A tribute to the Mother Mary

I’ve been a fan of Walter Russell Mead’s writing since I came across his blog entries at the American Interest a bunch of years ago. In addition to his frequent entries about international affairs (he is now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal) I was captivated by his annual Yule Tide Blog. One entry in particular has stayed with me, one about the Mother Mary.

I hope it’s OK that I reproduce some of it here, as we approach Christmas. I had never read such a heartfelt celebration of a woman in a Christian context. Mead is the first to shine a bit of Jesus’s light back toward his mother.

Jesus is nothing if not paradoxical. On the one hand, Christians believe, he is the Second Person of the Trinity. But, say Christians, Jesus is also a human being. How does this work? Like the Trinity itself, the nature of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ is a complicated idea, and over the centuries has been described in very technical ways by theologians much better educated than me. With some notable exceptions, most Christians have held that Jesus has two natures combined in one person. He is fully divine, fully human—and still somehow just one person, one self. This idea was not formalized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, but the implications for Mary were already clear enough that twenty years earlier she was proclaimed Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus.

Theotokos can be translated into English several ways: the most common is “Mother of God” and a very large majority of Christians around the world considers Mary to be, literally, the Mother of God. Since Jesus’ two natures are combined in one person, she must be considered not only the mother of his “human side”; she is the mother of the whole person. God’s love knows no bounds; his decision to enter history was so unlimited, so unconditional, and so total that God became the son of a human woman.

The Mother of all Meaning

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is another segment.

I like to think that there is something more: from what the Bible tells us about Mary, we know that Jesus was the son of a strong and independent woman. Steeped in the ethical traditions of Judaism, she was passionate about justice and willing to stake everything on her sense of God’s call. She had a soft spot for social outcasts—after all she was once in the position of being an unmarried, pregnant woman in a censorious and traditional society. She was thoughtful and meditative, but capable of swift and decisive action when the time came.

She was unflinching and courageous. She followed God, not social convention. She was ready to be snickered at and pitied by the gossips of Nazareth and to risk her relationship with Joseph to respond to God’s call. She followed Jesus to the cross and watched her son die; her loving presence would have been one of the few comforts he had during that final ordeal.  She was ready to respond to the unexpected, to have her life wrenched out of a comfortable and traditional groove when God showed her that He had something else in mind.

Only someone raised by an equally compassionate and kind woman could have written such a beautiful tribute. It would be nice to thank him one day for putting pen to paper.

Our Lady of Lourdes

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.

#givingtuesday

Did you know about Giving Tuesday? I didn’t. It’s a bit like Give to the Max Day, featured on this blog here. By creating a philanthropic holiday, a deadline is created to prompt procrastinators to write a check and send it in.

NPR ran an article about it today.

It’s #Giving Tuesday — a holiday marketing tradition inspired by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, but with a twist. Today thousands of charities are asking us to open our wallets. But how can we be sure the group we donate to is effective — that we’re getting the most bang for our charity buck?

That question was vexing Elie Hassenfeld several years ago. He worked at a hedge fund, and he and a colleague wanted to give money to charity. Since they are numbers-oriented finance types, they wanted to maximize the results from their donation by finding groups that could offer the biggest impact per dollar.

“We were shocked by how little useful information was available,” says Hassenfeld.

Sure there were the rating sites that show how much a given charity spends on overhead and point up any red flags suggesting possible mismanagement.

But that’s not what Hassenfeld wanted to know: There was “nothing that said, ‘this is how much a charity can accomplish with the donation that you give.’ “

What’s interesting is that the article is a re-run of an article published five years. It seems there is a lack of momentum behind the idea. Hassenfeld indicates that he needed more information about the returns his philanthropic dollars would generate. So he took matters into his own hands.

And so in 2007, Hassenfeld and his friend, Holden Karnofsky, decided to start a nonprofit called GiveWell. The mission: Come up with an annual short list of charities they can recommend based on hard evidence. But it turns out this data-driven approach has its own set of issues.

It’s not surprising that the charities on their list are mostly located in the third world where cost of living differences create massive upsides for local employment of USD’s.

But perhaps there is something missing from a return on investment analysis. Maybe that is not the key index when it comes to why people donate. In order for a more lively engagement of philanthropic dollars at all levels of donors, maybe there is another sorting in addition to information regarding the scope and reach of the charities’ work.

I do to the Individual, or to the Union?

My daughter came home from high school the other day questioning the appropriateness of a teacher (a math teacher nonetheless) in some way incorporating ‘obey thy husband’ in a conversation with a female athlete. Daughter was sure this was out of line. But as in many cases, the story was missing context. The teacher had switched out his identity. He was on the field as the liaison for the high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Still, daughter was a little taken aback by the submissiveness language.

I shared my own story of how decades earlier, while still in the wedding season of life, I had sat up a little straighter in the pew when the bride utter the Missouri Synod version of the Lutheran marriage vows. ‘Obey my husband’ is still pegged in there between ‘honor him’ and ‘keep him in sickness and in health.’ For the most part the Lutherans church keeps in sync with current trends. Yet this blanket submission seemed as archaic as gilded lettering on a manuscript, then as it does now.

As the teacher was working outside of his day job, he was within his prerogative to reveal a small part of his belief system. My kids had experienced an elementary school era of celebrating every other religion by name, while deferring to their own as a holiday celebration. This has conditioned them to think something is amiss if anything Christian is actually voiced above a whisper. The act has become paramount to a missionary conversion of some sort.

But what bugs me more than propping Christianity in a dark corner, is this attention to minutia which distracts from form. The quick objection to a few words of a ceremony takes away from the conversation of what it means to marry. This drilling down of a few words under the assumption that they will fasten a female’s will to some objectional subjugation is a distraction from the more fruitful conversation of the nature of the binding of two individuals in marriage. What does it look like when offset within a community of mutual cooperation? What form do they become when unified before friends, family and God?

I think it would be helpful to view the new couple and ensuing family as a grouping, a new unit. And within that unit the work its members will get done will more likely be based on skill than specific assignment. But from the outside what that unit consumes or contributes is based on the collection of their activities. If they choose to present their views to the outside world by giving one partner the microphone, this would seem to benefit all of them.

No matter the form of a grouping–a couple, a minority, an association– there are frequently others, on the outside, trying to manipulate their public voice. Trigger topics are metered out to stop conversation about form, the basic building blocks of social arrangements. Those few short words, or few awful people, are set out to distract, so folks divert their time to manufactured issues. And in the confusion their voice is stolen.

Who’s highjacking Voice?

Since George Floyd was murdered on the streets of South Minneapolis on May 25th, 2021 the Minneapolis Police Department has been cast as the great villain in the story of racial injustice. The casting, directing and drumbeat against this service provider has been loud and persistent over the past eighteen months.

Democracy allows those who do not wish to be activists, and stand on street corners shouting their opinions, to express their will in the private ballot box. Thanks to the electoral process we can now see how the breakdown of broadly held opinions.

Question 2, regarding the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department, appeared on the Minneapolis ballot as follows:

Department of Public Safety

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot? 

It is not only interesting that the question was firmly rejected by Minneapolis voters in a 56% to 44% margin, but the breakdown of where it was rejected is worth noting. The heat map below shows how the question fared across neighborhoods. In very general terms the southern green portions is where most of the protests and burning of buildings occurred in the summer of 2020. The forest green knot in the mid-right range is the location of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

The quickest demographic map I was able to ferret out (from mncompass.org which is an excellent resource!) is this one, which also shows St. Paul. But it will do the trick. I want to point out that the top left hand section of the map is an area of Minneapolis strongly favored by minority residents. If you cross reference this nook with the map above you will see that these folks strongly opposed question 2. In other words they support the MPD.

Source: 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, adjusted to fit current neighborhood boundaries using the 2010 Census counts. The 5-year estimates represent averages of data collected over that time period. https://www.mncompass.org/profiles/city/minneapolis

It’s good to remember that the loudest voices can, and seem to often, highjack the voice of those who either aren’t ready or aren’t able to speak for themselves. This was true with the early feminist who chose to speak for all women. This has been true in the last eighteen months for those claiming to speak for the black community.

But the truth is fast friends with democracy, and eventually will find a way of expressing itself.

To hire a Mayor

In about a week elections will be held here in the US. The presidential spot won’t be on a ballot for another three years, but there are still some important races in the works. Like the Mayor of Minneapolis.

With the largest commercial center in the state also home to many government service centers, public institutions like the University of Mn (home to 60,000 students) and sports and entertainment centers, it’s sometimes hard to get your head around the fact that only the residents of Minneapolis vote on core services like who is in charge of public safety. (The city proper has about 420K residents whereas the entire metropolitan area has a population of 3.65 million people.)

The city of Minneapolis has been engaged in a very vocal discussion around this issue and in the following video clip you can get a feel for how the political positions have shaken out. The incumbent mayor has risen in his position since the death of George Floyd had him numb and silent. He is more confident and more assured about the path ahead and his contribution to the journey.

There are three other candidates in the conversation. One represents the left/Marxist progressive angle, then there is a the center progressive/climate action candidate, and lastly a very articulate representative of the immigrant community. All in all the clip is worth watching as it pulls apart some common themes seen across the democratic party more generally.

Minneapolis also uses rank choice voting, and the moderator raises the question of whether collaborative efforts on the part of two of the candidates fulfills the intentions of this form of democratic determination.

Jump to minute 17 to get right to the debate section of the hour long public affairs show.

Full Disclosure

Wouldn’t it be cool if every time a public figure spoke, and metered out their opinion, a subtitle line was ticker-taping across the bottom of the screen disclosing which identity the person was prioritizing in the rhetoric? I was just on Twitter and a few local policy types were out denying a certain support of Blah Blah Blah. But are they making such pronouncements as a member of a political coalition? As a citizen of the municipality? As a member of a family?

Because it would be helpful to know if statements are motivated by power positions or sincere objective evaluation of the issue at hand.

Mostly it seems to be about power for the ones with the loudest voices. This is unfortunate for the advancement of the public conversation. The merits, drawbacks and possible outcomes of amendments are not discussed as much as who can do what for whom. I know, I know, that is the political game.

But doesn’t anyone care about the actual results?

I always tell my clients that the only ones who know the market are the parties in the mix, making the decisions around the exchange. In political policy making the recipients of the benefits are only superficially involved in the conversation. It is always assumed the receipt of anything will be beneficial and well received. I think we are shorting ourselves out of feedback.

Political actors seem to respond more to power than to economics outcome. Being able to distinguish between rhetoric for themselves versus their parties versus their constituents would undoubtedly enhance the system.

Android versus iOS

For a couple of decades I was an android owner. The price differential was a three to one, yet for me the value wasn’t. I didn’t need an iOS to get my emails, text, and yes, even use it as a phone to talk to people. The androids were good enough.

Well… I spent the weekend setting up apps on my new iPhone 13 Pro. So here’s what changed and how things are going so far.

But first a little history. The other members in our little household have been ardent Apple supporters. As soon as grandpa upped the Christmas gift money, the first born consolidated some savings and bought his first iPhone. I thought nothing more about it than the need for adolescents to keep up with the other kids at school until we were on a road trip in rural Montana. All our phones lost service on the road, but the kids’ phones were the first to pick up a signal as soon as we hit Bozeman or Butte or Missoula. Given we were on the same plan, I had to admit their equipment was better.

With travel on the near horizon, the need for connectivity is an impending necessity. Upgrading to 5G and those experiences with rural travel had me reading through the spec list at the Apple counter. The kicker that brought the purchase home was the video editing software. I’ve been trying for a year an a half to clip and edit short video takes and had to bail (as often is the case when delving into new technology applications) on it as it was simply too time consuming to figure out. The iPhone 13 promised efficiencies.

Now that I’ve had it for a few days it is obviously a superior machine. It’s not just about image or style, but better features. At time of app setup you are given the option to disconnect from future ads. In skyping I noticed the superior audio. Reading the screen is easier on the eyes. I’m still playing with the camera but the first shots are quite good. I look forward to trying out all the settings at various times of day and night.

I have yet to get to the movie editing function. When I do I’m sure it will end up in a post.

The word Police

A self-appointed word-police-person is out scolding a gardener group member for implied Anti-Semitism. Wandering Jew is the common title for this attractive plant and used as such. What’s the mindset of someone who calls out a stranger in a very public way? See something, say something?

I wonder if that is how they live in their own household. Do they turn every infraction their child commits into a teaching moment? What a luxury to be able to draw-up the busy life of a household in motion to a full stop, in order to reprimand the word, comment, gesture, or eye movement!

Or what about an infraction out in public, at a store, or at a friend’s house? Ms Joyce might carry post it notes which say “dear, we don’t use that word now, we use this one.” And the child must bare it like a scarlet letter on their jersey. This might make for rocky friendships. The discomfort of watching the scolder put her discipling ahead of whatever activity is underway, an activity intended to be fun or enjoyable, could very well cause a dis-invite the next time around.

The fact is we are always letting things slide because life would be MISREABLE if all we did was scold our kids and spouses on all that we think they could do better. Maybe it is easier to call out total strangers for this reason– it can be done without shouldering any consequences.

Thoughts about voice

Voice is a necessary component of the societal feedback loop. But lately the dynamics across social medium has been to divide and isolate; keep groups of varying opinions at bay, isolate and maintain only the voices which resonate your cause. And the echo is deafening.

It feels like a hang over from the 70’s feminists who learned all too dearly the lessons of being shut out of the conversation. First, it’s hard to be heard when you’re not even in the room, nor on the playing field. The decision makers met at men’s clubs and in their notorious dark paneled boardrooms. Men played tennis, golf or shot a few hoops. Women were accused of various gender infractions if considered to be too sporty.

Second, there’s the awkward silence of being completely ignored after taking advantage of an opportune moment to get one’s opinion out in the public sphere. Even as recently as 2017 the minority leader of the MN House, Melissa Hortman, called out the gaggle of men who had decided a card game was a better use of their time than listening to a female legislators expound on a budget bill.

“I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room but I think this is an important debate,” she said, referring to a private room off the House floor.

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/04/04/house-dfl-leader-hortman-slams-white-make-card-game

So is it really that surprising that the job of voice-protectorate immerged to avenge the thoughtless and disrespectful behavior of a certain generation? I’ve run into voice-protectorates. Their strategies are remarkably similar to the ones men were known to employ: exclude, ignore, shun and intimidate any supporters with group expulsion.

Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) the protectorates inevitably leave the realm of honest discussion since being a protectorate has power appeal. (Life so easily turns into a Lord of The Rings saga). The prestige and fear a dedicated voice-protectorate can infuse is so alluring that it becomes their intoxicant. And hence their downfall.

Sure they hide out in a large group of similar voices. It might be hard to identify them at first. But so were the mob guys in the Italian communities of years ago. Then you realize they are not carrying through with the work of the mission at hand. They are more about drawing lines and including or excluding people. Then you know they are about the power and no longer about the mission.

What to do about them is the same as with any imposter. Expose if you can. Count on their obsession with control to show what they are all about. The group will catch on. Then, at least for a time, we can all be regular folk again hammering out the complex nature of life.

First mow of the season

With the mowing season upon us, let’s take a moment to reflect upon the subtle pressures in play which keep the block looking shipshape. Our pediatrician and I bantered around such stories, years ago when my then toddler kids were having a yearly wellness check. He lived in a tony part of town where buffed-up two stories sit on manicured postage stamp lots edged with crisp sidewalks.

A discarded bike in the grass would provoke an arched eyebrow. A creative chalk drawing colorfully leading up to the foot of the round top front door would cause a yoyo effect, as the pedestrian’s eyes followed the artwork up and back. An offensive pile of unattended fall leaves would cause the dog walker to yank the poor creatures nose as they hurried off.

Whether you are more casual about your yard work, or dig out each objectional dandelion at first sight of their jagged leaves amongst the soldier straight grass blades, it is something to consider at time of home purchase. Just how much time you are comfortable devoting to trimming hedges and potting geraniums can determine the admiration or wrath of your nearby neighbors.

To err on the tiptop side will mean an injurious sniff every time a green thumber strolls their pooch down the sidewalk. Err too casual, and you’ll cringe every time you approach your drive and note the massive brambling tea roses full of deadwood. You don’t want to turn into ‘that neighbor’ who inadvertently comments, or pulls a face, or displays some sort of other gesture of disapproval.

There aren’t specific standards on these things. A city may have an ordinance in place to regulate the maximum length of the grass. But it is usually pretty lenient– in the mid-calf to knee range. Even though you own your property, your neighbors have a say in its outward appearance, both through nudging and formal recourse.

You do Math, you do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth-in-Regulation

A few days ago I suggested that home buyers and sellers, at least while in the process of a transaction, do not place monetary value on a city’s truth-in-housing process (TISH). Whether the city mandated point-of-sale ordinance contributes to the transfer of property is not a new discussion. It’s not even controversial in the sense that the handful of cities which require the inspections are steadfast in the process and very few new cities have ventured down the road of its implementation. You can read the Minneapolis Realtor Association position statement on the matter here.

Let’s consider the expense of the regulation in a modest suburb of 23,000 households which experiences a ten percent turnover in any one year. The city collects a fee of $250 x 2300 or $575K to cover the costs of TISH. By design this fee pays inspectors on staff and the administrative burden of processing the certificates. Financially it is a wash through the city coffers.

What exactly do the residents get for the $575K? The idea, of course, is that the condition of the housing stock is elevated to some degree. As you can read in the position statement this reasoning is flawed, at least in a relative sense. The properties that come to market have been prepped and prettied up. Buyers often require sellers to do repairs before closing based on their own private inspections. Furthermore new owners, in their excitement, invest further in mechanical and cosmetic improvements. Just ask Home Depot.

The truth-in-housing process does double duty to the private process of a more comprehensive inspection. The city is perhaps better prepared to catch failures to pull or complete permits, but that is also covered in the disclosure process required my Minnesota law.

Regulations are needed. They are desired. Let’s just be as efficient with them as possible. If the objective is to elevate housing stock, I would argue that constituents may choose something other than TISH. They may choose for the $500K to be shoveled back into clearing up permits for the least advantaged households in their community. They may choose for the city to carry out TISH on properties that have not pulled a permit in the last fifteen years.

Many mechanicals have an average 15 year lifespan: appliances, hot water heaters, even furnaces. In a fifteen year window roofs might be replaced, window and doors. There’s a good chance that these households are not pulling permits because they either suffer from lack of money or the ability to tackle large projects. Wouldn’t this be a good use of half a million? To aid those who are not able to help themselves with their housing maintenance?

I don’t claim to know how a city’s population would respond. But I know the present system doesn’t even allow the conversation to happen. (And those with the most expertise in the process are quite deliberately left out on the permis they are only capable of self-interest.) Establishing a periodic rethink of regulations refreshes the figures, and the costs, the possible alternatives, and the goals.

Wouldn’t it be great if truth-in-regulations were right there, printed on glossy paper, with all the other summary reports of a city’s performance?

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.

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.

The role of the audience

Covid has kept audiences at bay this year. There have been substitutes. The New York Mets had 5000 fan cutouts at their opening game just to the right of home plate. Talent shows are running laugh tracks that only kids who grew up in the 70’s can appreciate. Jumbotrons with a checkerboard of fans applauding just isn’t quite the same as the noise of human hands clapping.

Audiences have been taken for granted. They aren’t considered part of the game, a player in the production, but now that they’re tucked away at home, they are missed. Maybe there’s more to the group of folks that show up, past their ticket buying, and pretzel eating and merch consuming.

Zoom offers a setting for an audience versus an on-line gathering. Today I took a class via Zoom and all I was allowed to do was post in chat, raise a hand or ask a question. The moderator was a gatekeeper saying yay or nay to who got an open mike.

Agnes Callard is a philosopher at the University of Chicago and is on a mission to bring the public back into her field of study. She wants your attention, she wants your engagement, and she wants you to listen. In this recent article run in the NYT, she talks to you –the reader– directly. She challenges her audience not to pre-screen her, not be that moderator who keeps her mike muted when they don’t quite get her and what she is all about.

You are so busy trying to answer this question — trying to serve as judge in the pain/suffering/disadvantage Olympics — that you cannot hear anything I am trying to tell you. And that means I can’t talk to you. No one can sincerely assert words whose meaning she knows will be garbled by the lexicon of her interlocutor. I don’t want privacy, but you’ve forced it onto me.

She counts on you to be her interlocutor, to provide her with a venue to continue her discovery of the truth and the fulfilment of her life.

Isn’t that what the audience at a high school graduation is meant to do? While they listen to pomp and circumstance as the graduates make their way to the podium to receive their diplomas– isn’t the audience saying, “Hey, you did great! You made it this far, we’ll be there with you as you continue this journey.”? It seems like there used to be more of such events, more baptisms, confirmations, more 50th wedding anniversaries. More opportunities to stand behind a couple and as a community say we are behind you; we are here to remind you of the good times so you can endure the hard times; we are here to cook for you when you cannot do for yourself; we are here to be your neighbor.

The audience taking in the Thai boxers sometimes in the ’60’s knows what to do. They watch, they cheer, they make signs of encouragement or reproach towards the refs. You see, the audience is very much a player in all we do. They observe and filter in mitigating ways, they support or fail to show, they filter through all those social cues so we can gradually moderate our behavior. So we can continue to process where and how to spend our time without everything escalating into a protest.

Audiences need a refresher course on how to do their job, and Zoom doesn’t offer it.

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.

No Voice? Exit

From the Pioneer Press:

Two longtime state senators from Minnesota’s Iron Range broke with Democratic-Farmer-Labor ranks on Wednesday to form an independent caucus in the narrowly divided chamber.

Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, said in a statement they would venture out on their own after finding both political parties to be too polarizing. The lawmakers had frequently broken with DFL party lines to vote what they felt best represented their districts.

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.

In other election news

The presidential race gets the lion’s share of election attention, but communities all over the US are taking care of business. Barber Township sits down on the Iowa border and needed to establish who was responsible for the ditches on the town roads.

Straight north to the Canadian border, International Falls said yeah to chicken coops out back.

Drop down past Black Duck and Leech Lake Reservation to Rogers Township where they pulled a draw on whether or not to appoint a treasurer. Four votes, split 50-50.

All ballot questions are here, at Minnpost

Messing with Time- Disney

Disney has added a warning at the beginning of its classic films (Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, Dumbo to mention a few) to pre-empt them from being torn down, ripped up or cancelled in some fashion. The disclosure is basically a reminder that society changes over time.

While these cartoons do not represent today’s society, they are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

Does Disney have the cultural capital to quell the mob? To take away the quills from the Robespierres before they write another dozen orders of destruction?

As groups decide how to proceed with the statues that were gingerly removed after 90 odd years of barely any note, I hope they look to Disney for more than just entertainment. Because remembering the past is vital to understanding the work that needs to be done to step up the stakes for tomorrow.

I’m not sure if Disney’s common sense approach will work. To point out that one might not agree with the actions of decades gone by seems too simple. To remind people that, should they feel embarrassed, disappointed, or enraged with the habits of their forefathers, they can use those sentiments to forge a better future; that the future is in their hands, not the dead guy on the pedestal.

Time will tell.

Is it so simple?

Nathaniel Rachman writes in Persuasion about how the simpleton manifestos originated in the 60’s and 70’s.

In their 1970 classic The Politics of Unreason, the sociologists Seymour Lipset and Earl Raab coined a word for this black-and-white thinking: “simplism.” They defined it as “the unambiguous ascription of single causes and remedies for multifactored phenomena.” 

He notes that these one line policy responses were clung to by the political extremes. Whereas now it is fashionable to reduce all policy to a slogan. In the same way that it is now fashionable to be an activist.

If I retell the last four years as a simple story, it would go something like this. America’s Heartland felt sold out and left behind so they hired Trump to shake things up to make fun of the sharply educated, networked and shined-up coastal internationalists. They demanded that the nation refocuse on the nation itself. As a counter-response the 60’s political types went into a high-gear-radical-simpleton response, unleashing their swarm of buzzing bees on all the social media electronic waves.

For months following the election an acquaintance on Facebook spewed like a fire breathing dragon, reposting every negative commentary topped off with an acidic remark. But her sphere was at odds recently when a well funded Melton-Meaux challenged incumbent Ilhan Omar in the primaries and lost. Suddenly her tone changed to high school counselor sorting out a cat fight in the hallway. This was as refreshing as a spritz of Evian water poolside at a Four Seasons Hotel (we can only dream about such things these days) and gave me hope that we’ve reached an exhaustion point on activism.

Have we finally stripped down the old ways so we can rebuild? Because there is evidence all around us that things are not so simple, that the system is complex. It relies on a vast network of interlinked groups freely interacting to produce value. For instance, the simple response to the virus is to lock everyone down, to deny them access to all the networks they rely on in the social structure of their lives. So high school kids are out carjacking cars and dying in high speed police chases, and suicides are on the rise, and who even knows what amount of domestic battery is going unreported.

As Nathan goes onto say in his piece:

Perhaps the greatest danger is that simplism feasts on its failures. Its ineffective policies will not solve America’s problems, so calls for radical action will intensify. In this mood of crisis, norms are obstacles rather than boundaries. Politics becomes two unshakeable poles, which paralyzes Congress and halts the passage of policy fixes. As long as simplism reigns, America’s problems will worsen—and so the process will repeat itself.

Understanding a more complex system, no relying on a more complex system is our path to a free society. The problem is that the old guard is not letting go. The very natural tendency to hold onto the prestige and power they’ve gained over the last fifty years, by fighting off opponents, has us stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day movie. Their implicit power makes it necessary for them to gracefully exit stage right. In the meantime we wait.

How are things going in Minneapolis?

Personal safety is a deal breaker for most residents. If they do not feel safe in their own home do to gun violence, car jackings and even break-ins, they will move.

It’s all in the comments. Here are just a few from this post.

Changing Priorities in the Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messing with Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.