbors (in the same way that a burnt out, boarded up house has a negative impact). This is a public impact. With public goods, you don’t see the cash until you exit the group. The stock of all the public goods tied to the neighborhood may go up and down through the ownership time period- but it is only upon leaving the group that a dollar figure is recorded on these non-fungible values.

Noticing the different mechanisms is a keyway to identify whether a good is public or private.

The reasons why a homeowner would over improve their property knowing that they pay the tab and others will benefit through externalities are important to understand, especially in policy recommendations. The net result of one improvement is generally a cascading effect of others. When people enjoying what they see across the way, they tweak their own property as it pleases them. Sometimes a little seed money from a city can be a catalyst to get the ball rolling.

These are the borderlands where publics and privates get negotiated. In city council meetings and across back fences. There is no one recipe. A reactive, amicable and consistent system of governance seems key.

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.

Look for the winners

I was at Wal-Mart a few weeks ago and kept passing the same shopper as we meandered through the aisles, her going in one direction and me in the other. She was on her cell and was talking loudly as people do. I only caught bits of conversation as I replenished my pasta supply or tried to remember which condiments were running low. She was relaying the equity situation in her house in a heady manner, the way people talk when there is money involved. She was going over it as if to sort it out herself, how the equity she had gained was something to work with, but then she would also be paying more on the next purchase. It was unchartered territory.

There is a tendency to talk about the real estate market as one great monolith of a thing which spans the entire US. Although it is true that you can look at aggregate numbers for the entire nation, doing so eliminates many insights. Proclamations about rising prices (or falling for that matter) is rather ho hum. Concluding that rising prices is bad as it prohibits or makes it more difficult for newcomers to enter the market is true but fails to acknowledge the winners in the market.

History is quickly forgotten, so I’ll dust off this chart to remind everyone of the homeownership rates for the last twenty years.

Loose credit pushed many buyers into homeownership from the early 2000’s until the crash started in 2007. The common refrain back then was if there was a pulse, there was financing. And the rise in homeownership rates climbed nicely by 5%. A lot of the mortgages were initiated at a below market rate which was fixed for seven years. Once the favorable payment expired many consumers went into default, and hence the steep decline in rates during the crash.

But some first-time buyers, who wouldn’t have qualified if the loose credit hadn’t been offered, did hang onto their properties. And now, twelve years later, they have a nice amount of equity. These are one of the groups of people policies should be focusing on today. Like the modest shopper in Wal-Mart, they have gained a nice equity position yet don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here’s another story of a first-time buyer who was able to use family connections to purchase a home off market. Her relative used their equity to move up, and she secured a lovely home. I find these stories much more interesting than, Stop! Prices are rising. The sky is falling!

Veblen, Context, and Claire

Context isn’t something you can see, which makes it hard to put a finger on. To add a layer of opacity, often people have reasons to hide their situations from some while signaling in full regalia to others. One of the first to pick up on the flare some wish to exhibit was Thorstein Veblen, a farmstock Norwegian, an affiliate of one of our finer Minnesota schools Carleton College. It’s not surprising that a-salt-of-the-earth type of guy would be at odds with (what he considered) the wasteful expenditures of the wealthy in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He’s probably best known for coining the phrase conspicuous consumption.

But the purchase of a $20K Rolex watch is as much a ticket to a click as a gang sign. The price tag is only a means of filtering out those of lower economic standing. Within the economic platter of folks who drive Maserati’s or buy jewels at Tiffany’s, the price settles in amongst other choices. Possession of such things delineates the group. Many people judge this, as did Veblen, in a disdainful manner. Though it isn’t all that different or more harmful than other social parameters, set and enforced by others.

Last fall there was fallout when the Art Institute of Chicago let all their docents- long time educated volunteers- go. The group of one hundred or so later-age privileged women were judged to be a closed access group. I have a feeling they weren’t selective. It’s more logical that this collection of unpaid workers with passion for artistic endeavors and creators, is thrilled to shed their knowledge on anyone who will listen. By dismissing these women, the museum lost more than the price of a Rolex, all for fear that their presence would be taken out of context.

There’s the context of expenditure, and the context of appearances and also the context of work. Consider, for example, the dog show folks. Amongst my acquaintances there is a couple who posts more photos about their show puppies than most do of their kids. They live for their dogs. We all had to chip in to buy the local K-9’s bullet proof vests. If you doubt the amount of (unpaid) time people will invest to be part of a superior level of dog obedience, check out the National Dog Show. In 2020 Claire, a Scottish Deerhound, brought home a blue ribbon.

The paradox of the outsider

Say you lived in a small rural community. Maybe there is one main grocery store in town and three churches of various denominations. All grades k-12 are taught in one building, with the younger ages on one side of the building complex. The senior high kids get the classrooms closest to the gym and the middle schoolers fill the classrooms sandwiched in between. Busses bring in kids from rural route addresses.

Now imagine one family is experiencing financial difficulties and the couple is separating. The land they farm came down through her family, so she is staying on the site to try to make a go of it. Eighteen months in, the past due notices are piling up and she comes to terms with the reality of having to sell. Normally this productive land is swept up by competing farmers wanting to increase their holdings. The nearby owners are usually particularly interested as the expense to move large farm equipment like combines is expensive. But the sale stalls- why?

In a small, isolated community there are only so many social activities, through church or the school sports or maybe a community center. When you run into someone at the high school basketball game or service on Sunday you don’t want to read across your neighbor’s face that they think you took advantage of their misfortune. When the idea is to get out and enjoy a round a golf or relax over a beer at the VFW, you don’t want to run into the lady who may feel like you stole her inheritance.

The paradox is that community is meant to be there for each other when times are bad. But in this case the aversion of being accused of profiteering is damaging to those who need help the most. And this is how an outsider can step in, easily appraise a favorable situation and finalize the purchase. The cost of social stigma is not felt by the outsider.

This a corruption of some kind. The community breaks its own rules and allows a profit to leave the group for another. A sense of loss remains. People turn on the outsider. They are the profiteer! They are not to be trusted.

Wright county Iowa

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.

How we talk about the Homeless and the Housed

It was refreshing to see this post from Matt Yglesias regarding the homeless population in Europe. One of the most tiring things I found when I came back to Minnesota to go to college was the erroneous (and all too frequent) comparisons fellow students made between Europe and the US. One exchange program to Sweden and the fountain of suggestions on how we’d all be better off doing it the Scandinavian way was ever flowing.

Another pet peeve of mine is how homelessness is written about in the media. It shows up in articles around the cost of housing, right in there with scandalously high-priced luxury homes and the persistently rising average median price of homes. I question why people do not realize that the chronically homeless do not participate in open market real estate transactions, and hence in no way influence the cost of housing. When costs are escalating some people in financially precarious situations lose their housing, often temporarily. But these aren’t the homeless living in tents alongside the main roadways of our nation’s capital.

Which brings me back to the substack article at SlowBoring. Yglesias takes the time to point out that what market rate mainstream residents care about most is how the homeless are affecting their neighborhood public goods. (And I’m not saying they shouldn’t). Locals want to be able to use their parks without repercussions for their safety and access public transit and use the libraries for that matter. The objections to the lifestyle of the homeless has more to do with their neighborliness than their housing.

But I’m not here to give advice on how to remedy this group of societies issues. I’m here to point out that any shelter for these folks will have to be provided for them. They are not part of the market, and many don’t plan to be, as described by Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle. Assistance to put the fraction who tumbled into their predicament during rapidly escalating prices back into the stream of self-provision, is common sensical. But there will always be a segment of the population who will need to be subsidized.

It just seems like issues of the homeless need their own articles. Mixing the topic of homelessness in with a hopping real estate market is like bringing up the number of entrepreneurs who fail every time there’s a breakout unicorn to write about. As we all seem to have short memories, I’ll take a moment to remind everyone that during a recession, when real estate prices are in a downwards spiral, folks also find themselves without shelter. Again- the homeless are neither borrowers nor sellers nor renters in real estate. And thus, to feature them in a discussion about pricing seems to be more of a trigger than anything else.

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.

What squatter cities can teach us

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

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

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

From today’s Dhaka Tribune:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What will happen to commercial real estate?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warmth of a fire

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

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

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

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

Paper commentary- Surfers & the Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Windfalls from Me but not from Thee

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

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

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

Minnesota State Lottery prizes

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

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

Dark Forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories about visiting soldiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forces and Forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

page 101 of the 1971 printing

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

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

Lighthouses- are they public? And why not-

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

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

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

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

Structure, Milanovic, & Capital

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

Human perception, … is based on the ability to recognize the same structure in different guises. It is the faculty for discerning, in different objects, the same relationships between their parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relative reality and does it matter?

If you follow my blog you know that my childhood was spent abroad as part of a US diplomatic family. My parents were partial to third world countries, and living conditions often involved political upheaval. When we would return to Midwestern America for home leave or between postings, I found myself fielding questions about what had made it into the newspapers.

They were curious about the violence and warfare printed in bold across the masthead. They were curious about the loss of life due to famine or flooding. In their minds the reality of our domestic surroundings landed squarely between goulash and appalling.

What they couldn’t key into, and quickly lost interest in any efforts of expanded explanation, is that the headlines were just a snippet of life occurring all those miles away. There were still shop keepers opening their storefronts, kids going to school, bureaucracies slowly cranking out their workloads. The airplanes flew out of the airports, cars took people to their appointments. You just couldn’t go anywhere, you had to stay away from the trouble.

People in the Midwest knew one thing about the places where we lived and they simply chose not to make a complex ecosystem of the foreign community part of their reality. This is us here in the US. Over there, across the world, they are shooting at each other. And before you judge my fair family members too harshly, don’t we all do that all the time?

For instance, do you remember the first time you met an individual with a substantial disability, like being in a wheel chair? Wasn’t the disability so all consuming that you couldn’t move it out of your focal view and enter the context of the person’s daily activities? Aren’t there areas in the city you live in right now that are inaccessible to you whether it be because they are too wealthy or too poor? The lives the people who live in those spots are out of the scope of your reality and it is hard to fill in the missing pieces.

The reason I bring it up is to emphasize that even though other people live in systems out of our normal patterns of activity doesn’t mean that our interests will never overlap. In fact there are probably many circumstances in which crossing paths could be mutually beneficial.

The point is to not get so distracted by one feature as to shut out entire groups of people from the reality of our lives. Because for as interesting as we all think we are, we are actually more ordinary than we’d care to admit.

Nobody likes the outsider

This morning we had our weekly exceptional properties meeting at a nice two story home in Plymouth. It is similar to the Tuesday morning meeting realtors have with their sales offices in that there is networking of the inventory coming to market, and buyer needs. There is also conversation around what agents are seeing in the market.

The brisk activity has driven prices to new heights at all price points. Normally the entry levels homes are pushed up fastest as more buyers can afford these, and the momentum ricochets upwards stalling out in the higher price bracket. The discussion this morning centered around the numbers that indicate the luxury market surge is outpacing the entry level homes.

Here is the most recent data from the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors comparing the Twin Cities’ Average home price increase to that of the Lake Minnetonka Area.

Lake Minnetonka is a twenty-two square mile nautical playground for wealthier Minnesotans. The story goes that these folks have benefited from swelling stock portfolios over the last fourteen months and are not shy about showing up with cash offers for lakeshore dwellings in the $1-2-3 million range. Hence the price increases here are up 21.9% over last year, almost double the increase over the whole metro.

But here’s the kicker- one agent complained that the last few homes her clients bid on in multiple offers, have all gone to Californians. Then another agent quipped that prices here are nothing to them (which is true!). And another confirmed such fact findings.

It reminded me of an article I read a few years ago in the South China Morning Post: Chinese buyers abandon Australia’s housing market, still get blame for rising prices. Even when foreign buyers had fallen by 80%, the public was still blaming rising prices on the outsiders.

Gentrification sums up these same negative impulses. Someone from the outside, who has more money (or is willing to spend more money) than me on real estate in my back yard is creating a cost burden. In most cases, when the analysis is done, the one event– a few Californians purchasing Lake Minnetonka shoreline- isn’t enough to drive the prices. The discomfort might have more to do with stranger danger than statistical facts.

Housing as a system not a product

I’m really looking forward to this paper, “The Effect of New Market-Rate Housing Construction on the Low-Income Housing Market”, by Evan Mast. Here’s the abstract:

I illustrate how new market-rate construction loosens the market for lower-quality housing through a series of moves. First, I use address history data to identify 52,000 residents of new multifamily buildings in large cities, their previous address, the current residents of those addresses, and so on for six rounds. The sequence quickly reaches units in below-median income neighborhoods, which account for nearly 40 percent of the sixth round, and similar patterns appear for neighborhoods in the bottom quintile of income or percent white. Next, I use a simple simulation model to roughly quantify these migratory connections under a range of assumptions. Constructing a new market-rate building that houses 100 people ultimately leads 45 to 70 people to move out of below-median income neighborhoods, with most of the effect occurring within three years. These results suggest that the migration ripple effects of new housing will affect a wide spectrum of neighborhoods and loosen the low-income housing market.

I checked at the Hennepin County Library, my resource for such things, only to notice on the National Affairs posting says that it is forthcoming in the Journal of Urban Affairs.

What is exciting about the author’s approach is that it illuminates the idea of housing, not as a one time purchase product, but as a system through which people cycle over the course of time. You would no longer have any interest in your student housing, for instance, but it was entirely adequate at the time you lived there.

To look at housing as a system acknowledges that people have different housing needs at different stages of life. Migration is a positive activity, to achieve better circumstances. This counteracts the politically popular concept of “building affordable housing” which is an oxymoron as new construction is the most expensive form of housing.

With this understanding of a system, the efforts to improve people’s lives maybe implemented at each stage by matching them to the community which offers the best support for their interests. By viewing housing as a system of placement within a community, more people can become community workers, and traders of services which benefit the group.

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.

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.

Walking in the trees

Walking is not only good exercise but is a way to touch nature. Ho Hum you say– but not so fast. Even on a well trodden path around Fish Lake Regional Park you can play the “identify the tree game.” Disclose your guess. Take a photo of the leaf. Then have google lens look it over, and “voila!” You have a winner.

The two on the left are the Norway Maple and below the Red Maple. In the middle, coming at the tips of wonderfully craggy branches, are the Red Oak and the Gambel Oak. And to the right top is the American Elm– really hard to find the elms as they were taken down by Dutch Elm Disease And below the White Poplar, which look to have canopies of coins jingling in the sky when the trees grow enormously tall.

Still not impressed? Nature shows us how to sort. How to see things that are similar and things that are slightly different. And then we have to give them names so we can talk about them. This is useful.

Then you can see how other things have properties in common, and see their differences. Take 1. Midwest men laid off after jobs went abroad, 2. Renters resisting gentrification 3. Proponents of environmental reviews. All three are (were) caught (fear being caught) out by the greater group accepting an exchange that will leave their situation worse off.

When America agreed to trade away manufacturing jobs, workers were left unemployed and unable to regroup. When a deteriorating neighborhood gleans the interests of redevelopment, those without the foothold of ownership face higher monthly expenses. When a mine in Northern Minnesota opens, the fear is that it will pollute and damage the environment.

In the first case the damage was done and the fallout was deemed to be larger than first anticipated. The thought was that workers would be able to adjust, take on new employment, and carry out their lives. Note to self: cash derived from private employment is only one aspect of a job, other social aspects include status, stage of life, relationship to others in family.

In the second case, renters are organizing to stop improvements and redevelopments in their area as they feel they will not benefit in any way. They feel that they will loose by either having to move to another area within their price range or face higher rents justified by the neighborhood improvements. Given the lack of understanding of the complete package of social implications and costs in 1., there must be a better calculation for the compensating factors for renters while still proceeding with neighborhood rejuvenation goals in 2.

Environmental reviews appear to have become a political way to slow down a project to the point where investors simply move on. The best way to discourage business– just keep requesting more stuff. If the community has standards, as all of them do, then enforce the standards and be done. It’s up to the business to take the risk. They will be the ones shutting down if they can’t.

All three scenarios involve transactions between public groups and private interests at multiple levels. Each scenario describes a little piece of a very large system. The conflicts and aggravating conversations around such issues stem in part from a lack of enumeration of the various tradeoffs at play. Striving for a proper sorting of what is public and what is private will contribute to being able to count it all out.

Muzzling

I wish I would stumble across a history of the use of tax incentives as a means of financing affordable housing (google?). When I first heard about the various tax rebate methods, including tax increment financing (TIF), it felt a little back door. And it probably was. I suspect political appetite for funding housing, which is hands down the largest tranche of a family budget, was chronically weak.

While looking into the Four Seasons Mall project, I discovered that Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) have become fungible. This means non-affiliated C-Corporations invest equity by purchasing the credits. In return they receive a reduced tax obligation into the future. Give up cash today and receive a stream of money through the forgiveness of an obligation into tomorrow.

On the one hand I salute the effort to generate more financing partners by detaching the credits from the project. (Originally the real estate developer received the credits in order to make the numbers work despite lower rents on the affordable units.) At the same time, by detaching the credits and allowing a C-Corps to purchase them, the mission motive is eliminated and transformed into a pecuniary one.

Furthermore, the successful projects are decided by a bureaucratically designed scoring system. Projects are given points based on a list of objectives. The scoring may or may not actually prioritize the weighted demands, nor the quality of the potential social outcomes. I have no doubt that the Four Season Mall site was passed over as the pecuniary assessments of income (or lack there of). It’s hard to imagine the complex outcomes from residents interacting with higher quality schools, transit, and associational groups can be condensed into a few points on a scorecard.

An alternative to scoring and progressive tax plotting is for mission focused folks to be the equity partners in on the project. This is what happened at Cranberry Ridge. Construction just started on the three story building on May 25th.

The development by Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative (Beacon) features 45 apartments for families who earn less than $52,000 a year for a family of four. Twelve of the homes will be for families who make less than $31,000 a year for a family of four. 

The Plymouth Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and Metro HRA each awarded 10 rental assistance vouchers to ensure the homes will remain affordable for future residents with the lowest incomes. Capital funders include the local nonprofit Outreach Development Corporation, Minnesota Housing, Hennepin County, Wayzata Community Church, Plymouth HRA, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and Wells Fargo. General contractor Shaw-Lundquist, architect BKV Group, and civil engineer Loucks have worked on the planning and development. Many individual donors provided seed funding to support the planning, organizing, and technical work to get Cranberry Ridge approved and fully financed.

The key component in this potpourri of interested parties is Interfaith Outreach (and Community Partners–IOPC), a very successful faith-based social service provider. With forty years of experience helping families in crisis, they are a mainstay in serving those in need. In a sense Cranberry Ridge brings their clients to them, to the neighborhood, making it that much easier to do what they do best.

I much prefer to see the money and the mission be served up in combination. Incentivizing C-Corps to avoid taxes, instead of support the spirit of community, is counter productive. It allows corporations to bypass a progressive tax code. It also gives a general audience a reason to view corporations as tax evaders. Making it all about money is the motivation in the private market, but this is a public good.

And I hesitate to be critical as I realize that “the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program is the most important resource for creating affordable housing in the United States today.” However, one result of the process is that the numbers work out more favorably in mixed use projects. This means that more units are built for the moderately poor instead of the desperately poor.

The Interfaith Outreach folks think this is a mistake. The thought is to house to the most vulnerable first and then work up to nicer housing for the less poor later. They want money to be used more efficiently. Here is a statement from the organization made to the Minneapolis city council which summarizes this view, and expresses recent disappointment in the city council’s lack of interest in taking up the conversation.

Housing is expensive and we will always need to provide shelter to those who can’t provide for themselves. It seems we’ve outgrown the need for a back door approach. Matching the appropriate investors with projects, and residents with neighborhoods could further long term objectives.

Math thought of the day

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

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

Education is wasted on the young!

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

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

A Book of Abstract Algebra by Charles C. Pinter

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.

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.

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.

Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catallactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


To write or not to write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes! No homes to sell

Northstar MLS

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

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

Growing in place

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

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

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

Maybe people are listening.

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 measures that don’t add up

Cost burdened is the catchphrase of the day in housing. Over the last couple of years it has popped up everywhere. Articles posted on all sorts of sites use the phrase without specifics on how they came up with all their charts and graphs. Smart Asset was good enough to describe its methodology.

Data and Methodology

SmartAsset used Census Bureau data to determine the most and least severely housing cost-burdened cities. This data, which we found for 126 cities, breaks down residents into the following brackets based on the percentage of the total household income they are spending on housing: less than 20%, 20% to 24.9%, 25% to 29.9%, 30% to 34.9%, 35% to 39.9%, 40% to 49.9% and 50%. The data also lists the total number of households.

We took the number of households in each city paying more than 50% of their income on housing and divided it by the total number of households in that city in order to come up with the percentage of households that are severely housing cost-burdened. We then ranked each city based on this percentage. We also calculated the percentage of households in each city paying between 30% and 50% of their income on housing, but this did not impact the ranking.

Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 1-year American Community Survey

Most and Least Severely Housing Cost-Burdened Cities (smartasset.com)

You can find more about the American Community Survey here. But I’m pretty sure the information about housing expenses is self-reported by the three and half million who receive the request.

As you do with ranking lists, I checked out my own community (childhood home of Senator Klobuchar no less) to see how we stacked up in the cost burdened arena. According to an extremely well regarded source of data and information to politicians and local officials, half of all residents of Plymouth, Minnesota are cost burdened. Seriously?

I’m not sure how this could be true for one of the more affluent parts of the western suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. So I checked another affluent area on the St. Paul side, Mendota Heights. Here it is reported that 75.4% of homeowners are cost burdened. Clearly there is an implementation problem with use of the data meant to determine those in need. More alarmingly, there it sits in bold bar graphs given to lawmakers and policy people.

But even if folks choose to pay thirty or even forty percent of their monthly cashflow for housing, who is the Census Bureau or the American Survey or HUD to say that it is too much? Consider these three scenarios.

  1. I choose to live within blocks of my parents, even though their neighborhood is a little expensive. My parents are able to provide fulltime daycare for my toddler as well as before and after school care for my two elementary school children. Living in their neighborhood saves our family upwards of $2500/month.
  2. I choose to live in the city which is noticeably more expensive than some first ring suburbs. This location allows me to take mass transit to work, shop and recreate. It’s easy and cheap and I don’t need a car. Between insurance, a loan payment and gas, I save $400-$500 a month.
  3. I chose to live near my congregation despite the monthly rent being high in relation to my fixed retirement income. My apartment, however, is near my church and the fellowship is such a big part of my life. I am able to share transit to and from my doctor’s office which is close-by. Plus I feel safe.

(For some back of the napkin, points of reference, average rent in Plymouth is $1300. An income that is considered non-burdened (28%) is 4643$/mo. An individual is considered cost burdened (30%) at 4333/mo in income. A difference of $310. )

Evaluating housing based solely on monetary income and rent is grossly insufficient. Consumer housing choices are influenced -think back to your own choices- by all the services found in various neighborhoods. Each of these scenarios show how access to family help, transit infrastructure, and religious communities contribute people’s home economics.

Not only is the present methodology, (which is being projected in stereo as if on a national housing agenda of some sort) yielding reports declaring the poor rich as burdened, I argue the use of pecuniary measures, as the sole means of evaluating quality of housing, is starkly erroneous. If a ratio of rent to income is used (as it has been) as the primary driver in decision making, than less advantaged people will always be pushed into the least expensive rental markets. Surprising to no one is the market reality that these neighborhoods are lacking in support structures.

Noah is building an ark

A handful of years ago a new term showed up in housing forums and real estate continuing ed classes. NOAH. The acronym stands for naturally occurring affordable housing. The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund explains:

The majority of affordable rental housing in the United States can be found in modest apartment buildings in every city and suburb.

These units are home to every stripe of renter and receive no federal or state subsidy at all. These Class B and Class C rental units comprise the bulk of affordable housing in the country today, but there is nothing to guarantee that they will stay that way.

Nationwide, this affordable rental housing is at risk. In prime real estate markets, this “naturally occurring affordable housing’ (NOAH) is often operated under poor management or in disrepair. Speculators are eager to snap up these developments, upgrade a few amenities, and convert these once-affordable homes to higher-market rents. This loss of affordability threatens the stability of individuals and families who are displaced, and even entire communities.

It was like a frosty burst of January air through an open front door. A much needed break from endless harping on ‘building’ more affordable housing. New construction is the most expensive form of housing and how it is in a community’s best interest pay top dollar for very few units is anxiety rising for any spendthrift.

It is equally refreshing to read that a real estate investor in Charlotte, Mark Ethridge, is building on the concept of NOAH. Here’s how he got started:

Ethridge had watched for years as properties like this were snatched up by big money investors who’d quickly renovate them, jack up the rents and then sell them off for a quick profit. With an estimated 120 people moving to the city every day and an economy on the rise, growth in Charlotte had put these kinds of apartment complexes in the sights of housing investors who saw them not as affordably priced homes for lower income residents but as undervalued assets.

Ethridge has attracted a bunch of like minded people to run up a $58 million fund for the purpose of providing housing at below market rates. The difference here is that his investors will receive annual returns on their investments, just at a reduced rate.

Bowles insists this is not philanthropy, and giving the fund a for-profit structure was a way to bring the discipline needed to ensure it would work for the long run. “We are capitalists,” he says. “We believe in capitalism. But if it’s going to survive, we have to make it work for more people. A lot more people.”

The city is still involved with help on the financing end of things and in return there is a twenty year deed restriction placed on the title of the property to ensure 80-100 percent of the units are rented to residents at the low end of the income scale.

Ethridge calls the effort “social impact capital,” and he says the Housing Impact Fund’s investors recognize that their investment can be both beneficial to society and profitable. “The nice thing about buying existing properties, unlike new construction, they cash flow the day you buy them,” Ethridge says. “So we will pay quarterly returns to our investors and we expect that cash flow to be relatively consistent.”

Efficient to the X degree

In a Bloomberg article yesterday, Laura Millan Lombrana encouraged governments attending the United Nations climate talks to push oil and gas companies to fix methane leaks. Due to new satellite technology, which helps identify the location of the seepage, there is an economic efficiency argument to such action.

Methane emissions need to fall 70% over the next decade, a decline equivalent to eliminating CO₂ emissions from all cars and trucks across Asia, according to the report. Fixing methane leaks would be cost-effective for energy companies because the captured methane can be sold as natural gas. The cost of repairs and maintenance needed to capture methane can often be paid for by the value of the additional gas brought to the market. 

The new information (as to where the pipes are leaking) is one driver for action, but there is also the notion that the low emissions benchmark, set in the Covid year, offers up a new goal. This combination of information and technology coupled with motivation, made me think of Harvey Lieberman’s concept of “X”-Efficiency. He was a professor at Harvard and is best known for coining this concept. Here’s how he describes it in Allocative Efficiency vs. “X”-Efficiency.

Our primary concern is with the broader issue of allocative efficiency versus an initially undefined type of efficiency that we shall refer to as “X-efficiency.” The magnitude and nature of this type of efficiency is examined in Sections II and III. Although a major element of “X- efficiency” is motivation, it is not the only element, and hence the terms “motivation efficiency” or “incentive efficiency” have not been employed.

He identifies the possibility of meeting a higher efficiency with new motivations, usually in combination with other factors. In the Bloomberg article, the sense of urgency around climate change motivates fixing the methane leaks.

The level of unit cost depends in some measure on the degree of X-efficiency, which in turn depends on the degree of competitive pressure, as well as on other motivational factors. The responses to such pressures, whether in the nature of effort, search, the utilization of new information, is a significant part of the residual in economic growth.

It’s hard to know for sure, but it sure seems like Leibenstein’s “X”-Efficiency refers to the efficiency attained in the blending of the public and private spheres.

Radon Be Gone

The EPA has designated January as National Radon Awareness Month. “Test. Fix. Save a life.” is their tag line.

Those of us in the business of helping folks buy and sell homes, have been hearing about the health concerns emanating from radon seeping into homes for the past twenty years. In the first part of the 2000’s, health department officials encouraged buyers to test for radon at time of purchase. Radon was listed alongside a variety of other environmental concerns on the state of Minnesota mandatory seller’s disclosure.

Consumer response to radon did not match the government’s concern, and in 2014 the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect. The variation in apprehension is best represented by the amount of space now dedicated to the topic in the seller’s disclosure. Lines 279-309 (2020 version) of the body of the disclosure speaks to radon alone–more lines than wells, septics, or any other topic. And two pages of information regarding the detection and harm of radon gas were tacked onto the end. Out of a twelve page disclosure virtually three pages, or one quarter of the document, is now devoted to radon (as opposed to foundations, or water penetration, or roofs).

The new disclosure established an industry standard which dictates the seller is obligated to mitigate a home which tests above the 4 cPi/L established by the EPA. It’s unclear if buyers request the install due to fear for their health, or because they don’t want to be the sucker-who-got-stuck-with-the-bill at a later date, when they go to sell.

Over the course of implementing tests and installations there have been some inconsistencies which have resulted in the need for a final arbitrator. For instance, a few years ago an inspector turned off the air exchange system that a seller had installed in his 1920’s home to enhance the heating and cooling functions. The EPA guidelines state that HVAC systems should be running as normal during the test. However, since this air exchanger was located in the attic (not in the basement) the inspector felt it was an extraneous appliance and turned it off.

The reading came in slightly over the benchmark of 4 cPi/L. As it had already been a contentious negotiation the seller refused any additional compensation. The buyer choose to use $1200 (compensation negotiated for a cracked clay chimney flu) on a radon mitigation system that would not be necessary had the exchanger been left running. They chose between fire safety and radon safety.

By early 2019 licensing of inspectors who perform radon testing was implemented to handle the inevitable variations in the use of the testing apparatus, including decisions regarding air exchangers. Since the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect, a whole industry of inspectors (tests range from $180-$240) and mitigation installers (system installation ranging from $1000-$1800) as well as a bureaucracy to monitor and deal with complaints, has been established.

Background

The story the Minnesota Health Department has been stressing is that cancer is the leading cause of death in the state. But the leader is all cancers. Mortality rates for cancer vary within demographic groups, but generally, lung cancer makes up around 25% of cancer fatalities. Radon is called out as the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking. What they don’t say is that radon is lumped in with second hand smoke and accounts for just 12% of the cases of lung cancer.

MN Leading Causes of Death, 2017DeathsRate***State Rank*U.S. Rate**
1. Cancer9,896146.836th152.5
2. Heart Disease8,230119.150th165.0
3. Accidents2,78844.638th49.4
4.  Alzheimer’s disease2,47434.923rd31.0
5. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease2,46436.339th40.9
6. Stroke2,25032.640th37.6
7. Diabetes1,31219.336th (tie)21.5
8. Suicide78313.838th14.0
9. Flu/Pneumonia6979.948th14.3
10. Parkinson’s Disease67510.23rd8.4
Taken from the CDC’s website

Feel free to chime in if I’m doing my math wrong, but a quarter of all cancer cases is around 2500 (lung). Then twelve percent of that number is 2500 x .12 = 300. In other words, death due to radon isn’t even on this top ten chart. It accounts 38% of the souls that commit suicide.

From the keys on my calculator, I have death from radon registering in at no more than 5 per 100,000. Below this grouping of accidental deaths which make up 6% of all deaths (from MN Department of Health):

  • Falls (2.7%): 21.1 per 100,000 population
  • Accidental poisoning: (1.6%) 12.8 per 100,000 population
  • Motor vehicle (1.0%): 8.1 per 100,000 population

The average Minnesotan is four times more likely to die from a fall, twice as likely to be accidentally poisoned and slightly more likely to die in a car crash. The claim that more than 40% of homes in Minnesota are contaminating people’s lungs with radon gas and killing them is not jiving with consumers’ personal experiences.

Nationwide Agenda from the EPA

One has to assume that the MN Health Department is following a directive for radon procedures from the EPA’s national agenda. However the EPA offers not one article newer than 2003 on its website to validate research tying lung cancer to levels of radon in homes.

A paper from Korea, which looks at the topic using measures of radon in homes, was published in March of 2016 and is the most recent academic paper I could find. It too references almost exclusively research papers written prior to 2000. Ji Young Yoon et all (Department of Humanities and Social Medicine, Ajou University School of Medicine, Suwon, Korea) wrote “Indoor radon exposure and lung cancer: a review of ecological studies” which was published in The Annals of Occupation and Environmental Medicine. There had been no studies to date in their country. They found:

For Korea, we observed tremendous differences in indoor radon concentrations according to region and year of study, even within the same region. In correlation analysis, lung cancer incidence was not found to be higher in areas with high indoor radon concentrations in Korea.

Scanning the bio’s of the faculty at the College of Design at the UMN, not one cites an interest or expertise in radon. There seems to be a lack of interest in funding or pursuing this topic.

How can we be following guidance that doesn’t appear to have been updated or even reviewed in the last ten years?

That was then this is now

Furthermore there has been a dramatic decrease in lung cancer’s claim on lives.

The death rate from cancer in the US declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop ever recorded, according to annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society. The decline in deaths from lung cancer drove the record drop. Deaths fell from about 3% per year from 2008 – 2013 to 5% from 2013 – 2017 in men and from 2% to almost 4% in women. However, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death.

American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society estimates deaths from all lung cancer in MN in 2021 will come in at 1950. Twelve percent of this is 234.

Time has changed the circumstances but there has been no release, or at least, re-evaluation, of the protocol. It’s like everyone moved-on and no one told the bureaucrats. So they keep RADON at the top of their checklist of ‘to-do’s. Meanwhile a whole industry of inspectors, installers and licensing and compliance people are settling into a new market.

It’s that mindset that if, ‘We can save one life!’ Then it is all justified. Yet–if 2020 has taught any lessons it is, that even in lives, there are trade-offs.

Costs

In 2019 closed home sales in the 16 county greater metro area (Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors) came to just shy of 60,000 transactions. Take out new construction (10%) and townhomes (25%), and take out a few for opting out of radon testing assuming 36,000 test were performed. A radon test performed by a now licensed inspector averages $200. The (conservative) amount spent on radon testing in 2019 totals $7,200,000.

The MN Department of Health estimates that 40% of homes in MN will test over the benchmark set by the EPA as hazardous to one’s health, or 4 pCi/L. That would lead us to expect that 40% of the homes tested high and negotiated the installation of a radon mitigation system into their purchase. At an approximate average cost of $1200, that comes to a total expenditure for the state of MN to (36000 sales x .4 x $1200) $17,280,000.

Based on these numbers, Minnesotans spent nearly $24,480,000 on mitigating radon in 2019. The tag line from the ‘EPA Test. Fix. Save a life’ promotes an image of each install resulting in fewer deaths to cancer. But is that true?

The amount of money our metro community spent on radon is a flash in the pan compared to a state budget or even a (metro) county budget. But $24,480,000 for community associational groups, who are on the ground interfacing with those struggling with mental health and substance abuse, it is a pot of gold. And that’s where the money should be going. When a 70+ year old passes, it folds into the course of life. The impact of a father OD’ing, leaving young children behind, or the death if a youth, high on the latest street drug, will galvanize community effects that reverberate, even to the point of burning down a mile stretch of buildings.

Wouldn’t our communities be better off by spending that $24,480,000 on mental health to deter suicide? Wouldn’t this, for instance, help with community policing? I say yes.

Motivations and Spheres

The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t transfer the $24 mil from the radon pocket to the mental health pocket. Government used their ability to pressure a commercial endeavor to set up the radon industry. In fact, with the death rate for lung cancer dropping, it almost feels like the health officials are spurred onto be more aggressive. “We’re doing so well making widgets, lets make more!”

Unfortunately this is a business mindset, for work in the private sphere, one that seeks to expand and grow. The public good mindset is quite the opposite. Since the work in the public sphere is often performed to prevent something from happening–as in this case, to prevent lung cancer. Once that is accomplished, activities should cease, and resources reallocated to other demands of the public that now climb up to a higher priority.

In the meantime, the industry standard for radon testing, at time of a house purchase, has created paying jobs for inspectors and bureaucrats. Quite naturally, their motivation will be to support this new structure from a private point of view. It is not part of their employment to evaluate whether this the best use of societal funds. The inspectors and installers and continuing ed teachers and state licensures and public health workers will support the process because it pays the bills that support their families.

What happened to the feedback loop? Where in the system should there be a check to see if programs are on the right track? Feedback has been stifled because to criticize the noble cause of saving life has not tolerated.

What I am and what I’m not saying

I am not saying I have the expertise to validate or deny the tie of radon in homes to lung cancer.

I am pointing out that public health officials have struggled to get this issue to take traction in the public mind. I am saying that no research in the last fifteen years has validated our present path to safety (and one study has countered it). I am saying that an industry, in the private sphere, has sprung from these government actions, draining over $24,480,000/year from community funds for this issue. I am saying death rates from lung cancer have plummeted in the last ten years. I am saying there is no feedback loop to public officials to demand a review. I am saying it is no longer good enough to make one agenda and then push it through for a decade without any consideration that time alters all things.

For a generation there has been the activist approach in government. Select a cause; implement it nationwide; get the talking points out to all the communication outlets so it is heard in stereo; then never relent. I am saying that this is no longer good enough.

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.

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.

Book Club

One of the benefits of raising a child is that you get to follow them through their interests and endeavors. My college sophomore was required to tackle two novels for his class on colonialism: The Poor Man’s Son and God’s Bits of Wood. Feraoun is the product of French Algeria and Ousame is from Senegal, part of Afrique Occidental Francaise (AOF) until 1958. Both tell stories of the struggles of their countrymen and women during the era of New Imperialism.

Unlike the conversation of today, both authors describe many more groups than the simple division of colonial power and the colonized, of oppressor and oppressed, or of those who take what is not theirs and those who are left without. How exactly the goods, services and resources are shared and divided between all the players is a preoccupation for both men.

Details such as, 180 francs– the amount of Feraoun’s scholarship to Ecole Primere Superieure, and 100 francs–the amount he turns around and sends back to his family in Kabylia. Then there is 25 francs and a container of barley–the amount that shows his family’s extreme financial distress. And 600 francs–the amount the headmaster hands over to allow him to continue his education.

Both authors detail workplace struggles. Feraoun’s father leaves for a time to be a laborer in Paris. When a workplace accident lands him in the hospital he is able, after two attempts, to secure a settlement of $3000 francs along with a quarterly stipend. Ousame describes the 1947 railroad worker strike with specifics on pensions and wage scales and family benefits.

There is a counting amongst the women as well in the home life of the railroad workers. There is the rice that the local grocer is forbidden to sell them, and a fight with the french soldiers over a leg of mutton. Feraoun finds his financial obligations to his northern Algerian family growing as his sisters’ husbands leave them for greener pastures. He counts thirteen dependents on his teacher’s salary.

There are many groupings in these stories; there are the workers, and the women, and the missionary, and the soldiers, and the french educators, and the French who show up to help with the strike, and the elders who feel disregarded–all pulling in many different directions for people’s time, talent, and assets.

It’s as if these authors are trying to sort through two spheres of economic activity, particularly set in contrast by private affairs and public affairs, by looking after the individual and being obliged to the family, as well as by outsiders and insiders. And the good and the bad make an appearance in every cluster.

Without a doubt, the richness of these detailed accounts of choices is far more interesting than the conversations of today.

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.

Graffiti and Barricade Building

In a recent paper, Balancing Purse and Peace:Tax Collection, Public Goods and Protests, Benjamin Krause from UC Berkley evaluates state capacity in Haiti. From the abstract:

Strengthening state capacity in low income countries requires raising tax revenue
while maintaining political stability. The risk of inciting political unrest when attempting to increase taxes may trap governments in a low-tax equilibrium, but public goods
provision may improve both tax compliance and political stability.

The author predictions are very intuitive: 1. decreasing pubic goods (in this case garbage collection) and fines decreases tax collection. 2. increasing public goods increases tax collection. What is interesting to me are the variables he chooses as benchmarks. The research measures the public willingness to pay taxes while tracking their voice as expressed in graffiti and the amount of time some members may spend on barricade building.

… I introduce two novel metrics for independently measuring political
unrest. First, to measure political speech, I conduct a census of and geo-tag the graffiti
across the city. I then use the presence, prevalence, and tone of political graffiti specifically
as outcomes of interest. Second, to measure the most violent or destructive political unrest,
I track the construction of barricades in neighborhoods which are built, and often lit on fire,
as a form of protest in this setting. Tracking both where these are constructed and which
areas are affected provide additional outcomes of interest. As a result, I am able to provide
novel experimental evidence of the effects of both tax collection and public goods on political
unrest – and on violent or destructive unrest in particular.

In my model I propose that in the public sphere, goods are provided when the voice of the group expresses a need and people are willing to do work on behalf of the objective.

In this paper the author measures voice by tracking graffiti. Lack of graffiti speaks to an endorsement of the state or a sign of favorable response to provision of garbage collection. And he measures work as the number of hours spent building barricades to protest against the state. Where lack of work is an endorsement of the state.

Exciting to see something similar appearing in an academic paper.

Systemic

The word systemic keeps getting worked into the conversation these days. Like when kale was in fashion. Some healthy new food that all of a sudden is made part of every dish but you’re not really sure what you think about it. Systemic–it’s put out there in a more or less free standing sort of way without any follow-up examples or stories to prop-up exactly what the speaker means by it. What we are dished up is a description of a (negative) social outcome, one that occurred due to systemic issues.

Dictionary.com offers this: [səˈstemik] ADJECTIVE. 1. relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. It seems we need to understand more about systems. A system is not the sum of its parts. Here is what Lebanese born author Nassim Taleb offers from his book Skin in the Game:

The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts.

from Skin in the Game

So this Thing, that is socially detrimental, happens across a system. But what exactly? What happens that lies beyond the responsibility of one individual, and that echoes within a larger group of activity, that culminates into whatever it is being voiced as systemic? The gist is the Thing is a series of inter-related activities erupting into the highly objectional scenario at hand.

But why settle for gists and innuendo? Why not name this Thing? Why not fully flush out what it is that stair steps its way through households and into communities, through vendors and corporations, through bureaucracies and governments?

Take the Enron Corporation story for example.

At the end of 2001, it was revealed that Enron’s reported financial condition was sustained by an institutionalized, systemic and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has since become a well-known example of willful corporate fraud and corruption. The scandal also brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many corporations in the United States and was a factor in the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The scandal also affected the greater business world by causing the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which had been Enron’s main auditor for years.[2]

There’s that word systemic again. At this (formally) worldwide energy company, accountants at all levels could have called out questionable practices but did not. Through failure to act the organization was complicit at all levels of covering up fraudulent accounting practices.

A contrarian might say, is that really fair? The employee’s contract is to fulfill their job description for a bi-weekly check. Today, in the bright of day, the deceit is clear. But in the rush of the workday was it muddled? When did the private contract between employer and employee take on a public obligation? If an employee calls out their supervisor, the writing is on the wall and the pink slip is in their in-box.

The systemic promoters are talking about failure within an entire organization. They’re saying that a weighting of choices throughout an energy company, or a government agency, or a group of neighbors, have social implications. That the cascading of choices of each ant in the system can allow for a horrific result. That each actor has a varying degree of control, of an ability to say no, of the choice to turn on the group and change its course.

So let’s name that little portion of something that could be done to stop a social ill, let’s call it work. The employee enters into a private contract for employment but carries a public obligation to disrupt actions which are contrary to established social compacts. The portion of obligation is tied to the level of ability to have an impact (you can’t really do much as a first year junior accountant). This is also work–it is work in the pubic sphere.

These systemic issues not only occur within private work life, but also the time we devote to our families and communities. When insufficient attention is paid to the elderly, we hear of abuses in nursing homes. When insufficient resources are paid to depression, there are suicides. These too are due to a piece-by-piece failure within the entirety to respond. These too are systemic.

The Thing is work, or housework if you prefer. Not the type of inflammatory action that the cancel culture takes to achieve their thoughts on their social need du jour. The work of stopping over and taking your depression prone niece out for a daily bout of fresh air; the work of maintaining the ballfields for the little leaguers; the work of staying late one day to scrutinize the accounting that seemed awry but you had to really take a few minutes to double check for inconsistencies. It’s the small bits of work by hundreds (of millions) of employees and community members to maintain a certain standard of established norms.

It’s fine to start the conversation with, “All these xyz bad things happened and it’s Systemic!” But we can’t exactly tackle the correcting measures without understanding where and how in the system work can be done to achieve a better future.

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.

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.

Is it Public or is it Private-Corporate Addition

I’ve been working my way through a list which claims that economic goods fall into four categories– private, club, common and purely public– in order to debunk a misconception on how we sort economic activity. Web oriented services such as Wikipedia, NetFlix and website design hold a variety of placements in the groupings. I think it is safe to say that all three of these goods are private, since, according to a UN report more than half the world’s population is without internet service. Any good provided via the web is private to only the wealthy half of the world.

A resorting mindset is needed in order to tackle vision centered around corporate responsibilities to stakeholders, such as those described in a recent article on the American Purpose by Robert Madsen and Curtis J. Milhaupt:  The Expansion of Corporate Responsibility.

Increasingly, advocates of reform argue that businesses should be concerned about their “stakeholders”—not just shareholders but also workers, suppliers, customers, and society at large. The new movement, which is often termed “ESG” (Environmental, Social and Governance issues), is not limited to progressives and liberals, but has made substantial inroads in the commercial and financial community as well. After decades of espousing shareholder capitalism, for instance, in 2019 the Business Roundtable declared a “fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” in order to better reflect the way corporations can and should operate today.”

Stakeholders capitalism, “ESG” or benefit corporations are all a grappling to give this movement a name. What is it that corporations, which are intentionally private organizations, accomplish towards larger societal goals? Madsen and Milhaupt point out that corporate America has a history of such ventures, though most of us do not need convincing that capitalism works favorably upon social concerns. Even the most fervently socially-minded agree.

Yet the authors go onto express trepidation over who sets the agenda and whether expectations can be met.

Although hopes are high for what corporations and institutional investors can achieve through greater emphasis on stakeholder needs as opposed to narrower shareholder benefit, few of the ESG reformists have bothered to define what the movement’s precise goals should be. This matters because in the absence of a concrete agenda people tend to assume more than is possible, and the inexorable failure to meet those expectations generates dissatisfaction and the possibility of political backlash.

Here’s the thing– there is an entire marketplace of social concerns out there to choose from. No matter what the corporate entity decides to take on, the important step is to collect the data and account for it.

*Decide to devote its social ambitions to rectify labor inequity? Account for the extra training and support and follow the employees long-term gains.

*Decide to devote their legal staff to ironing out the thorny wrinkles in cross-country trade and all the implications of contract defaults? Account for time logged while on the company dollar, and the losses taken when the contracts fall through. Track how establishing standards allowed smaller firms to enter the market with confidence.

*Decide to use the idle time of their tradespeople and send them to a financially strapped public schools to tighten up all those leaky faucets? Account for the hours spent and estimate the savings in city water running down the drain.

The opportunities are everywhere and the beauty of the system is not to be hampered by a particular agenda, but to attack the issues which are most readily facilitated by the business and the people who make it up. To find the passion which galvanizes the employees to give of their time and expertise.

But-this is important- we can’t know how it all shakes out until it shows up in a tabulation somewhere. The trick is that the mechanics are different for social activities versus the mechanics of for profit transactions. That doesn’t mean they can’t be held to account. Already things like ‘good will’ show up on balance sheets. Think of the possibility of two colors of ink on the net income statement; one for profit and one public profit. The former total is by far the lion’s share, as by definition corporations exist to produce financial gain. Yet knowing the later, being able to track, tally, and compare it, will be empowering.

Tracking will also play into Milton Friedman’s emphasis on transparency. Through open disclosure, reports identify the social goals tackled and the benefits of eventual outcomes. It also provides signals where possible excesses, corruptions and silly virtue signaling are occurring, if not out and out fraud.

The task at hand is to identify what counts as work towards a public objective. And see how assets are used, stored and accounted for. To identify this concept of capacity and give it a number. Where do the tradeoffs get revealed so individuals will make choices with their time and energy? How could they be engaged by benefiting from a personal social objective while participating with fellow employees? The angles are multifold.

So I say– do not hold expectations in check. Run with them, write them down and see how they all add up.

Fire Station 2

Our fire station, Fire Station 2, is getting a brand new building next year. The thirty-five year old building is being razed, so new beefed-up accommodations can better respond to calls and better house the firefighters. There’s been a shift change, from shorter 3-6 hour ones to overnighters which necessitates a dormitory.

Firefighting is an entirely voluntary service in some cities. We have a paid-on-call system where active time (training, call response, equipment maintenance…) is paid at an hourly rate. We’re not talking a lot of money, the present range is from $12-15/hour–about half of the per capita income.

So what’s that called, that missing $12/hour? What accounts for the difference in what the firefighter could earn and their paid-on-call wage? Here’s how Ron Roy, the division chief for Douglas County Fire District #2 in East Wenatchee, Washington, put it:

So why do we do what we do? It is about our communities and the hometowns in which we have elected to live and raise our families. We should care about all of those around us and recognize their needs. When they are having health issues, mow their lawn, shovel their snow, or take out their trash. We are the lifeblood that makes it a community. We all need to step up and provide some of our time and talents to help make our community a better place. Sometime, somewhere, you or a loved one will need the services provided by community members.

What he is describing is a just-in-time system of providing services to neighbors who unexpectedly find themselves in need. There is no chit system, there is no direct tit-for-tat. It’s an all-on-your-honor type of deal. This is work in the public sphere.

But back to the missing $12/hr. It doesn’t just vanish. It is a measure of the city’s capacity to respond, in this case, to extinguishing fires, and in doing so saving lives and property. City capacity measures the on-call storehouse of the residents’ ability to step up and provide some of their time and talent in order to advance a public objective.

Counting Intentions

If you could count intentions, package them up and gift them, the residents who had their homes rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, following the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, would be wealthy. Instead, the 109 property owners of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans are taking legal action against the Hollywood superstar for “unfair trade practices, deception, fraud and negligence.”

Just a little earlier this month, another home in the development was demolished. As Federal courts pull apart the issues, it will be interesting to see how judges view the dynamics and assign responsibility. On the one hand you have the wealthy part-time philanthropist, full-time mega-movie-star, versus a group of mortgage paying homeowners, but then throw in architects with a penchant for environmental activism, builders, suppliers and the crime scene quickly gets muddied. The setting has changed from what Oprah.com describes here in 2010:

Leggett-Barnes and her family are some of the first homeowners in what will become a 150-house community constructed by the nonprofit Make It Right foundation, established by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build environmentally sound residences for low- and middle-income families. “We’re cracking the code on affordable green homes,” says Pitt, who envisions the Lower Ninth neighborhood as “a ‘proof-of-concept’ for low-income green building nationally, maybe even worldwide.”

The plan started with everyone on the same page. The recently homeless needed to return to plots of land, which for some, had been in their families for a couple of generations. Brad Pitt pledged 5 million dollars to take the edge off costs and provide the seed money for what ends up being a 27 million dollar project (that’s $247K per house). But then a new public objective starts to emerge, one driven by an environmental passion. Oprah.com notes:

A Make It Right house is eco-friendly from top to bottom, using at least 70 percent less energy than a conventional house of the same size. “We don’t just want to make homes ‘less bad’ for the environment,” Pitt says. “We want them instead to have an environmental benefit.” Thanks to their ventilation systems and solar technology, Make It Right houses emulate trees, purifying the air rather than polluting it and harnessing the sun’s rays to produce more energy than they consume. The homes are available exclusively to people who lived in the Lower Ninth before Katrina, and Make It Right guides families through the financing process.

It wouldn’t be the first time two objectives were tackled simultaneously: Help families rebuild their homes and make the structures energy efficient. Both admirable. But don’t miss that last sentence, ‘help them through the financing process.’ And just like that we’re off the philanthropy playing field and into the private market game. In this venue the owners are expecting to purchase from a developer, not an actor-philanthropist-activist. They sign for a mortgage. The most common number for the debt was around $150K, bringing the final cost per house to somewhere around $397K.

Just for comparison here is a listing for a new construction home in New Orleans posted on Realtor.com today.

Even at $397K (not including lot cost) one might say the extra money was well spent on energy conservation measures and intended health benefits. One might say that, if the properties hadn’t started deteriorating within a few short years.

By 2015, as most construction concluded, the project had cost almost $27 million. But complaints about the construction and materials used in the homes had already emerged.

These transactions had a philanthropic and environmental and private market component to them. The additional inflow of funds to cover the environmental objectives came in, but the new owners of these properties do not appear to have engaged as critical consumers for the core product. They didn’t check into the materials or the mechanicals or the plans. Just talk to a builder rep if you question whether consumers who build with them hover (daily) to ensure they are receiving what was written up in their purchase agreement. Perhaps due to the power of stardom, or the actual dollars being spent on their behalf, the home-buyers seem to have stepped aside and allowed others to do their bidding. Until as the New Orleans Advocate reports:

In September 2018, homeowners Jennifer Decuir and Lloyd Francis sued Make It Right for what they alleged was deficient construction that caused mold, poor air quality, structural failures, electrical malfunctions, plumbing mishaps, rotting wood and faulty heating, ventilation and cooling.

The dynamics of philanthropy allows for an individual (or group) with extra funds to choose a public need and steer their resources accordingly. The recipients are asked only to consider reciprocating at some future date, should they find themselves in a similar situation. If the courts place the blame on Brad Pitt will that inhibit the flow of goods and services from the wealthy to those in need for fear of liability? Were the end consumers not responsible in a buyer-beware type of way to check out what they were buying? From what the articles (USA Today, NPR), they had owned and maintained homes in the past.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The architect John C Williams collected $4 million in fees. There were permits and inspectors and building codes. And maybe some blame should end up at the lenders’ door for not questioning the innovative, but untested systems, going into the project. In the end they are on the hook for the paper if a homeowner walks and abandons their property. But mostly, in the for-profit market, the relationship between the developer-builder and the home buyers establish the acceptable combination of durability, green components and price.

The problem wasn’t a lack of intentions. The problem was that the philanthropist-activists bypassed the marketplace and all the small interactions that make it up. The fatal flaw was the thought that with enough money, and passion, all the feedback and tussles between consumers, and inspectors, and building code committees, and brokers, and city planners, and developers, and real estate agents, and electricians,…that all those players interacting in a market setting, just doesn’t matter.

The market continues to shuffled through the consumer choices when judging the environmental impact of products. Standards are set by producers of furnaces and A/C units; power companies offer home energy audits and neighbor consumption comparison; neighbors talk to each other; contractors share incentives; all in the effort to advance a public goal of energy savings. But at each step that goal must be incorporated into the overall integrity of the purchase at hand, or homes will fall apart just like those in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Praise for Brad Pitt remains high, and the contention remains that his intentions were and are completely genuine. It looks, however, as if he will pay dearly for moving toward an ambition without vetting it through the market system. This story shows us that it is not enough to imagine a better world, and poof! It will happen. Progress takes the engagement of all players, giving feedback through action and pricing. Progress depends on markets.

The History of Hennepin Ave Bridge

When trying to understand why some goods and services are provided in the private sphere versus the public sphere, let’s consider the history of the Hennepin Ave Bridge. Back when Minnesota was just a territory, full of trappers and prospectors and a military force down the river at Fort Snelling, two entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to get folks across the mighty Mississippi. From MNopedia:

In 1847 businessman Franklin Steele and his friend John Stevens established a rope ferry from Nicollet Island to the western side of the river to help travelers cross.

While the ferry helped initially, an increase in traffic necessitated new construction. In 1851 a bridge was built from St. Anthony to Nicollet Island to make the trek to the island easier for travelers. A short time later Steele and local business leaders took steps to build a bridge that would reach both sides of the river.

On March 4, 1852, Steele and his associates were granted a charter by the Territorial Legislature to build a bridge. The group formed the Mississippi Bridge Company and soon after began planning for a new bridge along the same path as the rope ferry. 

The bridge opened to the public in January of 1855. The business partnership of Steele and Stevens charged a toll of 3 cents to the 1450 residents on both sides of the banks to alleviate their $36,000 investment. But there were problems.

The bridge was almost immediately plagued with safety issues. On March 25, 1855, a tornado tore through the area, nearly destroying the bridge. Although it was rebuilt and reopened on July 4, safety and capacity concerns persisted throughout its lifetime that eventually led to its being replaced.

After 14 years, the bridge changed ownership from private to public ownership.

In 1869 the charter the Mississippi Bridge Company held on the bridge expired and Hennepin County paid the company $37,500 to assume ownership. The toll requirement continued until the bonds sold to buy the bridge were paid off in 1872.

This bridge, as well as all other highways and bridges in the state, continue to operate as part of a public transportation infrastructure system. Why some products are deemed private and some are public is a topic this blog will continue to explore. Products and services that meet the demands of numerous groups, whether business groups, family groups, associational groups and so on, in conjunction with a need for some measure of public safety seem better suited to the public sphere.

Money and Power

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 vignette, taken from The Social Meaning of Money by Viviana A. Zelizer, a family finds themselves in need of assistance. They have lost their wage earner and hence their source of funds. Instead of replacing the funds, however, the charitable organization replaces the mom’s job by doing all the choosing and purchasing for her. They in effect removed her from the trade necessary to complete her social objective to care for her family.

Even with the best intentions, the desire to release individuals or groups from the work attached to their role in the production of their public objective, causes market failure. And it is by far the most prevalent and damaging market failure in the social sphere.

Market Structure

An exchange between women on the streets of Lisbon some forty-five years ago seems straightforward enough. Very free market! But there is more to the story than the image of one women clutching a porte-monnaie and another wrapping the fresh catch of the day. More than likely these two have known each other for years, perhaps the families have known each other for generations. Over those many interactions standards have been set, expectations established and met, and even some pricing adjusted if one had run into hard times. The social component of this exchange is in that picture too.

When I was a girl, I used to love the chaos of open markets like the Addis Mercato. The mish mash of it all. The skill of barter. My parents always ask for local advise before heading out in order to know the going ‘foreigner’ rate of things. That way we’d at least have some idea of an appropriate price to pay. A market brings together buyers and sellers who agree to an exchange. In this setting it is money in trade over a rickety wood stall for some durable good.

With Covid on everyone’s mind, it was recently asked: “What is the nature of a marketplace for a vaccine?” When it comes to health and saving lives we always get a little squeamish about accounting for things, for seemingly putting dollars to lives. But even if only in a hazy subconscious way, people still make these choices which involve resources.

Who is at the piazza for vaccines? The buyer is the worldwide citizenry, starting with the most susceptible and to those who have the greatest chance of being a spreader, to everyone else. Who benefits from the trade? Everyone. Who is the seller? Here’s the tricky part. The sellers are a collaboration of the scientific facilities who research and develop, the drug manufactures and some type of government agency.

If you question whether these are linked by an overlay, try to separate them. The researchers have knowledge but need funding. The pharmaceuticals can produce with knowledge, but can’t afford the researchers. The government representing the will (in theory) of the people and can use their money to pay the researchers, but is denied the ability to be a producer as history has shown that this is best left to the pharmaceuticals. But something is different in the mechanism of the interaction between these three. They are operating in a separate economic sphere.

So we’re stuck with all of them. Mother Nature has done a great job of providing the researchers the need they usually have to demonstrate. Hence, the funding process has gone well. Now the two other collaborators are weighing their investments, risks, and tradeoffs. The formal representatives of the people know the profits to the people from a fast turn around on a vaccine is high. There is a large and immediate benefit from scaled-up vaccine production.

Something is different for the pharmaceuticals. For although they share the umbrella objective of providing lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines, their stand alone sphere of economic activity is one that operates in the realm of the profit motive with assurances of property rights. Remember that, at least in the US, they do business in the private market sphere by design. Their incentives and risks are no longer in step with the two public sphere entities.

At these juncture points, where the two systems meet, it can be uncomfortable. At these seams, resources can by hijacked, which makes people warry. And this is true through the ever cascading layers of economic behavior within a system. Which explains the necessity to pull the players apart and figure out which stage is hosting their production.

If the women of Lisbon could figure it out, I’m sure we can too.

The work of it

The question of the day is what is the nature of work. Not work for which you receive a salary, but the work necessary for public production. Bill Green, professor of history at Augsburg College ponders this question in an interview with Cathy Wurzer of MPR. Here, the topic at hand is the toppling of a statue of Christopher Columbus. But it is his inquiry into determining whether such activity counts as work or whether there is some other commitment which is required to, in this case, neutralize the negative historical impact on minorities, which is interesting.

Without a definition, the wild west of interpretation has been unleashed. The loudest claimants promote their version: You must march on Washington! You must forego your police force! You must forego your career (as in the case of senator Al Franken). But did any of these three events materially contribute to the advancement of a single minority or woman? Or could we equate them more readily to exposing, hence a marketing of sorts, of the issues.

Why even does it matter whether we give work some shape, outline its boundaries? Let’s take the Women’s march on Washington in early 2017. It is reported that 470,000 people showed up in our nation’s capital. Many more across all the states. But we can assume that say 400,000 in Washington traveled to get there. So let’s say the whole weekend took 48 hours of their lives. Now say the median hourly wage in the US is $18.5/hour. So for two days of work these folks contributed the equivalent of $296 x 400,000=$118.4million. Use your own numbers, but it is a lot of cash.

The women marching in the photos don’t look destitute or oppressed. They are not themselves in need. They are there on behalf of others. And I believe their intentions were sincere. They undoubtedly felt this was work towards their cause. It just seems like they could have better used the $118.4 million to secure housing for a single mom and her elementary school child, for instance. Or part of that $118.4M could have guaranteed vocational training and mentorship for girls coming out of a foster home setting. There are so many gaps in the chain of needs.

It reminds me of the foreign aid packages from years gone by. They were intended to feed the poor, but the poor rarely saw a trace of it. The work done in a public sphere requires the parties to touch, to interact, to engage in a transaction of a public nature. All this cancelling and marching and firing is just drumming up a bunch of grandstanding.

The Nobel Prize

Today the Nobel Prize in economics was presented to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson who developed auction theory and auction design. The Nobel Prize site provides an excellent background for understanding their work. Interestingly, this includes a differentiation between the common value of a good and the private value as a key feature. Where the definition of a private value is defined as one achieved when the bid decision is made independently of any other bidder in the auction.

The 1996 Laureate in Economic Sciences, William Vickrey, established auction theory in the early 1960s. He analysed a special case, in which the bidders only have private values for the good or service being auctioned off. This means that the bidders’ values are entirely independent of each other. For instance, this could be a charity auction for dinner with a celebrity (say a Nobel Laureate). How much you are willing to pay for such a dinner is subjective – your own valuation is not affected by how other bidders value the dinner. So how should you bid in this type of auction? You should not bid more than the dinner is worth to you. But should you bid lower, perhaps getting the dinner at a lower price?

The explanation goes on to describe the theory of common value.

Entirely private values are an extreme case. Most auction objects – such as securities, property and extraction rights – have a considerable common value, meaning that part of the value is equal to all potential bidders. In practice, bidders also have different amounts of private information about the object’s properties.

The portion of the bid that is devoted to the common value is based on a projection of what the bidder feels others will pay. Thus to have better knowledge is advantageous. Here the familiar diamond trader example if used.

Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine that you are a diamond dealer and that you – as well as some other dealers – are contemplating a bid on a raw diamond, so you can produce cut diamonds and sell them on. Your willingness to pay only depends on the resale value of the cut diamonds which, in turn, depends on their number and quality. Different dealers have different opinions about this common value, depending on their expertise, experience and the time they have had to examine the diamond. You could assess the value better if you had access to the estimates of all the other bidders, but each bidder prefers to keep their information secret.

Now if the diamond traders are from a tight knit community, say of the Jewish faith, than all those in the faith are included in the advantageous bidding environment. The information is public information within the group, private to those at the exterior. This type of diamond trader group is used by sociologist James S. Coleman in his famous treatise from 1988, Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.

Wholesale diamond markets exhibit a property that to an outsider is
remarkable. In the process of negotiating a sale, a merchant will hand
over to another merchant a bag of stones for the latter to examine in
private at his leisure, with no formal insurance that the latter will not
substitute one or more inferior stones or a paste replica. The merchandise
may be worth thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Such free
exchange of stones for inspection is important to the functioning of this
market. In its absence, the market would operate in a much more cumbersome, much less efficient fashion.

Coleman stresses the benefits of assurances. Assurance which can be given due to the greater knowledge of the stones, their quality and source of origin. Coleman says:

Observation of the wholesale diamond market indicates that these close
ties, through family, community, and religious affiliation, provide the
insurance that is necessary to facilitate the transactions in the market. If
any member of this community defected through substituting other stones
or through stealing stones in his temporary possession, he would lose
family, religious, and community ties

Coleman concludes that there is value in this. His view is that value lies in the social ties, or the social network, which parties to the transaction are able to access.

Another more recent use of the Jewish diamond traders appears in a paper by Barack D. Richmond, How Community Institutions Create Economic Advantage: Jewish Diamond Merchants in New York. In this case the value retained by the group are derived from an ability to enforce contracts. Here’s an excerpt from the paper, bolding is mine:

The particularly interesting feature of this system is the economic role
of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox provide critical value-added
How Community Institutions Create Economic Advantage 415
services that add significant efficiency to the system of exchange. They work
as skilled diamond cutters whose polishing increases the sale prices of stones,
and they play the essential role of middlemen brokers who match certain
stones with the buyers who most value them. Their unique credibility provides
the Jewish merchants with a comparative advantage over rival merchant groups
that lack such community foundations, and their role identifies limitations
to public contract enforcement that persist even in developed economies.

When courts fail, community institutions can arise to fill their place.

Here’s what we know from these three uses of the Jewish diamond traders example. All three feel the group has created some type of value—not to anyone individual but a blanket of value across the group. This value has something to do with how the group is connected, how the information flows through its membership. And that there is a commitment to maintain a standard of enforcement.

What is exciting about Milgrom and Wilson’s differentiation of private and common value is that there is a tie-in to price. An auction bring buyers and sellers into a marketplace. And the values that these two new Nobel Laureates observed reflect activity of a private nature and that of a common nature.

As pointed out in previous posts the categorizing of goods as either private or public (or club and common) is inadequate. My first post here introduces the idea that a haircut can have a public (common) component. And I also wrote a post about national defense as there are many examples of how this public good was used to the benefit (privately) of a sub-group. The long and the short of it is that goods are goods. It is how they are employed, by what types of groups, which determines the portion of their price derived from a private sphere and that derived from a public sphere.

Is it Public or Is it Private?

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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