Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, July 22, 2016

Honor and Dignity

I got some pushback in the comments section when I suggested that many conservatives are honorably opposed to Trump.  I stand by my assessment.  Here's Kevin Williamson, a National Review writer:

This is not atypical.  All of the conservatives I've mentioned, and plenty more, regularly tweet this sort of thing about Trump.  Some are more polite, but all are insistent that the man is flatly unacceptable as a presidential candidate because he is unqualified to be President.  I can cite plenty more examples and probably will at some point.

Contrast that with the leftists who are carrying water for Trump.  Here's Seth Ackerman of the far-left magazine Jacobin:

If you click through, you'll see that I got into it with Ackerman, and I think I acquitted myself rather well.  (The whole point is for the benefit of NATO protection to extend to countries that have made a commitment to shared defense, and not to others.  It's not remotely hypocritical to support NATO membership for a country but then to decline to defend it years later when it is still not a member.  As I put it in my exchange with Ackerman, "NATO is a mutual binding commitment, not a list of people we want to defend."  Whether it made sense to push NATO so far east is another question, but the actual NATO expansion didn't happen on Hillary Clinton's watch.)

Now look, this isn't a contest.  There are plenty of bad conservatives and good leftists.  If you did a nose count, the leftists would probably come out ahead.  My point is that while some in the far left are wallowing in their usual self-imposed ignorance, significant elements of the right-wing movement are behaving with honor and dignity.  It reminds me of when I visited the museum in Copenhagen dedicated to the WWII resistance movement, and I learned that a lot of the members of the resistance were nationalist Boy Scout types.  Whatever the shortcomings of that way of approaching the world, it generated some very honorable behavior then, and it's generating some very honorable behavior now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

All Changed, Changed Utterly

The Republican Party has nominated Donald Trump as its presidential candidate.

I don't hold the Republican Party in particularly high esteem.  In fact, I would say that for the last several decades, the party has operated to make the world worse, which is partly why I feel the Democratic Party is one of the greatest forces for good in the world.

Moreover, I don't have a lot of respect for conservatism.  Or to be more precise, I have tremendous respect for certain ideas that are typically labeled "conservative," but I have next to no respect for the conservative movement in the United States.  It is a racist, sexist, homophobic movement that preys on its supporters and coarsens public discourse.  It uses its smartest and best members as fig leaves.  Its rhetoric is disgusting and its most successful practitioners (Ann Coulter is a great example) aim their appeals at people's darkest instincts.

It is also immensely hypocritical:  its response to Black Lives Matter has been to proclaim, indignantly, that all lives matter.  I want to emphasize that "all lives matter" is actually a very nice sentiment if it is taken seriously, and it implies radically different policies on guns, war, foreign aid, etc.  In this it is much like "equality of opportunity," a phrase that is used as a cudgel against liberalism but which actually implies a level of social spending that would dwarf anything we've ever seen in this country.  But only if you take the slogan seriously, which these pieces of shit manifestly don't.  The same goes for their Christian platitudes:  if you seriously believe in injecting Christian morality into public policy, or into public life, then you believe in a radically more egalitarian and forgiving society than the one we live in.  Or you could, you know, just beat up on gay people.  Conservatives overwhelmingly prefer the latter.

All in all I despise conservatism more than I despise almost anything else.  I am therefore chastened to find that many prominent conservatives are conducting themselves with integrity in the face of Trump's takeover of the Republican Party.  Not Coulter, of course, but a surprisingly long list of conservatives, many of whom I would have labeled hacks.  It's important to recognize that some of this is self-interest (an ideologue has every reason to oppose the takeover of his party by someone with no commitment to his values), but on the whole this doesn't detract from the honor of the dissenters.  People signed up to fight for the Union for all kinds of reasons, not all of them admirable, but the important thing is that they risked their lives to bring an end to an evil regime.  It is the same with the anti-Trump conservatives.

It brings to mind "Easter 1916":

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
... 
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
In the case of the honorable conservatives, I'm not going to write it out in verse, but it's a fairly long list, extending from complete embarrassments like Bill Kristol through pretty much the entire staff of the National Review, including Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam, through Ross Douthat and David Brooks and David Frum, and sweeping up even the execrable Erick Erickson.

These people aren't just against Trump, they are fighting against him, writing against him, undermining his candidacy, giving courage to his opponents.  Atypically for movement conservatives, they are not just invoking character but actually displaying it.

This is not a call for a complete re-assessment of conservatism.  It is also not meant as any kind of favorable comparison to the Democrats, whose fight against Trump and what he stands for is longer and more vigorous and (inshallah) more effective.  The Democrats remain our country's best hope for the future, as they have been since at least FDR, through the civil rights plank in 1948, through the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, and on and on.  The Republicans nominated Trump, the Democrats will defeat him.

Instead this is a signpost I am putting down to note the fact that many conservatives are elevating themselves above the usual bullshit and conducting themselves with honor.  They deserve the benefit of the doubt in the future, and they deserve our thanks in the present.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Pokemon Go and Gamification

It is not difficult at all to imagine how a game like Pokemon Go could end up being truly revolutionary.  The reason is that foot traffic is a hugely important and valuable attribute of real estate.  Also, foot traffic tends to make areas safer, because it is more difficult to commit crimes in crowded areas (particularly crowded areas where a lot of people are taking pictures with smartphones).

So it is easy to imagine corporations and/or governments "gamifying" foot traffic by making particular streets rich in Pokemon (or whatever it is that draws Pokemon Go characters to some places and not others).  This could be used for good or bad ends, of course.  The most obvious application is to increase the number of people visiting a retail or dining district, where they are likely to spend some money.  In particular, anything that is easy to market to Pokemon fans should provide an obvious revenue source for the game's creator, which can charge money to send people nearby.  Cities could try to induce traffic in pedestrian areas to keep them safe (though of course it would be important to keep traffic high enough that the players don't just become victims themselves).  And I'm sure there are other applications I'm not thinking of.  (One possibility:  to maximize profit opportunities, the game will need to use targeted advertising, which means it will need to segregate people by their tastes, buying propensity, etc.  It's conceivable that games like this will further fracture our society into smaller pieces, although at the moment the game seems to be having the opposite effect.)

I don't know how I feel about this.  I guess I think that, as in so many other aspects of modern life, the tradeoff will involve giving up a certain amount of personal autonomy and dignity in exchange for entertainment and profit.

EDITED TO ADD:  This is obviously a joke, but it's the kind of thing I'm talking about.  Could actually work!  Bring people to the garden on a nice day, they may come back.  You don't want to annoy your existing patrons, but that's not a huge risk on uncrowded days.



EDITED FURTHER TO ADD:  There are pitfalls, of course:


Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Affordability and Density Part 2

Some further thoughts on my last post and the pushback I got in the comments.

The key point is that it all depends on the shape of the demand curve.  Picture a typical supply and demand chart, in which the quantity demanded (on the x axis) decreases with price (on the y axis) so that the demand curve is downward-sloping.  Meanwhile the quantity supplied increases with the price, so that the supply curve is upward-sloping.  The actual price and quantity are determined by the point at which the lines cross.

So far so good.  An increase in supply will reduce prices or increase quantity or both.  But if we want to know more about the consequences of shifting the supply curve, we need to know the shape of the demand curve.  If it is steeply downward sloping, then an increase (rightward shift) in the supply curve will result in a sharp drop in prices and a small increase in consumption.  If the demand curve is nearly flat, on the other hand, an increase in supply will result in only a small drop in price but a large increase in consumption.

Implicit in the "induced demand" or "latent demand" view of highways is that the demand curve for road capacity is nearly flat.  (To be clear:  in this way of thinking about things, the "price" of driving on a road is not a dollar cost but rather the time it takes to get from point A to point B.  The supply curve, meanwhile, is simply a vertical line that is determined by whoever controls infrastructure spending.  I am ignoring toll roads for now, because toll roads generally aren't subject to "induced demand," at least not if the tolls are high enough.)  This isn't always true—I've read that the highways in Detroit are never congested anymore, which suggests that at some point road capacity can outstrip demand—but it is probably true-ish in cases where planners are considering adding roads to address congestion.

Now maybe the demand curve for housing in cities is steeper, in which case a supply increase can result in a significant price reduction.  When I have more time I'll write another post about city size.  But for now I'll just note that the demand curve for housing in a given city is probably flatter in the long run than it is in the short run.  It may even be upward-sloping in the very long run.  In other words, in the short run people's locational decisions are very "sticky."  If you live in Cleveland, then probably you have a lot of friends in Cleveland.  You work or go to school in Cleveland.  You know your way around Cleveland.  Moving to New York isn't something you would do lightly, even if rents in New York were as cheap as rents in Cleveland (which they are not).  Of course people do move from city to city, but they probably don't do it in response to small or short-term shifts in housing costs.

But that's in the short run.  In the long run, there are large flows of people into and out of cities.  The death rate in Detroit is high, but probably not high enough to explain why its population has fallen from 1.8 million in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010.  People in New York City have always been fond of sex, but probably not fond enough to explain why its population rose from 3.44 million in 1900 to 4.77 million in 1910, to 5.62 million in 1920, and to 6.93 million in 1930.

The reason these migration flows matter is that they imply that population can be highly responsive to changes in housing prices.  And that, in turn, implies that in the long term, the demand for housing in a given city may be essentially flat.  As people are choosing between Cleveland and New York City, a high percentage may choose New York City if rents are the same in both cities.  And that may be as true when New York has 12 million people as when it has 8 million.  It may even be truer, since what is attractive about New York City involves proximity to a lot of other people.

Anyway, as I said, some of my analysis is going to have to wait for another post.  I just wanted to point out that the real debate here is about the shape of demand curves, and there are reasons to think that in the long run the demand curve for housing in a given city might be flat or flattish.  I'll finish by pointing out that this all started with this tweet:

Yglesias's answer was "Tokyo."  But then he followed up with a tweet stating that affordability should be measured by density.  So New York City is vastly more affordable than Houston or Cleveland, San Francisco is more affordable than Kansas City, and so forth.  There's a sense in which that's not wrong!  It really does make a tremendous amount of sense to build housing where people want to live.  It allows more people to "afford" living in cities that offer good jobs, or good governance, or whatever.  It just feels like a bait-and-switch to use the term "affordability" to mean "density" and not "low prices."  If you promise affordability, and what you deliver is endlessly upward-spiraling rents, people are going to be disappointed.  It seems better to me to use terms that mean what they sound like.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Affordability Doesn't Mean What You Think

Imagine you are an economically literate urbanist and you have been asked to testify as an expert on urban policy.  The situation is this:  the county includes a large and growing city as well as a much smaller town that is connected to the city by a road.  The town has some retail and other employment, but a significant number of its residents commute to jobs in the big city.  However, this has grown increasingly unpleasant as the result of congestion on the road that connects the town to the city.  Voters are complaining that the commute is terrible, and the county legislature is determined to take action.  In particular, the proposal is to add an extra lane of traffic on the road, increasing its capacity.

Here is how the testimony might go:

Commissioner LaGrande:  Will adding a lane to the road reduce congestion?
You:  No, it will do nothing of the sort.
[audience gasps]
LaGrande:  Explain yourself!  The problem is that too many people are trying to get from the town to the city every morning, and from the city to the town every evening.  Adding a lane will make the road less crowded and result in less congestion, won't it?
You:  Respectfully, commissioner, we need to consider the concept of "induced demand."  It's true that in the short term, congestion might decrease when an extra lane is added.  But things don't stop there.  Now that the commute is easier, it will be more attractive for workers to live in the town and drive to the city.  As workers move to the town, congestion will increase, and this process will continue until the congestion returns to roughly where it was to begin with.
LaGrande:  So you're telling me there's no long-term benefit and we shouldn't add the lane?
You:  That's not what I'm saying.  What I'm saying is that the benefits don't include a long-term reduction in congestion.  Instead, the potential benefits have to do with increasing the population of the town—with the added lane, more people can live there, and the city's workforce is also increased.  This could help the economy grow, benefiting both landowners in the town (who can convert farmland to higher-value residential developments) and businesses in the city (who have a larger pool of labor to draw on).  Of course, these benefits may or may not outweigh the costs—I can't tell you how to make the trade-off.  But I can tell you that an honest accounting of the benefits doesn't include a long-term reduction in congestion.  For that, you would need to turn it into a toll road or something like that.
This is very standard stuff.  Anyone who supports adding a lane in these circumstances shouldn't sell it as an anti-congestion measure.

Now the city council calls you to testify on a new land-use policy that will facilitate denser development.  By coincidence, LaGrande serves on both the county commission and the city council.

 Councilor LaGrande:  Will allowing more development reduce rents?
You:  Of course it will, it's basic supply and demand.  As supply increases, rents will fall.
[audience nods appreciatively] 
This is very standard stuff.  Anyone can understand that increasing supply reduces prices.  But you might feel a slight twinge of discomfort, a little bit of cognitive dissonance.  After all, earlier you told LaGrande that "induced demand" means that increased road capacity will translate into increased population, but not into reduced commute times.  Now you've implicitly told LaGrande that the concept of induced demand doesn't apply to rent.  A city can achieve a permanent reduction in market rents by allowing more development.  The reduced rent will not draw more people into the city, pushing rents back up to their equilibrium level.  Because...  [crickets chirping].

And this is why I think urbanism is being mis-sold.  It's absolutely true that in the short term an increase in the supply of housing should translate into rents that are lower than they would otherwise be.  But this will draw people into the city, and it's not clear that the long-term result is lower rents.  In fact, if the city is attractive primarily because of the social and economic opportunities that stem from living near so many other people, then the long-term effect of increased development is probably rents that are higher than they otherwise would have been.

That's why this Matt Yglesias tweet is (perhaps unintentionally) very revealing about what "affordability" means to him:

Got that?  Affordability shouldn't be understood in terms of the level of rent.  It should be understood in terms of the number of people who live in the city.  So when Yglesias proclaims that cities can increase their affordability by allowing more development, his readers should understand that "affordability" is a term of art and that he is not saying that rents will be lower than they otherwise would have been.  Low rents have nothing to do with affordability.  Affordability just is density, so allowing an increase in density by definition increases affordability, even if rents go up by a lot.  (This makes it odd that the title of his book arguing for more development is The Rent Is Too Damn High, which is why I feel his tweet's honesty may be unintentional.)

I want to emphasize that density does in fact have a lot of benefits (as does increased transportation capacity).  But just as increased commuting capacity shouldn't be sold to the public on the grounds that it will reduce commute times, increased development shouldn't be sold to the public on the grounds that it will reduce rents in the long term.  The long-run benefits have to do with giving more people access to the city's amenities, which may also increase the value of the city to its existing residents.  (After all, to repeat my earlier point, the big attraction of living in a city is that it puts you into easy contact with a lot of other people.)  But for some reason, advocates of density often choose to frame their arguments in a very misleading way, and I think this helps explain the backlash against dense development.  The urbanist promises are never kept.  This is a big problem for urbanism and it will continue to be a problem until we can be more honest about the effects of our preferred policies, something we learned to do a long time ago when it comes to congestion.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ed West Just Straight Up Gets It

This Ed West column gets at something I've been hinting at in my writing about Britain's vote to exit from the EU.  The "leave" voters were, I believe, victims of a bait-and-switch.  What "leave" really means is that an off-the-rack, legally-mandated arrangement will be replaced with a bespoke, negotiated one.  And that, by itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on what is negotiated.  You could theoretically reach an accommodation that is very close to the status quo.  Or you could negotiate something pretty different from the status quo, but still mutually satisfactory to Britain and the EU.  (By the way I keep saying "Britain" even though the U.K. also includes Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.  Sorry.)

So far so good.  But the "leave" campaign took advantage of the nebulous post-exit situation to make claims that will not actually be possible.  So for instance, it's perfectly possible that Britain will retain full access to the common market, in which case the economic consequences may indeed be tolerable (may even be negligible).  But that won't happen unless Britain retains labor mobility with the EU, which means the Polish workers that have so offended the "leave" voters are not going anywhere.  The "leave" campaign basically painted a picture by combining elements from various potential post-exit scenarios, each element being individually feasible, but uniting elements that are not feasible together.  As Ed West argues, an honest ballot would have involved some sort of nested decision-making, where a "leave" vote would have to be combined with preferences about the post-exit world.

Since that didn't happen, Britain may need to have another vote.  And note in this connection that when you do multi-step balloting, you can end up with different results depending on the order in which the options are selected.  Let's say Britain now votes whether to do a "full exit," seal its borders, and abandon access to the common market, or to accept labor mobility and retain economic access (à la Norway).  The result may well be the Norway option.  But then imagine that you reversed the order of the voting.  In that case, the Norway option might win the first round, and then (given the very limited upside for the "leave" voters at that point) "remain" might have won the second round.

Anyway I think this makes clear something I had been a little muddy about, which is how procedurally stupid the vote was in the first place, and how it facilitated rampant dishonesty on the part of the "leave" campaign by failing to clarify what was at stake.  A shitshow all around.

Displaced Voters

You are a regulator responsible for flight safety.  Your staff has proposed a rule that will reduce deaths per million miles traveled by air.  However, it will also impose costs on travelers, inducing some travelers to choose other methods of travel.  If those other methods of travel are less safe than air travel, then you have to weigh two effects of the proposed regulation:  (1) deaths from air travel will fall (both because fewer people will travel by air, and because air travel will be safer), and (2) deaths from non-air travel will increase (because more people will travel by non-air means).  If the net effect is to increase the number of deaths, then arguably the regulation is a bad idea.

David Frum has suggested that something like this goes on in politics.  If the enforcement of immigration laws is labeled "racist" and put off-limits for mainstream politicians, then this may have the effect of reducing immigration enforcement.  But it has another effect, which is to force people who believe in immigration laws to express their views through non-mainstream channels.  The net effect on politics may not be positive, even from the perspective of immigrants.

Of course regulators may have other reasons to impose rules beyond the considerations I've mentioned, and similarly politicians have motivations beyond the welfare of immigrants, so even if the math works out to be bad for immigrants, there might be other reasons to marginalize people who believe in immigration law.  Also, whereas airline regulations probably operate pretty smoothly, there are sharp discontinuities in politics (something like punctuated equilibrium).  Extremists can be marginalized for years or decades, and then can be swept into power in a paroxysm of anger.  But maybe the paroxysm never comes, or maybe it's one of those "when the paroxysm comes we'll have bigger things to worry about" kinds of calculations.

In any case, I share Frum's worry that what we have is an unstable situation ripe for an opportunistic nationalist campaign.  Luckily (?!?) Trump seems to be too inept to mount a successful campaign (though I urge you not to be complacent).  But the choice that the Democrats are increasingly embracing seems dangerous to me, and I think it would be prudent to pay attention to the forces that are building up as a result.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Discontinuities and Discourse

Blatant racism, like Donald Trump's long campaign to delegitimize President Obama by questioning his birthplace and his religion, has largely been squeezed out of mainstream U.S. politics.  (Maybe I should say "had" been squeezed out, since one of Trump's most notable achievements has been the re-introduction of vile racism into the mainstream of political discourse.)  Certainly you might engage the question, but only to dismiss it.  Whether Barack Obama was born in the United States is simply not a legitimate political debate.

At some point, though, you cross a line into legitimate political disagreement.  To go straight to the other end of the spectrum, in the debate between supporters of a carbon tax and the supporters of a cap-and-trade system, it is hard to see a racial angle, and that remains true even if, statistically speaking, the cap-and-traders are much more likely to hold racist views.  (I have no reason to believe that to be the case.)  So in other words, it would be completely inappropriate to label cap-and-traders as racists—in fact, it almost certainly wouldn't even occur to the carbon taxers to try that line of attack.  Instead, carbon taxers would more fruitfully talk about the substantive issues that separate the two camps.

There's obviously a huge middle ground between these extremes.  Opposing Puerto Rican statehood is a legitimate political position to hold, but there are certainly versions of that opinion that are racist.  Opposing affirmative action is the same way.  Often in these cases there is a legitimate, principled reason for a particular stance, but there is a strong suspicion that it is being used as window dressing for a much more vile, "real" motivation.  This can be tricky to adjudicate.  And indeed it would not be uncommon for someone afflicted by true economic anxiety to adopt simplistic or unfair views without appreciating it, and in this case it may be more productive to assume good faith and avoid name-calling.  (On the other hand, of course, "economic anxiety" has become the blanket excuse that conservatives often offer to justify the racist views of their co-partisans.  This is precisely the sort of line that is difficult to police.)

Anyway my point is that as you move into the middle ground from either end of the spectrum, you reach a sharp discontinuity.  On one side the correct response is outrage and dismissal rather than engagement.  On the other side the correct response is full engagement and the assumption of good faith.

And sharp discontinuities are hard to navigate.  This is especially true in the face of diversity.  I can have a productive discussion about affirmative action with a friend who shares many of my background assumptions.  It would be virtually impossible for me to have such a discussion with a stranger, particularly one who refuses to acknowledge the factual predicates that underlie the "pro" side of the argument.  But so, who is the audience?  What are the background assumptions?  These will help determine which side of the discontinuity we are on, but they are also fuzzy and subject to rapid change (the classic example being a Twitter conversation that "goes viral" and reaches a new audience).  And very slight variations push us onto one side or the other of the knife's edge.

Now maybe a more nuanced response is possible.  Maybe you can shade your approach gradually from full engagement to full dismissal...  but I don't quite see how.  I think the more realistic answer is to engage in the debate with "repeat players" who have demonstrated good faith in the past.  This is, in theory, the role played by the "elite" ideological media.  Except...  that doesn't actually seem to happen very much.  One possible explanation is that there is no way to separate the elites from the masses, and you can't have elite ideologues making concessions that their mass-market co-partisans will find repugnant.  The more likely explanation is that almost no-one cares to engage in deliberation in the first place.

Anyway the result is that almost all interesting political discussion happens within broad ideological categories and not across them.  Maybe that's as it should be, since the prospects for fruitful engagement are so much higher when people start relatively close to each other.  But on another level it is unfortunate because it means that basic channels of communication don't exist to allow liberals and conservatives to talk to each other when they really could engage productively.  And so I'll wrap up by noting that one unexpected result of the Trump candidacy is that anti-Trump conservatives are starting to interact productively with liberals to attack a common enemy.  It's inspiring in a way.