Graffiti and Barricade Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exciting to see something similar appearing in an academic paper.

The purpose of public art

A bright blue rooster showed up on the Minneapolis skyline a few years back. Minnesota Public Radio ran a piece on the installation.

The rooster stands atop a brushed stainless steel plinth for a total height of almost 25 feet. An earlier edition of the sculpture stood in Trafalgar Square in London for several months. Fritsch is known for presenting everyday objects in a new and provocative light.

In 2017 the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, home to the adult male chicken, got a complete overhaul. The garden sits between Parade Stadium and the SW side of downtown, lining up like an elaborate front yard to the Walker Art Center. You can get a glimpse of the blue bird through the garden.

Before the avian monument’s appearance, The Spoonbridge and Cherry was the iconic Minneapolis placemaker. Since 1986 this whimsical piece was a prominent feature on all the brochures meant to lure tourists to our largest city. Which makes the argument, that at least one objective for public art, is to create a photogenic avatar.

As it turns out, Minneapolis is full of public art–69 installation is all. If you visit Minneapolis you’ll have to check out the self guided tours listed on the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation site. To facilitate planning your tour, there are time estimates for walking, biking or driving. No bike? No worries, Nice Ride has all sorts of stations with bright green bikes you can rent. Here is a screenshot of just the ones in downtown.

How did the city feather a nest so full of art? By getting the public involved, of course. Here’s how it works.

Community Organizations and Private Entities

There are more than 60 artworks in the Minneapolis park system, but only half are owned by MPRB, and they are mostly historic works. The rest are owned and maintained by the City of Minneapolis, community organizations, or private entities who sponsor and care for the artwork while it is hosted on public park land. Thanks to the generous support of these partners, dozens of creative and inspiring artworks are available throughout the park system for all visitors to enjoy. If you or your organization are interested, please see the “Sponsoring Art in Minneapolis Parks” tab.

The purpose and value of public art is more than just placemaking. It signals that residents care about their story, about their environment, about putting an effort to more than just the nuts and bolts of life.

Gentrification-a swear

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

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

Definition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOPA – Links

TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act), a proposal to offer renters the first right of refusal when their landlord wants to sell the property, is back on the front burner at Minneapolis City Hall. Some politicians see giving tenants part of a landlord’s property rights as a way to mitigate the expense of housing. The only perspective where this is at all rational, is from the view that property owners are simply sitting on a sack of gold coins which they refuse to share.

A story which is meant to support the tenant’s first right of refusal as a valid policy is told here: Tenants of Five Minneapolis Buildings Now Own Their Homes. Yet this suite of buildings was owned by a truly poor landlord. And because the guy was a fraud, the tenants acquired the buildings without TOPA. It will be interesting to watch the unfolding of this tale as more than likely these properties are run down and will have expensive repairs in the coming years. I’m expecting buyer’s remorse.

To understand the process and in turn the length of time a property could be tied up before sale, here are TOPA process charts from Washington DC. The financial power behind owning an asset is the ability to sell it and obtain your investment. When that ability is in question, markets do not respond well, hence value is affected. The TOPA process is considerably uncertain.

I attended this TOPA forum at the UMN presented by CURA. The presenters were Dominic T. Moulden is a longtime resource organizer at Organizing Neighborhood Equity and Michael Diamond, Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, teaches corporations, contracts, and a seminar in affordable housing. The non-profit housing community in attendance seemed skeptical.

NBC news covered how TOPA rules tie up the sale while parties arbitraged the TOPA rights to the highest bidder. (video) Although in effect since the 1980’s, it was more or less forgotten until Andrew McGuire Esq started a business ‘getting renters maximum dollar’ for their TOPA rights. He estimates it’s a 100 million a year market.

In San Francisco they call it COPA. And it is not the tenants who make the purchase but a pre-selected non-profit. Also from 2019:

If approved, the COPA would give the first right to purchase (this includes a first right to offer to purchase and a first right of refusal to match an existing offer) vacant lots or residential rental buildings with three or more units to nonprofit housing organizations.  This means that when an owner of a multi-unit building puts it up for sale or has received an offer to purchase, nonprofit housing organizations that are pre-selected by the City would have a chance to bid on the building first or to match an existing offer.

Oakland is considering something similar- January 2020.

Time and Transactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crafter, The Contributor and The Covid Tracker

The Crafter

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

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

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

The Collaborator

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

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

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

The Covid Tracker

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

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

And this:

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

Work–Not for a salary, but for the public

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

These are all examples or work in the public sphere.

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Elite-speak

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

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

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

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

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

The role of the audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not A Field of Dreams

According to NorthStar MLS, of the 699 duplexes or triplexes sold in the last year in Minneapolis only 14 of them were built after 1970. For fifty years this simple multi-family form of housing has more or less been ignored. They are few and far between in suburbs, undoubtedly for the same reason.

The numbers work in favor of affordability. Here is a developer’s breakdown:

So significant were the feelings against this type of housing that, despite having lifted single family zoning in Minneapolis earlier in the year, additional obstacles are preventing their creation. Restrictions such as building heights and parking throw enough of a question mark into the approval process, that developers are bailing on the idea before even approaching the planning commission.

Over the years I’ve heard of individuals using duplexes as their first steps to becoming real estate investors; then there was a story of elderly sisters going in together on a building so they could live out the remainder of their lives as neighbors. Small multi-family buildings fit right in with single family homes unobtrusively. It would be nice to see more of them.

The externality of overdoses

Externalities can be difficult to calculate. What is the cost per person to a community exposed to smog, or the damages from water laced with lead in Flint? Often times these figures are settled in court. But management consulting companies can also be in on the game. Take this story about Purdue Pharma as reported in the New York Times.

When Purdue Pharma agreed last month to plead guilty to criminal charges involving OxyContin, the Justice Department noted the role an unidentified consulting company had played in driving sales of the addictive painkiller even as public outrage grew over widespread overdoses.

Documents released last week in a federal bankruptcy court in New York show that the adviser was McKinsey & Company, the world’s most prestigious consulting firm. The 160 pages include emails and slides revealing new details about McKinsey’s advice to the Sackler family, Purdue’s billionaire owners, and the firm’s now notorious plan to “turbocharge” OxyContin sales at a time when opioid abuse had already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Later in the article they tally those deaths up to 450,000 since 1999. Those, of course, are just the fatalities. There are no numbers offered for the hours that went into counseling the addicts before they OD’ed, or all the lost productivity an addict can bear on their support group. Neither of these costs were the costs concerning the McKinsey accountants. The number crunchers were concerned with the amount necessary to buy Purdue Pharma’s distributers, the local pharmacies like CVs or Walgreens, out of the discomfort of grieving mothers.

The presentation estimated how many customers of companies including CVS and Anthem might overdose. It projected that in 2019, for example, 2,484 CVS customers would either have an overdose or develop an opioid use disorder. A rebate of $14,810 per “event” meant that Purdue would pay CVS $36.8 million that year.

I’m not sure how one of the most prestigious consulting company in the world came up with $14,810. I’d truly be curious to know what went into the formula to calculate this externality. What dollar transfers were tracked between the group of heartbroken survivors and their pharmacies following an overdose that added up to $14,810? How did the rebate get summed up and presented to Pharma’s management as a viable expenditure in the form of a rebate?

Maybe the point is that an accounting of this nature is already in play. If a market price was calculated for a social cost buyout in this scenario, most probably it is a frequent calculation. So what is the McKinsey method? Inquiring minds want to know.

Systemic

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

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

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

from Skin in the Game

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

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

Take the Enron Corporation story for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Rimbaud-French Poet

I jumped on Wikipedia to look up information on Arthur Rimbaud after reading a reference to Rimbaudian savagery. I’m somewhat of a Francophile and know a lot of things French and was a little surprised the name didn’t ring a bell. Happily I read through the entry filling a gaping hole of knowledge about a premier poet. But when I came to this section of the article the photo put my brain into a bell tower at high noon.

I visited Harar as a child so I went digging, and sure enough.

There it was there amongst the shots of winding streets, colorfully scarves vendors in the marketplace and city gates that lead into this ancient walled city on the eastern edge of Ethiopia.

The mind is an awesome and perplexing thing. More often than not it won’t recall a name at a gathering, leaving me, once again, socially awkward. But then–out of the blue, it will recognize an image from deep in the past.

Hillbilly Elegy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle for the kids

Parochial schools are doing well, from what I hear, in the battle to attract and maintain a student body. They opened on time in September with increased enrollment, and have stayed open through this Thanksgiving holiday. There will be a break in in-person learning now (like all other schools and universities in the area) until January. My sources report no sizeable outbreaks or health concerns for either the learners or learned.

The 91 Catholic schools in Minnesota compose the 4th largest district in the state. This unexpected swelling in enrollment is a benefit to their bottom line. As they do not receive the per pupil funding which finances the public schools, they are on their own to market within their faith community as well as to those who value smaller class sizes. In some cases, sports families are attracted to an increased probability that their athlete will make the varsity team.

The use of direct mailings to reach families throughout the area seems like a good fit. However, when a large public school district, where attendance is dictated by place of residence, pummels direct mail right over school boundary lines, it feels objectional. Why is that? Both the schools are in the business of delivering education, both require funds to operate. Attracting students is the same as attracting customers–no?

Customers use private funds to purchase a good or service. The parochial schools are offering a service, one that complies with the standards set by the state, but has been customized to the requirements of a specific community. The funding that follows a child to the public school district they attend is not private, it is taken from a pool of funds which is collected under mandate to educate all Minnesota kids.

Plus– it isn’t just the funding allocated per child that is lost when a family sends their offspring out of their district. Since busing is only offered within the school boundaries, it is a given that one parent is available to drive them to and from school—or will once the whole virus thing wraps up. By self-selection these parents often donate their time to school activities, fund raisers, and all those extras efforts that make an educational community stronger.

So when a school district pumps a bunch of dollars into a direct mail piece with messaging along the lines of, ‘Hey, we’re better, come on over,’ they are drawing students as well as high-social-capacity families to their district. Which means they are draining adjacent districts in an equal amount. On net, the dollars spent on this type of private business marketing is not fulfilling the state mandate to educate all students. But rather is congregating the haves and leaving behind the have-less’s.

The parochial schools are working in a private sphere even though they are fulfilling a public obligation. So it is fitting for them to use private strategies. Public schools are working in the public sphere so using private methods sets up externalities.

Coming together

Politically outstate Minnesotans and Twin Cities urbanites maybe diverging, but demographically there are converging trends. Here’s #4 from MN Compass:

One theory offered to explain the tight housing market is that Covid has made it more precarious for this age group to complete a move; boomers who may have relocated to a new stage-of-life housing have stayed put. If true, then there should be a wave of availability coming up here in a few years in Roseville, Edina, Golden Valley and Mendota Heights.

Real estate in times of Covid

All things considered, it has been an incredibly strong market for residential real estate sales in 2020. The spring started strong but was shut down along with everything else in March when the virus leapt the oceans and appeared in great numbers on the US coasts. Home sales were considered an essential service, but the apprehension of allowing strangers into sellers’ homes for showings slowed down the process.

This data from Northstar MLS shows the dip in April and then the take off of activity starting in June.

Issues that seemed to be on buyers minds when they came through open houses were 1. room for home offices 2. new flexibility in distance to job location 3. downsizing out of larger homes to avoid maintenance concerns. This broad range of interests led to almost all types of properties being snatched up, often in competitive bidding. Which has led to a sharp decline in properties available for sale.

In almost all markets, except the downtown Minneapolis condo market which is up 21.3%.

I think there is little dispute that Covid has dampened the amenities which a downtown offers. The lack of night life and restaurants, the lack of need to be blocks from work or near light rail for a quick trip to the airport. By displacing the relative value that residents place on these features versus a whole host of other variables that go into a home purchase decision (including square footage, proximity to family and so on), more owners are exiting the downtown community than joining it.

Nailing down the market prices on each of these amenities one-by-one would take data that is not readily available. Data sets for the performance of public sector goods would have to be statistically spun out to reveal levels of significance. An analysis of prices of these and other amenities which overlap through a variety locations would provide an opportunity for index setting. Due to the extraordinary living conditions in 2020, there is an opportunity to obtain counter factual data for many core neighborhood utilities. It is a unique opportunity.

No Voice? Exit

From the Pioneer Press:

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

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

A walk a day..

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

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

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

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

Scenery and wildlife keep me motivated.

Brass and Tin Pots

My son is an engineering student, but for his liberal arts requirement he is taking a course on Imperialism. The course work tells the tale of western European economies growing so that they ventured past their countries boundaries to extract resources from Africa and Indo China and the Caribbean. The model describes a dominant group taking hold of a subservient group to help themselves to resources for commercial gains. Extraction isn’t just for the history books. Consider this fictitious story.

Let’s say there is a fairly large association for a trade group. It has a sizable staff and a fair number of members volunteers. There is also a multi-decade volunteer–let’s call him/her Jo Johnson– who through time and understanding has proven agile in eliminating dissenting voices and bullying staff. There are also dues, and committees, and boards, and political action.

The associational group has clout in a community due to its size and ability to organize. It also has some resources to pledge toward those seeking local office. Jo Johnson’s influence at the association serves to direct funds to candidates who, in turn, respond with business referrals. This action of using a group resource and trading for a private commercial gain describes a process of internalizing a public asset into a private, fungible transaction.

Now some may say–this shouldn’t be so! There are ethics to think about.

But– this judgement, this evaluation of the trades in play, is best evaluated by members of the group–not outsiders. Some members maybe thrilled that Jo Johnson is able to devote countless hours wage-free to the association, and thus, any extracting done is small compensation. The members of the group may feel the clout of the group is maximized in this very fashion, giving each member the best possible slice of the overall pie.

It is really all about transparency. If members knowingly make the decision to defer to Jo, then all is right in the world. If decisions have been made for them because Jo Johnson has become so skilled at shaking loose the opposition by throwing up all sorts of meeting delays and rescheduling (it is a volunteer activity after all), and has the power to develop allegiances by promising titles like a board position (a dusty old king of sorts selling titles), then the peasants should revolt.

The process of extracting value from a group and in doing so moving a resource from a public sphere to a private transaction occurs all the time, in many different scenarios. It is a trade. Whether a trade is in equilibrium requires, not moral judgement, but transparency and an ability to evaluate the options at hand.

Judging tin pots from afar is a risky business.

A model to consider

Given this is my 55th post I’d like recap the home-economics model. As explained on the About page, this site addresses the mechanics of value creation in the pursuit of pubic goods. In order to show these features, I must persuade you to shrug off a few established notions. The first is that the nature of goods is not public, nor club, common, or private (the purpose of the What is Public-What is Private posts). All goods can be employed in either the public or the private sphere. The second is that there is no such thing as market failure.

To start at the beginning, all of economic life is restricted by the resources this crusty old orb offers us along with what we can make of them with our time and talents. Limited resources applies both to goods employed in a private environment as well as those contributed toward community needs. Within these confines there are two types of activity creating a public sphere and a private sphere. One looks inward, behaving with a public (non-exclusionary) nature and the other activity looks beyond the group behaving in predatory fashion. This private sphere is well studied.

Let’s work backwards on some posts. Yesterday’s topic–Money and Safety— centered around the city’s approval process to fund more police force hours. Consider the groups. The defunders would argue that city money for police has resulted in providing safety for the racial majority (Gr 1) of the citizens (Gr 3) yet is failing to do the same for the minority groups (Gr 2). In light of this objection these city council members refuse to fund the police.

As an aside, this claim does not hold true. For the past five months the political climate in the city has severely limited the police’s capacity to maintain peace. The result has been a tragic loss of life primarily in Gr 2. This a new set of data contained in Gr 3 shows that it is group Gr2 which reaps greater (despite severe flaws) benefits than Gr 1. In addition to loss of life, Gr 2 has also disproportionately experienced a loss to businesses, where it is estimated 200 businesses burned or were damaged during the riots. The businesses suffered an externality from (lack of) services from the public sphere.

Consider the post A table set for adversaries. The outdoors women and men (Gr 1) are often at odds with urban arts people (Gr 2) over issues like gun control which increases the cost to own firearms without a clear benefit in reduction in crime, and funding for cultural events which requires subsidies to be viable, and outstate regulation of the environment which cuts jobs. Although Gr 1 and Gr 2 are often competing for resources they hold together in conjunction with all Minnesotans (Gr 3), by showing where Gr 1 and Gr 2 had a common interest, a funding stream was extracted from two very different associational groups.

Fire Station 2 speaks to the structure of firefighters (Gr 1) who devote their time and expertise at a reduced rate to protect the lives of property of their community (Gr 2). They get paid a below average hourly rate, which is a private transaction. The firefighters’ extra wage potential is community (Gr 2) work. Their services are made available to everyone (Gr 2) which makes this a public service.

Having established the need to look for groups, and identify whether the groups are engaging public or private economic activity, I’ll be posting more on externalities and internalizing. Both of these terms describe the appearance of positive or negative effects which show up in one sphere from a transaction in the other (Ex. private corporation pollutes the water causing a negative expense to a public good owned by the surrounding community). Then we can get to the fall of market failure.

Money & Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A table set for adversaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New city, new energy

From the BBC:

On the edge of the Saudi Arabian desert beside the Red Sea, a futuristic city called Neom is due to be built. The $500bn (£380bn) city – complete with flying taxis and robotic domestic help – is planned to become home to a million people. And what energy product will be used both to power this city and sell to the world? Not oil. Instead, Saudi Arabia is banking on a different fuel – green hydrogen. 

The Judge vs. Embrace

Alex Tabarrok recognized the passing of WV Judge Richard Neely on his blog site today. He credits the judge’s candor with getting his first paper published in 2003 in a good journal. His paper, written with Eric Helland, argued:

We argue that partisan elected judges have an incentive to redistribute wealth from out‐of‐state defendants (nonvoters) to in‐state plaintiffs (voters). We first test the hypothesis by using cross‐state data. We find a significant partisan effect after controlling for differences in injuries, state incomes, poverty levels, selection effects, and other factors. One difference that appears difficult to control for is that each state has its own tort law. In cases involving citizens of different states, federal judges decide disputes by using state law. Using these diversity‐of‐citizenship cases, we conclude that differences in awards are caused by differences in electoral systems, not by differences in state law.

But it is the judge’s very own words that confirm his economic motivation in his rulings.

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me. (Neely 1988, p. 4).

So what does this have to do with a post I recently wrote about Embrace, a women’s shelter in Wisconsin? The shelter’s director set up a GoFundMe page after she alienated local police by prominently advertising BLM signs around the facility. The goal was to replace $25K in funding that was pulled by the county. As of this morning the kitty is over $100K with a stated goal of $112K. I’m not sure how she picked that number, if there has been some sort of marketing strategy, to keep ratcheting up the goal as long as donors respond.

What I want people to see is the structure of the groups and the motivations for the economic activity between them. (It’s all about the group) In both cases there is a greater federal group. In both cases there is a smaller group; for judge Neely it was comprised of the citizens of WV, for the shelter it is the community which is within their service area. Both the judge and the director are extracting money from the larger group. One is unabashedly leveraging the law for the benefit of his constituents.

I question whether the other is providing full disclosure about the economic transaction that is still underway. Is there an assumption on the part of the greater public that their dollars are supporting an organization which serves a public effected by the concerns of BLM (whereas only a fifteenth of one percent of the population in this county is African American)? Or does the greater group understand they are funding a director who simply shares a similar ideology but has no power to actively contribute to the welfare of BLM?

In order to detect deceit or inefficiencies one must delineate the groups. One must also acknowledge the public nature of the motivations which drives the activity within the group–that anyone within the group receives access to the benefit. The judge, for example, rules in this way for all his constituents who found themselves in a similar conflict. That the services of the shelter are open to anyone within its service area.

Neither the judge nor the director evaluate whether the taking of resources from the greater group harm or diminishes services in some way to other members of the greater group. Their pursuit for funds is fulfilled under the nature of a private transaction, no different than how a corporation pursues funds for their services. This mode of competitive behavior happened recently when states bid against each other for PPE’s in the early days of the covid-19 crisis. Although they work as agents for a public, their obligation for such is only to the inner group.

Judge Neely was one of those confident individuals who scoffed at the traditional method of holding group norms behind a cloak of anonymity. For this we can be thankful, as his words confirm this social economic group structure and the motivation that drives its behavior.

Is it Public or is it Private-Corporate Addition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would never happen in MN

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

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

Fire Station 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buildings that walk and roll

In Shanghai a five story primary school building walked to its new location some 200 meters away.

Back in 1985 the Fairmount Hotel was moved in San Antonio. The clip is 17:47 minutes in length but contains lots of details including a two week halt to dig up artifacts from the Battle of the Alamo, maps, bridge crossing, groups involved ( and great 80’s theme music!). Take a look at the renovated Fairmont Hotel.

I remember when the Schubert Theater was relocated, lifted and rolled, in downtown Minneapolis in 1999. It took twelve days to move the 5.8 million pound structure, originally built in 1910. But it took a decade more and upwards of 38 million dollars (not all public), to transform it into the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. How a city comes to terms with spending that kind of money involves achieving multiple objectives. The Star Tribune explains:

Meanwhile, restoration of the Shubert will create 150-plus construction and permanent jobs, bring tens of thousands of dance patrons downtown, complete the performing-arts vision for the successful Hennepin theater district and alleviate a loitering and crime problem that has moved from busy Block E to the lonely stretch of the avenue on which sit the Shubert and the Hennepin Center for the Performing Arts. At least that’s the official pitch. The cops and the new urbanists say having people on the street trumps crime. The arts crowds frequent local bistros and they don’t make trouble.

In 1995 Minneapolis was nicknamed Murderapolis after the New York Times wrote a story pointing out that the city had a higher murder rate per capita than New York. This particular spot in downtown struggled with crime. The jobs were also successfully filled by minority tradespeople.

CEO Louis King of Summit Academy OIC on the North Side, which trains dozens of young minority folks for good-paying jobs in the construction trades, is near agreement with McGough Construction and the city. Up to one-third of the workers on the Shubert project will be women, minority apprentices and skilled minority craftsmen. The jobs will pay $18.50 to $40 an hour for months. That’s a good thing.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see some sort data estimate and geographic tie-in to how the public investment performed? What proportion of the presence of a renovated and vibrant building on that section of the block helped with crime reduction? Did the minorities and women who worked the jobs progress in their profession? Is there an index to say x- proportion of the investment was preservation, and x-amount inflated into other community value?

7 Billion for a Transportation Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other election news

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

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

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

All ballot questions are here, at Minnpost

Rain drops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to Textiles

Cute Scott in a beret shows how to make linen fabric from flax seed. Join 1.3 million viewers of this video.

Acrylic on Textile, by Novikov, $25,000.

The Weavers Guild of Minnesota is the largest of its kind in the US.

Barkcloth is a textured woven, usually printed cotton fabric that was popular in the 1930s-40s and 50s as an interiors fabric. It is great for upholstery and drapery.

Remote real estate

Saint Helena hangs in the Atlantic between the eastern reaches of South America and the west shores of Africa.

It is one of the most isolated islands in the world and was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and Southern Africa for centuries.

A five day ferry ride from Cape Town takes Napoleon buffs to his final resting place on the island. See more great photos from The Atlantic.

Redlining’s Reappearance

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

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

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

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

And concluding with this:

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

Put me in title

In the is-it-private-or-is-it-public game, I agree that a home is a private good. The event which makes you a home owner is a closing, which in Minnesota, is usually held at a title company. On the chosen day the buyers and sellers sit down (pre-Covid) and the buyers sign up for a mortgage to finance the purchase while the sellers sign over a warranty deed. Done deal. No take-backs. The fees include a little state tax and filing fees so the documents are filed publicly in the county recorders office.

The process almost seems trivial but it so powerful. This singing over of a title and its public recording in a government office is the most significant feature of private wealth in the US system.

Interestingly, there are a whole assortment of local norms and customs revolving around closings across the United States. Most states either close at the table or over an escrow period. In Wyoming, however, real estate agents conduct the closings. Also specified and unique to almost every state is a foreclosure process. Most weigh heavily on consumer protection. And here is an interesting table breaking down all the nit picky processes and fees.

Owning a home is a staple of the American dream. Owning a home ties you to a community where you participate in measure of all public venues: public safety, pubic schools, public transportation, parks trails and the environment, governance and civic pride.

Energy Scoring coming to your Neighborhood

There is a movement to provide home energy index scores for home that are going up for sale. It would accompany the homeowners’ disclosure. The Department of Energy provides this explanation in a lengthy document from 2017.

Like a miles-per-gallon rating for a car, the Home Energy Score is an easy-to-produce rating designed to help homeowners and homebuyers gain useful information about a home’s energy performance. Based on an in-home assessment that can be completed in less than an hour, the Home Energy Score not only lets a homeowner understand how efficient the home is and how it compares to others, but also provides recommendations on how to cost-effectively improve the home’s energy efficiency.

Like the stickers in the car windows which provide information on gas consumption, or the label on food products itemizing their contents, a house will be given a score between 1-10. The State of Oregon’s website has a nice, concise, easy-to-read page about the process. Here’s the first part about the score:

I’m just not convinced it’s that simple. When goods are new, whether a car, or a furnace or even a whole house, I think a scoring system could have some value. A home that has had a variety of owners, over six, seven, ten decades, some keeping them squeaky clean, some letting slide a whole host of maintenance and repairs issues, would prove to have a difficult history to rank from 1-10. The full report from the Department of Energy is long and strenuous to follow, and probably a better reflection of the complexity of scoring an entire structure.

The mandate for standardized nutritional facts labeling on food has been in place since 1990. The obesity rates, however, in the US continue to rise from 12% in 1990 to 23% by 2005 to upwards of 35% in some states in 2019. Despite being notified of what they are buying (which to be perfectly clear I am in favor of) consumer’s eating habits are becoming worse not better. Forcing businesses to label is something the government has the power to do, but it doesn’t mean it will be effective in accomplishing the goal.

If the goal is to persuade homeowners to spend extra money on home energy improvements, the tactic I would pursue is to search out the most likely group that has shown interest in this purchase. Retirees on a fixed income are good examples. The combination of desiring a low monthly obligation and of being at a point in life when there is extra money for this versus other activities, leads their homes to often having superior mechanicals (which undoubtedly offsets the dated décor). Or if you really want people to seal up the cracks in their homes so all the a/c doesn’t leak out in the summer nor heat in the winter, team up with the pest control people. I promiss that moms will pay a lot to plug up all the holes and keep the mice out.

Counting Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Hennepin Ave Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money and Power

Consider the life story of Mrs. Czech, featured as the rhetorical centerpiece of an influential article published in The Survey in 1916 by Emma Winslow, home economist at the New York Charity Organization Society. Mrs. Czech was a widow who, for three years after her husband died, “was not obliged to use money in any way.” A charitable society provided her and her six children with food and clothing and paid their rent and insurance. And yet, despite such “theoretically…perfect care,” the Czechs floundered. The mother “apparently…had no interest in the appearance of her home or of her children.” Nor did she care about their food. Soon, the children’s health deteriorated, their faces becoming “sallow and pasty.” At this point, the charity society decided to shift the method of relief into a weekly cash allowance, instructing Mrs. Czech “to do her own buying.” Soon housekeeping “became a delight,” the children’s health flourished, and the formerly indolent widow turned into a “remarkable domestic…economist.” And all because she now had the cash “to buy what she wanted when she wanted it.”

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

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

Neo Liberal–Twitter

A thread by Ben Winegard

“Neoliberalism is a complete failure”

I mean unless you care about poverty, literacy, life expectancy, and freedom. Oh, but neoliberalism really is a catastrophe to social conservatism, you say. Think again!

Nonelites can now read. That’s kind of cool!

Another cool thing: Children are not dying anymore.

If you are into political freedom, we even have something for you!

Market Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The work of it

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

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

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

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

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

Pop quote!

To add to the fun, there will be a prize for identifying the location of this photo as well. C’mon, it is easy! Post in comments.

“The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true – all this we owe to the romantics.”

Follow the money

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

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

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

Embrace states their core mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now back to corruption.

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

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

Messing with Time- Disney

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

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

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

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

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

Time will tell.

Fireworks

In a recent post, which challenged whether national defense is a public good, I suggested that sunlight was a public resource. Then I got to thinking about height restrictions in new construction, and in particular about a luxury high-rise development that was squashed by neighboring residents. A few years ago plans were underway for two residential towers on the west side of Southdale Center which is in an up-scale suburb of the Twin Cities. When over 200 folks filed into the city council chambers, there were more opposed than in favor.

But dozens of residents spoke against the towers, listing issues with everything from its height to the shadows it would cast.

So you see sunlight can be privatized. The owners of the 50’s built one-level homes to the west argued that the new apartments would steal their sunlight. The two towers would privately claim the warm beams, leaving them in the shadows. In economic terms, the new high rise would externalize shade.

There is a cost to shade. If you sell condos you know that southern exposures are more desirable than northern (though thankfully some feel a south view is a tad too warm). Being that there is more demand for this exposure these condo garner a higher price than those pointed north.

Here’s my original post challenging the breakdown of goods into public, private, club and common. Today I’m challenging the idea that fireworks are a public good. One would think that no-one could be excluded from seeing the fireworks. At least, once you already assume that you really mean no-one who is already close enough in the first place, can’t be excluded. An assumption which in itself, makes it a private good when you live one county over.

Realizing it has this private good, say the city lures people to move to their downtown by advertising an amazing fireworks display on the Fourth of July, shot from a bridge over the Mississippi. By fall the new residents have moved into a beautiful condo overlooking the stone arch bridge which spans the mighty river. By the following summer, however, a new condo building has been built which blocks their view.

Mr. and Mrs. NewRes show up at City Hall hotter than a hornets nest and demand compensation for being denied their access to a public good. After all it was the city that approved the permit that allowed the building to steal their view of the fireworks.

Here’s where I say be careful to identify your public, be careful to know your groups. The fireworks are public to those who show-up in a public space within sight of them. And you say I am splitting hairs. But am I?

When we tell families their children have access to a uniform public education for grades K-12, are we offering fireworks that can’t be seen by everyone? We all know that there are different levels of school performance all across the districts. At least a portion of that performance can be attributed to work done in the neighborhoods which support the learners and the educators in ways that are not supported elsewhere. So when the state says all learners will be provided ‘the same’ public good, is the state committing to make-up for the difference in the neighborhood support? Because that would tally quite a hefty tab.

Is it so simple?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Nathan goes onto say in his piece:

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

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

Who Killed Home Ec?

That’s the title of an article in Huff Post which pens some interesting history on the discipline. Go figure the first women admitted- Ellen Swallow Richards— to MIT is credited with generally credited with its development back in 1876.

Far from regressive the aim of the coursework is described here:

At the Women’s Laboratory, Richards turned her scientific attention to the study of how to make home life more efficient. According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “Richards was very concerned to apply scientific principles to domestic topics — good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning.”

The categories under the umbrella of home economics today have expanded to seven: Cooking · Child Development · Education and Community Awareness · Home Management and Design · Sewing and Textiles · Budgeting and Economics · Health and Hygiene .

An enhanced understanding of these directly effect community engagement from health to housing, governance to safety. Such a shame to have lost fifty years of home focused education to a stigma.

How are things going in Minneapolis?

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

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

The Nobel Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A public of Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Public- National Defense edition

National defense is the most common example cited as an economic public good. It is certainly the oldest public good, harking back to the times of kings and round tables, and even before. Allegiances were made, city walls built. But let’s see if it always meets the economists’ definition of providing a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

The name alone gives away that it is already a different something than, say, sunlight. Right off the bat the precursor ‘national’ tags the defense to a nation. So it is a service to one nation, excluding all outsiders. In this case being non-excludable really means the service cannot exclude citizens of the nation in question.

However, there also seems to be all sorts of exceptions to this rule. Take the Japanese Americans that were locked up during WWI. Around sixty-two percent of the internees were US citizens and yet a global conflict thrust them at odds with their nation. Recently Mike Pence criticised the President Obama Administration for not rescuing ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller. The claim being that this US citizen did not receive the protections of national defense that she and her family deserved.

Like any definition it only takes one counter example to throw the statement into question. Let’s consider whether the good is non-rivalrous: that the use of it by one consumer does not diminish the use of it by another. This seems right. Everyone in Philadelphia received the same protections against terrorism when Navy Seals took out Osama Bin Laden, as folks in Albuquerque. This mastermind of evil would do harm to any American which means his demise makes all Americans safer.

Yet, our history is riddle with military involvement in countries in efforts to preserve business interests abroad. In the early part of the twentieth century the US defense forces were repeatedly used in Nicaragua to protect business interests. Declarations against such activities include objecting to the use of a national resource to benefit a sub-group, the business community. (excludable) And since the military is run on a budget, the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912-1933 undoubtedly took away from expenditures on other national defense initiatives. The end goal of defending all citizens is rivalrous as there is always a menu of possible national pursuits that could drain the national purse.

It seems to me that there are no such things as goods that are solely for the public benefit. There are only goods, or rather goods and services. And those goods and services can be used by individuals or groups, for private or public objectives. Some goods, by nature, are more prone to be shared within groups. Some are more productively produced while strongly preserving private property rights. Groups with shared interests decide how to employ goods and services, where the groups can be as large as the human race all the way down to a couple.

Changing Priorities in the Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ratcheting up of Regulation

The enforcement of norms is an everyday event. Whether through disapproving looks across a bin of oranges at the grocery store in response to a parent’s disciplining techniques, or the scoff of disbelief at your friend’s new beau’s use of culturally insensitive language, or showing up to work with a card and flowers for a co-worker who recently lost a spouse. The behavior of shaping, criticizing or supporting of each other is judged and metered out with eye movements, gestures, and offers to help.

Once an infraction is deemed serious, it is made a law- you shall be prosecuted if you leave your toddler in a hot car while you shop. There is a lot of ground covered, a lot of degrees of severity and risk in parental actions, between scolding a toddler over a pyramid of piled up produce and locking someone up for child endangerment. But everyone can agree that we are all better off by formally acknowledging a certain threshold of acceptable behavior and enforcing persecution against those who cross over.

We are all better off knowing we can drink tap water from the faucet and that our houses won’t crumble overhead, and we can feed our kids hotdogs from the concessions stands at the Little League games. Accepting these standards and counting on a system, comprised of a series of reportings and enforcements, will maintain the freedom to move in and between communities safely. This is a social advantage we often take for granted.

It can also be shown that at some point there are diminishing return to regulations as their burdens cause detriments that are costly. Most of these arguments set up a discord revolving around health and safety (often tied in with the environment) versus the ability to supply families with income from a job. But this source of monetary capital also affects a person’s ability to lead a healthy safe life. You end up with this big teeter-totter where on one side all the variables set to maximize production of industry are weighted, and on the other, all the variables set to maximize social concerns piled up. What we want to find is at what point where the board finds balance.

Since this topic will be the question of this century, let’s start with a wide angle view in considering the use of regulation to keep the teeter-totter level.

Regulations for commercial enterprises seem to ratchet-up more freely than to release and reevaluate. There are many indications that the systems in place which regulate commerce, (often bureaucracies like Departments of Commerce and Federal Administrations, but cities as well) are not getting the feedback necessary to properly account for all the downsides to their actions. Things at the city and county level work fairly well. Yet, I propose that in the case of big business the intended beneficiaries of the regulation are removed from the system. They do not receive an accurate evaluation of the issues nor a proper accounting. And except to become activists at times of tragedy, they fail to regularly communicate with the regulating agencies.

For purposes of contrast, first consider water quality which is administered at the city level. Complaints about the water filter up through the city council and can be voiced at open city council meetings. Elected officials respond to constituents, especially those who show up. Even city staff feel the pressure when the seats are all taken in the normally hushed city council chambers. Other than the very notable example of Flint MI (and undoubtedly a few under-reported incidents) potable water is successfully provided to 331 million people in the US.

Take hot dogs at a concession stand. The county public health people have the power to decide the cleanliness of the two-windowed, wood clad concession stand with its pretzel warmer and popcorn popper and slushy machine. It is in their power to have it to meet the same standards as a science lab, of they so choose. But the regulator, who is more than likely a part of the community, knows that if the rules checklist becomes too long, making the workload too great for the already tapped, completely volunteer workforce to handle, it will shut down. No concessions, no extra money. No extra money, no new uniforms or dugouts, or pitcher mounds. Do ballfield concession stands or Rotary pancake breakfasts really need to be run at restaurant level standards of cleanliness to keep people safe? Or is there some other level that is ‘good enough’ that won’t squelch to whole endeavor?

Regulation of businesses, however, are missing the community tie-in. Commercial enterprises are regulated by bureaucracies, where people develop careers and other monetary incentives to successfully develop and implement regulations. It’s their job. The purpose of the position is to protect the consumer, where more protection always seems better.

This system removes the citizens that show up at the council meeting both in favor and against city action from the system. The bureaucrats judge and evaluate. They search for evidence to justify their position, not from the public, but from other detached experts. The consumer who can best express the complete picture of tradeoffs for their particular lot in life, has no routine forum. The next closest party to the transaction is the business person who hears and tries to comply with the requests of the consumers. Yet he/she is considered tainted by a money motive, and hence regarded with suspicion or often disregarded.

With the absence of a consumer evaluator, there is no system wide continual assessment of the costs and benefits of the regulation. There is no dynamic information being provided to determine when the regulation has gone too far and is causing too great of a burden.

So what to do? One solution is to consider how people live, by considering their revealed preferences. Testing, if you will, where the new standards are in relation to what the population expresses as their acceptable risk level. For instance, say you have a city that imposes a rental property review based on a scoring system comprised of a four page list of items. Missing smoke detector 5 points, missing receptacle plate 2 points, no furnace tune-up in the last year 5 point, ripped window screen 1 point, etc.. When the property scores 20 or more the renters must vacate the property as it is deemed inhabitual.

Now let’s say the assessment is used on the other 23 homes on the block. If 75 percent of them failed then it seems that the review checklist is too stringent. The regulator are basically saying to its own constituents that their standard of house maintenance are inadequate and they must move. (How do you think that would go over?)

Think of how this came about. The property regulators were trying to do right by the tenants, trying to get rid of the slumlords. They developed a tool that would allow them to put a handful of bad actors out of business. They get little community objection. Even very acceptable landlords are going to stay quiet when heavy handed regulation is in the mix as they are fearful of retaliation. But by setting a standard well above the average accepted living conditions, the regulators have raised the cost of providing housing. Since cost is reflected in rents, this causes undo pressure on affordable rentals.

Indexing off a general-population-standard may not be the end-all-be-all, but it would provide a starting point for the group. If analysis showed reasons for regulators to require more out of a subgroup (rental property), than at least this could be publicly discussed and agreed upon. But forcing the landlords to provide housing units at a higher standard than the average, and hence places undue costs on the provision of housing, avoids a proper accounting. This leads to endless circular discussions about the lack of affordable housing and whose to blame and whose to pay.

Furthermore when regulations don’t match the populations expectations, people resort to go-arounds until the formal rules are disregarded entirely. The highway speed limit debate that started in the early seventies left the public conversation once States set their driving limit to how fast motorists tended drive.

As a part of the system, development, implementation and enforcement of regulations need to be influenced by all actors. When a bureaucracy takes on an agency of their own, which allows them a power position which in effect rebuffs feedback from the general population. Using an indexing method for the group would at least reveal an average standard. It would provide an initial means of analysis. Ideally, even in situations of complex issues there could be a greater transparency with all the costs at hand. And in this way the average citizen could participate in a continual feedback loop while they assess their costs. Without this participation we are simply creating a power void ready to be filled by bureaucratic czars.

We’ve lost track of regulation by allowing it to jump out of the mechanics of the entire system. Lack of transparency and convoluted agency keep any meaningful accounting of the tradeoffs. In the same way that the business community’s opinion of the issues at hand are tainted by the money motive, so are the bureaucrats. They are incented to build their agencies, find new safety concerns, beat back business with zeal. So why are we surprised when they do so?

Pop quote!

These are all matters of incremental trade-offs to find an optimal amount and kind of safety, in a world where being categorically safe is as impossible achieving 100 percent clean air or clean water. Incremental trade-offs are made all the time in individual market transactions, but it can be politically suicidal to oppose demands for more clean air, clean water or automobile safety. Therefore saying that the government can improve over the results of individual transactions in a free market is not the same as saying that it will in fact do so. Among the greatest external costs imposed in a society can be those imposed politically by legislators and officials who pay no costs whatever, while imposing billions of dollars in costs on others, in order to respond to political pressures from advocates of particular interests or ideologies.

Throw in your best guess! No cost to play and a grand prize awaits the winner. Hint. Extracted from a 2007 book where on the rear jacket cover the WSJ says, “Clear and concise…Among economists of the past thirty years, (your guess here) stands very proud indeed.”

Messing with Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it Public or Is it Private?

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Who is NOAH anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wood Ducks

I often stop at local parks, especially when I’m in an unfamiliar part of town. First off it is an incentive to maintain a regular walking regime. And you can almost always glean some insights into a community from its parks and trail system.

Yesterday I stopped at one which featured Nature Center in its name. Yet there was no building next to the forty by forty spread of asphalt off a deadend road, perhaps a half-mile from the heavily used I694 loop around the cities. Only the entrance sign confirmed I was in the right spot.

The trail led under a gorgeous canopy tall oak trees. Through all the dead fallen wood you could see a pond down to the left covered in a thick coat of pea green.

The signage was ambitious, from the greeting sign and then a series of signs denoting stations along the walk, pointing out the flora and fauna along the circular path around the pond. They were faded, and the plastic coverings cracked and damaged.

As the path descended down toward the water the noise of ducks alerted one to a large grouping of fowl. I first spotted a nice looking mallard. Then, hacking through the brambles and low brush to get a better look, a gaggle of no less than thirty wood ducks came into view.

If you’re a bird watcher seeing a glimpse of just a pair of these birds, with their exotically detailed plumage, is exciting. This site caught me spellbound.

My first impression of this park led me to feel sympathetic for the folks who must have spent so much time getting this 24 acre green space established. How disappointed they would be by the overgrowth and neglected beamed steps cut into the hill bank, washout at points here and there.

But I’ve changed my mind. Those folks, having invested work into this vision would probably be delighted not disappointed. For here was a habitat in the middle of a three and a half million people metro, where families of wood ducks floated contentedly on a pond.

Reminder to self: don’t be too quick to judge someone else’s point-of-view.

Meet the Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notorious RBG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a nice photo essay of her life.

Pop quote

Name the author, title and page number (if applicable) for pop quotes and you will receive a grand prize!

On my return home, as I passed the relatively genteel playground near where I live, I noted that its only inhabitants in the late afternoon, with the mothers and the custodian gone were two small boys threatening to bash a little girl with their skates, and an alcoholic who had roused himself to shake his head and mumble that they shouldn’t do that. Farther down the street, on a block with many Puerto Rican immigrants, was another scene of contrast. Twenty-eight children of all ages were playing on the sidewalk without mayhem, arson, or any event more serious than a squabble over a bag of candy. They were under the casual surveillance of adults primarily visiting in public with each other. The surveillance was only seemingly casual, as was proved when the candy squabble broke out and peace and justice were re-established. The identities of the adults kept changing because ferent ones kept putting their heads out the windows, and different ones kept coming in and going out on errands, or passing by and lingering a little. But the numbers of adults stayed fairly constant-between eight and eleven- during the hour I watched. Arriving home, I noticed that at our end of our block, in front of the tenement, the tailor’s, our house, the laundry, the pizza place and the fruit man’s, twelve children were playing on the sidewalk in sight of fourteen adults.

Fungible is more Fun

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

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

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

Wikipedia talks about fungibilty in this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internalize and Trade

Health care providers incorporate a variety of incentive methods to encourage healthy behavior.  Many HMO’s will pay $25/mo toward a gym membership fee if their member goes to workout twelve times in a month. In effect they are internalizing the externalities of poor future health by inducing members to live a healthier lifestyle. The numbers must indicate that $25 is both enough to change behavior and in doing so avoid future medical procedures.

This transaction all occurs within the same group, those covered by an HMO’s policy. The trade of cash towards a gym fee benefits the same people who will then incur fewer medical costs in the future.  But what about a hybrid trade that included beneficiaries outside the group?

Obesity in the US has been on the rise for a number of years. It is becoming a leading public health crisis as rates of obesity among Americans are running above 40% in all age groups. The CDC outlines a number of health effects that stem from carrying around excessive weight.

One remedy is weight-loss (bariatric) surgery.  There are several procedures that help you lose weight which lowers your risk of medical problems associated with obesity. The cost of weight loss surgeries can range from $14,000 to $23,000 and are being covered more frequently by health insurance.

Since there are also downsides to surgery in general, what if the HMO tried an incentive program to get the member to a healthy weight? Say the cost was determined to be $20,000 for the surgery, and the member was considered to be 80 pounds overweight. Say the sum of the surgery could be divided up over a five year time span where the member received a portion for every 20 pounds lost, the HMO retained a portion and, a single mom in a third world country received food subsidies for a year.

A recent contest found that the most compelling argument that resulted in the highest philanthropic donations was a scenario structured in a similar fashion. I describe this structure in the post Philosophy and Philanthropy. Perhaps a late middle aged mom has served her family diligently, and in the process lost site of her own needs. Perhaps she has gained a bunch of weight that she can’t seem to shake, at least not for herself. But if you gave her the option to feed a single mom with five kids, maybe she would see her way to bringing her own weight in line.

It’s all about the Group

Amy Finkelstein’s video for MRU about the economics of mammograms just popped into my email. She and her colleagues are wondering about the efficacy of the present policy for screening for breast cancer. The blurb following the video explains.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The current recommendation is that women should receive annual mammograms starting at age 40. But who is actually following this recommendation, and does that affect the test’s efficacy? MIT’s Amy Finkelstein and two of her coauthors, Tamar Oostrom and Abigail Ostriker, explore this question in this video. This video is based on the following paper: Screening and Selection: The Case of Mammograms Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Tamar Oostrom, Abigail Ostriker, and Heidi Williams https://economics.mit.edu/files/20062

Past studies suggested dividing women into two groups in order to tackle a public health response to cancer: those under age 40 and those over age 40. Once over forty years of age, women are considered at a higher risk and thus were encouraged to have mammograms on a regular basis. The Susan G Komen organization provides data on how screening has saved lives. “From 1989-2017 (most recent data available), breast cancer mortality decreased by 40 percent due to improved breast cancer treatment and early detection [60]. Since 1989, about 375,900 breast cancer deaths in U.S. women have been avoided [60].”

It wasn’t long, however, that the drawbacks of misdiagnosis became apparent. False positive tests were causing patients unnecessary mental and physical costs. The fear and treatment associated with a false positive took time, energy and resources away from women who were in fact not likely to acquire the disease.

Amy and her MIT colleagues found that grouping by age was not specific enough. They observed that women who comply, and get screened, share habits that actually make them less likely to be prone for a positive test. Based on information from the medical community, women who disregarded screenings were more likely to eventually experience breast cancer.

By regrouping the women in consideration of their norms and lifestyles, the MIT professors are acknowledging that the public health of women in regards to breast cancer is multidimensional. They do not propose a new public policy but rather further insight into how the topic should be considered. Tamar Oostrom voices in the video: “our paper brings an additional dimension” to the issue.

When you think of the nature of people who would follow the recommendations and comply with regular testing, they are probably folks who can afford to be tested, both in the sense of the medical services expense and in the time it takes out of their lives. They probably have access to transportation to be tested. They have the willpower and ability to prepare and eat a healthy diet and exercise. It’s interesting to note that many if not all of these activities are tied into access to other public goods.

This video confirms a couple of things. Putting public resources towards a problem reaches a point of no additional returns, and can cause additional costs to the targeted group. Secondly, solving for the optimal amount of screening involves an understanding of how to distinguish groups and there access to other public goods markets.

The Trick with Triplexes

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s the deal 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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