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 the fixing of 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.

Dual Sphere Commerce

For as long as I can remember, my mom tackled an extensive Christmas mailing with mimeographed updates of our family’s progress printed on colored paper. My job was to fold and insert these single-spaced typed communications into elegant cards purchased from UNICEF.

The greeting cards provided a means for people to support the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund while purchasing a commodity. Girl Scout cookies blend this genre of multi-function purchase. And some large retailers, like Target, will donate a percent of the purchases to the school of the customers’ choice, distributing funds to public good providers in much the same way.

When a UNICEF ad appeared as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I clicked to see what they were up to. Holiday cards are still a mainstay with 18 categories to filter through and hundreds of choices from there. But that’s not all. The site has an extensive offering gifts, jewelry, and so on.

They’ve stepped up their offerings but also their accounting of how much the purchaser will contribute towards the benefit of desperate children. For just shy of a hundred dollars the buyer receives a hand crafted ring, and prevents 54 children from contracting measles. In addition to laying out the the tally of how many lives will receive a health benefit, the site allows the buyer to meet the artist. These brief bio’s can further connect buyer and seller through other shared interests.

UNICEF is creating an Amazon of dual sphere commerce.

The Art of Mianzi

Americans might benefit from a greater understanding of the Chinese custom of saving face, or Mianzi.

The Chinese concept of “face” (aka 面子 or miànzi) refers to a cultural understanding of respect, honor and social standing. Actions or words that are disrespectful may cause somebody to “lose face” while gifts, awards and other respect-giving actions may “give face”.

For good or for bad, Americans’ preoccupation with being right and transparency, seems to have folks battling-it-out on every single issue. Calling people out in public. Pursuing them until they are fired. Demanding video to confirm or deny what did, or did not, happen.

There is more at risk than your own embarrassment when you act to loose face, those near you are affected as well. So they act accordingly.

Raising your voice with someone in public is strictly frowned upon. Causing a scene makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf. They may actually scurry away from the scene to save face! Even if you win whatever argument, you’ll lose as a whole.

Don’t misunderstand my allegiance to the individualism and pursuit of the truth facilitated by our democratic system. It’s just with a public health crisis impacting our economic activity, I’m wondering if there is something to learn from those who start all solutions from the communal vantage point. If, by allowing some people, or groups of people, a little slack in making the wrong decisions, we will move more quickly to plan B, C or D? By letting people save face we skip that time delay of digging-in to hold onto poorly conceived territory.

I sure don’t grasp the fine tuned logistics of Manzi. But the Chinese have a whole social capital structure in Guanxi-based corporate social capital tied into their business dealings. There is an understanding and acceptance that social transactions are a component of economic outcomes.

Allowing people to be wrong at times without a public airing seems to be a way to keep the whole machine purring gently. Can’t we just let some arguments die without an investigation? After all that’s how we live our lives. You’ll strike out as a parent if you berate your kid when he’s up to bat, and your marriage will be stinkier than the garbage that your husband forgot to pull to the curb if you make a scene out in front of the neighbors. We evaluate which battles to fight all the time.

Maybe saving face has a place on this side of the Pacific.

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.

Gifts and Gratitude

Credit due to an unknown source

There are a lot of exhausted moms out there on Christmas day. What accounts for the value they find in gift giving? To bring joy and a little material well being to your kids is within the realm of comprehension. But what about all those other gifts?

Business people see something in the cards with lots of scrolls that go out to clients, thanking them this time of year. Showing gratitude is over and above any monetary payment, even if there is a business angle to the effort to nurture their contacts.

Figuring out who makes the list is an accounting of sorts. Your very best customers may get a holiday wreath along with the message of good cheer. Teachers may receive gift cards to Caribou Coffee, whereas uncles and aunts step up to Pendleton socks and scented candles, but your secret santa pick warrants an outright custom purchase.

A gift is, by definition, something that is given with no expectation of return. Yet thankfulness is often a notion in the gift giving tradition. It’s a recognition that there is somebody out there thinking about you. Being thankful affords you a moment of recognition for all those loose and untimed interactions that structure a more pleasant life, including perhaps the $15-and-under gift put before you.

Instead of rolling your eyes when you pull back the tissue paper hiding the token of appreciation in the little gift bag, consider what type of gratitude is wrapped up in it. The gesture asks you to take the time to think and remember when that cousin picked you up after hours from the bars, or Aunt Bee was at home on that below zero day when you were locked out of your home, or how the mailman put your package in a shelter spot on the front porch.

Appreciation allows you to gauge different levels of merit. A fine tuning of need, something that seems to be sorely lacking in some of our large institutions. Gratitude is an important player in the ballgame of human interactions, right up there with empathy or greed. It is one to cultivate.

For Christians today is a day of thankfulness for the birth of Christ, the Savior. The lessons of gratitude and thankfulness are carried out through gift giving. All the others who are simply setting up a tree with presents all around are still listing out their sets of priorities. In this way they benefit from this lesson, believer or non-believer. That’s something to be thankful for.

To all of you–Merry Christmas and good night!

Time and Transactions

This picture may remind you of the children’s book by Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House. A home starts out on a country road and is gradually engulfed by the big city, before it is moved back out to a quiet hill in the country. Over time the land use around the home had changed, so the story puts the house back where it belongs.

Some folks decided Burton’s book was a critique of urban sprawl, despite her objections. She countered that the book, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1943, was designed to illustrate the passage of time. Over time things change. It doesn’t have to be good or bad that change happens at difference tempos. It simply is.

Here’s the satellite view of the 50’s built shoe repair shop, encircled by apartments built in early 2000’s.

Over time the land use around this shoe repair shop had changed as well. The whole city block was ready for something new, but not the shoe repairman. His transaction time table did not match with the everyone else’s. He must have been a hold out as the builder/developer I’m sure would have preferred to bulldoze the whole section and not have to build around the storefront.

The inside of the shop shows all the signs of a long time resident: layers of leather chaps tacked to the walls, boots stacked up on shelving, a bit of dust everywhere. Here’s a small business owner approaching the tail end of his career. Selling his shop would have been retiring, and he clearly he wasn’t ready to retire. The rest of the block might have been working on a commerce time frame, but the cobbler was working on a career time frame.

The parties must have worked out a compromise as the shop still sits on what looks to someday be parking. Someday– when the time is right.

Elite-speak

I don’t remember exactly when I heard a local politician say “a budget is a moral document” but it didn’t sit right. The idea that this numerical tabulation of where funds will be spent is weighing out society’s good and evil in an oversized mechanical balance, seems a little dramatic. Sure, I understand the innuendo. If we spend on fossil fuels we’re buying environmental destruction, if we spend on the military we are just short of killing people, if we fail to spend on public health, lives are still on our hands.

And it’s not that I disagree with the concept that a portion of every price of every good or service spells out an allotment to a whole host of social goals.

As I was driving to the grocery store, my mind exploring the idea of how our family budget was a moral document, I questioned to what degree I was obligated to investigate each product we consume. At every purchase do I question the employment practices, the energy consumption, the sourcing of their suppliers; do I backtrack each and every effort that went into my consumer goods?

It seems a little impractical. More importantly, I have enough faith in the people (the butcher, the baker, the cabinet maker ) as to their choices, or rather the statistical probability that their actions fall within a range of our communal norms.

What’s off about the “budget is a moral document” phrase is that it is elite-speak. There’s a whole mount Everest of activity that is represented in a Federal Budget (or even a municipal budget). Yet the people who control this one document are considered to hold our morality in their grasp. I say have a little more faith in the rest of us.

Hillbilly Elegy

Like many Americans on Thanksgiving, we laid a rollicking fire in the hearth and watched a movie on an absurdly large TV. The feature film was Hillbilly Elegy, a Ron Howard film based on a true story. There is so much material here that is relevant to this blog: groups, public and private transactions, the externalities and the weighing of choices. The threads run fast and thick in this tale strung through several generations. I could fill a month of posts dissecting it all, but instead I’ll stick to just one scene.

JD Vance, the story’s author and lead character, has a tumultuous relationship with his mother played by Amy Adams (who did an excellent job as usual). The middle schooler asks to live with his widowed grandmother, Mamaw. The matriarch quickly starts to clip away at his juvenile delinquent friends and his poor school performance. But it isn’t the yelling nor the screaming nor the fist throwing that changes JD Vance’s perspective on his life and his future. It isn’t a hoo-ha in a shop over an expensive calculator or a potential run-in with the law.

The turning point for this youth, who eventually works his way to Yale Law School, occurs when he overhears a quite negotiation between his Mamah and the Meals-on-Wheels volunteer. JD listens as Mamaw makes a case to the volunteer for extra help in the care of her grandson. This plying of goodwill results in a handful of grapes, a pear and a snack size bag of chips. She brings the bounty back to their dinner table, slices a small chicken breast in two and tosses the chips his direction.

If you know anything at all about teenage boys, you know their stomachs are always begging for a refill. When the calculation of their predicament was tallied up in terms he understood, terms that made common and physical sense to him, the youth engaged. JD’s subsequent actions worked toward the goals that had been laid out for him, but only now he intrinsically understood.

The point is that everyone has to come to terms with their own trade offs and choices. No matter how much others (out of genuine concern or some protectorate fantasies) want to step-in and speak for another person, or another group; to make claims about what people need and all the should’s in the world that they should have; they simply can’t. To make productive choices, people have to understand the alternatives on their own terms.

Apparently the film is getting negative reviews (here and here) by many substantial outlets. I like what Amy Adams has to say in response:

Everybody has a voice and can use it how they choose to use it.

Maybe the open minded need to listen a little more closely.

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.

Money & Safety

On Friday the Minneapolis City council voted 7-6 to fund hiring outside police from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s department to assist with the crippling crime increases within the city. This pecuniary decision to support the MPD is the first since the defund announcement in June. The discussion between the council members and Chief Medaria Arradondo was tense. You can find a recording of the full meeting here.

Fortunately, reporter Mark Vancleave with the Star Tribune, reduce the two hour meeting down to a 9min video clip of highlights:

The council members come at the discussion for approving the funds from a variety of viewpoints. The strongest defund voices place all the work of street safety at the policeman’s door. Money is raised through taxes, salaries are paid to cops, crime statistics measures their performance. The deterioration in safety is all on the police so there is no economic reason to purchase more of a failing service.

The mid-road view is best expressed by Lisa Goodman. She provides several examples of her constituents being assaulted and carjacked and being afraid to leave their homes. She mentions some of the extenuating circumstances following George Floyd’s death including the riots and the retirement of a large segment of the force. In her view, they are purchasing more police power for better response times and general police work.

The wholistic view of policing is voiced by Andrea Jenkins (8min). She maintains that the community must engage with the police force. That the community is also involved in the work to maintain order and safe streets. She is probably the only one who could have voiced this view when put at odds with the defunders.

This view isn’t new. Back in the 1960’s Jane Jacob’s spoke to eyes on the street. Although it is accepted informally that community participation makes a difference, there is no accounting for this type of work. National night out, block watch groups and such are one of those ‘oh isn’t that neighborly’ things that people do. Not a hard cash-in-your-hand transaction.

If public safety was accounted for not only by city budgets to pay officers, precincts, detectives and administrators, as well as by public participation, prevalence of criminal elements, then we would have a universal accounting of the forces that contribute to safety. We would not only want to considered the time people put into surveillance but also the losses people incur when they go back on their group and turn in a criminal.

Instead, some council members are accused of being disingenuous for trying to deny this very real system. They deny it in order to advance another objective which lays beyond their power. But whilst they hijack one economic process in order to engender a social outcome elsewhere, Minneapolitans are getting shot.

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.

This would never happen in MN

I’m not tuned-in to how new construction is done in China, but I can say why this would never happen in Minnesota. Clients are on a time-line. They would not proceed with a purchase agreement until a somewhat (within 30 days or less) firm closing and occupancy date was clearly possible. The project would have to be far enough through the city approval process to be assured of no delays. With the hint of a builder’s lack of ability to retain tradespeople, buyers will shift to a builder that has deep enough pockets to hang onto good workers.

In a very hot market, buyers will put down money to hold lots or condo units pre-construction. This dollar amount is a small fraction of the total cost of the unit. If the developer went bust, those funds could be at risk. Only in the relatively small number of custom built single-family homes do clients risk a construction loan, where the builder receives disbursements from the bank over the six month period it takes to build a home. But the timing would never put the buyer on the hook for the full amount of the mortgage.

7 Billion for a Transportation Revolution

That’s the election news from Austin, Texas. A pretty hefty purchase for a metro of 2.2 million people. More on the deets from the local Patch:

The project came in two separate parts for voters, Proposition A and Proposition B — both of which gained support from the majority of registered voters. The former, which passed with 59 percent of the vote, calls for an 8.75-cent increase per $100 valuation to the city’s property tax rate, resulting in around a 4 percent increase to the total bill, toward a high-capacity transit system known as Project Connect. Prop B, which passed with 68 percent of the vote, provides for $460 million in debt issuance toward transportation improvements —sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails, safety projects and the like.

This wasn’t the first run at a rail transportation package in the capital of Texas. It wasn’t for lack of need. The urban’s center’s population growth for the decade ending in 2018 was 37%. Yet two prior funding attempts had failed. This time things were different.

“There were three main arguments that were made,” says Austin mayor Steve Adler. “One was congestion. One was climate change. One was mobility equity in our city.”

This time the city was all in. The focus was not only on light rail to improve commute times and to connect various parts of the city, goals which appeal to those who could better use the hour from a daily commute, and to those who prioritize emission reduction. But the plan also provides for “transportation infrastructure including sidewalks, transportation-related bikeways, urban trails, transportation safety projects (Vision Zero), safe routes to school and substandard streets.”

Let’s count the public objectives: transit, health, environment, access to jobs, recreation, safety. And lest you think they forgot about housing:

The plan, funded by an increase in property taxes, also includes $300 million to help make sure that as transportation improves in some neighborhoods and housing values rise, residents aren’t displaced from their homes due to gentrification. They’ll do this by offering rent subsidies, building more affordable housing, and giving financial assistance to home buyers. 

Austin’s business success and hence population boom has put it in the enviable position of having a need for all these public projects as well as the financial ability to fund them, which they have tied directly to the assessed values of real estate.

But what about cities that just need one of those amenities, or even just a leg of light rail, or upgrades to a suite of bridges, or replacement of a water treatment facility? What are the standard pricing mechanisms and what are they tied back to in such a way that is financially acceptable to all those who support the improvement? What are the combinations that upsell a project and close the deal, such as this one in Austin?

Minnesota passed a 1.87 billion bonding at the fifth special session held in 2020. Two years of touring and evaluating worthy projects, and still the delays and posturing and addon’s. The beauty of a standardized pricing mechanism is that the crazy haggling is reduced to more amenable swings. And more importantly people don’t feel the hazy disbelief that I did when I walked away from a souk off the central square in Marrakesh after paying $20 for two sad sticks of incense.

Rain drops

‘At least the weather has been nice’ has been a passing phrase in 2020; a Minnesota nice way of putting a positive spin on a dreadful year. The stretch of sunny 60 degree days in our forecast has me deciding which outdoor tasks I can still accomplish. Some readers may not appreciate these temps, but just a few weeks ago an early storm wrapped the landscape in a four inch blanket of white, catching the Autumn Blaze Maples startled with all their leaves yet to drop.

The proper order of things is for the leaves to turn their brilliant oranges and golds and reds, then drop, then get raked up before the snow flies. It’s not the end of the world if the leaves don’t get raked up but blow around in the back yard until snow covers the landscape for a good chunk of the calendar. Come spring, however, when the thaw comes out of the ground, you’ll contend with a soggy mess. There’s the possibility that south winds will dry them out over the course of March, April and May. But the grass will emerge yellow and thin.

Having a patchy pelouse doesn’t make your home inhabitable. It doesn’t come under the must-respond-immediately-and-fix like a furnace when twenty below temps are testing your weather stripping. Heat is essential in a Minnesota winter. Water drips are up there with heat. As water on the loose tends to leave unsightly stains and make things moldy. There are things that you can’t do without and there are things that do damage if you pay them no mind.

A whole host of chores nag at you even though only a few are desperate. Take cleaning the gutters, for example. With an Indian Summer rolling in I get a second chance to get out the ladder and use rubber gloved hands to dig out the leafy debris. Otherwise a stream of snow melt off the roof will overflow, dripping persistently right next to the foundation. A few years of neglect does little damage, but eventually water digs its passage, and seeps through the foundation. Decades go by and the whole foundation wall starts to bow due to the water drops hitting like bullets into the soil and down against the walls. Something as simple as not cleaning the gutters can cause the foundation to collapse.

Community work shares this housework feature, that there are different levels of need that pull one into service. There are those tasks that need immediate attention and receive it. You can’t very well drive by an abandoned crying child at the side of the road. That’s a pull over no-matter-where-you-are-supposed-to-be and help moment.

Then there are those itty bitty items that get pushed aside like the intersections that really need a stop sign. Busy people have yet to get down to city hall and insist on better measures. When a tragedy rustles neighbors into action, there’s a lot of head shaking as to how that risk hadn’t been better assessed.

Assessing long term risks and drawing them all the way back to the present day, into the everyday lives of busy moms and dads, takes the memories of grandmas and grandpas. A shared knowledge of what eventually could happen if you put off the small maintenance items is vital. Only tackling the immediate emergencies, and burning all other time on cosmetics will pull you up short. At the worst time (inevitably) you discover that all the mechanics in your house need replacing, and the foundation is about to blow. Communities are like houses.

It takes decades to run down a house to the point of it being a tear-down. At any juncture, owners can jump in with enough willpower and enough resources to set it straight again. The better path is for people to evaluate all the long term risks, and use this knowledge to divvy up the present day work. Estimating the relative value and effort necessary to maintain and build-on what is already in place. It’s better when several generations supervise and assess the risks and rewards of the work which needs attention.

Redlining’s Reappearance

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

A popular online real estate brokerage service has engaged in racially discriminatory practices akin to modern-day redlining in Milwaukee and other cities across the country, according to a new federal lawsuit.

Redfin is a Seattle based company which entices, sellers in particular, with discounted fees.

In Milwaukee, Redfin was about eight times more likely to offer no service at all in extremely non-white ZIP codes and did not offer its “best available service” for homes in extremely non-white ZIP codes, an investigation by the local fair housing council found.

And concluding with this:

“This is a practice of racial segregation which diminishes access to wealth, access to quality of life opportunities for African Americans,” said William Tisdale, president and chief executive of the Milwaukee Fair Housing Council.

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.

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.

Follow the money

For those who follow the blog you know that I’ve been harping on the distinction between public and private, club and common goods, here, here and here. In my view goods are not sorted in this manner. A hammer is a hammer. If it is used to fix my deck it is in service to me privately, if it is used build a Habitat for Humanity house it is providing a public service to house the unsheltered.

The reason it is necessary to resort this understanding is because it is how we can see corruption. Corruption is not just up to politicians. A system can be corrupt and individuals, small groups and so on. When a set of rules are put into play, but then through cloaking and shading people (or groups of people) pursue other objectives, there is corruption.

Take the case of Embrace, a domestic violence shelter, that’s been in the news. The local police in Barron’s County Wisconsin objected to the posting of BLM posters around their building. And felt this posting calling out police violence, discredited their service. As a result public funding for the shelter was revoked. Here are the Huffington Post, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Washington Post articles.

Embrace states their core mission

To end violence, inspire hope and provide unwavering support to all people affected by domestic and sexual violence by engaging our community in safety, equality and partnership.

Now remember domestic violence persists when the normal social catches fail. When there are no close family members to pull their daughter, son or elderly parent out of an abusive situation. When there are no neighbors who notice excessive bruising and quietly offer the victim a way out. Domestic violence requires a formal force intervention because no other means of social exchange has worked or been available. And from what I understand, these types of calls are frequent and precarious for the police.

Given the necessity of the police to intervene in order to get the abused to their doorstep, you would think the shelter would consider this public agency as a core part of their workplan. As to why the shelter declined to remove their signs, Katie Bement the shelter’s executive director told the Huff Post:

“We were approaching it from an accessibility standpoint,” she told HuffPost over Zoom on Thursday. “We needed to show that we’re safe for those communities of color.”

Yet Barron county’s black population is .14% (a fifteenth of 1 percent) of all residents. I’m not sure how many of those 62 people would be drive by the shelter first before making a call for help or finding them on-line. I don’t have the statistics from police response rates or the shelter’s service records, but I suspect the demographics of those receiving aid lines up with the 97%.

As much as the shelter would like to merge the work they do in Barron County with the objectives of BLM the demographics seems to deny them this reality. The group they provide services to are overwhelmingly, if not completely unaffected by the concerns of BLM. In fact the two missions are at odds with one another as the later has diminished the abilities of police to provide security nationwide. Which is undoubtedly why the county pulled funding.

Now back to corruption.

Within a day of the Huffington post article being run, a GoFundMe page was set up for the shelter. Before dinnertime they had surpassed their $25K goal. As of this morning (screen shot included) the page is reporting a kitty of over $69K. Would the shelter have been able to raise this funding without the BLM story behind it? By accepting these donations has the shelter’s mission changed?

If you publish one set of objectives yet acquire funding for another, it seems that you are at odds with your group. It’s not that groups can’t change their rules or objectives, its just that you have to be clear about them so people know what they how their resources are being invested.

A public of Two

When I was young 50th wedding anniversaries were common. The local golf course was the venue for gatherings and cake, and for testimonials from friends and relatives. Stories about the young couple’s meeting and courtship, and then marriage and the crazy baby years, were spun out over the white table clothed tables. Maybe there were even stories of difficult times and persistence. In today’s world an announcement about an anniversary surpassing the 30 year mark is commented upon, oddly with: WOW! Congratulations!!

This most basic public of two, (as the property they share is available to them both and actions of one effect the health, wealth and well-being of the other) continues to be threatened by a considerable risk of dissolution. “About 90% of people in Western cultures marry by age 50. In the United States, about 50% of married couples divorce, the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world. Subsequent marriages have an even higher divorce rate: 60% of second marriages end in divorce and 73% of all third marriages end in divorce.”

You would think the benefits of a longer life would be an incentive for all those folks to stick together. The CDC reports: “Previous studies have found that married persons have lower mortality rates than unmarried persons, attributable to either selectivity in entering marriage (i.e., healthier people are more likely to marry) or health-protective effects of marriage, or a combination of the two (1,2). ” Even in the COVID numbers we find “strong and stable families seem to be more resistant to the pandemic.”

Things only get worse as people age and live alone which leads to a crisis of loneliness. In Minnesota the total number of housing units is 2,477,753. With the total population at 5,639,632 the average number per household ends up at 2.49. So everytime you can think of a household made up of more than two people, there is someone living alone. The estimates I saw came in at 20-23% of the population. That’s a lot of singles.

So what gives when the advantages of coupling are out there for all to see. I’m starting a list:

  • With both parties in the work force, the short term transactional nature of business sub-plants the long term ambitions of a social contract.
  • Fear of being duped -don’t take it.
  • The transactional measure of giving ‘enough’ should be replaced by the social measure of giving their best effort.
  • Lack of celebrations that recognize couples in front of an audience.
  • No standards for friends and family to support or constructively comment.
  • Avoid failing at marriage by not getting married.

The data proves that marriage is good for us. So why folks don’t invest a little more work in staying together is odd to me.

Is it Public or Is it Private?

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Who is NOAH anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fungible is more Fun

What does it mean for a transaction to be fungible, or non-fungible? Here’s the dictionary’s definition for the word when googled;

fun·gi·ble/ˈfənjəbəl/Learn to pronounce adjective LAW adjective: fungible

(of goods contracted for without an individual specimen being specified) able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.”it is by no means the worlds only fungible commodity”

Wikipedia talks about fungibilty in this way:

In economicsfungibility is the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are essentially interchangeable, and each of its parts is indistinguishable from another part.[1][2]

For example, gold is fungible since one kilogram of pure gold is equivalent to any other kilogram of pure gold, whether in the form of coins, ingots, or in other states. Other fungible commodities include sweet crude oil, company shares, bonds, other precious metals, and currencies. Fungibility refers only to the equivalence and indistinguishability of each unit of a commodity with other units of the same commodity, and not to the exchange of one commodity for another.

In the sense of a transaction being fungible or non-fungible I offer the following understanding. If you buy your gas at a Holiday station, whether it is on the corner leaving your neighborhood, or the one near your place of work or the one half way to your vacation destination, the transaction is the same. One purchases a indistinguishable commodity which is paid for with some form of currency of consistent value. The transaction starts and ends in the matter of minutes. It is fungible.

Now consider a different type of transaction, one that happens in a neighborhood. Every morning nine to ten kids gather at a bus stop to catch a yellow bus to the local elementary school. School starts at 9am and ends at 3pm. Most kids stay for after school programming so their parents have a chance to get home and pick them up before heading home to pull something together for dinner.

Now say it is mid January in a northern climate, and a mega storm develops predicting twelve inches of snowfall. The schools close at noon before buses full of children slide into the ditch and the roads are gridlocked as the snowplows can’t keep up with the descending flakes. Afterschool programming is cancelled leaving working parents in a bind.

One of the parents, call her Amanda R, works third shift at the hospital, and has the means to contact everyone as the families went through Baby-and-Me classes together at the community center. She lets them know she’ll be at the bus stop to collect the first-through-six-graders and let them hang out at her house. “Drive safe!” emphasises the text.

If the families would have taken personal time from work to the tune of four hours each, that would have amounted to thirty-two work hours. (With an average wage in Minnesota at $58K/yr, that comes to $892). Amanda R doesn’t expect payment for her offer. She knows that over the course of their elementary school experience there will be a track and field day, and the third grade band concert (that only a parent can love) and the fifth grade science fair and the list goes on. There will be plenty of opportunities for parents to stand in for each other.

The work Amanda R did to allow parents to stay at their jobs while keeping their kids safe from harm was a non-fungible transaction. She won’t receive any immediate payment or exchange for her time. She can’t trade those hours within another neighbor down the block. What she’s betting is that she will receive assistance many times throughout her kids’ school experience.

Certainly it might be more fun to work for cash and spend it on concert tickets or new clothes or a trip. But the beauty of non-fungible transactions is that they are held within the group and often engaged when the stakes are high.

Here’s the deal 101

Our local NBC news outlet recently ran a story about an elderly couple receiving help from neighbors after being criticized for not keeping up the exterior paint on their home. It totaled $67,000 worth of help. There is no name given to this transfer of money. When a private party helps themselves to $67,000 from their employer it is called embezzlement. When a politician helps themselves to $67,000 from their campaign fund it is called corruption.

The old school explanation for this activity is to denote it as a form of charity. But is it really a gift? Neighborliness is a term that shows up on surveys. But what does that mean? I see this exchange between the neighbors of Gloucester is the most basic transaction in a economy of groups. Let’s pull it apart.

It all started with an anonymous note left for the couple which read, “Please Paint Me! 😦 Eye sore – Your Neighbors. Thanks.” Although clearly written by one individual, the message is presented as a community concern. Signed, your neighbors. You’ve probably heard this type of chatter before. A house on a main road is dilapidated, or decorated with eccentric siding. Comments like, ‘I really wish someone would do something about that place.’ Or, ‘Some people are bringing down the neighborhood!’ So although one neighbor wrote the note, thoughts of this nature were undoubtedly mulled over by many a passerby.

A personal residence is deemed the bastion of private property, and property rights are a keystone feature of our economic system. But the note indicates that there is a hazy area not reflected in the legal deed, filed in the county records, which spells out the owners names. The area residents feel they have a right to demand that the exterior meet their expectations. This is not a novel idea. In fact cities even have ordinances which address the exteriors of properties regarding thresholds for debris removal and grass mowing.

The couples’ daughter took to social media to voice her response to the note. She points out that her parents had lived in community for the past 50 years. And that during this long history they had maintained their home, and hence contributed many years of service towards an acceptable streetscape. “My family for many years took care and maintained this house as best they could…” 

The reason for the disrepair could happen to anyone, it was an act of nature. The article reports that “Marilyn, 72, developed multiple sclerosis about 30 years ago and is mostly confined to her bed, and Jimmy, 71, recently recovered from a quadruple bypass…” Health concerns take time and resources away from the couples ability to comply with the norms of the neighborhood.

Once the word got out about the need, once demand for goods and services was established, a voluntary response from the community resulted in a $67,000 balance in a GoFundMe account. Currency is very liquid, yet these funds are not fungible. As the report confirms the money is “to be used for new siding on their home, new windows, roof and stairs.”

There is no reporting of free riding or extortion, even though funds are seemingly extracted from a greater group to a private party. Nor is this activity portrayed in a religious or moral sense. The voluntary transfer of resources to improve the exterior of the home is held together by a communal objective, one that the recipients contributed to over. This transparent and voluntary activity is the most basic transaction in economy of groups.

“People look out for each other in Gloucester,” he said. “If somebody needs some help, we just get together and do it. It’s all just very heartwarming.” What I hear him saying is that Gloucester is a town with a free an open economy. And yes, that is heartwarming.