To paint a church

 

If Wall Street is the mainstay of pecuniary transactions, then the church (of the denomination your choice) is that of social welfare. Still- even centers of voluntary good works have needs that are best served in private markets. One of those is the maintenance and upkeep of their assembly halls.

The photo above is an example of a spectacular building whose beauty requires regular and costly upkeep. For that reason, from what I hear, the parishioners have considered replacing it with a more modern structure. This in turn upset some local folks in this town of 4500 people who can’t bear the thought of it being leveled.

To model this scenario let’s consider what is public and what is private. Though the church owns this fine house of worship privately, other townsmen and women feel that its historical value is public to their community. But there are others who could have a public interest in this beautiful building beyond the valley in which it is nestled in. There are enthusiasts of architecture and enthusiasts of Catholicism and enthusiasts of the American frontier. The preservation of this structure undoubtedly has support beyond what is obvious.

The traditional method of holding onto vintage buildings is to create historic districts. This lays the ongoing expense at the doorstep of the party who holds it in private ownership. And these districts often depress the market value of the parcels as restrictions are not market friendly. In other words, to take what should be traded in the public sphere and force those desires into the private market is inefficient.

It would make more sense if the ‘publics’ who have an interest in this building had a structural option to support the maintenance. Since they are the ones who appreciate the value of preservation, they are the most likely to voluntarily support such activities. And due to this, resources will find their way to projects most suited to consumers intentions.

A crisis to learn by

The situation in Ukraine has captivated an audience jarred by the reality that there are still political actors in the world who will initiate violence without any provocation. The tenacity of the Ukrainian people and their ability to resist their super-power neighbor has forced scads of entities to reevaluate their stance on state sovereignty.

I am one of the millions turning to twitter and broadcast journalism to scrounge for the latest news clips and opinions. This is where it has been reported that Sweden, Finland and Switzerland have all come out in support of Ukraine. Since these countries have traditionally remained neutral during European conflicts, their willingness to devote resources has a double impact to a regional goal of liberal democratic governance.

A sudden crisis, whether due to a pandemic or this military incursion, provides a backlight to the duality of actors’ actions. In principle, countries stay out of the affairs of their neighbors. But when a bully shows up and violates a foundational tenet, then resources can shift to become public resources to a newly formed coalition

And this duality is not only being laid out plain to see between political entities. The borderlands between what is private and what is public is also on display in banking and financial systems. Accounts are being frozen. If the rich Russians can’t get their millions, they may not like the drag on their lifestyles. Payment communications are hampered by booting Russian banks off SWIFT. And to be sure these measures cause a loss to the business partners in the west.

Still, many say the sanctions are not enough. The dependence on Russian oil is a good-as-gold cash flow to pay for all the tanks and bullets and bombs that are being dropped on the Ukrainian people. On this evening’s news the tradeoffs being discussed involved pushing environmental advocacy to the side in order to produce and ship North American oil to Europe.

In this dynamic, instead of a public cause like the environment being pitted against the private benefits of big business, there are two valued public causes vying for resources. And in this case, it would be helpful to find where the pricing shows up in order to guide politicians in choices representative of their constituents. When is better for their people to choose safety over climate, or climate over governance, or…

Because every city budget, or country budget, or state budget is a statement on the relative demand for resources amongst the list of public ambitions. Yet the settling of the accounts is due to political jockeying or loud interest group activity. It would be more helpful to have access to a numerical framing de, one which is determined from recent tradeoffs between actors.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

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

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

Wikipedia

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

We need some rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markets in Competing Interests

Today this appeared on Twitter.

The Lt Governor has been a strong advocate for trans youth since she ran four years ago. The posting indicates a continued dedication of her time and interest and political capital to this sub-group of Minnesota’s youth.

A new candidate for Hennepin Couty Sherrif (the largest county in the state, maybe 20% of total population) Jai Hanson, challenges her, and asks why the other kids don’t deserve to be nurtured to their true and full selves.

A third observer makes the claim that these are not competing issues. Herein lies the practical problem. People who feel versus people who count.

Some folks seem to think that the caring and demanding more is all it takes. I care about our schools so I’m going to ask for more resources for the kids. I care about the loss of life due to drunk driving, so I’m going to push for driver safety programs and prosecution of drunk drivers. There’s no thought given to length of the agenda, or whether their issues take all of the air out of the room. There’s a flat-out denial that resources are finite. If you care, you can make anything happen.

In reality, if you are gearing everyone up for one group of kids, then you are not gearing them up for another group of kids. The efforts of activism, or the labor to promote and voice social issues, has a set capacity. It’s not about caring enough.

Help with ID

I’m pretty sure these photos were taken on a trip through the Indus River valley, and on up to a hill station in the most northern part of Punjab province, Pakistan. The only lost city that makes sense is one established by the Greeks when they invaded India in 180BC, the city of Sirkap. But if anyone out there can confirm? It would be a great help in confirming a segment of my childhood travels.

From Wikipedia:

The site of Sirkap was built according to the “Hippodamian” grid-plan characteristic of Greek cities. It is organized around one main avenue and fifteen perpendicular streets, covering a surface of around 1,200 by 400 meters (3,900 ft × 1,300 ft), with a surrounding wall 5–7 meters (16–23 ft) wide and 4.8 kilometers (3.0 mi) long. The ruins are Greek in character, similar to those of Olynthus in Macedonia.

Numerous Hellenistic artifacts have been found, in particular coins of Greco-Bactrian kings and stone palettes representing Greek mythological scenes. Some of them are purely Hellenistic, others indicate an evolution of the Greco-Bactrian styles found at Ai-Khanoum towards more indianized styles. For example, accessories such as Indian ankle bracelets can be found on some representations of Greek mythological figures such as Artemis.

Wikipedia

The Commonplace

By Walt Whitman

The commonplace I sing; How cheap is health! how cheap nobility!

Abstinence, no falsehood, no gluttony, lust; The open air I sing, freedom, toleration,

(Take here the mainest lesson-less from books-less from the schools,)
The common day and night-the common earth and waters, Your farm-your work, trade, occupation,

The democratic wisdom underneath, like solid ground for all.

1891

Sending Signals

I’d be curious to know which non-verbal cues are the most readily interpreted. Language seems like it would rank right up there near the top. An accent reveals someone’s location of origin. Although in the US a tinge or a twang, here or there, can cover a large geographic mass.

In Minnesota we have a number of cities with American Indian names like Edina, Wayzata and Mahtomedi. A stumble here puts the speaker clearly out of state. The use of soda or pop lets us know who is from Wisconsin or Illinois.

But what about other indicators, facial expressions for instance. There are those who greet people full on, eyes wide, and smile bright. There are those who look down and away and mumble. There are again others who stand upright, rigid and talk with the hushed MPR voice that they do so well on Saturday Night Live. Each of these descriptions may have led you to conjure up an image and start coloring in some thoughts around these characters.

Facial gestures can also steer conversation. A hard stare, a doubting wrinkle at the brow, a mocking curl of the lips, are all tools that one can use to impose status, perceived or real, over another. And this type of power, is oh so important in managing the conversation and the direction of the interaction.

Body language is on a continuum. You’ve got the leaners and the straighten uppers, the gesticulators and the laughers. But I’ve always been impressed with the brashness of those who will turn their shoulder (or full body) to create a block between a newcomer and a gathered group. I mean you might as well shout for all to hear: “I don’t want you here!”

People are so caught up in what is said. I find the silent part of language is far more sophisticated. This is where the demarcation of in-group and out-group are drawn. This is where it is quietly confirmed whether you’re in, or out.

Memories

My grandmother delighted in the woods. From a young age she led my brothers and I in through the underbrush, searching. Nature was a treasure chest waiting to be discovered and she was Indiana Jones leading the adventurers into the cavern full of gold.

These were not well-groomed urban parks with asphalt trails meandering through a grove of trees, edged by grass, keeping walkers out of the mud. She took us into a dense cropping of oaks and maples and elms. All of them shooting up wildly, looking for the light. Large trunks lay where they fell after a significant windstorm, embarrassed by their exposed roots toppled to one side. A thick cover of faded dull leaves lay thick across the forest floor.

I can still see her in her cotton white shirt embroidered at the neckline, mint green Bermuda shorts and practical tan shoes. She would reach down, gather us around, and gently push the undergrowth to the side. With the delicacy of a hand model, she would pull back the cover on an earthy Jack-in-the-Pulpit or an elegant Lady Slipper.

She delighted in her success at finding us these special flora amongst all the mundane. For the rest of the outing we’d hear on repeat, “Weren’t we so lucky to find the red trillium, weren’t we? ” White trillium carpets the woods in the early spring before the leaves emerge, but we found ourselves nodding in agreement at the fortitude at coming across the red variety. How could you not get caught up in her enthusiasm?

As we got older my brothers lost interest in her guided tours or took up spending hours on my grandfather’s aluminum fishing boat. But I continued to tag along. She’d hear from someone in town where blueberry bushes had been spotted in some wayside ditch on a remote up-north road. With couple of empty plastic ice cream buckets in the back of her red VW bug, off we’d go to find what the woods had to offer us.

“Look,” she would say. Look at the bloom, the owl, the stream, the berries, the poison Ivy! Look. If I have any skills in observing nature, it is thanks to my Oma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tipping at Windmills

I have to say I’ve never read Don Quixote but the drawing of a slender man holding a spear, sitting astride a horse, with a windmill on the horizon quickly comes to mind. A one-line plot synopsis goes something like this: “Don Quixote is a middle-aged gentleman from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in books he has read, he decides to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked.”

As the self-appointed knight goes looking for a fight he runs into all sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells. He brings trouble upon himself and accomplishes little on behalf of the needy. So- here’s the question. Do high morals come first and then the search for those in need? Or is it best if those in need show themselves, so that their situations can be rectified? Perhaps Cervantes was trying to tip his hand indicating cards in favor of the later not the former.

Indeed, there is a story breaking in the Twin Cities right now that indicates if supply of funds is made available with lofty intentions, the criminals show up for the taking. And take they do. The Sahan Journal reports:

Between 2018 and 2021, Feeding Our Future accessed $244 million of federal child nutrition money. The FBI alleges that little of this money actually went to feed children. In a series of search warrants, the agency lists tens of millions of dollars allegedly redirected toward personal spending, including luxury cars, expensive property, and high-end travel. 

Part of the quarter of a billion dollars went to fourteen properties including $2.8M for a Minneapolis mansion, $500K for a fourplex, $500K for an apartment in Nairobi, $2.5M for a commercial space on Lake St, $1.1M for two lake lots in Prior Lake, $575K for a home in Savage, $14K on lawn care, $87K on vehicles, $49K to travel agencies and the list goes on….

And what was it the non-profit professed to be doing in order to access those federal dollars? They claimed to feed 60,000 children in November of 2021 out of a small one-story building. Did the logistics of how all those children were descending on that location not occur to those in charge of dispersing funds?

It was just back in 2015 that a similar con was discovered involving fictitious daycare provision in the same community. The restitution at that time was reported at $4.6M but there were allegations that $100M had been funneled out of the country. Yet instead of calling out criminality, this is how the politician representing that the district responded.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said she’s troubled by the reports of childcare fraud, but notes that the fraud investigations wouldn’t be possible without communication between DHS and the Somali community.

“Vilifying an entire community — as stories like this often do — does not serve justice or get results. Collaboration does,” said Omar in a statement responding to the Fox 9 story.

It seems to me that when administrators go looking for a cause they create a market which someone steps in and fills with a demand. Want a woke endeavor but can’t find one? – We can fix that! And sure enough. That kind of cash flow will find a pocket to line. I hope they realize Don Quixote was a bit mad.

Words from Unpopular Essays

Philosophy has had from its earliest days two different objects which were believed to be closely interrelated. On the one hand, it aimed at a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world; on the other hand, it tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life. From Heraclitus to Hegel, or even to Marx, it consistently kept both ends in view; it was neither purely theoretical nor purely practical, but sought a theory of the universe upon which to base a practical ethic.

Bertrand Russell

Market Failure- Or tapping to a different tempo?

If you are too young to remember when Julia Roberts came into her own as an actress, rewatch Erin Brockovich. No one can flash a smile as well as Roberts. And the zesty character of an everyday single mom taking on corporate America in a David and Goliath story is a perfect match for Julia.

But this real-life tale is a redemption tale for markets. Wait- you don’t have to go googling the plot to confirm the intent of the story was to exemplify market failure of the classic kind. The firm (in this case the Pacific Gas & Electric Company- but there were many) in an effort to maximize profits, refused to look into claims of contaminants seeping into the neighboring soil and water. In order to keep track of things, let’s name the marketplace with the anchoring of the firm. Let’s call this traditional collection of goods, customers and firm, M1. PG&E is striving to provide goods and services to their consumers at the best prices. It’s a win for everyone in M1!

But not so fast. Erin Brockovich steps in as an activist and donates hundreds of hours of her (unpaid) labor to help determine that the residents near the plant are suffering from externalities of M1. This is where most people stop and claim that capitalism doesn’t work because M1 has not taken into consideration the surrounding community. Truth be told, they just haven’t finished watching the movie. Because it is soon readily apparent that M1 is contained in M2. And it is in M2 that Brockovich and her law firm and the community residents are going to form a common interest and push back on M1.

Here’s a good spot to encourage the reader to look back through the menu to categories explained at Home-Economic. The activity in a social sphere is governed by groups sharing a common interest, and the efforts or sacrifices they are willing to contribute towards that goal and the ongoing and updated norms which guide their behavior. The young paralegal revved up the M2 by going to the group (audience) and educating them to the claims at hand. This spurs on further efforts to make M2 more efficient by rectifying the public health concerns being externalized by M1.

As many law firms know, if claims of this nature are successfully demonstrated, the courts will order a balancing of accounts through a financial settlement. This not only pays those harmed for the externalities, it also makes it clear to other firms that being negligent will end badly. In this case it took $335 million in 2006 to bring M2 back into balance.

Note too that this process also occurs for positive externalities. For instance, a company produces widgets in M1 at a certain cost to consumers. Then there is a technology improvement in a broader market, call it M2. Once the firm has access to the public good of knowledge of a new process/technology, then product prices drop and consumers in M1 internalize the benefit through lower prices.

The question isn’t whether the market is failing. The question is what market are we in and where is the inefficiency.

Vigilance for identifying and cleaning up pollutants has a long history.

For Valentine’s

e. e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you,

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Look for the winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Review: The girl from Oslo

I was hoping to watch the series Tehran but since I was on Netflix the algorithms offered me this instead (Tehran is on Apple TV). It’s only one season with ten half hour episodes.

The film takes you to a variety of settings as the story plays out in Oslo and Israel and Egypt. The characters are also interesting as they represent different aspects of each of these areas.

The plot is suspenseful and for the most part believable. We’re about two thirds of the way through but it won’t take long to view the rest of the episodes as it’s top of the list for TV entertainment.

Bonus to those who move

Cities around the US are paying people to relocate to their town. Marketplace recently ran a success story out of Bemidji Minnesota. They featured two families who took the city up on the offer of $2500 to cover the move. It seems that is enough money to risk the relocation expenses. Bemidji is getting pretty far north, not to the Canadian border but definitely that direction.

I pulled the demographics just to give you an idea of the landscape and was presently surprised by two things. First- the median age is a lot lower than I would have guessed. (For a generation or more these towns were aging) And furthermore, births are exceeding deaths by almost two to one. This is quite a switch.

Bemidji has a total of 11,917 people and of those residents there are 5,547 males and 6,370 females. The median age of the male population is 25.3 and the female population is 30.8. There are approximately 585 births each year and around 304 deaths.

https://www.movingideas.org/bemidji-mn/

These two families cited the work/life balance, a change of the pace of things, as the reason for moving to a smaller community from Topeka and Phoenix. Of course, the costs across the board are lower, but the lifestyle change is another way of saying they recapture more of their time. They can use their free hours to raise more children, get involved in civic projects, or simply have more fun pursuing hobbies which enrich their lives.

Since many writers and ambitious folks chose to live in the big coastal towns there is often this assumed bias that everyone wants to live in NYC or San Fransisco or LA too, they simply can’t. The reality is that a $2500 bonus will get people to choose a much different way of life.

Story of the TikTok poster and a rent-controlled apartment

A young woman from New York City created a media stir last year, when she posted shots of her scrumptious apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan (where all the famous people live). She gave an on-line audience a peek into the dreamy lifestyle of making fresh again an old-world charm unit in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. It’s no surprise that a school of media swimmers followed her. This story line has already proven successful in the sitcom Friends which aired for ten seasons.

Just like Monica (Courtney Cox) on Friends, the special ed teacher inherited her rent-controlled apartment. It is her childhood home, and the rules allow for a transference of benefit from parent to child. Unlike on TV there are monthly fees associated with the utilities and maintenance of the unit. Given the age of the building, I can guarantee you that $1300/mo rent does not cover the normal combination of heat, electric, water/sewer, common area updates, exterior maintenance which is usually collected through condo fees. For comparison, here’s a listing for a condo built in 1981 and the condo fees run $1424/mo.

Whereas this story has captured the imagination of many who would love to swap living situations with the young New Yorker, others may wonder how this came to be. I can’t supply the context for the imposition of rent control a number of decades ago, but I think today’s housing advocates might see the inefficiency of one individual receiving such a significant benefit. Nor do I think voters today (knowingly) would divert money from the flow of funds through the housing market in a way which would allow this scenario to develop downstream.

Therein lies the danger of using laws to replace economics. Laws are static whereas economic systems are dynamic.

Say a group of people, whether a rural town. or a suburb or a big city have a certain capacity to provide resources for the housing of some community members. We do this naturally of course, when we house our children or perhaps an elderly relative. An example of a dynamic change is how the norms have varied on when children are launched into the real world. Whereas boomers mostly left home at eighteen, millennials stayed on avoiding homeownership and household formation. (Joint Studies for Housing Study- Harvard)

But over and above family ties, the community pays part (or all) of the rent for those who cannot care or themselves. Funds can be funneled through non-profits like Caring and Sharing hands which operates entirely on private donations. At a city level there is an authority to use tax increment financing (TIF), usually in conjunction with monies from the state level. At the federal level the section 8 voucher plan is the largest component of HUD’s budget. These bureaucratic mechanisms are slow and unresponsive to demand.

The disjointedness of subsidy providers is even less able to match individuals and families with the community infrastructures which not only support them but also allow them to participate in a productive manner. Ideally it is through increased involvement in mainstream activities which allow move people back into self-sufficiency, and eventually homeownership.

It’s important to note in the TikTok story that the parents never became homeowners. They never increased their wealth through property ownership. Most probably because there were too many incentives in place to retain their apartment. And the same is true for their daughter. Not only is the TikTok’er afforded a place to live, but she is also monetizing her lifestyle through social media. From what I hear, YouTubers can earn quite a bit when their videos are viewed in the 100’s of thousands. And why shouldn’t she make such extractions? She is simply complying with the incentives set up by the rent-control agreements of years gone by.

The Recall

By Rudyard Kipling

I AM the land of their fathers.
In me the virtue stays.
I will bring back my children,
After certain days.

Under their feet in the grasses
My clinging magic runs.
They shall return as strangers.
They shall remain as sons.

Over their heads in the branches
Of their new-bought, ancient trees,
I weave an incantation
And draw them to my knees.

Scent of smoke in the evening,
Smell of rain in the night-
The hours, the days and the seasons,
Order their souls aright,

Till I make plain the meaning
Of all my thousand years-
Till I fill their hearts with knowledge,
While I fill their eyes with tears.

Veblen, Context, and Claire

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

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

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

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

Investigative reporter starts at NYT and gets 4.2K suggestions for stories

Let’s speculate on reasons for the lack of trust brewing in the non-profit sector at the moment.

Cash- A notable seismic shift in philanthropy since the onslaught of apps and everything social is the ability to tap anyone’s good will. Set up a GoFundMe and boom- thousands of dollars appear. Lots of money on the move with little firsthand knowledge of how those dollars are being distributed is bound to give fodder to conspiracy theorists.

Case in point- GoFundMe recently refunded almost 10million to donors supporting the trucker rally in Canada after eligibility of purpose is scrutinized. Which leads to the next trust buster. The short synopsis which accompanies the funding request often lack a complete flushing out of context (which I hear is in scarce supply these days). The public gets caught up in the cause of the moment and then has donator remorse when they realize that perhaps they didn’t quite understand organization’s mission.

But to be fair, the replies to David Fahrenthold’s tweets range from medical fraud to mega churches, from patriotic themes like Wounded Warriors to AARP of all things. The gist seems to be that the feedback loops on the not-for-profit are waving in the wind like those crazy inflatable advertising men.

The daily grind of Dinner

The early years of dinner-for-the-family is all about tricking and tom foolery. How to make the key foods, that you know the toddlers will lift off their plates and consume, into some new version of itself by adding a colorful stack of carrot sticks or a half circle of goldfish swimming the edges of the plate. Just keeping them astride their stool for a bit longer with a distraction of some sort might earn you an extra bite of their meal.

Shopping wasn’t too much of a burden as their pallets were limited. The work was definitely at the table and not so much behind the scenes. But that all changes once they meet their first vegetarian. The abrupt assault on the woes of meat products comes at you as fast as a horse running for the barn. Abruptly there is nothing in the pantry that will quench their appetite. A new menu and grocery list is required posthaste.

Fortunately, within a week, most middle schoolers cave to their stomachs rather than pursue the higher moral standing of a vegan diet. At least my meat lovers did (thank the lord). But little did I know, a new foe was about to sabotage my grocery, pantry, prep and serve routine. Ennui. Exactly. The “there’s nothing in this house to eeeaaattttttt.”

I’d patiently list off all that was in the ready: enchiladas, kung pao chicken, hamburgers, wild rice soup, pork chops and rice, and of course tacos or spaghetti, amongst other versions or pasta. No, no, no and no. Nothing was enough. The shelves were bare; their stomachs empty; isn’t there something I could do?

I learned by now from the moms at the baseball fields or basketball courts that they had thrown in the towel. Frozen pizza, Costco dinners, and take out were the options offered up in their households. And it’s not to say that we didn’t see of a few of those through our household at dinner time either. But more than the health aspect of prepped food is the economy that bugged me. Frozen Bertolli’s packaged chicken alfredo and penne costs three times what it would to make at home. And barely saves anytime as long as you have some grilled chicken in the freezer and all the other ingredients.

But that’s the key, isn’t it? Making dinner isn’t just the fifteen to twenty minutes of prep and another half hour to cook. One has to know the family’s interests, have the products on hand, be agile and knowledgeable enough to pull it all together. The work involved in feeding a family is by far the most time-consuming activity in homemaking and it is known to be a significant contributor to health and better living.

I teased them through their late high school years that they thought a multicultural chef lived in the fridge and would jump out like some Suess character to accommodate their every culinary demand. Fortunately, it just took a little separation from home, and half a school year eating food from a university cafeteria, to adjust their point of view. Now our dinner table is a destination for a nice meal and visit.

I don’t regret having put in that time instead of bailing on the whole thing. They will start out with more knowledge on how to run a kitchen then I did. And now my job is a cream puff.

Swerve

Louise Erdrich owns a bookstore in an old part of Minneapolis. It’s a brick one story store front next to a restaurant which serves patrons at tables on the sidewalk in nice weather. Inside it’s stuffy with books like an oversized wool sweater. There are armchairs between the bookshelves to sit on and browse the pages of potential purchases. Once I saw a late-middle-aged women in glasses, chomping on gum, as she speed-read a tome as if she were in a library.

I frequented the store through the anticipated demise of tangible print. There may have been as few as three independent bookstores in the Twin Cities around 2010-2012. Being a well-recognized author, Erdrich could keep one going on her own reputation (probably at great personal expense). Anyway, the support staff on site were subtly helpful, available with insights from behind the cash register perched on an over-sized oak display cabinet. This is how I came upon the book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (paperback edition: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began[1]) is a book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[2][3]

Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius‘s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.[4][5][6]

Wiki

I had asked for a book that would offer up some history in an entertaining manner, and it provided that and more. As the story is told, one can see how a whole sets of ideas can be set off in the wrong direction. And at that time other thoughts are ignored and put to the side, only to be the subject of great discoveries at a later date.

It’s refreshing that the study of economics seems to be taking an assessment of its own history. During the cold war there was such a dichotomy between capitalism versus all the rest, that ideas were smothers if political implications found them unfriendly. And then there were greater hurdles around languages and translations. Maurice Allais for instance refused to have his works translated from French. He was recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1988 “for his pioneering contributions to the theory of markets and efficient utilization of resources.” Yet many other economists from the English-speaking world are given credit for observations which he (perhaps) got after first.

I would think the internet will make it easier for people in pursuit of similar interests to find each other going forward. In the meantime, never forget the past.

The paradox of the outsider

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

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

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

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

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

Wright county Iowa

Poem about parents from Edna St. Vincent Millay

SINGING-WOMAN FROM THE WOOD’S EDGE

WHAT should I be but a prophet and a liar,
Whose mother was a leprechaun, whose father was a friar?
Teethed on a crucifix and cradled under water,
What should I be but the fiend’s god-daughter?

And who should be my playmates but the adder and the frog,
That was got beneath a furze-bush and born in a bog?
And what should be my singing, that was christened at an altar,
But Aves and Credos and Psalms out of the Psalter?

You will see such webs on the wet grass, maybe,
As a pixie-mother weaves for her baby,
You will find such flame at the wave’s weedy ebb
As flashes in the meshes of a mer-mother’s web,

But there comes to birth no common spawn
From the love of a priest for a leprechaun,
And you never have seen and you never will see
Such things as the things that swaddled me!

After all’s said and after all’s done,
What should I be but a harlot and a nun?

In through the bushes, on any foggy day,
My Da would come a-swishing of the drops away,
With a prayer for my death and a groan for my birth,
A-mumbling of his beads for all that he was worth.

And there sit my Ma, her knees beneath her chin,
A-looking in his face and a-drinking of it in,
And a-marking in the moss some funny little saying
That would mean just the opposite of all that he was praying!

He taught me the holy-talk of Vesper and of Matin,
He heard me my Greek and he heard me my Latin,
He blessed me and crossed me to keep my soul from evil,
And we watched him out of sight, and we conjured up the devil.

Oh, the things I haven’t seen and the things I haven’t known,
What with hedges and ditches till after I was grown,
And yanked both ways by my mother and my father,
With a “Which would you better?” and a “Which would you rather?”

With him for a sire and her for a dam,
What should I be but just what I am?

The word- nonmarket

I think it is unfortunate that economic literature adopted the phrase nonmarket valuation when using hedonic equations for securing a numerical value for public goods, or proxy thereof. The method of econometric calculation is used all over the world to secure numerical values for impacts of everything from wildfires to airplane noise to crime. You might notice that these are all goods which benefit (or detract) from the welfare of the public nearby.

Just to be clear- I’m referring to methods which involve the use of home sales values when properties are sold in an open and active market. There is no denying that the exchange of real estate for funds is a market transaction. Which is why I find it baffling that a component of a market generated price would be termed nonmarket.

Of course, buyers pay more for less airplane noise, or take a hit when a home is on a busy road. If it is a freeway instead of a through street with the occasional bus rolling by, the seller will need to take a bigger discount. Hundreds of buyers and sellers come up with these outcomes in a market. The discount of living in a flood plain or near a high-risk forest fire area or under the power line is derived by markets. The premium for the wooded lot or the view of the Rockies is determined by markets.

I think what is being drilled down on here is that the components cannot be separated from the bundles. And the features of the crime level or the subway or the quality of the schools are derived from efforts (or networks) of nearby participating neighbors. That makes these components of the total price non-fungible- they cannot be sliced off and traded.

But they are most definitely priced in a market environment. Nonmarket makes no sense.

Why watch a ’58 film with Loren and Grant?

My husband always groans when I delve into classic films. But watching Sophia Loren and Cary Grant team up in an endearing romantic comedy in the film Houseboat was worth it.

Here’s why:

  • Powerhouse lead actors are typically cast in strong films.
  • It was produced in 1958 yet the two marriages are far from nuclear family.
  • The painted backdrops are hysterical.
  • The audience must play along when a derelict houseboat is renovated in a snap by a family with three kids.
  • The adults leave for an evening at the country club without a thought given to a sitter.
  • Group gawking at Loren is entirely acceptable.
  • Bonus shots of DC as Grant works for the State Department.

Keeping track of the deal

Solving for climate change solutions is a tough go as the time spans over hundreds of years and the inputs offer imprecise measures. Luckily issues around real estate are typically on shorter horizons and tangible resources. Consider the story of the novice developer from Texas, Nathaniel Barret, in the tweet at the end of the post.

By the time you’ve read through the entire description of his experience as a developer you’ll get a feel for the grit and grime of the process. He has even provided visual aids through extensive photos. You can also sense the apprehension he must have felt when he had to go back to friends and family mid-project and ask for a sizeable amount of additional funding. Keep in mind that at this stage the building is ripped apart and there is no going back. It’s like saying, gee thanks for the $50K, if I don’t find another $150K, I won’t be able to repay you.

Note #1- developers are all in on their own money as well as money provided by their network.

Then consider the time over which this transpires. It isn’t a couple of months, or a year, but several years of no income, free labor and no certain outcome. Several years of owing people, who hold you in high esteem, to sit tight until the whole thing comes together. The post has his adventure starting in 2016. It may not have taken five years to wrap it all up, but it took that long to write about it.

Note #2- there is a backlog of expenses in investment return and in personal favors and in unpaid sweat equity.

Some people may come away from this story wondering how anyone would want to pursue such a project. Some people will never understand the satisfaction in turning a derelict building back into a going concern. Some people do not have the impulse to go toe to toe with a failing neighborhood and throw one’s ambitions at it full force. But fortunately, some investors do. These people are long term thinking, maybe twenty-year scope people.

Luckily a fully renovated property should be good to go for twenty years without major expenses. This allows for the return from the upfront investment of resources and sweat equity to be recouped over a dozen to fifteen years. And there is still the uncertainty as to whether the direction of the neighborhood will turn and inflate, rather than erode the equity in the property.

Now let’s leave behind this story from Texas specifically, and more generally entertain a speculative scenario. Say about five years following a rental property renovation, there is an influx of new residents to the neighborhood. They have relocated from another state. These folks have no memory of the seedy buildings from the past. However, they do bring their recollections of what things were like from whence they came, about relationships with landlords and laws in their previous hometown.

The area attracts an influx of residents due to these restorations. That combined with an overall uptick in the economy causes rents to rise. Tenants who sign one-year leases see increases in their monthly obligations. They cry foul and become politically active due to what they see as greedy landlords. Their short-term framing is not in sync with the longer-term investor framing, hence the perception of corruption. Since tenants make up over fifty percent of the city’s population there is success through four-year term city council people to restrict landlords from earning what was originally projected.

If we are trying to model a neighborhood, a city, or a rural community, where real estate structures are built to last over many decades, then it seems the disjointedness of short-term politics versus long-term investments is counterproductive. Maybe even destructive.



Originally tweeted by Nathaniel Barrett (@ncoxbarrett) on January 27, 2022.

The 2016 story of my very first real estate project: How I bought a scruffy old strip center, almost died of stress, and started Barrett Urban Development.

After reading too many articles about problems with our urban development patterns (thanks @StrongTowns) and walking on our broken down sidewalks too many times, I thought there was no better person to address this than yours truly.

After reading RE books and looking at projects that would have surely failed (thanks @montewanderson & @IncDevAlliance for saving me), I found a pair of adjacent commercial buildings totaling just under 8,000 square feet both for sale. They were in…sub-optimal condition.

I raised money from family members and put a fair amount in myself and found a great GC and architect to work with. The scope: replace/repair everything except the wastewater lines, the foundation and maybe 60% of the structure.

During our walk-through, the GC ballparked it at $250,000 to white-box it. I was way too green to know of a better way to estimate costs or recognize the many red flags during due diligence.

Thanks to a pair of motivated sellers, the ACBM, and an REC during the ESA (don’t do auto-repair in the back yard), we negotiated pretty hard and got what I thought was a good deal: something like $400K for the pair of them.

The plan was divide the 2 buildings into 5 spaces since we figured we’d get higher rent that way. The building is awfully deep, but work with what you got.

The problems started almost immediately. Remember those wastewater lines I wanted to keep? Just past the bend we couldn’t get the camera past, the clay pipes had collapsed.

The plumbing bid to replace comes in: $80,000. I’m already 20% over my construction budget and we’re just getting started. This is not good but there’s no way to go but forward.

Since we’re replacing the plumbing anyway now, we move the bathrooms to the back of the building to shorten the run and reduce the number of bathrooms in the larger suites by 1 (foolishly I plumbed the wastewater lines for them anyway in case I wanted to add bathrooms later???)

Meanwhile, new problems come up: During due diligence, my GC commented that a lintel was sagging. Being naive, I didn’t probe further. Turns out you could put your arm through several of the beams over the openings. Now I need $20,000 of masonry work, steel, and welding.

At this point, I know I need another $150,000-200,000 to finish the project, money I don’t have. I have jaw pain as I start grinding my teeth at night while I sleep which isn’t much, because of the anxiety. A nightguard and sleeping pills solves the symptoms but not the problem

I look for money but I don’t know how: I apply for city grants, liquidate my stock holdings, and borrow against my 401k. I still don’t have enough and I find myself weeping outside City Hall after failing to get a grant as I wonder what I’m gotten into.

I finally have to tell my investors (should have told waaaay sooner). Most of them are circumspect but one is very upset and is making noises about taking over the project. I eat crow and fall on my sword.

I finally have a revelation: I can borrow money from places other than banks. Turns out if you pay a high enough interest rate, people are happy to lend you money*!

I raise another $150K and the project is on track: the walls are flying back up, the trusses going into place, the windows being installed.

It’s finally looking like a building again and I can start to think about actually leasing the place! One of my mentors comes by to check out the project and says I “Decided to skip the master’s degree and go straight for a PhD and now i’m studying 24/7 to get a C-“

I catch a break and a local publication does a favorable story on my project and I pick up several tenant commitments.

https://lakewood.advocatemag.com/rebuilding-not-replacing-old-east-dallas-nathaniel-barrett/

In not too long, the building is finally done. I get some really good long-term leases in place and the rents come in higher than expected, which is good because I owed a lot of people a lot of money.

I don’t recommend the above method for starting in real estate. I mostly succeeded due to luck and the good fortune of a large network of supportive people in my life. I can’t believe I actually made it through.

Originally tweeted by Nathaniel Barrett (@ncoxbarrett) on January 27, 2022.

Borderlands

There is a space where the private market slides up next to the public goods market. This is where decisions over which products and services are best produced under an esprit de competition and which are best served through cooperative efforts are flushed out like pheasant from the wayside ditch. A Minnesota writer, Aaron Brown, wrote about this landscape in a piece entitled The troubled border between consumption and conservation. The issue on his mind is the ongoing tension between the desire for jobs from mining and the environmental impact they create.

How countries have handled these two spheres in their political choices is not what is being discussed here. This is more local than sweeping observations on governance directions towards socialism or communism or capitalist democracies. (Even though, it might be observed with a bit of irony that China has shown the agility of a communist state to profit from capitalist models. And whereas NIMY and YIMBY forces tie US cities into knots, China is using more private enterprise to build its cities.) Brown leads your focus past levels of national governance, past levels of state governance, past overlays of activism, and bring you right down into his back yard.

Bears fall limp on trampolines. Moose tangle in hammocks. Tourists lose themselves in the woods, their dying cellphones lighting a doomed path even deeper into the wilderness.

Then the helicopters come, looking for the source of the signal. They scare up the birds as their blades sweep across the marsh reeds. The metal dragons return to their dens. So it goes along the borderland.

There is a need to micro-manage your attention because this is a saga has been in the air almost as long as All My Children. And at all levels, political players will attempt to obscure the choices, to pull your support to their side. The weapon du jour is a miscasting of identity. If you value communal interest, then you must be a communist. If you voice support of one political party, then friends may find reason to exclude from their next dinner party. The activist entreats you to wear their hats, wave their banners. At all levels teams are built to harness political voice

This last round was at the national level, as two days ago the Interior Department revoked a lease for a mining project. The 2019 renewal of the lease during the previous administration was considered improper. There was no new evidence of environmental harm.

Twin Metals, in its own statement, excoriated the Biden administration and called the decision “a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law.” 

https://www.courthousenews.com/interior-department-revokes-minnesota-mine-leases/

The campaign to save the boundary water’s chair declared this a “win.” One might as well be following the sports section.

That’s why Brown needs to capture your attention, pull you away from power plays and home runs, and back to the arts. He paints the issues out in more romantic depth than the Hudson River School of American artists. He wants you to consider choices over a variety of time frames. The spaces where public and private choices intermingle have cascading impacts and generational persistence. I wish more writers lingered here longer.

The borderlands are where interesting questions are answered. Aaron Brown lays some groundwork on how to navigate the space between two competing spheres of human interest.

How we talk about the Homeless and the Housed

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

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

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

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

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

Monopolies in the private and in the public

There is a watershed moment in the works as a Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, and a Republican, Chuck Grassley from Iowa, are teaming up against big tech.

Over the last twenty years a lot of leeway has been given to companies who needed control of frameworks in order to build what we know now as an ecosystem on the internet. A century ago the railroads were given similar leeway as they laid down tracks from east to west across the country. But now there is an appetite to disengage the big players from their power positions and open up opportunities for smaller players to get in the mix.

Most people agree that monopolies in the private sector work against the consumer. If producers gang up and set prices, then consumers have no choice but to pay what is asked of them. When producers compete for their customers’ business, then they become lean in an effort to provide the best product at the best price. The private interest of each individual producer is isolated from the private interest of a conglomeration of producers.

In this blog I describe a transformation which takes place when a group of people acting in a public interest compete for products against other groups acting in their public interest. For instance, during the early days of the Covid N-95 masks were a hot commodity. Minnesota and Iowa and Oregon were all out in the marketplace trying to secure orders from abroad. All were attempting to pursue the public interest of safety for Americans, yet in acting as groups, they bid up the prices of the masks. The appearance was a pursuit of a public good, yet since each were interacting at the state level, the economic behavior followed the private market mechanisms.

Could the same be said for public school unions, that they appear to be a public interest whereas they are truly private? The k-12 schools are provided on behalf of a public interest in an educated citizenry. And although many teachers carry a civic spirit, everyone would expect them to look after their private interests when negotiating the terms of their employment. Certainly, there was a time where the amplification of speaking as a group, with the help of a union, was necessary.

But the teachers’ union has grown in scope and power. They not only dictate teacher contracts, but get politicians hired and have greatly influenced the opening and closing of schools during the pandemic. And in those activities, they have failed to act in the public interest of the children’s education, as they are by essence guarding the private interests of their teachers.

I think I’m not alone in categorizing the teacher’s union as a monopoly in the k-12 industry. I doubt teachers can influence or overturn membership. I doubt that all teachers stand behind their union. I know many parents don’t. If you want to break up tech, why not break up the teachers’ union? They both show monopolistic behavior over a public utility.

The Lost Daughter- Movie Review

If you are an action/adventure film enthusiast I’m not sure if The Lost Daughter is right pick for your Saturday night viewing pleasure. Whereas James Bond movies open with a large landscape panning of a dramatic ski slope decent, this film meanders along an oceanside road for as long as it takes the sun to set. Whereas Bruce Willis navigates amongst hundreds of frantic bystanders taken hostage, this film has the camera angle so tight to the lead and her children that you can’t help but smell Johnson’s baby shampoo. Whereas the violence in action adventure is noisy, loud and explosive, the violence of the female sort is gut wrenchingly mean.

This is a movie about women. Women as mothers, as wives, as cheaters, as power brokers, as party goers, as needy. There are many layers to how all the players are set in motion. And of course, the femme fatale is a bushy bearded male who steals away the lead knowing she is easily baited by the public recognition he lavishes over her professional work.

On a first viewing I just want to enjoy the surface layer, with all the beautifully framed shots. But my subconscious is signaling there is more there to be seen, and to plan on a review at a later date. Though not heavy on action, there is intrigue. The movie starts slow but builds and with the help of an unreliable narrator, one discovers a need to learn more about Leda’s story.


Walking Around Money – Short Story Review

I started liking short stories when I first found Flannery O’Connor, probably because that was her preferred genre. Then I picked up The Best of American Short Stories because the volume had been edited by David Brooks- and then I was sold on short stories as a way of sampling a new author over an afternoon on the couch. The first selection in a volume called Transgressions (edited by Ed McBain) is Walking Around Money by Donald Westlake who is just one more prolific writer who was not familiar to me.

He’s a crime writer. This sixty-page caper is full of great language for his less than brilliant partners in crime. Take this description, for example.

Dortmunder and Andy Kelp and the man called Querk sat in silence (shoosh) a while, contemplating the position Querk found him self in, sitting here together on these nice wire-mesh chairs in the middle of New York in August, which of course meant it wasn’t New York at all, not the real New York, but the other New York, the August New York.

In August, the shrinks are all out of town, so the rest of the city population looks calmer, less stressed. Also, a lot of those are out of town, as well, replaced by American tourists in pastel polyester and foreign tourists in vinyl and corduroy. August among the tourists is like all at once living in a big herd of cows; slow, fat, dumb, and no idea where they’re going.

This is language I appreciate and enjoy. The plot is tight and fresh. Now that I’ve bumped into him, I’ll have to find more pages written by Mr. Westlake.

Why aren’t more developers building?

I listened in on a housing forum discussion today and in the chat a question appeared: “Why are developers not building more housing?” Below is a graph representing the nationwide trend. The trend follows here in Minnesota.

As you can see during the recession of 2007 the industry went from a production level of 2,200 to 500 (thousand). Or the production dropped by over 75%. And still hasn’t recovered a decade later.

The story of why can be told by thinking through what that drop between 2006-2008 meant for thousands of individuals whose assets and livelihoods were tied up in new construction. It’s common for land developers to spend several years of work, from conception to approval to shovel in the ground, before collecting earnest money checks for a new-build that takes another six months to close. The recession left thousands of projects half done with foreclosure notices piling up at the county. Development is a high risk, with a lot of upfront costs, type of business. Once you fall off that bronco, it’s hard to climb back in the saddle.

Others were bit too hard to forget that time period. Building requires all types of workers from framers to concrete contractors to plumbers, electricians, and finish carpenters to name just a few. If three quarters of the jobs closed down, then just as many workers were caught unemployed. This meant looking for jobs elsewhere. Many from the Twin Cities went up to work on the oil fields up in North Dakota. This tore families apart who were already reeling from financial pressures.

Maybe an industry could get back on top of these objections after four or five years. People forget about the past and remember what it was they liked about their previous occupation. And new construction permits have gone up mostly lead by large national builders. Undoubtedly another constraint is the annual upping of regulatory requirements. Builders have to explain these extra costs to the consumers and simultaneously know that they are often framed as greedy, profiteers. That probably gets old.

The public may not remember the wind-swept developments with foreclosure signs, but I’m sure the investors do.

Assumptions and Assurances

Quite a few years ago when I was at the Carlson School getting an MBA at night, I recall a foreign student from Sierra Leon, or thereabouts, and I shaking our heads at the chatter of our fellow classmates. They were all off on a tangent on how easy this or that would be to accomplish. The foreign student and I were ticking off the number of implicit assumptions which held our fellow students’ ideas together.

The structures which support commerce in America are taken for granted by those who have experienced nothing less. We take it for granted that our money will at the bank, for instance. (Or even that the bank will open on time as I recall the Sierra Leonian noting) Most consumers not only anticipate the ability of financial institutions to keep our funds safe, but never bother to balance their accounts, as the bankers do all of that.

When I was a loan officer sitting behind an oversized wooden desk, my clients, from across the high gloss polish, would sign their mortage papers but never read them. They listened politely as I highlighted the terms and obligations for repayment, nodded, and then put pen to paper. In exchange for the blue ink on the promissory note which detailed possible foreclosure action for non-payment, they happily received a check. And so, it goes in America.

The fluidity in the marketplace and lack of concern with lengthy legal documents can be attributed to regular assurances people hear from all those around them. Their parents have bought a home, and it all went OK. Their friends used such and such mortgage broker and despite an inconvenience over some last-minute documentation, the rate and fees were as expected.

Of course, there are situations that lead the consumer dissatisfaction as well. A while back there was that interest free financing for six months at time of purchase of furniture or a large TV. But then the credit card didn’t send the statement with the balance in time, so the consumer was charged retroactively for 180 days of interest. More often than not these gotcha gimmicks get brought to the attention of the attorney general, and even though the duped don’t get repaid, future misleading advertising is curbed.

With the little bit of work and an audience for stories of assurances, the institutions which make for reliable financial services is maintained.

Moving Chains Paper- offering new housing opportunities throughout Helsinki

City-wide effects of new housing supply:
Evidence from moving chains

by: Cristina Bratu, Oskari Harjunen, Tuukka Saarimaa*

Abstract
We study the city-wide effects of new, centrally-located market-rate housing
supply using geo-coded total population register data from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The supply of new market rate units triggers moving chains that quickly
reach middle- and low-income neighborhoods and individuals. Thus, new marketrate construction loosens the housing market in middle- and low-income areas even
in the short run. Market-rate supply is likely to improve affordability outside the
sub-markets where new construction occurs and to benefit low-income people.

As far as why a paper, which many would think of as addressing common sense, needs to be written. This tweet best explains it best:

This might seem obvious if you’ve ever read the literature (this process is normally called ‘filtering’) or indeed if you’re a renter who has moved around a lot, but the theory gets a lot of critique from those who don’t like what it suggests about the need to build more…

… And because you need access to the whole population address history in order to *prove* that market supply frees up more affordable homes for lower income households, it’s hard for researchers to do (lack of data/privacy issues). So good to have this extra empirical evidence!

The paper also has some interesting findings on the role of social housing as well. Tl;dr all new housing supply has a good impact across the city. Lots of interesting charts too!

Get the feeling most of the people giving me reasons it’s wrong haven’t read the paper, since they are arguing against points that a) this paper doesn’t make, and b) are irrelevant to the findings of this paper 🙃

I’ve had people saying “housing in Helsinki is expensive, so this paper is wrong & we need socialism” AND “the reason housing in Helsinki is cheap is because of socialism”.

… the paper is not about what prices in Helsinki are. And it supports both market and public housing.

Originally tweeted by Anya Martin (@AnyaMartin8) on January 14, 2022.

Sorting: Home Price is not the same as Rental Price

It’s more expensive to live in New York City than Omaha Nebraska. If you are only going to relocate to Denver for a couple of years, you should rent instead of buy. Housing prices suffer in Baltimore due to high crime rates. These are all statements that don’t need an explanation. Living in a city full of opportunity is going to cost more than in a city a fraction of its size. The commitment to purchase a property is both financially and emotionally taxing for a short stay. And high crime rates make just about any neighborhood a tough sell.

It is easy enough for consumers to observe these strong market indicators. But if we want to start digging deeper into what market prices of housing can tell us, than we must be a more careful about sorting.

If we wish to look at housing costs in an open market environment and break the values down in order to find market preferences for attributes tied to the neighborhoods, then we must choose between either (residential) home sales data or rental data. Otherwise, the statistical outcome will fail because these are two different market transactions.

Purchasing a property is a multi-year commitment. Renting is generally a year at a time. The rule of thumb on how long a buyer should anticipate staying in their home has varied over the years. Back when I first got in the business the benchmark was seven years. Between real estate fees to move- perhaps around 7.5% of value- and the closing costs of financing, a buyer requires several years of appreciation to break even on purchasing versus renting.

But I’d argue there is more to it than this sketch of dollars and cents of the buy versus rent decision. For comparison’s sake let’s consider the actions taken by a homeowner or a renter or an Airbnb occupant. They are all enjoying shelter in the same location of a city. An individual walks by an alley and there is a body lying near the dumpsters. The Airbnb people will probably finish their stay and not mention it to anyone, although they will probably rethink their choice of lodging for the following visit. The renter may or may not call an authority like the police. If bodies in alleys become a routine occurrence they will probably move.

I think you know where I’m going with this. The homeowner is the most likely to get involved and not only notify the authorities but follow through with contact to a city council member and so on. This is work done on behalf of the neighborhood with no financial compensation. It is a job taken on as an investor in the neighborhood who aspires to live in a safe and desirable environment. The homeowner is willing to make this investment whereas the Airbnb and renter are progressively less likely.

The relatively transient nature of renting can affect price in other ways. A consumer maybe willing to pay more to be near key features, especially arts and entertainment venues. The reasoning goes that they know this is a temporary situation so why not enjoy something that they will not have access to once they have to come down to earth and purchase a property. Or they choose over-the-top structural amenities and a higher level of finishes, again not available to them once the concession of a long-term purchase stretches their resources in other directions.

The analysis of rental prices in determining the implicit prices of neighborhood amenities are valuable. But will not yield the same results as the analysis of home prices since consumers are not purchasing the same items.

But what should be worth a mind-blown emoji and seems to be greatly ignored is the reliable impact of public goods on home prices. In addition to knowing a school district is worth $xxx of a home’s value, and all those other observations at the beginning of this post, just about anyone can run a regression on a laptop. Just go into the county records, collect the price of 100 similar homes by area, plug them into Xcel columns as well as FBI crime data relevant to area and school test scores for the property. Then go to Data Analysis>Regression>Ok and generate a lovely statistically significant relationship.

The relationship of price to crime and school performance is so strong it doesn’t even need the most general of sorting. But most other things will.

Mystery writer discovered

Trust me when I tell you that thrift stores are the perfect place to meet new favorite authors. I’ll often stop into the shop after having dropped off a back seat full of neglected household goods and clothes that no one seems to wear. Days like these are relaxed, otherwise I never would have been sorting through closets, piling the items in my car and delivering them to the drop off window.

Sometimes the book shelves are organized, sometimes the books are tipping off the shelves. No matter. I scan the shelves for titles I know or covers that look interesting. If I’m unfamiliar with the author I google their name. I’m sure that’s how the Ruth Rendel book ended up in the basket of books by the overstuffed armchair in my living room. The search reveled that she has over sixty titles to her name and is one of Britain’s most recognized mystery writers. Well, that was news to me!

Friday evening when I was looking for some non-screen entertainment my hand landed on it where it had been waiting to be read. It succeeded on all counts. There is suspense. There are interesting settings (or maybe I’m just nostalgic for Europe). The level of character development is of greater complexity than commonly found in the genre. The author strings you along until the last few pages with red herrings and dead ends.

And I doubt I would have found Ruth Rendel except for the wonderful recycling effect of donations to a thrift store.

Economic man was lonely

Welfare economics ran into market failures because of economic man. The view that all transactions are performed by an individual actor looking only after his own interest is relevant for the pursuit of private goods, but not public. If the problem isn’t structured from the point of view of a group, then it all falls apart due to freeriding. If the economic analysis isn’t contained within a sphere of voluntary reciprocity, then the desire for each and every to fulfill only their needs tells a story of everyone taking and no-one giving.

But we don’t live as the caveman did defending a little hilltop. We live in families, tribes, cities and countries. We participate in work life and school life and sports life and associational life. When our diplomatic family would show up at a new post halfway around the world, we’d be met at the airport and driven to our housing by a couple from the embassy. Co-workers would be sure we knew where to shop, how to get the kids in school, and other pressing local customs. I was recently reminiscing with a military guy who nodded knowingly when I relayed how, for years, I had missed the strong ties of service personnel when I got out into the work force.

And because these are lifestyles, the assumption of the group and its obligations can be taken for granted. The compacts of who takes care of whom at different stages of life, over decades, makes for messy accounting. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tracked. It just means we have yet to do so. It’s taken forty years, since a little rebellion in the 70’s, to name a labor wedge. And now there’s credit for sweat labor. And then there are the Wikipedia contributors, and many more cooperative types making cool stuff.

The independent actor, however, is so ingrained in the US psyche that the conceptualization of a group as a consumer and supplier slips easily out of the analysis. To further muck up the landscape, an institution thought to be public, acts as an economic man with regard to anyone outside the group. Take the teachers’ unions actions regarding COVID as an example. The focus is on the public health and well-being of the teachers, and the teachers alone. The initiatives of their efforts do not include the public health of the school children nor their families. There is no consideration of other public objectives or benefits to keeping children in the classroom. The services the unions are negotiating are only public to dues paying members.

Economic man is a lonely notion. Have no fear, he lives in groups! But his behavior traits are accurate and, as it turns out, groups can be selfish too. To keep it all straight, one must declare an anchoring point of view in any analysis.

The Survivors- Movie Review

I clicked on this 1983 comedy with Walter Matthau and Robin Williams on a bit of a whim. It is not highly rated, but I’ve been curious about comedy and what I failed to see in it back when I was younger. Much of the humor is derived from subtle plays on social norms. If you are not from the area, or lack proficient language skills, or are not in tune with current political situations, the laugh often slips right on by you.

Walter Matthau is admirable (I am just realizing what a tremendous career he had!) and keeps the movie together. Robin Williams is not my favorite even though he pulls offs some great lines and gestures. But mostly what I found interesting is the harsh review of US bureaucratic services. This was a time of high interest rates and high unemployment, and a discouraging mood is present throughout. As a result, one does come away impressed with the speed and fluidity of the disbursement of Covid relief funds.

The home seller’s POV

In order for all those home prices to end up on a list at the county recorder’s office, both buyers and sellers must agree on the exchange. The idea of revealed preferences tells us how the buyers are viewing, evaluating and reacting to, not only the physical characteristics and conditions of a home, but also what type of neighborhood infrastructure is in place to educate the kids, and to collect the trash, and to obtain potable water and so on. When price is equated against relevant quality indicators, a number will indicate what type of weight buyers put on each of these factors.

Now let’s think about the sellers. Sellers of course would like to secure the highest financial bid on their home. But this isn’t the only consideration. Since there is a four-to-six-week lag time between signing a purchase agreement and closing on the property, parties to the transaction consider the buyers’ level of earnestness, as it is a great disappointment should buyer’s remorse creep onto the scene. Sellers also take into account the financial viability of the buyers to be sure the lender will show up at the closing table with a suitcase full of cash.

A seller is no longer thinking about the public goods in their neighborhood because they are soon to exit the networks which rely on and participate in the production of those goods. But when they accept the money for the sale of their property, they are receiving payment for any participation they may have done over their residency. If they petitioned the city council for traffic-quieting-turn-abouts for safer streets or set up a tennis association to get people out exercising or led the kids out on a Trick-Can-Treat to gather up canned goods for the food shelf, it is at time of sale when they receive payment for their labor.

From my point of view, the equity in their home which accumulated during their ownership due to all these types of activities and investments is social capital.

A house as a bundle of implicit prices

Yesterday’s post was about how the implicit price for neighborhood public goods, or what some people call amenities, like schools, parks, city services are a portion of the final sticker price of a home purchase. Buyers in the housing market consider square footage, beds, baths and the level of landscaping, but also make choices of financial consideration when comparing the infrastructure in the neighborhood and surrounding area. Just how long it will take to get to work or whether there are medical facilities close by are all contenders in the battle for the right bundle of components wrapped up in the final purchase.

The mathematical technique used to identify these bits of the final sales price, each dedicated to an amenity, is to solve for a hedonic equation. That is to line up a set of prices against data thought to be considered by consumers prior to purchase, and then solve. For instance, the violent crime rate is a very strong indicator in metering out a buyer’s sense of safety, and k-12 test scores are faithful representations of feelings around schools. When an econometrician equates prices to this data it is called running a regression.

Of course, there is much to this statistical process, and many mistakes can be made or avoided depending on how the problems are structured. But what I want to talk about is conceptionally what the coefficients, the numbers dictating the value (or maybe impact is a better word) of each amenity. It feels like a price since the unit of measure is dollars. For example, if a home in one school district were compared to the same home in more favorable district, the natural log of the coefficient gives the value as a percentage. In considering a purchase the buyer could say they would have to pay ten percent more for one home over the other. Or that there is a forty-thousand-dollar premium (on a 400K home) to purchase in the better district.

Sherwin Rosen who first wrote about this process in the ’70’s warned against thinking of implicit prices (the prices of the categories which make up a product) as an actual price since they come together as a bunch. In housing this is particularly true. One can’t make a wish list of features and tell a manufacturer to build it, like your latest laptop. One is not able to blend a prespecified structure and plunk it down just anywhere. For the most part consumers often bend on some desirable features in order to get others.

Buyers are also attracted to a variety of public goods at different times if their lives. Families with children in the home care about schools. Working stage of life folks need daily commuting infrastructure. Later stage in life people may want access to medical facilities. And it is these groups of people who are vying and competing for the homes which best offer the desired benefits.

Home economics is a study of bundled goods and grouped consumers.

What’s in a house price

All we’ve heard for the last several years is how the price of housing is going up. Up. UP! And for the most part that is true. Whether it is because Millennials are finally getting on their feet and need a place to have their own families, or whether the baby boomers are not moving to the lower priced condos and giving up their family homes, there is no doubt that there is a housing squeeze.

But seriously, for as long as I can remember, except in deep recessions, people have thought housing is expensive. Because it is! It is the largest portion of people’s monthly budget. And this distraction about the cost of a home is the most uninteresting fact one can take away from home prices. House prices are a rich reflection of the revealed preferences of a community.

An economist in the early part of the twentieth century by the name of Paul Samuelson came up with the idea that when consumers chose different products, they reveal what best suits their needs. This differed from theories up to that point which placed the burden on policy makers to decide which goods provided the greatest utility to consumers.

Samuelson’s relationship with economics is lengthy. This excerpt paints the broadest brush of his brilliance. “In receiving the Nobel Prize in 1970, Mr. Samuelson was credited with transforming his discipline from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”

One economist, his junior by twenty years, heard the clarion call for greater mathematical representation of economic theory. Zvi Griliches contributed to a publication called Economic Statistics and Econometrics published in 1968. In a paper called Hedonic Price Indexes for Automobiles: An Economic Analysis of Quality Change, Zvi pulled apart the prices for automobiles so that he could show how much consumers were paying for improved engines or length of the vehicle or other features. By comparing the components of the cost of vehicles he distinguished between inflation and consumers revealing a preference for higher quality provided by advanced technology.

But back to real estate. The economist credited for using this statistical method (taking the price of a complex product and using data to divvy out the weighted values of its various components) was Sherwin Rosen in his 1974 paper Hedonic Prices and Implicit Markets: Product Differentiation in Pure Competition. Now this is exciting! The price of a house can tell you how much one school district is favored over another. It can tell you the value effects of violent crime, or proximity to mass transit.

The implicit prices tell us that we trade in public goods as well as private goods. We shop for city services and good roads, for youth programming and parks, as well as for good schools and safe streets. The implicit prices tell us how groups of people choose bundles of public goods. Real estate prices are incredibly rich with feedback.

So can we stop with the “They are so expensive.”

Grandpa and Sam McGee

Opa grew up dirt poor in northwestern MN, one of a large family of Swedish immigrants. He was more or less orphaned when he was sixteen, so he persuaded a couple of buddies to see if they could winter off the land up along the Canadian border.

Whenever the temps and wind chills dig into the minus twenty, minus thirty range, I wonder how they pulled it off back around 1923. It’s no wonder that one of his favourite poems was The Cremation of Sam McGee. He knew it by heart and needed little prompting to recite it to you.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

What squatter cities can teach us

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

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

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

From today’s Dhaka Tribune:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding family more valuable

People in the prime earning years of their work careers are leaving it all behind. Some have no plan at all except to be done with what they used to do and look forward to perhaps consulting options or other opportunities. Others resigned with the intentions of helping with their grandkids as the burden of at home schooling and work and having something of a marriage was taking its toll on their kids. The numbers for the Midwest are clear, with quit rates climbing to all-time highs, as shown here by FRED.

For some the virus has made life too stressful. The uncertainty of whether your kids have a reliable place to be during work hours is a significant concern under any circumstance. The last minute need to take leave from paid employment to look after a quarantined kid creates an entry on the positive side of the on-going debate whether the family would be better off with one worker dedicated to family affairs.

Many people settle into the extended family model where grandparents or aunts and uncles show up for a childcare shift throughout the week. This also alleviates the stress of transport to and from daycare in twenty below weather sliding over ice covered roads. The anxiety of a worker when faced with being late to pick up their infant is palpable.

People are making quality of life choices. It appears that Covid has drawn people up short on past choices about paid employment versus employment which allows greater time spent building equity in family relations, or flexibility to pursue other associational interests. Once people start sharing such ideas with others, a little self-reflection can set off a chain reaction.

Labor, like any commodity, is compensated by a mix of pecuniary and social rewards. Where individuals, couples, or extended families find the balance of enough cash and enough time to keep the family support systems in play so that everyone is safe and fed and healthy. And then there’s the altruistic side of people who feel the sheer reward of adding to the public goods market whether through education or their many other talents.

Accountants are underrated

Numbers people are underrated. You probably have not heard of Amatino Manucci or Luca Pacioli, but they played a key role in the development of commerce though without the glamourous appeal of the adventurer types like Marco Polo or Vasco da Gama. They made contributions to the double accounting system.

Manucci kept the accounts for Giovanni Farolfi & Company, a merchant partnership based in Nîmes, France. Manucci was a partner for the Salon, South of France branch. The writing, entirely in Manucci’s hand, is neat, legible, and mostly well preserved.[3] Financial records from 1299—1300 survive that he kept for the firm’s branch in Salon, Provence.[1] Although these records are incomplete, they show enough detail to be identified as double-entry bookkeeping.[1] These details include the use of debits and credits and duality of entries.[1] “No more is known of Amatino Manucci, than this ledger that he kept.”[3] Amatino Manucci did not invent the double entry system, that was a 100-year process (perhaps a 9,000 year process). 

Wikipedia

This was about the time that the Papal seat was moved to Avignon, just a short distance from Salon. The area, known for hilltop fortified villages, was surrounded by sophistication and learning.

Luca Pacioli, an Italian mathematicianFranciscan friar, collaborator with Leonardo da Vinci (there’s someone we know), came along a couple of centuries later accomplishing the great service of putting the method into a textbook.

The first published work on a double-entry bookkeeping system was the Summa de arithmetica, published in Italy in 1494 by Luca Pacioli (the “Father of Accounting”).[21][22] Accounting began to transition into an organized profession in the nineteenth century,[23][24] with local professional bodies in England merging to form the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in 1880.[25]

Wikipedia

The double accounting system improved the accuracy of the bookwork for transactions. Keeping proper records goes a long way to maximizing profits and use of time. Having a running tally of the monetary movement also leads to confidence amongst parties to a trade. There’s a history, a verification of how things were done as a reference.

What is exciting is there are new efforts afoot to better account for intangibles in business such as “the value of business owners’ time and expenses to build customer bases, client lists, and other intangible assets.” Our very own Ellen McGrattan at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, along with Anmol Bhandari at the U of MN, had a paper published in May 2021 which finds that the accountants have been missing a sizable amount of business assets. From the abstract:

We discipline the theory using data from U.S. national accounts, business censuses, and brokered sales to estimate a value for sweat equity in the private business sector equal to 1.2 times U.S. GDP, which is about the same magnitude as the value of fixed assets in use in these businesses.

Sweat Equity in U.S. Private Business∗

In the concluding paragraph of the authors suggest that there is a problem with how this capital is categorized.

Most of the applied work focuses on one attribute at a time and imposes a strict dichotomy on the nature of the asset: alienable or inalienable, specific or general, tangible or intangible. One of the key messages from our work is that sweat capital does not fit neatly in these dichotomies. Furthermore, the fact that these assets are a substantial part of private business value will likely necessitate a review of some of the classic results concerning the boundary of the firm and its capital structure.

A portion of the efforts and energies a business owner puts into his/her company is not the same as the work an employee is paid for to show up for a job. The labor of the owner has a non-fungible bit which is retained in the business. The later transaction, cash for time worked with no further obligation, is fungible.

It sounds like McGrattan is recommending a new accounting system to keep track of these entries.

Valuing persistence

Melissa Dell, an economist at Harvard, writes about persistence. One of her studies considers evidence of the effects of colonization in Indonesia. The Dutch controlled the archipelago caught between the South China Sea and Australia starting in 1610 with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. Although the trading entity evolved, control of the territory and its resources lasted into the twentieth century.

Dell finds that the European presence left behind some societal benefits which persist to the present day. From the abstract of The Development Effects of the Extractive Colonial Economy: The Dutch Cultivation System in Java.

We examine these in the context of the Dutch Cultivation System, the integrated industrial and agricultural system for producing sugar that formed the core of the Dutch colonial enterprise in 19th century Java. We show that areas close to where the Dutch established sugar factories in the mid-19th century are today more industrialized, have better infrastructure, are more educated, and are richer than nearby counterfactual locations that would have been similarly suitable for colonial sugar factories.

Using a method of comparison between two similar geographic areas, the researchers were able to prove that the existence of factories and supporting works carried forward as a system, even after the colonizing power departed. It appears that the economic value of the factory extended beyond the daily production of the product at hand; that there is a residual benefit beyond the export produced (to the benefit of the Dutch) which remained attached to the land.

We also show, using a spatial regression discontinuity design on the catchment areas around each factory, that villages forced to grow sugar cane have more village owned land and also have more schools and substantially higher education levels, both historically and today.

Modeling this in the public/private-externalize/internalize framework would start by identifying three groups: the Dutch, the in-Indonesians and the out-Indonesians. The story of colonization which has been popular of late only involves one transaction. In this case it would be the Dutch reaping private monetary rewards from the sale of sugar to all the ports on the sailing route through the Straits of Malacca, around past Ceylon, past the Cape of Good Hope and on back to Europe. And although this is true, it leaves out a bunch of other trades.

Dell’s work indicates that the in-Indonesians (the ones who worked in the factories) ended up better educated. Their interactions with foreigners included being taught skills required of the job. Because it was to management’s benefit, time was spent to provide a public good to the locals which they then internalized. Similarly, because it was a benefit to the Dutch in a private sense, significant investment was made in transportation infrastructure, as noted here.

The analysis thus far has focused on the private sector, but public investments may also be an important channel of persistence. The historical literature emphasizes that the Dutch government constructed road and rail networks to transport sugar to ports. The Dutch made large infrastructure investments precisely because it was profitable for them due to the extraction of a surplus, and they would have been very unlikely to make these investments elsewhere in the absence of extraction

These public facilities were a public good to all the Indonesians who chose to use them. But Dell goes further in her analysis to suggest that the in-Indonesians persisted in developing infrastructure after the Europeans departure as they were simply more in-tune to the process of petitioning government for improvements. Perhaps their higher level of property ownership also motivated them to pursue a public good as they themselves would privately benefit.

To tell a story as a one-sided transaction does not do history justice. A complete accounting of all the transactions needs to be in play to evaluate whether everyone came out better off, or not.

Easier to see, when seen from abroad

Tim Taylor, an economist across town at Macalester College, was taken by poet Roya Hakakian‘s lengthy description of voluntary efforts to support associational objectives. If you were doubt whether individuals voluntarily give time and resources towards public goods, this list should set you straight. Everything that follows is taken from Tim Taylors blog the Conversable Economist:

I was also intrigued by Hakakian description of being surrounded by a nation of fund-raisers for small causes:

You used to give a coin or two to the poor of your city, or drop a banknote in the collection box at your place of worship, or help a neighbor or a friend with a loan. But these were a few small exercises at best. Here, people give regularly. Squirrels collect acorns, and Americans raise money. It is as natural as any instinct for them. Children offer lemonade on sidewalks to raise money for the kittens at the animal shelter. Girl Scouts go door-to-door selling cookies so other aspiring girls can become Scouts too, and do the same. Mothers organize bake sales to help pay for a new neighborhood playground. Teens give to the GoFundMe campaign of a filmmaker working on a documentary about the endangered aardvarks of Angola. Even Santa, the nation’s gift giver in chief, appears at the threshold of major department stores every December, ringing a bell at the side of a siren-red donation bucket. Overworked cashiers will not scan your items before listlessly asking if you would like to donate a dollar to the fight against something or other. Once a year, arsonists take a day off so firefighters can stand at intersections holding up their rubber boots, charming drivers into pitching in a few dollars. At the registers of greasy gas stations, two things are always guaranteed: the noxious smell of fuel and the cardboard quarter receptacle for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In some movie theaters, films cannot start unless the ushers have walked aisle to aisle passing the empty popcorn container to collect money for whatever the star in the public service announcement
urged the viewers to donate to. Entertainers hold telethons to raise money for this disease or that. Rock bands compose songs for disaster victims and give them their proceeds. Radio broadcasts are interrupted so the hosts can make appeals for a donation, which the local attorney or dermatologist matches. Runners run, bikers bike, and comics crack jokes, all to help raise money for the needy. Politicians bombard their supporters with emails, asking them to give five, ten, twenty, or more dollars toward making a better tomorrow, when, in addition to a higher minimum wage and universal healthcare, there will also surely be more emails asking you to donate again. Corporations have charitable arms. Dignitaries ask for money to build homes for the destitute. In television commercials, celebrities, holding doe-eyed babies in their arms, urge viewers to adopt a child on another continent through a monthly contribution. Anything is possible in America, even raising a baby by subscription.

When Americans do not raise money, they raise necessities. They have book drives, blood drives, food drives, turkey drives, even car drives. If they cannot solicit you in person, they send you letters. Heaps of envelopes arrive in America’s mailboxes every week asking the
citizens to donate to one organization or another. Fundraising is a behemoth as vast as any industry. … You may be naturalized already, but unless you begin writing checks for people you have never met, living in places you would never visit, you are not a real American.

No nation so rich has ever asked for more money. They do not need the order or the permission of some authority to tell them what to raise and for what cause. They take matters into their own hands and wage campaigns to save the pandas, protect the bees, or reverse beach erosion. What is at the heart of all this fundraising is the same thing that is at the heart of all other perfectly American things—an irrepressible self.

For interested readers, here’s the full Table of Contents for this most recent issue of Capitalism and Society, with abstract and links to papers.

Squeezed out of the house

Most coursework taught in a classroom setting under the guise of real estate is centered on one of three aspects: appraising, financing, and legal underpinnings. In fact, most of the reports generated around real estate feature these same three topics. The recent sales data is sliced and diced along with market times and the rates offered by the mortgage brokers.

Cornell University proves to be an exception in its course offerings which include a wide range of topics on all aspects of real property. In addition to the oh-so-common Finance and Investment class, there’s a taxation course and one on hospitality real estate finance. There is analysis of transaction and deal structuring, and advanced project management for real estate development. There is an emphasis on flushing out the business side to real property.

But the courses designed to teach the work which happens(ed) in the home has been severed from the neighborhood and become Policy Analysis & Management (PAM). The evolution of the 1920’s department of the Department of Household Management is depicted in the flow chart below. Clearly 1969 was a breaking point from the quaintness of home, a throwing off of the apron in favor of an upwards and onwards momentum to a more distinguished framing.

Cornell University, the History of PAM

Another course offered at Cornell is Urban Economics and Real Estate Markets. The course description reads: “A theoretical understanding of the economic forces affecting urban land market change and development is needed for decision-making in the real estate profession… The two core models at the center of the course are the model of urban spatial structure that stems from the work of Alonso, Muth and Mills…” (Alonso, William (1964) Location and Land Use. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.)

A few years before the functions of health and human services were being detached from the geography of cities and suburbs, Alonso noted that the location of a central business district (CBD) created a spatial relationship within a city which affected real estate. While a model based on jobs and income and the commuting of a workforce was used and developed in the interplay of real estate uses in a city, the jobs of a homemaker in educating and feeding and educating her children found a new home in the Health and Human Services Departments across the nation.

This was unfortunate timing.

Back to School

Kids go back to school tomorrow after a two-week holiday break. There’s been little chatter in our area about school closures due to the new virus making the rounds. The kids do wear masks while in school and are asked to stay home if they are feeling ill. But there have been no further formal responses to the pandemic.

School performance and school boundaries are a significant consideration to families looking for a home. People can be open to several districts or specifically interested in one particular school. But the list is in place, and it delineates the possible selection of homes. Or at least this is true for those attending public schools, which runs about 88% of the student population in Minnesota

This number is reflective of the number of kids who attend private schools nationwide. One standout statistic is the range of spending per pupil. Vermont had the highest per student spending at $23,205, whereas Utah had the lowest at $8,352. Their graduation rates were different as well. Vermont pulls in a rate of 89.1 whereas Utah only has 86 percent at their lower rate of spending.

In Minnesota we’re right in the average at $13,456/pupil.

Two Books Reviews

Being that today was a holiday and it is ten below outside, I settled in with Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik, a local Minnesota writer. It was published in 1995 and is still the author’s best-known work. The story of two sisters growing through various stages of their lives in the ’60’s and 70’s is nostalgic for those of us who have seen the Twin Cities grow over the last four decades.

The book is rich in geographical references as Landvik describes where her characters’ lives play out above bakeries or small shops, on parkways that front the Mississippi River. Some of those small-scale brick commercial buildings have fallen to make way for larger apartment buildings, as a city ages, grows and changes. But the relationships that are made between people of different backgrounds who live in close proximity stays the same.

Lorna Landvik will walk you down the sidewalks of the predominantly Scandinavian community and out to Lake Nokomis and over to Minnehaha Falls. She’ll show you where the wealthy live and the corner bar where the not so wealthy enjoy a brew or two. If you’re curious about passive aggression or how families simply keep plugging along through adversity, you will find it a good read.


Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, is a book which will slow you down as it is caulk full of wonderful references to all sorts of rich texts. Some I had read; some are now on a list. I first took note of Francine Prose when I was perusing an article in the Atlantic her words lulled in my ear. The crispness and informative conveyance of material is in high gear in this book about writers. It’s like someone has taken you into one of those amazing libraries stacked high with books, and as you walk along together in front of the stacks, she feeds you a stream of choice bits from each one.

She’s broken the book into paragraphs entitled in a manner to suggest her intended audience is composed of those who aspire to write a novel: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and so on. But you can ignore all that. The absolute best part of this book (for book lovers that is) is that she plucks out the loftier parts of a work and shines a light on the sheer beauty of it. She pulls a bucket out of a deep well of knowledge and has you take a sip. The book closes with a reading list of BOOKS TO BE READ IMMEDIATELY.

Now I have my check list for 2022. Happy reading.

End of Year Greetings from MN

As the first full year of this site comes to a close, I am thankful for all visitors who have stopped by and taken a look around. The international reach of the audience has been heart-warming. Over fifty countries are represented in the views. The largest share originated from the US at 54%, India comes in second at 20% and then South Africa at 7%. Even my brief, childhood, home country of Ethiopia pulled in at 2%- Tenayistilign!

I really appreciate the visits and the likes!

I’ll close out the year showing you a little bit about what we do for fun here in the tundra.

Keep reading. Keeping walking. Peace, health and goodwill to you in the new year!

The USPS provides neighborhood data

If you are looking for micro level data on a particular neighborhood, you’ll be happy to know that it is available curtesy of the United States Postal Service.

As a service to businesses who would like to mail marketing pieces to homes, the Every Door Direct Mail program allows you to search by mail carrier route to get a feel for neighborhood composition and level of income.

In this first screen shot the light blue line delineates a collection of 246 residents on Lake Harriet, one of the lakes in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. The average income of the occupants is reported at $142.89K (if you are from a coastal region this may sound average, but it is high after cost-of-living adjustments).

A couple of miles away, another mail carrier route shows a different density and income level. With 392 residents contained in a similar surface area, we can imagine smaller lot sizes. The adjusted income indicates more modest housing.

When working with big data sets, the details are often averaged out. A tool such as this one allows you to test the numbers and see if they are consistent across a larger area.

Or you can just use it to check on your neighbors!

The Three Goals

By David Budbill

The first goal is to see the thing itself in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing as unified, as one, with all the other ten thousand things. In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals, to see the universe and the particular
simultaneously.

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.


An Echo

The first goal is to show that the individual has agency and free choice.

The second goal is to show that the individual is also a part of kin and kith, without fail, with no exception. These groupings are varied and vast and remake through time.

The third goal is to demonstrate an interaction between the individual and their communities such that there are private and communal benefits in a consistent fashion, operating under predictable forces.

Regarding this one, I’m working on it.

Checking in on Harvard’s real estate report

In June the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard puts out a national report. Six months on, I thought it might be interesting to check in on a few of the trends.

If you were involved with anything around new construction in 2021 you were acutely aware of the steep uptick in lumber prices. By spring market builders were writing upcharge clauses into purchase agreements allowing them to carry that cost back to the consumer at the end of the build. This did not always go over well.

I called a lumber yard recently regarding a bid on some pre-stained poplar for a tongue and grove ceiling. The guy on the other end of the line said prices had edged down a bit but he thought this particular product was still carrying a 22 percent surcharge over a year ago. He couldn’t predict into spring but said they all hoped the prices would ease and availability increase.

The other big news of the last eighteen months is the continued pressures on price. Even coming into the winter months new listings are selling in multiple offers. That said, I’m glad the study includes the second chart which shows how the cost of housing lines up with the income available to homeowners to make their payments. The cost of housing is not out pacing the potential to pay for it, but simply keeping pace. This should ease concerns around bubbles.

This last chart was news to me. I was not aware that new construction trends have been above historical averages for over a year. This is encouraging! I’d say we need an even bigger push for more units as millennials are finding their way to household formation. At least the numbers are trending upwards.

Several pieces of data that I would be interested in tracking is 1. how many units are idle and not in use 2. the trends for people aging out of home ownership making those units available, and 3. the number of units thought to be inhabitable. All of these numbers would help track ongoing availability of shelter.

A cure for car jackings?

The last two years have seen a terrific rise in carjackings in the Twin Cities. Loose numbers for the trend in the city of Minneapolis come in at 84 for 2019, 388 and 610 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Whereas the crime was mainly centered in the city, now offenders are venturing out into the suburbs. Whereas the perpetrators were mostly unarmed, now they are mostly armed and often inflicting bodily injury.

Out of the 610 incidents there are certainly a portion inflicted by career criminals. But at our holiday potluck last week the conversation focused on the number of juveniles involved in the activity. One story concerned a recent incident in a wealthy third tier suburb carried out in broad daylight. When the car was apprehended later in the day, all the occupants were under fifteen years of age. Here are a few other reports which follow the same lines.

The day after Frey’s press conference (12/16), two teens pleaded guilty to multiple carjackings across the Twin Cities; in a separate incident, a pair of juvenile suspects were arrested in association with violent attempted carjackings outside two Lunds & Byerlys locations. One suspect is still at large. 

Bring Me the News

As it has progressed to a larger geography, residents have organized to express their concern. Just over a week ago a community crime prevention meeting drew three hundred participants in a suburb abutting the city of Minneapolis. The mayors of five western suburbs compiled a statement and action list to address the issue. The role of the county attorney was questioned.

“We think the message being sent to criminals is you can commit this (kind of) crime this afternoon and be out by this evening,” he said. “From what I understand from the police officers, that is not far from the truth. I think we want the county attorney’s office to relook at that.”

https://www.eplocalnews.org/2021/12/18/suburban-mayors-meet-to-develop-response-to-
increasing-crime/

We’ve come full circle. The county attorneys had loosened penalties for low level crime in response to demands for social justice. Kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods get in the system, the reasoning went, and then they are hindered from progressing up through the regular channels of entry level jobs and on up the chain to self-sufficiency. Take formal charges off the table, and the balance will be set right. Unfortunately, releasing the penalty for low level offences has increased the number of kids getting into the carjacking business 6-fold, not decreased it.

Perhaps Minneapolitans would tolerate this increase in crime and see it as a penalty paid in order meet their social justice ambitions. But it is already clear that there is little appetite for such things further afield. More importantly, the loss of life amongst these budding ne’er do wells has been tragic.

Two teens are dead and three others in the hospital Thursday morning after Robbinsdale police say a reportedly stolen SUV crashed in Minneapolis.

The incident first began around 6 p.m. Wednesday (12/8) night, when a Mercedes SUV was stolen in an armed carjacking near the area of 12th Avenue North and Fremont Avenue in Minneapolis. ….

Police said five people were inside the fleeing SUV, all of them teens. One occupant was declared dead at the scene of the crash, and the other four were taken to nearby hospitals, where Robbinsdale police confirm that a second person died. Robbinsdale police captain John Kaczmarek told KARE 11 that the other three suffered significant injuries but are “up and talking” in the hospital.

MSN

As people puzzle over this escalating situation many of the same solutions are bantered about. But I say look to those suffering the greatest loss. To raise up a child to fifteen or sixteen years of age and then see them, on a whim, end up in a car which veers off the road and takes their life, must be a serious blow. These are the folks with the most to lose. A group of parents who have recently lost a child to this nonsense must have ideas on how different circumstances could have pulled their loved one in a different direction.

Daybreak on the love of children

Morning glory

Daybreak on Christmas day was spectacular. The glittering golden beams broke the horizon with an explosion of color. How appropriate on the anniversary of the birth of the world’s most famous baby; the baby born in a manger; the baby who grew into a man who would bear the sins of His people upon a cross.

No matter whether you believe in this tradition, you can’t deny the mystery and magnitude of the feeling which takes hold of a parent upon the birth of their child. “Nothing like it,” one would say. “I thought I knew love when I married my spouse, but I had yet to lay eyes upon my child.” The magical relationship between parent and off-spring is undeniable and universal.

Yet for a generation or more, the west has argued against children, against large families and the hubbub that surrounds them. Too expensive. That’s the first objection. Some sort of calculation which tallies the dollars necessary to raise and educate a child. Stratospheric.

Too time consuming! Babies will change your life. True. But I don’t see how it is a bad thing to be transformed from a self-consuming single to a service provider to the next generation. Those sweet babies who, when you are 75, 80, 90 plus years of age, will be responsible for the upkeep of the world.

You will have to forgo your career, your passion, your ambitions! Maybe you could manage with one, but certainly not more. A combo of one child to two parents is doable. But a family would be too great a sacrifice. Then the children control the agenda not the adults.

And on it goes. It’s not the right time; they are not the right sort of parents; there are already too many people in the world! Reasons not to pursue the one extraordinary and unrelenting bond in the world- the love between a parent and a child.

A college educated adult maybe employed from the age of 22 to age 66, or over a 44-year time frame. To get a gaggle of kids through the high intensity young-years time of life might round into twelve or fifteen years. Then they are off with friends freeing up time for other pursuits. A third of the working career years are laden with child duties. Seems like a fair trade for help in the senior years, rather than a sacrifice.

Children are beneficial in the long game. We can find all sorts of motives behind a generation who only considered the short term. But that doesn’t matter now. It’s a new day and the beauty and mystery and enduring love between parent and child is a premise to hold onto.

What Child is this- 1983 Edition

The St. Olaf Choir is a premier a cappella choir based in Northfield, Minnesota. Founded in 1912 by Norwegian immigrant F. Melius Christiansen, the choir has been influential to other church and college choirs for its performance of unaccompanied sacred music.[1] Conducted since 1990 by Anton Armstrong, there have been four conductors in the choir’s 109 year history.

Wiki

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

A premise

As a kid I really liked math because no matter the school curriculum, or country I happened to be in, the numbers were always the same. The problem sets followed a format as well. The givens were presented first off, and any other relationships, then you used theorems to generate answers– or rather one right answer. That was delightful! In customs and cultures there were never ending answers and conditions and expectations to keep track of.

In a philosophical argument, instead of givens, there are premises or premisses. Yet here, one must be ready to stand behind their validity.

premise or premiss[a] is a true or false statement that helps form the body of an argument, which logically leads to a true or false conclusion.[1] A premise makes a declarative statement about its subject matter which enables a reader to either agree or disagree with the premise in question, and in doing so understand the logical assumptions of the argument.

Wiki

This would be all well and good if language were precise. But it’s not. The project seems doomed for perpetual hair splitting. Unless of course one has some sort of authority so that everyone simply nods to their wise ruling and agrees. (yet, I’ve always been suspect to authority as too many people in lowly positions are in fact far brighter than those in lofty positions to which authority is often assumed)

For the argument I make here, at home-economic, a primary premise is that individuals have freedom to make choices. In a free and open society this seems indisputable, but then a questioning starts. What about the poor, or the homeless or children or the elderly or, for that matter, the breadwinner who feels trapped in a place of employment? Does someone living under a bridge really have choices? Yes.

And I would even take it further and say that those who are so removed from the circumstances in play, folks who stand too far back to be able to note the distinguishing characteristics of choices, these people have little to contribute to the conversation. For if one cannot or simply do not acknowledge the framework within which a particular group is living than, for lack of understanding, their interference is likely to do more harm than good.

Here’s an example given in Viviana Zelizer’s book The Social Meaning of Money at the start of Chapter 5.

IN THE NEW TALES told by social workers during the early twentieth century, money was recast as the modern “white hat” of the charity saga. 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 case substituting cash for a pre-selected bundle of goods allowed an actor to benefit from choice. Please don’t misread this to say I advocate for cashing out of all social circumstances. Far from it!

The premise I am trying to highlight is freedom of choice. That optimal solutions occur when individuals are free to make choices as they filter through the various economic marketplaces of their lives.

Emily Dickinson, measurer

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long – 
Or did it just begin – 
I could not tell the Date of Mine – 
It feels so old a pain – 

I wonder if it hurts to live – 
And if They have to try – 
And whether – could They choose between – 
It would not be – to die – 

I note that Some – gone patient long – 
At length, renew their smile –  
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil – 

I wonder if when Years have piled –  
Some Thousands – on the Harm –  
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –  

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve – 
Enlightened to a larger Pain –  
In Contrast with the Love –  

The Grieved – are many – I am told –  
There is the various Cause –  
Death – is but one – and comes but once –  
And only nails the eyes –  

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –  
A sort they call "Despair" –  
There's Banishment from native Eyes – 
In sight of Native Air –  

And though I may not guess the kind –  
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –  

To note the fashions – of the Cross –  
And how they're mostly worn –  
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own – 

Poets.org

Thinking of friends who have experienced some out-of-the-natural-course-of-things deaths in recent years. Wishing them peace in this holiday season.

Women in Government, now and back then

Friday evening I went to a seminar entitled Women in Government hosted at the high school by two student groups. It was really well done! In addition to video presentations by Senator Tina Smith and Lieutenant Governor Flanagin, four accomplished women made up a panel on a stage edged by an American flag: a federal judge, a county prosecutor, a state senator and a media personality.

Turn the clock back to when I was just graduating from high school, or even into the first years of college, the only woman in US politics who stands out in my mind is Geraldine Ferraro. She was the US representative from New York and was Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate in 1984. Highly visible, outwardly successful women were few and far between. And those who did venture onto the big stage were pestered and heckled mercilessly. Fortunately, there has been a steady infill of female politicians since that time.

First off what struck me about each of the professionals in the auditorium is how they talked freely about their children, and from the sounds of it each had more than one. They spoke with ease about family life. One expressed thankfulness for the balance and objectivity the birth of her children had given her. Another told how her professional life had intermingled with a stay-at-home mom life, a follow your husband abroad life, and then back to a professional life.

This is a significant change from when I was one of the girls in the audience. Family life was not talked about and diverting one’s ambitions to support a spouse would not have been admired. Back then the statistics bantered about were that women with graduate degrees were doomed to spinsterhood. It seems we’ve progressed past necessitating a choice between job or family, and past a jealousy of a partner’s career.

When asked to offer advice to their younger selves, here are a few of their responses:

  • Be open to people who are trying to help you.
  • Gossip is not about you, inevitably it’s about the one trying to spread it.
  • Relax and don’t stress about everything.
  • Be open to your path changing course, as it most probably will.

There were quite a few adults in the audience as well. And I think everyone took away something useful from the experience.

All work isn’t the same

Jobs jobs jobs. Politicians love talking about jobs. But they might consider singing a slightly varied tune as 2021 has been the year of take-this-job-and-shove-it.

The Harvard Business Review reported:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. Resignations peaked in April and have remained abnormally high for the last several months, with a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of July.

The great resignation should be some sort of indication to politicians that people are rethinking JOBS. The jobs where you are hooked to an employer and you have to do what they say and then you get a deposit into your checking account every two weeks. That kind of job. The kind of job that is referenced in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The greatest percentage of resignations come from mid-career professionals, people who probably have a lot on their plate. They are probably juggling kids and aging parents. And yet they are chosing to quit their jobs.

I think it would be worth the effort to figure out what other work they will be doing instead of the work-for-money job they just quit. Wouldn’t that be good to know? If a voluntary workforce was being formed to address delivery of health care, wouldn’t it be useful to track these efforts and the results that follow?

Or maybe it isn’t the joint goal of better health but instead the shared goal of furthering early education. I think is would be valuable to understand how many presently unaccounted hours support young children’s advancement in learning. Then in a decade we could all understand the results. Or maybe people are leaving their jobs to be present in the neighborhood and be vigilant in the deterrence of low level crime. Counting the number of working hours devoted to this cause, and the ensuing results, could draw some conclusions as to the capacity of an area to improve public safety.

You see I don’t believe people, in the prime of their lives, are quitting jobs to sit around on an overstuffed sofa and nibble on snacks. I believe they feel they have something more valuable to do with their time and efforts and expertise. Wouldn’t we all be better served if the government helped with a structure to channel those aspirations and in turn track the outcomes?

The old structure of government taking money from one side, arguing for two years before handing it off to the other side is getting boring. Why don’t they think with a little more dynamism. Jobs don’t have to pay rolled. They can be mission based. Think of what could be accomplished with a little structure and an energized population wishing to do good.

Tom Stoppard is so talented

His play Travesties is set in Zurich during the First World War. In this brief exchange, both the artist Tzara and the diplomat Carr talk sense and nonsense.

CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean? Not that it has to mean anything, of course.

TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause.

CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.

TZARA (articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.

CARR (slight pause): Oh, what nonsense you talk!

TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else,by the war.

CARR: You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodphurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on-the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture-until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambswool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

Written in 1971, it premiered at the Aldwych Theatre in London in June of 1974. In addition to playing on the historical happenstance of three great figures living in Switzerland on the cusp of global conflict, Stoppard also mirrors aspects of one of his character’s works, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I can thank the Guthrie theater for introducing me to Stoppard. A friend was visiting town and wanted to go rush to see whatever was playing, which happened to be The Invention of Love. The crispness of his words arrested my attention and held on through the entire production.

Plays are sometimes hard to read. (I really struggled with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.) But Stoppard’s writing is dense with innuendo and word play and format changes. It’s delightful!

What will happen to commercial real estate?

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

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

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

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

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

Slack in the System

There’s a portion of interstate in downtown Minneapolis that funnels through a tunnel. When the interstate was built in the sixties, the congestion at this SW corner of the city warranted the expense and logistics involved in sinking in the subterranean passage. That was 1969, and in 1971 the neighbors threw a party in the below ground venue celebrating its completion.

Fast forward to the here and now and the congestion has returned. In 2018, according to one estimate, 185,000 cars passed through the tunnel every day. And not always successfully as the video clip shows. The end result is that there is often a back up from the feeders that bring traffic through the tunnel.

As a motorist approaches the city from the west during peak hours, and the downtown skyline takes shape above the dash, there’s inevitably lineup to exit on a right hand ramp to the tunnel and destinations beyond. Vehicles can start queuing up a couple of miles before the turn. Well before the green overhead placards announces the interchange.

As you sit behind the wheel, see-sawing down the right hand lane, there are always those drivers. You know the ones. They bypass the two mile wait, dart in, merge in, or arrogantly come to a full stop on the interstate, blinker pulsing, and wait until someone lets them in. (Do they realize they are at a full stop on a freeway?) I used to get irritated at such line jumpers. I used to pull up so tight to the bumper in front of me so as to deny them any chance of sliding in.

But time has altered my view.

Most skippers pull into spot ahead of trucks. There’s a slight incline on the bypass and the trucks can’t gear up fast enough to keep the line tight. There is often the space for several vehicles ahead of a semi. Then you have the putterers, so conservative in their driving that they leave ample room between them and the car in front. The darters grab those opportunities and fill those spaces. It dawned on me one day, maybe as the late afternoon sun reflected back on me off of one of those glass paneled high rises, that the line jumpers actually make the process more efficient, not less.

Of course it doesn’t work so well if no one conforms to the norms of courtesy. But the thing is that in group activities, you don’t need everyone to follow the rules at all times. In the case of freeway sharing, this example indicates a little bending of intentions makes the system flow a little freer. We just need most of the people pointing the same direction. Not every last one.

Which is one way of saying we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape by the few objectionable sheep in the flock. Spend time an energy on the majority, and keep moving forward.

Date Night- a worthy comedy

Steve Carell has grown on me over the years and his skills are in high gear in this comic yet action-adventure-themed tale of a married couple’s big night out in the city. In addition to Tina Fey and Taraji Henson (Empire) being strong supporting actresses, a very young Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) makes an appearance.

There are a variety of ploys which will make you laugh, but the film is really an ode to couples who have been together for a while.

Network Connector

We have a little suburban newspaper that shows up in the mailbox on Thursdays. It’s called the Home Town Source and runs letters to the editor about local issues, covers the city council and school board races, and devotes three spreads to high school athletics. This morning an article about a Plymouth man caught my eye. He’s a perfect example of a connector.

Students in Ghana received more than 16,000 books last week as part of a collaboration between the African Diaspora Development Institute and Books For Africa, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

The effort was led by Plymouth resident Jote Taddese, a former Books For Africa board president and a board member of the African Diaspora Development Institute. Taddese is also director of diaspora engagement for Books For Africa and a vice president of engineering at Optum Digital, a United Health Group Company.

The common interest here is literacy, an interest that transcends geographic boundaries. And the connector not only has ties to another continent through birth, but also experienced personally the benefits of picking up a book at a young age.

“As a person who was raised in Africa and educated in the diaspora, I am a living example of when we put a book in the hands of a child, we not only help fulfill the potential of the child, but also change the impact on the lives of individuals and the global communities that child will touch,” Taddese said. “This is my life experience that always inspires me to support kids in Africa with books.”

Taddese was born and raised in Oromia, Ethiopia, and immigrated to the U.S.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be employed by an organization whose mission parallels so nicely with their private life. And the non-profit’s accomplishments are notable.

Last year alone, BFA (Books for Africa) shipped 3.1 million books, valued at over $26.2 million, and 224 computers and e-readers containing over 650,000 digital books, to 28 African countries. More than $3.1 million was raised last year to ship these books to the people of Africa.

But this story isn’t particularly new. The living standard differences between the two continents is so significant, and the lack of basic tangible goods like books so clear, that there is little to complicate the direction of the goods and services in arriving at their destination. The books in fact are what I call idle assets, sitting amongst a community unused, available at no cost except the work to get them to their new location.

Markets become trickier when the difference between groups vary less, when resources are not idle but need to be drawn upon, when ‘need’ is voiced loudly by people other than the intended recipients. In these cases we will need to rely on benchmarks for guidance.

PADI- an associational case study

Say one wanted to figure out the impact of participating in affiliations with the professional association of diving instructors or PADI. First off we could identify three groups that are major players with the association: the dive shops, the instructors or dive masters and the divers who show up to be taken down to the ocean floor.

As I’ve attempted to sketch out each of these groups which internalize (listed inside the circle) and externalize benefits and costs in the relationship.

The divers, for instance, are willing to pay more to go on a two tank dive with a PADI shop and may adjust their travel plans or hotel selection to coordinate with the shop. But they do this because they feel they will experience a safer dive and see more sea life.

The dive masters who took us out in Kauai all had worked elsewhere including Honduras, Texas and the Caribbean. They also showed an active interest in the health and quality of the reefs in Hawaii and abroad. Just like so many outdoors men and women, they are important supporters of the environment they so enjoy, externalizing that knowledge and concern in so many ways.

Lastly the dive shops are able to charge more and internalize those profits but also must externalize the support and higher standards observed by the association.

Each of these actors are evaluating trade offs and making consumer choices in both fiscal matters as well as the degree of voluntary work or other concessions made in order to be part of the association.

A two tank dive isn’t simply $150USD. To get a grasp of the complete transaction would necessitate tracking all the components at time of exchange.

The other interesting aspect of this type of analysis is to see how externalize factors can be transferred between the groups of actors which come in touch with each other. For instance the dive masters are passionate about reef environment. As divers come through their work place there may be ways to capture idle assets to further reef preservation.

It’s about the land

I stuffed Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx in my knapsack purse at 3am when we had to leave for the airport to catch our flight. I wanted something I knew I would enjoy to fill the airport and flight hours on our rather lengthy itinerary to Kauai. It’s a coming of age story of a young man who sets out to establish himself by taking a job as a land scout for a corporate hog producer.

If you aren’t familiar with Annie Proulx, her writing veers to the eclectic. Embellishments are generously layered on like thick butter on a slab of freshly baked bread. I love that about her writing, which I first discovered in The Shipping News. But this book is chock-full of local characters. They parade across the pages leaving an imprint of the bit of their lives which made the panhandle what it was when Bob Dollar showed up in search of hog sites.

Luckily for me the lack of a nightstand stacked with alternative reading options kept my eyes on its pages. Not until well past page 377 does the author get down to the business at hand. Who is it exactly who owns the land? Bob Dollar sets out to meet landowners, and to get to know them before asking them to entertain the idea of selling and leaving their former neighbors with the smell and dust of a hog operation. He tries to explain to his boss how the locals feel.

“But people down there in the panhandle feel like if they own property they have some say in what happens on it and next to it.

“You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that-lip service. What rules the world is utility-general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail. You know that highway departments can take property against the owner’s’ will to widen the thoroughfare for the general good. It’s a similar situation. And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community.”

The business man proffers the rational response. The pressures of a market of needs will push the land to be used for the greatest good. He gives the example of indemnification for a roadway– which doesn’t quite ring true. The greatest good of a private hog producer doesn’t exactly parallel with the good of a public works project. But it doesn’t matter to the corporate guy, as he simply needs to sell his young scout on the idea that he is part of the greatest good. Perspective.

And Annie Proulx does justice to the perspective of the local farmers who have lived their lives on the poor quality land. When Bob suggests to his prospect that she would be happier moving elsewhere, she tries to unwind their story for him. Their residency is not the same an apartment rental. Their tie to the land is generational. Their stay is the result of decades of work and interactions which make place a part of them and they a part of it.

“Where might that be? In a city, I suppose. We’re country people and we’ve been on this land for four generations. The city is not for us. We’ve been happy here and my husband has worked his heart out to keep this ranch in order. We can’t even run cows on it anymore. The cows can’t even stand it. Do you think it’s right that some mean hearted corporation can buy up panhandle land and force out the local people? I don’t know what we are goin a do. My husband says if he were a young man he’d set grass fires and burn them out. I do not know what we are goin a do. That state senator in Amarilla is no help at all. He’s on the side a corporate hog outfits. The corporations got the politicians sewed up in Texas, top to bottom. And down in Austin the panhandle is far away and folks think it is a worthless place any how-they think it is perfect for hogs. Tonight we will suffer with that stench.”

The author does such a great job at putting on display the complexity of land as a product that is bought and sold. One could substitute out the scenarios and the feelings would remain the same. The seniors who have enjoyed a particularly scenic piece of property are pushed out by higher taxes. The middle of the road business is pushed out by the likes of The Gap, Apple, the latest fad. Present as a lurking villain is the utilitarian need to put in new roads, to produce the food people eat, to pay taxes on the services which a greater number of people require.

The tension is always there. And Annie Proulx writes it all out in an apolitical hand with a tenderness for the history of place and a fair amount of humor.

Perspectives on Networks

Networks are often used as a paradigm for the analysis of how individuals access communal resources. A job search is an example. An advantage goes to the individual who is able to call on friends or family to get in for informational interviews, be tipped off first about the best positions, and have a ready pool of favorable references.

The old boys club is a notably resented network. Those in the club interact fluidly to fulfill their objectives. But the same can be said about the ease of interaction at so many organizational activities. Those who worship together know exactly when they will have an opportunity to bump into a fellow parishioner. And there are Rotary clubs, and Alumni Associations and boxes at the theater. All set times and dates where people gather and can be accessed.

But in this type of analysis the interaction is in one direction. An individual needs something, a job, a contract, a bid opportunity, and the individual taps into their network to see if they can fulfill this objective. The formulation is not one of a group, where part of the group is providing job leads, information, introductions so that another segment of the group can engage these resources. The perspective is from the individual extracting from the group for private purposes.

The other way to view a network is from a group perspective. When I was an exchange student in Avignon, I returned from being in town to tell my house mother a story about a vagabond I had seen. She had me describe him and when she recognized his traits she said, ‘That’s good it’s him, our town can’t handle another.’ Whether there was more good to be had from the townsfolk isn’t the point being made here. It is the thought that a group has only so much to provide, the economics of the group has resource limitations.

Networks are thought of in linear nodal models. This is a singular view of the pursuit for a private objective. From the view of the group, what’s important is the measure of how much the group can provide. It is not important which individual steps up, just that someone does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warmth of a fire

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

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

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

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

#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.

Travel Notes: Kauai

Kauai is the fourth largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is nicknamed the Hanging Garden. Its volcanic formation resulted in a serious peak, Kawaikini, which receives the most rainfall on the planet. This moisture drains into an elevated swamp, the Alawa’i Swamp, which drips moisture down onto the island. The tropical beauty and mystic peaks made it the perfect backdrop in the Jurassic Park movies.

The flight schedule is a little cumbersome from Minnesota. The western states have great service, but the central states must transfer through a hub. And of course there is the four hour time change which messes up one’s schedule for a few days. Covid wise, things are more favorable than going to Canada. Vaccines are required to avoid quarantine, and there is a government app that needs info, but no 72hr testing.

The weather has been spectacular with temps ranging between 70-85 degrees F. It’s not as damp as the Caribbean and not as dry as Cabo. Perhaps we were just lucky- but it’s a good thing as there are beaches at every turn to enjoy. The inlets allow for sheltered swimming and snorkeling, whereas surfers paddle out a bit to catch the waves.

We had wonderful experiences with the scuba folks on three different two tank dives. The first focused on highlighting the giant sea turtles. Many are snoozing down on the reef, but some will come out and swim with you for a while. A boat dive took us out to a reef with a large variety of fish. And we ran into a couple dozen dolphins on the way back to the small craft port. Finally our night dive opened up a whole new selection of wildlife that prefer the later hours like a ghost octopus.

All three dive masters were interested in sharing their love of the underwater sealife and took care to show us the different species. They had a bunch of hand signals to communicate en route as they pointed to a rock looking thing that fluttered away with colorful fins (devil scorpion fish) or they used an open and close puppet motion to indicate a spotted eel. The wildlife is abundant and they are please to welcome you to their world.

Captain Adam was our boat captain who talked pretty steady. He’s fishing when he’s not driving the scuba tanks or taking tourist around to the Na Pali coast. There’s a rhythm to his speech that islanders get even though he looks like he could be from Wisconsin. The way the multi vowel Hawaiian words rolled off his tongue seemed to say he’s a lifer.

One thing you notice right away is all roosters wandering about. In fact you hear them before you even see their assorted feathering patterns. They are protected as the import only feature of the island has created a creature unique to its environment. This is true too of some regional fish, in particular the state fish of Hawaii, humuhumunukunukuāpua (yes, real name for a trigger fish with distinctive markings).

Hiking is a feature attraction as well. The diverse landscape offers many distinctly beautiful settings to stretch your legs. Although the trail infrastructure isn’t quite what it is on the mainland, the roads are well paved and the shoulders are used by pedestrians. There is a maze of paths through the Waimea canyon.

Overall this island scored high on our preferred island adventure destination list.

Unknown Bird (1999)

by W.S. Merwin

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

W. S. Merwin (September 30, 1927 – March 15, 2019) received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Shadow of Sirius. His many works of poetry and translation included Present Company (2007), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), and a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004).

From The Atlantic

Scuba diving is an underwater stroll

With the help of a vest and air source, a diver can sink to the ocean floor and have a look around. Instead of walking a trail and spotting robins and blue jays, the reefs spit out the whitespotted Toby, or the devil scorpion fish (my favorite), or the coffee table sized sea turtles.

Scuba diving is an enjoyable hobby which has gotten more and more popular in recent years. PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, reports that they hold certifications for 28 million underwater strollers worldwide. A certification is the end result of passing a course and an open water swim exam.

PADI® (Professional Association of Diving Instructors®) is the world’s largest ocean exploration and diver organization, operating in 186 countries and territories, with a global network of more than 6,600 dive centers and resorts and over 128,000 professional members worldwide. Issuing more than 1 million certifications each year, and with over 28 million certifications to date, PADI enables people around the world to seek adventure and save the ocean through underwater education, life-changing experiences and travel. For over 50 years, PADI is undeniably The Way the World Learns to Dive®, maintaining its high standards for dive training, safety and customer service, monitored for worldwide consistency and quality.

From either the PADI linked page or FB page

The organization was started in 1966 by a couple of guys who didn’t like the status quo and wanted to do something better. Given its worldwide reach, one can’t help but wondering how they got established and grew into the association of choice.

This isn’t a situation of government setting up a bunch of rules and allocating a means of enforcement. This is associational work. Why people choose this certification process would be something to consider.

Grateful for family

Sounds trite, doesn’t it? Of course you are grateful for your family. No more of a surprise than you love your kids, as fiercely as I love these two beach bums:

The term family is often reserved for those with whom we share a household. The people who do the housework for the daily routine of food and lodging. But as we sat around our Thanksgiving meal this evening it was clear that the genesis of our lovely circumstances originated beyond the four sitting at the table.

Being thankful for good health, for example, cannot only be a tribute to our personal efforts. One must reach back and be thankful for all the good genes that have been passed down through the generations. And the habits of selfcare that were taught with quaint proverbs, like an apple a day keeps the doctor away, didn’t just pop into the family routine one day. But saying isn’t doing. Those who came before also showed us they were willing to pay more for fresh fruits and vegetables; they were willing to dedicate resources to better health.

The multigenerational passthrough of profitable habits doesn’t stop there. When parents establish the custom of aiding with advanced education, the gift is meant to tumble on down to the next generation and then onto the one after that. The payment of tuition is done with long views over a whole life, not short returns.

But when these habits of investing across and over people, of participating in a system of beliefs and not of immediate returns, then we are no longer talking about family as a gathering of four people. When choices have been thought through and tradeoffs considered; when families have evaluated outcomes and set norms; when all this circulates through decades worth of relations, then we are talking about something else. We are talking about family as an institution, as an economic force.

That is the sense of family we were grateful for this evening.

How to choose an island

Considering travel options to islands for some rest and relaxation can very over time. There are many that may meet the basic criteria of tropical beauty, access to beaches of equal quality, opportunities for water sports and boating, and a comparable level of lodging. But choosing one over the other can hinge on boring basics.

Going to distant shores is appealingly exotic. Leave all the standard stuff for those who have no sense of adventure. The travel cost is more as the sheer distance is greater. And there is a surcharge for the extra leg of travel to get well off the beaten path. There is the additional minor inconvenience of time zone changes, mostly born out in the transition back to working life upon return.

The extra travel expense can be recaptured by more reasonable lodging and meal costs as the cost of living differences are often substantial. For this reason such destinations appeal to the younger traveler. At least it was for me.

But then, when young children come along, the idea of having a drug store just down the street with recognizable remedies for toddler care is pretty comforting. And it certainly helps to know that medical services are in place if something more serious comes up. To further facilitate the excursion being pleasurable with the offspring, being in the close to grocery stores with favorite foods makes mealtime more pleasant. It is meant to be a vacation after all.

All these extras tip the practical ocean front in lieu of the exotic. Distant and cheep is great as a youthful solo traveler. But when dependents are in tow, it is no longer exciting to get caught up short on the bare essentials. Quite to the contrary, the reassurance of infrastructures around health and safety become exponentially more valuable.

How fear ties knots of inaction

On the one hand people worry that improving disadvantage neighborhoods will cause the evils of gentrification:

Now planners are trying to figure out how best to weave through north Minneapolis on the way to the northwest suburbs. But many people along the route fear real estate speculation and increased investment will render their neighborhoods less affordable. Hennepin County hired the University of Minnesota to study potential gentrification impacts and recommend anti-displacement strategies along the route—a first in Minnesota transit history.

Sahan Journal email newsletter

On the other hand there’s dismay that property values do not increase in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here’s a headline and intro paragraph to an article in todays New York Times:

How the Real Estate Boom Left Black Neighborhoods Behind

While homeownership has been an engine of prosperity for white Americans, home values in places like Orange Mound in southeast Memphis have languished. What would it take to catch up?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the same forces against gentrification were perpetuating poverty in neighborhoods they thought they were protecting?

The Woman in the Window with Amy Adams

I have to say that when the credits for The Woman in the Window scrolled across our TV screen last night I was left underwhelmed. I am an Amy Adams fan, so it was easy to click on the film tile when it appeared on the Netflix selection rollout. A fire was lit. Dinner was on our plates. We were ready for a nice Friday evening at the movies.

The plot is more or less predictable. There’s a build up to a horror scene, which I’d prefer to miss. But today, scenes of Amy Adams dealing with various situations throughout the film had my brain retelling her tale. Her character is struggling with agoraphobia which is present as an outcome of a severe mental health breakdown. Her acting is the only flicker of light that holds the movie together.

I have no way of knowing the actress’s motivation in taking this role. But her skill in it made me extrapolate all sorts thoughts about the fears which are crippling so many activities in our society. The fear to leave one’s house becomes representative of the fear to take on a venture, the fear to move across the country, the fear to create and build upon something new.

Mental health is at the crux of many issues in this country. It is a complex and difficult topic, and not one people often want to tackle. Instead of your typical representation in a homeless figure, this movie takes the life a professional women to show how crippling a mental health crises can be. Amy flushes out the many angles of this experience in her portrayal of Anna Fox.

You’ll have to watch the film to see if she can turn her life around.

$34.4 Mil is a fair amount of cash

That’s how much was raised in Minnesota yesterday during Give to the Max Day. Here is how the Minnesota Holiday started:

In November 2009, Give to the Max Day was supposed to be a one-time only launch party for the new fundraising platform GiveMN.org with a goal of raising $500,000. At the end of the day, generous donors had given more than $14 million in just 24 hours, smashing the goal out of the water, and starting a giving holiday in Minnesota.

https://www.givemn.org/giving-events/gtmd21/totals

Gala and fund raisers are nothing new. Just ask development officers at any non-profit. And many of the techniques employed during yesterday’s day of matchmaking originated from them: a limited timeframe, matching incentives, live-counters adding up the tally to meet a goal. What is different, here, is that the platform opens up a marketplace of giving. The boundaries of where and who is trading in the assists of work in the community changed. The benefactor was no longer one cause; a theater, a shelter, a youth center. Nor were the donors just the flashy wealthy crowd at a glitzy event in a downtown venue. This market is open to all Minnesotans, who can then feel empowered by grouping with others to support their passion of choice.

People give when they see the need. Citizens agree to pay taxes as an acknowledgement of the need. But they also don’t want to be the only one giving- it is a communal activity. A formal taxation system provides assurances that others are also on board to assemble the public goods as intended. In philanthropy, a one day event provides the accounting, the final tally, which confirms success back to its audience.

One can’t help but notice the parallels to the concept of state capacity. This has been a salient term in recent years. Here is how one researcher put words to it:

The concept of state capacity—“the ability of a state to collect taxes, enforce law and order, and provide public goods”1—was developed by political scientists, economic historians, and development economists to illuminate the strong institutional contrast that parallels the economic contrast between rich and poor countries.

https://www.niskanencenter.org/state-capacity-what-is-it-how-we-lost-it-and-how-to-get-it-back/

On Give to the Max day, donors pay funds (a tax) to support their chosen community works producer, who in turn transforms the funds into their specialized public good. The enforcement of product delivery is partially enforced by laws, but mostly by the pressures of competition to be a good producer for those who depend on the services provided.

What the Give to the Max platform allows is a wider marketplace. What Give to the Max Day shows by the $34,390,470 collected yesterday from Minnesotans tall and small, urban and rural, rich or light in the wallet, is that we have a notable amount of state capacity.

Paper commentary- Surfers & the Wave

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

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

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

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

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

Rewriting the present in anticipation of the future

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in recent years about how history is told and what words may or may not be used. I was just listening to John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia (if you don’t know him look him up) on a Twitter Live interview expressing discontent with the transposition of an individual ‘being the victim’ of an event in lieu of ‘being a survivor’ of an event. The framing, he said, settles a lingering tragedy around a fellow.

In addition to voicing the negative rather than the positive, there have been demands to take the lives and accounts from many generations ago, and rework the fruits of their labor into a present-day-acceptable version. David Livingston was Scottish adventurer from the first half of the nineteenth century. He spent his life exploring Africa and reporting back on what he had found. He was awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in London and kept an association with the group for the rest of his life.

On Twitter today (yes it was only 37 degrees here) I saw this post celebrating the rewording of Livingston’s work. It extinguishes any credit to a man who spent a life exploring, documenting and passing along details on a large swath of a continent.

In fact the Livingston accounts couldn’t have been written in any other way. There were no maps of the area in and around Lake Victoria, by British, Arab or African geographers. So it would have been odd to write an account in an off hand, I’m just a tourist seeing things that everyone else has seen, type of way.

How exactly are historic figures from our past supposed to have predicted the future dynamics of civilizations and write their work to the correctness demanded in generations to come? Or is it up to us to take their work in the context of their time?

Walk, daily, philosophers do

In addition to being good exercise for your body, walking massages the mind. Jean Jacques Rousseau was known for walking. A search will happily provide you with pages of suggested JJ Rousseau walks.

Toward the end of his life he wrote a collection of ten essay’s which are thought to be some of his most lyrical writing.

The closing lines of Troisieme Promenade sure are pretty:

Mais la patience, la douceur, la résignation, l’intégrité, la justice impartial sont un bien qu’on emporte avec soi, et dont on peut s’enrichir sans cesse, sans craindre que la mort même nous en fasse perdre le prix. C’est à cette unique et utile étude que je consacre le reste de ma vieillesse. Heureux si par mes progrès sur moi-même, j’apprends à sortir de la vie, non meilleur, car cela n’est pas possible, mais plus vertueux que je n’y suis entré.

Infrastructure Bill- MN edition

There’s been a lot of celebrating today with the final presidential signature scratching ink across the infrastructure bill’s pages. It’s a lot of cash, that’s for sure. This was the speculation, a few weeks ago, on how the dollars would shake out for Minnesotans:

As with other recent large federal spending bills, the state has some idea what amounts will flow from the various categories but will have to wait weeks, perhaps months, for specific guidance on how it can be spent. The state usually spends about $2 billion a year on road and bridge work from fuel taxes and bonding and will likely receive an additional $4.8 billion over five years for that purpose from the federal law.

In addition to roads and bridges, early estimates are that Minnesota will also get $818 million for public transportation; $680 million for waterworks; $297 million for airport improvements; $100 million to expand broadband access; $68 million to expand electric vehicle charging networks; $20 million for wildfire protection; and $17 million to increase cybersecurity.

MinnPost

Compatibility, a review

I recently switched to an iphone after years of android use. It has been fun to compare their functionality. The ease of the transition is a tribute to Apple’s focus on the user experience. There is one feature, however, that I miss. It is Google Lens. My last phone was Google Pixel and the Google Lens icon is at the lower right hand side of the screen when you open a jpg. For instance, as I sort through some old travel photos from my youth, I often want to know where a shot was taken. Check Google Lens- Presto! It matches the image to ones on Google Maps.

Fath Ali Shah

I tried all sorts of methods to store and open this image from Iran on my new phone but gave up, and went back to my Google Pixel. Tapping on the picture on my old device summoned up web results which identified the location in seconds. The 4000 BC etching is located under a fortified wall at Rey Castle, near Teheran. Subsequent postings by the collective of google map supporters offered views of the image and surrounding landscape from multiple angles.

More than likely I’ll discover how to use Google Lens on my new device. But the fact that so many features are user friendly and this one is not made me reflect on how we are at the mercy of structures easily within our reach. And how we don’t make time (partly because we may not appreciate the benefits) of structures which we have yet to discover.

During the lockdown my family and I started a daily walk routine as it is good exercise and it was one of the few activities open to us. We used aps to monitor distances and times, and struck out looking for new scenic trails. I’m not sure how many times we shook our heads in disbelief that we had only now discovered so many pleasing miles in our figurative back yard.

On a recent trip to Calgary I discovered the ease and reliability of public transit. It was forced on me by the difficulty to secure a rental car in the era of Covid. This reminded me of when I took my kids on the Great Northern Railroad from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. The line runs from Chicago out to Seattle skirting the northern most border of the US States. It appealed to me as it gave me a break from road tripping with young children and I thought it would make an impression on them. Many of the other passengers from places like Minot, Culbertson and Wolf Point used the rail frequently. It was their preferred form of transportation.

The dominance of some IT structures has made me wonder about other patterns in my life which have steered my activities. Where else have decisions kept me from advantageous experiences? What other take-it-for-granted services are people not using optimally which would make their lives better? And how can we reveal those little connectors to better engage a just-next-door infrastructure we have yet to discover?

Serving up platters of truth

In the first of a newly posted set of podcasts entitled Minds Almost Meeting, Agnes Callard and Robin Hanson tackle the two horned paradox of honesty. Agnes explains that the first horn is to “hold up your communication to the standard of it’s being honest, which is to say, being as truthful as you can.” They define honesty as a form of communication which seeks to work toward actions which results in good. And this is where life is complicated as being truthful can be at odds with an action outcome from such communication.

On the one hand we have a standard for what it is to be honest, and on the other we have the desired action of a good outcome through honest communication. The tension occurs when the words, phrases or inactions are not uniformly applied. Here’s an example. Say the mom of the ace pitcher on a Little League teams says, “We’ll be there” in response to the coach’s tally of who will be at a final playoff game. Earlier that same day the mom told her neighbor, “We’ll be there” when asked about the couples’ interest in a night of canasta.

The same words. The same intentions. But not the same level of commitment. Being a no show to the playoff game is completely different than missing an evening with neighbors over cards and a few beers.

Let me backtrack a minute, to be sure your thoughts have not settled into the neglected neighborhood life, to be sure we are still talking about economics and not social niceties. Youth sports is known to have several benefits. Kids who participate learn about teamwork, prioritize their time, do better (on average) in school and exercise regularly. The persistent advantages from youth sports surface in public health and well being. (There are costs, of course, to the infrastructure which supports these games– but that’s for another post.)

Even occasional gatherings of neighbors for beer and a barbeque or game of cards can generate economic benefits. People hear about jobs or set up connections to contractors or suggest areas in the community which are in need of support. The network marketing that transpires at social gatherings is of value. It is not resented in the way that cigar smoke filled rooms at men’s clubs were in days of yore. The neighborhood is not exclusive in that way. In fact it is a priority to make attendants feel welcome and comfortable.

And for that reason when a guest wears a colorful dress with animals print, she will more than likely receive a compliment. Since the priority in this platter of economic activity is create an ambiance which is fun and upbeat, to be sure that the people are happy to be present, and thus will do their best to get along, little lies are very permissible. It is not a deceit as it goes towards the action of the good of the group activity.

Whereas social niceties is not what is expected for the Little League playoff game. The commitment here is to the team and to winning the game. A no show by any family would be a considerable let down.

Lives are big and messy. We are involved in many activities that vary throughout our lives. The paradox of dishonesty as presented by Agnes Callard is minimized when you align the various economic platters with their expected norms. It’s much easier to accept that in social gathering there will be a lavishing of less than honest flattery.

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.

Last thoughts- Missoula

We had some extra time for a walk around Missoula. Parking the car on a spur of a road near the University, we struck out on this path leading us westward along side the Clark Fork River.
The trail infrastructure was quite good. Paths were wide and used by cyclists, walkers and runners. This pedestrian bridge allowed for a scenic river crossing.
If you’re going to have a bench- might as well create an artistic setting.
After getting in a good walk, stop in at one of coffee houses in the historic downtown for a latte and slice of pie.

Tales under open skies

There are two writers who come to mind when I think of the open plains and jagged peaks of the great state of Montana.

Ivan Doig writes of immigrants from Scottish Highlands taking to the land that reminds them of their home country. Between the covers of The Whistling Season and Dancing at the Rascal Fair, it is the ranchers and teachers and forest service workers who tell if their lives; the lives of those who pulled a wilderness into a habitable home.

Don’t bother with his books if you are not interested in descriptive language. A reader who resists words layered in a think paint of illustration should move onto Stegner. Because the beauty of Doig’s writing brings color and emotion into the landscape and lives of those who settled this part of the country with hopes of a better life.

Annie Proulx is another who writes of the American West. She is probably best known for writing the story behind the 2005 film Broke Back Mountain, directed by Ang Lee. There’s a quirkiness in her stories that keeps me interested. A reminder that life is rarely unfurled in a straight and orderly fashion.

Craft sales and trading posts

As morning breaks over the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana, the outlines of the craggy ridges materialize against the lightening sky. Big Sky. It’s the state’s motto. The blue atmosphere embraces you from all sides like a hug from a friend who will not leave you.

Montana is still remote enough to attract super stars who know the locals won’t be impressed by their presence. No autographs or selfies required. There are still craft fairs where the fine art is in the both besides Brenda selling her fleece lined choppers, made with used sweaters bought at thrift stores. She turned 83 today and we all sang Happy Birthday after the announcement came over the PA. She told me she didn’t have time to sit around. Idleness is not an option.

It’s hunting season and the locals are passionate about their public lands. Miles of it are open to hunters. They are out looking for moose, elk, prong horns if you are ambitious. Low lying clouds roll over the peaks. You can’t miss the beauty of the place. It’s all around you.

The Addis I Knew

Addis skyline in 1974 from the Hilton Hotel

Our posting to Addis was one of the longest in my childhood, so naturally I have many memories from our time there. We arrived in September, at the end of the rainy season. Since our housing wasn’t ready, we lived temporarily at the Hilton Hotel. This photo was taken from one of the upper floors. I believe that is Menelik II Ave rising up on the right side of the photo. If you google present day photos of Addis, you can see how the city has been transformed.

We were fortunate to have traveled across the country during our time. From the Awash valley, to Djibouti, to Lake Langano, up into the Rift Valley, and to trout fishing in the Bale Mountains.

I hope some day to travel there again. But the news update below isn’t encouraging. So for now, US travel is it has to be!

We are seeing the crisis/death of 2nd generation constitutions: Ethiopia with its diversity-sensitive constitution, federalism & self-determination clauses, mirrored in the angst and twitches in South Africa 2/7

Ethiopia reminds us of the limits of the “modernisation” (read big infrastructure ) model that “brings” development and nurtures cohesion through satisfied stomachs. It was rising until it fell 3/7

It also demonstrates that African dysfunction can’t always be attributed to the colonial experience. Ethiopia wasn’t colonised and led a highly storied war against the Italians 4/7

It shows that the existence of a large foreign presence in a country – a regional hub – is no inoculation against state collapse 5/7

Ethiopian conflict proves what has been observed in conflict literature: the best predictor of war in a country is a prior experience with war. Once you break your “peace virginity”, just expect more children down the line 6/7
📸EPA

Last, on a light note, having a Nobel winner ( PM Abiy & Wangari Maathai in Kenya) and great Gold-winning runners (Haile Gebrselassie or Eliud Kipchoge) is no guarantee of peace 7/7

Originally tweeted by Charles Onyango-Obbo (@cobbo3) on November 5, 2021.

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.

Yes to the incumbent Mayor, No to power to the Council

Minneapolis voters on Tuesday soundly rejected a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, crushing the hopes of supporters that outrage over the killing of George Floyd would translate into one of the nation’s most far reaching experiments in transforming public safety.

https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-voters-reject-plan-to-replace-police-department/600112156/

Humor me

Maybe you will play along with me, and entertain the spaces I want you to imagine.

The one we know well won’t be hard for you to conceptualize. The selfish one. The profit motive, cash intensive one. But there’s the second space too. It is outlined by time, energies and outlays for group things. The things we call public. So, if you can, hold these two dynamic spheres, one of initiating activities toward private profits and a second contributing to yields for the group, in your mind for a minute or two.

The first part of the story is familiar to you. It’s about how private equity firms (there are many big ones like Blackstone, Apollo and Bain) go in and buy up old or floundering businesses and rip away any remaining social ties that may cling to them. Pensions? Gone. Employment contracts? No more. A trustee companion to the surrounding community? I think no longer.

An alumni from my alma mater, Gretchen Morgenson, is a senior financial reporter with NBC and can tell you all about sphere one in her book, The Hidden Force Behind Wealth Inequality in America. In the clip below she focuses on the results of private equity firms becoming the owners and custodians of nursing homes.

The claim that the private equity firms live in the for-profit sphere, and in turn are destructive to social riches is irrefutable. But it is by design. Perhaps it serves the same purpose as the destruction of ancient Sequoia trees in a forest fire. This is part of the process. But most would agree that there are many possible points of optimization in the process of externalizing social contracts and extracting their value through dollars to shareholders.

To come at the quandary from another angle, try to imagine where the flip side of the activities of private equity firms reside. Where in the two spheres is the opposite enterprises underway? Instead of extracting dollars and putting social benefits to rest, dollars are inserted into a network of social activity to substitute for care, education, food and so on.

A place where, at every turn, a community is propped up, rather weakly I might add, by subsidies is also messing with the spheres of activity. And in such a neighborhood where 60-70-80% of the residences live below the poverty level– actors are being stripped of the possibility of engaging in mechanisms of self accomplishment and achievement.

Whether the misuse of money is in the private sphere or the public sphere, the net result is, as Gretchen postulates, a dark force behind wealth inequality.

Solving problems across the entire economic landscape is preferable. Looking for optimizations in multidimensions will provide greater insights. Sorting the industries which favor the nature of the communal or the nature of the private will point out short comings. Understanding the role of subsidy intervention and the power of group relationships will create leverage.

All of this can be stretched across a framework of public and private spheres.

Matrix is more than a movie

The movie Matrix made a big splash in 1999, propelling Keanu Reeves to stardom. He wasn’t the producer’s first pick for the lead, Neo, a programmer who senses something in his environment is not quite right. The matrix refers to a simulated reality, created by intelligent machines. As long as the lives of the actors were contained within this vessel of distraction, their bodies energized the mechanical systems.

The dictionary confers a similar definition for the word matrix:

  1. an environment or material in which something develops; a surrounding medium or structure.”free choices become the matrix of human life”

Once a surrounding medium or structure looses physical form it can be challenging to see, and we can start to question if it is still there. The mimes from my youth, following the lead of the famous Marcel Marceau, would stand on Paris street corners gesturing in such a way that you could visualize the wall their elbow leaned against, or the box that encased them. See for yourself.

In mathematics a matrix is a grid of numbers, like an excel spread sheet. The numbers are arranged in such a way that they represent value descriptions for a variety of features.

Say life was simple and one could devote free time (time away from a job for money) to one of three activities. Time caring for children ‘x’, time for keeping food in the house ‘y’ and time for exercise ‘z’. Collecting hundreds of these sets would generate some baseline numbers. But soon enough sorting subgroups reveal new environments. And further investigation reveals that groups can have a variety of properties when they interact.

What we are looking for are the numbers that go astray, that vault off the charts, that tell us “This is where we need help!” The numbers will spell out an environment that we cannot see, yet we can still be confident it is defined. And as such it can help us solve for situations that leave others behind. We have to let the matrices, like the mimes, form the space for this type of calculation.

Haunted Houses

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807-1882

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapoursdense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,—

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

Windfalls from Me but not from Thee

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

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

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

Minnesota State Lottery prizes

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

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

Moving money & the unrealistic unrealized capital gains tax

Years ago a friend pointed out that it is easier to capture money when it is moving. As workers earn a wage, it is easier to capture a tax as funds transfer from the employer to the employee. At the time an asset is sold, it is easy to capture a tax from the dollars passing from one owner to the next. When purchases are made at a cash register it is easier to add on a sales tax. You get the picture.

And for this simple practicality, the asset tax or Biden’s wealth tax, was doomed from the get go.

There are other practical reasons that gum up the whole idea. Assets fluctuate in value over periods of time. So the years that the asset increases in value you pay a tax, but the years the asset decreases in value the government pays you back? Sounds like an accounting nightmare. Sounds like a scenario made for grift.

Maybe it’s more than just the practicality of money on the move. The severing of ownership leads to a settling of accounts, which includes an obligation to the greater group in the form of a tax. Use of assets for philanthropy, start-ups (basically business charity), endowments and so forth is a different type of supporting the greater group than the stream of funds channeled through taxes to pay for services.

The problem it seems is in the mechanism to draw the substantial assets to turn them over to political process. And maybe that a good thing.

In appreciation of HG Wells

I’m just now reading HG Wells. I wasn’t into science fiction as a child, so I never picked up The Time Machine when it was making the rounds amongst my brother’s middle school things. How fortunate to have left this work untouched, to be able to dabble in such writing today. Part of the appeal of novels like War of The Worlds was the terror of it. As captured in this passage where the British are fleeing from the invading Martians.

The legendary hosts of Gothe and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede — a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.

But I particularly like the descriptions which conjure up amazing visuals, such as this one.

Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents, gardens already derelict – spread out like a huge map, and in the southward blotted. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting out ramifications this way and that, now banking itself against rising ground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley, exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, ballooning allowed everyday folks to reach upwards to the skies. Leading his audience up to the heights of the clouds, in order to show them what lay below, must have enthralled their imagination. And those of generations to come. Just how many cartoons of your youth stole this visual of thick black ink spilling over a hand written map on parchment paper? I can think of many.

Movies of the story have also been made and remade. In all there have been seven films depicting HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The most recent feature, from 2005, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and stared Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. I’ll have to get around to watching it!

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.