Quilting

My great-grandma stitched this quilt before I was born. My grandma said they would save up old coats, then cut them into squares, piece them, back them with flannel and pull the yarn ties through.

This all took place through long winters out on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, not far from St. James. One house to every 80 acres or so. There was more time than money (more cold and snow back then too) so this was how people passed the time.

What explains the continued popularity of quilting is harder to figure out. This site will connect you with 49 quilter guilds in the area, and I’m sure that accounts for only a fraction of the women (mostly women) who gather in homes or church basements to sew up their creations.

The financial incentives were shipped off to Asia long ago. So it makes you wonder whether some folks simply have to tinker and make stuff. If they don’t do it for money, they’ll do it for distraction as it brings them joy.

You have to have space for such things like workshops and studios. And if your tinkering is on metal and wood you’ll require a garage with a heater mounted from the ceiling in the corner. Did all those spaces where people bend metal and pound on things get shipped off too, eliminating a creative environment? Have we stop creating new better things because we lack the environment?

Primer Podcast for Affordable Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gentrification-a swear

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

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

Definition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crafter, The Contributor and The Covid Tracker

The Crafter

This week’s local neighborhood newspaper reported on a mom type volunteer doing the homey thing and stitching up masks for anyone who needs a buffer from the virus. She puts a plastic bin of them on the sidewalk in front of her home, and only asks that you donate an extra cotton shirt if you have one to spare.

On Wednesdays, Moira Knutson sets out two big plastic storage totes on the concrete walkway of her home. One is empty, for donations of 100% cotton shirts, and the second is full of patterned masks. Anyone who happens to be walking by is welcome to take a mask from the bin, free of charge.

Like many people, Knutson was first motivated to sew masks for health care workers when the pandemic began but is perhaps unique in that she never stopped. By her “guesstimate,” she’s made about 2,000 masks since March.

The Collaborator

Wikipedia was founded almost twenty years ago and has thrived on a volunteer-contributor model. A paper written by Benjamin Mako Hill while at MIT evaluates this form of collective action. His analysis studies why Wikipedia succeeded whereas seven previous attempts, which involved the general public giving of their time to build an online encyclopedia of knowledge, did not. The paper is called Almost Wikipedia: Eight Early Encyclopedia Projects and the Mechanisms of Collective Action.

Abstract: Before Wikipedia was created in January 2001, there were seven attempts to create
English-language online collaborative encyclopedia projects. Several of these attempts built sustainable communities of volunteer contributors but none achieved anything near Wikipedia’s
success. Why did Wikipedia, superficially similar and a relatively late entrant, attract a community of millions and build the largest and most comprehensive compendium of human knowledge in history? Using data from interviews of these Wikipedia-like projects’ initiators and
extensive archival data, I suggest three propositions for why Wikipedia succeeded in mobilizing
volunteers where these other projects failed. I also present disconfirming evidence for two important alternative explanations. Synthesizing these results, I suggest that Wikipedia succeeded
because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to
many potential contributors, while innovating around the process and the social organization
of production.

Note that last line: “…because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to many potential contributors.” The shared objective was clear.

The Covid Tracker

Bloomberg reports on the Covid tracking project which has been run mostly by volunteers -or- Data Heroes.

Since then, the Covid Tracking Project—run by a small army of data-gatherers, most of them volunteers—has become perhaps the most trusted source on how the pandemic is unfolding in the U.S. The website has been referenced by epidemiologists and other scientists, news organizations, state health officials, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and the Biden transition team. There are other reliable sources for pandemic statistics, but the project stands out for its blend of rich, almost real-time data presented in a comprehensible way. “I think they’ve done extraordinary work and have met an important need,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which publishes its own set of pandemic data (and draws some information from the Covid Tracking Project). “They’re tracking things that aren’t being tracked.”

And this:

The project is a demonstration of citizen know-how and civic dedication at a time when the country feels like it’s being pulled apart. Yet it’s confounding that, almost a year into the pandemic, the Covid Tracking Project is doing what might be expected of the U.S. government. “It’s kind of mind-boggling that it’s fallen to a group of volunteers to do this,” says Kara Schechtman, one of the project’s early volunteers, who’s since become the paid co-lead for data quality.

Work–Not for a salary, but for the public

The crafter, the contributor and the Covid tracker all have something in common. They engaged their services once they found a worthy goal. This, in combination with extra time on their hands, as well as a skill that could clearly be leveraged toward a windfall result, motivates the workers to step up. Notice that the goals fall into public benefits such as (pubic) health, (public) education and (pubic) governance. And this just-in-time response, especially when the need is great, out performs the established bureaucratic system.

These are all examples or work in the public sphere.

Systemic

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

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

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

from Skin in the Game

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

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

Take the Enron Corporation story for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A walk a day..

According to the Mayo Clinic: regular brisk walking can help you:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Improve your mood
  • Improve your balance and coordination

The faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits.

After a section about technique and goals and progress, Mayo says, ‘Starting a walking program takes initiative. Sticking with it takes commitment.’ You see this costless effort toward your health takes work. Work because if you don’t do it you will lose out.

Scenery and wildlife keep me motivated.

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.

A table set for adversaries

Today is the last day of Minnesota’s gun deer season. My husband texted me an update from his deer stand a week or so ago. The warm weather has made the pre-dawn wake-up calls tolerable and allowed for an extended time hunkered down in camo gear. He reported seeing over fifty deer, almost all does and fawns.

Folks who never leave the urban centers and only experience gun ownership through violence and crime, view hunters as an odd breed. They are a blaze orange part-of-their-problem, an obstacle in tamping down the waywardness of youth. Hunting, however, barely contributes to MN mortality rates. The numbers show that fatalities from car collisions with deer are several times higher than death by fire arm while hunting. In 2019 there were 3 deaths on the roads, yet no deaths amongst the 841,063 individuals who bought deer hunting licenses.

The sport is safe enough to be conducted on a limited bases amongst the old growth oaks and quaking aspen in the 136,900 acres of parkland in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. Most of the deer hunts in the urban parks are for archery hunters (including crossbow if you are old enough, seniors get the priveledge of extra power). It is noted that the parks and trails remain open except during the few opportunities to rifle hunt, in which case the entire park closes.

It is the fortieth anniversary of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association which attracts 20,000 members throughout the state. They “ensure that the culture of deer hunting in Minnesota is being upheld by improving opportunities through: Habitat, Education, Legislation/Advocacy.” Their on-line calendar is full of meetings, 7-gun raffles and holidays parties across the 400 chapters with names like Snake River, Crow River, Sturgeon River and Smokey Hills.

You wouldn’t think these gun toting outstaters would find themselves politically aligned with folks who wish to fund the MN Opera, Walker Art Center or Guthrie Theater. You wouldn’t think that they would sit at a table with earnest faced, clipboard toting environmentalists. But politically these two groups aligned on the matter of the health and welfare of our lakes and streams.

Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution in 2008. Beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2034, the Amendment increases the sales and use tax rate by three-eighths of one percent. Amendment dollars are dedicated to four separate funds, one of which is the Clean Water Fund.

The amendment was passed with 56% of the vote. The hunters weren’t going to let the deer herd drink from contaminated ditches, even if they think regulations on other commercial concerns are a bridge too far. And the urban activists simply had to put their resist impulses away for awhile and ignore their other objections to their fellow Minnesotans.

In the first year following the approval, the cash infusion was a little over $213 million, and to date the Minnesota Legacy has appropriated $2.9 billion. Basically there have been very few controversies with the implementation of the fund which allocates money into four pools: Arts and Cultural Heritage, Clean Water, Outdoor Heritage and Parks and Trails. All of the projects are listed for the public to see by the legislature.

So how do you find the adversaries to invite to your next dinner party? Look to where your guests spend their time and efforts. Don’t only invite the vocal ones, the emphatic chirpers. Look for the quiet ones too, doing the work of community. When the cause at hand intersects their activities, a stream of resources can be engaged, even among long standing rivals.

Fire Station 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The work of it

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Nobel Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Notorious RBG

Like everyone else, I’ve been consuming the articles about the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsberg who recently passed away after 27 year on the US Supreme court. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about her until recently. But there are three things I will take away from how she lived her life.

After graduating from Cornell in 1954 she married her husband of 56 years. A few years later she followed him to Harvard Law School.

The law dean reportedly invited the nine female students in the class to dinner and asked, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” Ginsburg said she gave “the answer he expected”: “My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.”

She was willing to make the sacrifice of sucking up a personal assault if it’s that what it took to get where she wanted to go. What if she had stormed out and held a protest and rallied a march? Would women be better off today? Instead she bowed to the expectations of her time, in order to forge ahead. She was strategizing a war plan where emotion pull many people into a street fight.

After she graduated with a law degree from Columbia, she had a difficult time landing a job with a law office. It is apparent that claims of a meritocratic system was (and still is) constrained by social norms. But Ruth Bader Ginsberg must have looked at the employer pool as a group where not each and everyone had to want to employ her. She just needed one job, one employer. And that was a courtship with the U.S. District Court.

Once again, instead of being distracted by an individual or a small set of individuals that blocked her path, she had faith in the larger community. She kept looking for where she could trade her skills instead of trying to convert each objector. She was an optimist.

When it came time to converting opinions in the court room, where she had earned stature and prominence, she used perspective. She brought the claims before the male judges in the form of claims made by men, that way they would not be biased by gender. She wrote the story in a way that they could see the work for what it was.

There’s been some really interesting work done by the scholar Cary Franklin about the men Justice Ginsburg represented when she was at the ACLU, and how when she was bringing them before male justices, the male justices had trouble believing that these guys actually wanted to take care of their elderly mothers or their children, because it was so foreign to them. So in some ways what she was doing was quite challenging to them. But at the same time, being a canny strategist – showing that men had skin in the game, and that they too were harmed by gender inequality – enlisted a broader range of allies for her.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a women who played the long game. And it has paid off in spades for all women to benefit. She is a true feminist.

Here is a nice photo essay of her life.

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.

The Trick with Triplexes

A little over a year ago Minneapolis was getting a lot of attention for ending single family zoning which secured one family home for one lot in 70 percent of the city. Politco ran a headline with dramatic vivid language of strangleholds, and further reported on how activists were taking victory laps following the City Council’s 12-1 vote to reverse single family zoning across the city. The Atlantic ran an article. And the New York Times gave Minneapolis‘s story first consideration in their article.

Yet in this first part of 2020 their have only been, drum roll please, 3 permit requests to take advantage of this up-zoning. The reason being, according to the Government Affairs Director with the Minneapolis Realtor Association, Eric Meyers, “even though new zoning laws permit triplexes, the underlying code was still written with single-family homes in mind. Height restrictions are the same, as are setback requirements.” A seemingly simple request to increase the height of a garage peak by one foot drew an extensive and heated debate. 

Since demand for housing continues to be strong in Minneapolis –the median sale price has risen 5.5% over the last twelve months– and hence the need for more housing units is unwavering, one would think that the spirit of releasing the stranglehold of the single family home would make the process more forgiving.

Emily Hamilton at Bloomberg explains it best: Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It. Regulations that have been built over years won’t be undone with that quickly. Think of this at step one. Now investors are reconvening to put together documentation on the obstacles that stand in the way of the envisioned housing option. They will spend time and resources to go back through the city process and seek approval for building conversions and new builds.

Some investors will call it quits and sit out this process as they fear it is too expensive. But it is in this back and forth between the private and the public that incremental changes are made in order to achieve the goal of more housing units. And in doing so lower the cost of homes.

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