Top 8 of 2008

2008 was an interesting year here at Extraordinary Observations. Between January and June, I lived in Dallas, Texas without internet access at my apartment (fortunately I got out a lot), so posting was pretty light for the first half of the year. The summer saw a return to regular posting but over Labor Day weekend I broke my wrist, had surgery, and found it incredibly difficult to write or type much of anything. Momentum picked up in the last few months of the year as I returned to health. For those who are new to Extraordinary Observations and may have missed a post here or there, I've collected my favorite eight posts from the past year.

8. Economics of the News - with all the talk of newspapers being a dying industry, I wanted to take a closer look at what the market for news actually looks like.

7. Confessions of a Mediocre Student - we may not have Ivy League credentials or a perfect GPA, but the time we didn't spend cramming for poorly designed exams and fretting over university bureaucracy was when some of the most meaningful learning occurred.

6. An Open Letter to Cleveland's Leaders - when Eaton Corporation announced its intent to move the company's corporate headquarters from Cleveland to the suburbs, I wanted Cleveland's leaders know how the decision might impact the future of the city.

5. Why Obama is a Marketing Genius - he won the election; but even during the campaign season, Barack Obama's campaign fully understood the potential of using new technologies for marketing.

4. Paper, Plastic or Nothing? - customers rarely have a difficult time getting a plastic bag at the supermarket, but telling the cashier you don't need one and people will think you're crazy.

3. Loneliness in the City - there is a reason that people living in big cities prefer to live alone; and it isn't because they are all a bunch of loners.

2. Do Cars Make Us Less Free? - auto ownership is supposed to be the ticket to freedom, but in a world of auto-dependence, are we more free at all?

1. The Value of Blogging - Extraordinary Observations launched in 2004 and is still active because I believe there is great value to be found throughout the blogosphere.

Thanks for making 2008 a great year in the blogosphere! If you haven't already subscribed, check out my RSS feed, and for all the new and loyal readers, I hope to make 2009 the best year yet.

Don't Forget to Tip

The Phoenix Business Journal reports that servers and bartenders have seen their tips dwindle thanks to the broader economic downturn:
Robyn Brand is feeling the economic pinch. So are Nicole Rademacher and Ryan Gwizdala. But they aren’t in the depressed real estate, mortgage lending or auto industries. Brand and Gwizdala are bartenders in Phoenix, and Rademacher is a waitress in Glendale. They all are seeing less bar and restaurant business — and more frugal tips.
I think tipping is a very interesting phenomenon in America. Over the summer I blogged about the economics of tipping, and how tips should be calculated in a casual dining experience.

A fascinating implication of the current economic situation is that servers and bartenders are among very few occupations in America where nominal wages actually adjust to the equilibrium level in the economy. Other jobs have wages set by contracts or social norms (employers are highly reluctant to frequently adjust wages, especially downward). Theoretically, inflation should equilibrate real wages by decreasing the purchasing power of an hour's work. Few employees seem to understand this concept, and thus perceive an increase in their wage, even merely at the pace of inflation, as a "raise". Servers and bartenders, on the other hand, watch their nominal wages fluctuate up and down on a regular basis.

Another interesting conundrum is one I have faced quite a bit recently. There are some restaurants I am psychologically reluctant to visit because, knowing that other tables will be ordering wine and expensive dishes, and knowing that I will be ordering cheaper drinks and food and probably leaving a smaller tip, I feel guilty before I even walk through the front door. In tough economic times, servers would theoretically be better off serving me than having an empty table in their section, but like those interviewed in the Phoenix Business Journal article, they might counter-factually assume that they could have had a high roller at the table instead of me, and probably be unhappy about the size of the tip I leave.

Having never worked in the food service (or bar) industry, I can only comment as a customer and an outside observer; but if anyone with experience would like to chime in with a comment, all the better!

Talking Gas Tax

Tom Friedman thinks now is as good a time as ever to implement a higher gasoline tax:
Obama is coming in with enormous popularity. This is his best window of opportunity to impose a gas tax. And he could make it painless: offset the gas tax by lowering payroll taxes, or phase it in over two years at 10 cents a month. But if Obama, like Bush, wills the ends and not the means — wills a green economy without the price signals needed to change consumer behavior and drive innovation — he will fail.
Yglesias thinks a carbon tax or emissions cap would be a better alternative:
A carbon tax, or a cap on greenhouse gas emissions with auctioned permits, would constitute a tax on gasoline among other things. And there’s no particular reason that burning fuel in a car should be disfavored versus other carbon-intensive activities.
I understand that progressives typically have a strong passion for environmental issues, and looking at this from strictly from an environmental standpoint, Yglesias is probably correct that a carbon tax would ideally do as good (and maybe a better) job of decreasing CO2. There are a few specific reasons, however, why a gasoline tax solves more than just environmental and warming concerns and why it is preferable to a policy that only targets carbon.

The first is geopolitical. Coal is significantly dirtier and emits more CO2 than other fossil fuels. Any attempt to tax carbon would probably affect coal relatively more than oil or natural gas. Of course, since coal is domestically produced and oil is imported from some of our worst enemies, a gasoline tax (or any policy specifically targeted at oil derivatives) would go further in decreasing America's reliance on foreign sources of oil.

The second is cultural. A gasoline tax would be a bigger disincentive to driving than a broad tax on carbon (although admittedly both would have some impact on driving incentives). Low gasoline prices, and other subsidies for auto owners and drivers throughout history (in addition to numerous other bad policies), have been a major force behind some of the worst sprawl in America. Plus, it has already been well documented that sprawling subdivisions have horrible impacts on the environment, lead to increased class segregation, and generally destroy any sense of culture and community. A gas tax would be a step toward addressing at least one of the contributing forces of sprawl, an issue that progressives should care about just as much as strict environmental concerns.

A final reason is simply logistical. We already have a federal gasoline tax in place; implementing a higher gas tax would merely require increasing the amount that government is already collecting. A general carbon policy would require an entirely new framework, time to implement, and new transaction costs. Ideally, the carbon tax might be great, it certainly looks good on paper, but realistically, the gasoline tax should be taken seriously by Obama while he still has the opportunity to do something about it.

Selling Used Textbooks

Before the beginning of fall semester, I wrote about the great college textbook racket and ways to avoid buying expensive textbooks. Unfortunately, there are inevitable cases when you just can't avoid buying some textbooks, so you bite the bullet and pick them up anyway. At the end of the semester a lot of students sell their textbooks back to the campus bookstore. A lot of these bookstores are operated by corporations that turn around and resell used textbooks at big profits. Selling to the campus bookstore may be convenient, but it does a major disservice to other well-meaning students.

I've never sold textbooks to a campus bookstore, and I've only purchased textbooks from one of these places my first semester in college (when I truly didn't know any better). If you don't want to keep a textbook for your collection, no matter the condition, edition, or price that others are asking, everyone (except the campus bookstore) is better off if you put your books up for sale on a website like half.com or Amazon Marketplace. Yes, it does require you to go through the listing process, pack your books in a box or envelope, buy postage and drop them off at the Post Office, but it's a small commitment to keep an important market functioning. Even if you don't stand to make much (or any) money on your books, think of selling them as a service to students who can least afford to buy them. Certainly you would appreciate being able to pick up textbooks for next to nothing from individuals who have little use for them anyways. Since most of the books I buy used are old editions or in less-than-perfect quality, the resale value isn't particularly high - but I don't have a problem putting a book up for sale for one or two bucks to help out someone else who might need the book and doesn't mind the imperfection.

Case-in-point: my intermediate macroeconomics class used Mankiw's Macroeconomics textbook. The newest edition lists for $167.45; Amazon is selling it new for $117.47; the lowest asking price on half.com is $40.95. At the end of the semester, my school's bookstore was buying this book from students for $20 a piece; the bookstore will probably turn around and sell the used copies for $60-$75 at the beginning of spring semester. In this case, it obviously seems to be in the best interest of both the buyer and the seller to engage in the transaction directly. And even if, as the buyer, you ask for a price well below the current asking price (say, $20 or $25), you're still doing a huge favor to the next owner of the book who can save a nice chunk of change.

I'll be listing all of my now unwanted textbooks online this weekend. I hope that everyone else sees the benefit of listing theirs too.

Generation Y and Automobiles

Blake Thorne's new post over at Campus Progress contends that the Big Three automakers are struggling to appeal to Generation Y; which, frankly, isn't anything shocking. It is true that young people have less brand loyalty than anyone else, and it is true that fewer are willing to pay a premium for American goods, and it is true that foreign auto companies have simply done a better job creating models that appeal to young people. Thorne's analysis, however, assumes that young people will continue buying cars at the same pace as older generations, but that they will opt for different brands. In light of the fact that Toyota's sales are plunging and other foreign manufacturers are struggling, that assumption may simply not be true.

When my dad bought his first car, it was more than just a means of getting around, it was a status symbol. Generation X Previous generations built their identities around the cars they drove. They grew up in urban neighborhoods or inner-ring suburbs, but they were in no hurry to move anywhere but increasingly auto-dependent communities. On the other hand, Ward's, an auto trade publication, has this to say about Generation Y:
In other words, the children of Baby Boomers do not aspire to vehicle ownership like we did. Instead of daydreaming about buying a Ford Expedition they can use for camping trips with friends and family, many Millenials may want to rent the big SUV for just the camping trip, Pipas explained. The vehicle is just another element of the experience, not the foundation for it. The next weekend they might rent a canoe.
Not only is the shift in preferences ideological, as more young people prefer cities over suburbs and car-free over car-ownership; for many young people, they simply can't afford new cars. When my parents went to college, they had to pay little, if anything, and carried almost no debt upon graduation. Most thought they could depend on Social Security to help with retirement, so a big proportion of what they earned became instant disposable income; and one of the first things on the wish list was a new car. The New York Times recently reported that the cost of college has increased 439% between 1982 and 1997, significantly outpacing income growth, and most of it has been financed with debt. It doesn't help that most young people have lost faith that they will get anything from Social Security, so saving for the future is now an individual responsibility.

Some will point out that young people have been graduating with piles of debt for years and purchasing cars anyway. Of course, one has to consider how many of those cars were purchased with additional piles of debt, and if lenders can continue to be so fast and loose in the future. Car-sharing, another concept that didn't exist during my parent's generation; is proving to be wildly successful in the cities where it exists, and with marketing targeted at Generation Y, the business model is poised for additional growth.

Most of the political debate and congressional hearings are being conducted by Baby Boomers who don't seem to understand the implications that Generation Y will have on the domestic auto market. The problem isn't merely a trade-off between brands, it is a problem of demand destruction affecting the industry as a whole. The stakes have changed, both fiscally and ideologically, and few seem to have noticed. The long-term viability of the entire auto industry rests on the very individuals who are least interested in supporting it - and that is a much bigger problem for the Big Three than dwindling brand loyalty or manufacturing vehicle models that actually appeal to younger people.

Today is Christmas

If you can catch a break from the stress-induced mania that Christmas has become for many, take two and a half minutes to reflect on this video from Advent Conspiracy.

Happiness Policy

I don't have a lot of formal training in psychology, but it is a topic I find particularly fascinating. I bought Dan Gilbert's best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness when it was first released two years ago, and it remains one of the most frequently referenced works in my course of conversations. Gilbert's TED Talk from 2005 was released last week, and in my opinion is one of the best TED videos of the year. A lot of Gilbert's analysis is from research that you may have already seen, but he does an awesome job of summing it all up into a 25 minute lecture.



The implications for economics seem fairly obvious. Anyone who has taken Principles of Microeconomics in college probably remembers models based on rational actors and utility maximization; which rests on the assumption that humans can properly calculate the expected value of life events and properly act on them. Dan Ariely has done a great job of explaining the implication of Gilbert's analysis in his book, Predictably Irrational, as well as explaining how economists can take what we know about human psychology in order to build better models.

Happiness is a concept that a lot of people, myself included, are at least somewhat obsessed with; and the question of what makes us happy is an important one. Nevertheless, if Gilbert is correct and humans are incredibly poor at maximizing their own utility, it creates serious implications for public policy. The United States now spends more on defense than almost all the other nations in the world combined. While there are some that take serious issue with this fact, most Americans are content to let it go, so long as the money keeps us safe from harm. If we were truly rational, it seems that we should be begging government to buy everyone flu shots or invest more in cancer research - things that are truly fatal to hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

On an issue more familiar to this blog, questions about happiness are also key to understanding urban policy in the United States. Every time I write about urbanism, transit, or policies that incentivizes them in some way, I get the inevitable comments or emails explaining that where we live is a choice, and who am I to tell someone that the choices they make in life are the wrong ones? The real question we should be asking is, why does a certain style of living make us happy? When people describe why the want to live in a certain place, a typical explanation is "because it is where I want to be"; and when asked why they want to be there, they respond with something like "because it's the choice that's best for me". This logic loops around itself but doesn't always get to the root of the question: why do the places we choose make us happy? Do the reasons we think they make us happy actually do so? Or is it an illusion that prevents us from seeking what we ought to be looking for?

Car accidents represent one of the leading causes of death in America; well ahead of deaths caused by murder or other violent crime; yet we believe that cars are incredibly safe places to be, but we often fear urban streets. We believe that owning your own home is the key to the American Dream, even when research and logic have shown home owners are no happier than renters. We say that we want new, impressive, expensive cars when research suggests that commuting is one of the most miserable and socially isolating activities we can engage in, and yet we do it anyway. Are people who act out against their best interests irrational? Confused? Tricked? Who is to blame? What do we do about it?

If our minds aren't built to handle the incredibly complex world that we now live in; if people actually can't calculate what truly makes them happy; and if we can no longer stick to the assumption that because someone is doing something it must be in their best interest, the question of what to do about it becomes incredibly relevant. The reality is that American governments have engaged in this behavior for basically their entire existence. Every time government subsidizes this or that or decides that we are entitled to one thing or another, they've effectively concluded that they ought to incentivize something in order to make decisions easier for us. The problem is that they don't always get it right, and sometimes we end up even worse off than we otherwise might be. Accepting that many of the choices we as individuals and as society make in life aren't entirely our own is difficult for many. Figuring out what is right, and making sure the government's incentive structure properly reflects it is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
As an outspoken critic of suburban sprawl and someone born and raised in Euclid, Ohio, I am frankly surprised that I am only now learning about this historic 1926 US Supreme Court case. Euclid v. Ambler, more or less, is responsible for legalizing the worst and most sprawl-inducing form of zoning. From Wikipedia:
Euclidean zoning codes are by far the most prevalent in the United States, used extensively in small towns and large cities alike. Also known as "Building Block" zoning, Euclidean zoning is characterized by the segregation of land uses into specified geographic districts and dimensional standards stipulating limitations on the magnitude of development activity that is allowed to take place on lots within each type of district. Typical types of land-use districts in Euclidean zoning are: residential (single-family), residential (multi-family), commercial, and industrial. Uses within each district are usually heavily prescribed to exclude other types of uses (residential districts typically disallow commercial or industrial uses).
Granted, the Supreme Court case was probably inevitable and Euclid isn't necessarily the worst suburb in existence; but isn't it ironic that I grew up in the place that started it all?
Brett Arends makes the economic argument for getting rid of your car in today's Wall Street Journal. First, and obviously, when you look at cars, regardless of type, they aren't cheap:

Forget lattes and store-brand cereal. If you really want to see where your money is going, take a closer look at your car. Foreign or domestic, it doesn't matter. It's a cash guzzler, and it is probably costing you more than anything else except your home.

How much? First there's the actual capital cost of buying the vehicle. Obviously people can spend as little as a few thousand dollars buying an old clunker. But most spend a lot more. And that initial cost is just the start. Now add everything from gas and maintenance to insurance, registration, taxes, tolls, parking, tickets and so on.

You'll be lucky if you're spending less than about $4,000 a year. Most people will pay a lot more. If you buy the vehicle with a loan, you'll have to pay interest. If you pay cash, you have to factor in the interest you would have made on that money if you had saved it instead. That's a real cost too, and a substantial one, though most people forget about it.

In 2007, the most recent year that numbers are available, the American Automobile Association figured its members paid about $7,800 a year on average to own and maintain their cars. That figure dropped to about $6,200 for small-car owners.
Arends suggests that families sacrifice the beloved vehicle in order to survive in tough economic times:

Maybe it's time for smart families to consider some really tough choices.

Life without a car may seem inconceivable. They are useful and can be fun. In most parts of America, you really can't survive without one. And they've been hammered into the culture and the national psyche.

But a lot of things are happening these days that nobody expected. Rules are changing. People need to make every dollar count.
The reason "smart" families need to make these "really tough choices" right now is the result of years and decades of "stupid" public policy that has essentially made life without a car unbearable in all but a few parts of the country. So while a few pioneering individuals might choose a car-free lifestyle in a place that is typically dependent on auto-transport, real change won't come until society and government decide to make serious commitments to auto-alternatives. It isn't just a coincidence that cities like New York and Portland have among the lowest percentages of individuals who own or drive cars; those local governments have made a serious enough commitment to transit and bicycling (respectively) to make alternatives to driving mainstream realities. So long as we have governments who would rather spend money on new highways and expanded road capacity than transit and other alternatives, Arends suggestion will continue to be a "really tough choice" for more Americans than it should; and that is too bad, because they sure seem like they could use some real relief in these tough economic times.
Last week I walked into my philosophy professor's office hour to talk about a few things, and during the course of the conversation, she suggested that I'm the type of person who ought to go on for a PhD. Of course, the fact that I'm already behind most of my peers in finishing my undergrad degree is typically the reason I don't spend much time thinking about such lofty goals. A few months ago a friend and former co-worker asked if I had ever taken an IQ test because she really wanted to know my score. The point of all of this isn't to brag. Frankly, I don't have a whole lot to brag about when it comes to academics; I go to a fairly mediocre school and get pretty mediocre grades. My transcript doesn't have anything particularly exciting on it. My GPA is pretty decent, but not nearly a perfect 4.0; if I were to take a standardized test for graduate school, I'd probably score right in the middle, but not off the charts.

I have always questioned the idea that school, education, and knowledge are perfectly synonymous. Back in high school, there were people who took pride in the fact that they didn't learn much of anything in their classes; but they stilled pulled off a 4.0 GPA. I figured out earlier than most that you don't have to rely exclusively on classes to learn - I joined the policy debate team, spent most of my free time cutting evidence and preparing for tournaments, and in the end I know I am confident that I learned more from that activity than most of my peers ever learned from high school. You might not know it, of course, since my GPA was about average for the typical student at my high school. Nor would you have been able to tell from my SAT scores, which again, were incredibly mediocre. But if it's true that standardized test scores can be improved through rigorous practice sessions, or taking drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, then these tests might be less standardized than you'd typically think.

Even college often feels more about bureaucracy and technicalities than any real quest for knowledge. I was recently reminded about this while trying to enroll in an upper-level math course. I wasn't able to register using the university's online system because there was a concern over whether I had completed the necessary prerequisite. Before transferring to my current school, I had taken two semesters of college level calculus and a semester of statistics. In trying to determine whether I had satisfied the arbitrary prerequisite for this course, there was a lot of debate over what prerequisite courses I had taken, but no one ever bothered to ask the obvious question: do you understand the material?

For me, my transcript is a poor reflection of my overall achievement because it only tells you what happened inside the halls of academia, which I believe is itself a weak indicator of what I've learned, what I know, or the skills I possess. I don't mean to suggest that college courses have been of no value; but unfortunately, many of them have been boring and dull, with more focus on "whats going to be on the test" than "how will this impact my life". I have a difficult time pouring my heart into essays on seemingly random topics with arbitrary length requirements; or cramming for poorly constructed multiple-choice exams. Some of the most valuable things I've learned over the past few years came from the books I read on my own, from the people I worked alongside at internships, from magazines and articles I read on the bus on my way to and from work, and from off-the-record conversations with some incredibly intelligent professors during office hours. Some of my best essays aren't papers I wrote for classes, they are pieces I posted right here on Extraordinary Observations - and none of these things are reflected on any of my academic transcripts.

Malcolm Gladwell's newest piece in The New Yorker suggests that traditional means of evaluating talent may be flawed; and that it's difficult to determine who will be a good NFL quarterback or high school teacher or investment adviser before we actually give them a chance to prove themselves. By that token, I think I speak for other mediocre students in the world when I say that we might not have Ivy League credentials or a 4.0 GPA, but that doesn't mean we aren't just as passionate or knowledgeable on certain topics; nor does it mean we are any lazy or apathetic. In fact, that time not spent on trivial busywork and academic technicalities may have actually been put to good use. You might be surprised when you actually get to know someone, even if they are a mediocre student.

Economics of the News

Last week's post about Generation Y not being a huge fan of newspapers may have led some to believe that Generation Y isn't interested in the news - and as I hope to explain, that may or may not be the case. On Monday, the Economist's Free Exchange blog set out to analyze the market for news:

James Surowiecki has an entertaining column this week on the business of news, riffing off the recent bankruptcy of the Tribune company... Felix Salmon has a very good response to this... I liked both pieces, but I think they also miss something about the current market for news, namely, the fact that it's glutted. Technology hasn't just changed the demand for newspapers, it's also changed the supply of information. News used to be an oligopolistic business, now it's just about perfectly competitive. Barriers to entry are minimal, and plenty of suppliers are happy to provide content at next to nothing. That's a recipe for a big drop in price, and any organisation built on market power and rents is sure to fail in such an environment.
At first this made sense, but after discussing the issue with my favorite micro economist (or nano economist, as she likes to call herself) I realized that our attempts to oversimplify things may be distorting the reality of the news market.

In a typical newspaper (take the New York Times, for instance) the are basically two products offered to readers: the traditional news (front page stories, breaking headlines, investigative reporting, sports recap, stock quotes, etc.) and the editorial page (including op-eds and letters to the editor). Even though they are contained in the same newspaper, they are essentially two distinct markets: the market for news and the market for editorials.

In that sense, what the internet has done is glut the market for editorials. Where it used to be that you had to be a hired columnist or get past the gatekeepers of the editorial page to get your work published; now anyone with a computer and some opinions can disseminate their thoughts instantly to the world. The market for editorials has indeed become a perfectly competitive market; and this in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The market for news, on the other hand, is a natural oligopoly. Even the best bloggers and citizen journalists simply don't have the resources to engage in investigative reporting or break news stories on a consistent basis. This type of operation has huge barriers to entry; it requires large amounts of capital, and it requires time to build credibility and gain access to places typically reserved for traditional media. For bloggers whose primary career is something other than full-time journalism, we can't ever expect them to fill in these gaps.

The problem , perhaps, lies with the fact that economists are still lumping these two markets together and trying to analyze it as such. It used to be that you bought a newspaper for both your news and for your editorials. Now, if you are primarily interested in editorials, there is less reason to buy a newspaper or visit the website of Reuters, the AP, NY Times, or whoever is breaking the news. In the old days, buying the editorials meant that you were also buying the news and vice-versa. Today, there is a plethora of editorial content available that you can get just about anywhere without ever having to look at the original story. Perhaps the coupling of these two markets made the demand for each other artificially high until now? Not that it would be such a bad thing to have artificially high demand for breaking news stories, but now that the two markets are almost fully separated, the implications are worth considering as we move forward.

No More McMansions

USA Today points out that demand for small apartments and condos is way up, and demand for McMansions, not so much:


When the economy shrinks, so does the size of housing, sending the popularity of tiny apartments and condos soaring as construction costs rise and financial markets plummet. Three apartments as snug as 264 square feet — half the size of a McMansion great room — are the biggest draw in Legacy Village in Plano, Texas, but they're never vacant. They rent for $418 a month, about half the price of the smallest one-bedroom units... The micro-units are offset by large common areas chock-full of amenities from free wireless service, juice bars and cafes to high-tech health clubs, playrooms equipped with Wii game systems and rooftop terraces. One even offers a boxing ring and another "guest rooms" in the building to accommodate friends and family.

Two things I want to point out here.

First, as the article suggests, smaller living spaces doesn't necessarily mean less space, it just means less individual space. Instead of a treadmill in your house, a shared work-out room; instead of a gigantic kitchen, a communal coffee pot in the cafe; instead of blogging alone on your couch, blogging with others in the lounge; instead of a pool in your backyard, a community pool for all of the residents. And when it's time to go to sleep or you've had a long day at work and just want to watch TV, your living space is all your own. The implication is that social people tend to be happier, and few psychologists would disagree. Plus, as I blogged recently, the ability to be on your own as you please makes the situation all the better.

Second, people who think that owning a lot of space equates to a lot of living space ought to meet some people I know. More space typically means more junk. Everyone probably knows someone with a two-car garage that never has a car parked in it because it is full of "stuff"; or a person with a huge basement that basically unlivable because it is used primarily for storage. Living in a small place reduces the temptation to stockpile stuff you don't need; and even though it may seem like a good idea at the time, most people regret buying all that junk when it comes time to do some spring cleaning.

I lived in an apartment complex in Dallas similar to the one described in the article. Yes, it could have been in a nicer part of town, and yes, the management could have done a better job of providing shared community amenities, but the concept was legitimate; and, when I actually graduate from college (seems like it is taking forever, huh?) I can certainly see myself living in a similar complex.

I know, I know. People are going to shoot back at me and argue that these arrangements don't work for families. Kids need lots of space to roam, grass to play on, etc. I'm in the process of reading some compelling research that suggests the typical McMansion lifestyle may be much less appealing for adolescents than conventional wisdom would suggest; but I'll save that for another time. Nevertheless, the implication could be that the debate over dense living arrangements might not be between younger people and older people like a lot of people believe; it might actually be between Generation X and Generation Y - and those who suggest that as we young people grow up we'll realize that we can't continue living in these densely populated places might not be correct after all.
Even today, in a world with more information available than we know what do do with; a big chunk of academic research is still locked up in exclusive journals. Ezra Klein wants to know why this tradition still exists:

What exactly are the "copyright issues?" And why is so much content locked up in pricey journals? Much of this research is being conducted on the public dime, but is utterly inaccessible to the public. The journals might have made sense when you needed some sort of archiving and distribution model to store, categorize, and spread research, but with the advent of the internet, their existence serves to foil those efficient dissemination of relevant research. Do they simply survive because the prestige they confer as gatekeepers plays an important role in rankings and advancement? Or is there some crucial purpose I'm missing entirely?
Aside from the ability to easily keep track of dozens of blogs, the secondary purpose of my Google Reader is to scour various think-tank research. Feeds are usually organized by either topic or author, and as soon as a new report gets published, I know about it almost instantly. I think what Klein says is probably true, back before the existence of RSS feeds (or even the internet) organizing research in journals probably was the most efficient way of getting it out to those who were looking for it. Maybe there is a huge piece of the puzzle that I don't understand either. I would assume, nevertheless, that the academics putting hours and hours of hard work into these papers would probably want to get their work out to as many people as possible, no? The think-tanks have figured it out - how long will it be until the rest of academia follows suit?

Driving Trends

A hot new report from Brookings confirms what most of the blogosphere has been anecdotally pointing out recently:

Like never before, Americans’ travel habits have a special place in our national conversation. The combination of gas price fluctuations, economic stress, energy concerns, and public financing woes have transformed transportation issues from inside baseball to front page news and water cooler conversation. A primary cause for this attention has been the major shifts in travel patterns. Americans have simply been driving less, when considering both historic growth rates and the most recent annualized measures of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). At the same time driving has declined, transit use is at its highest level since the 1950s, and Amtrak ridership just set an annual ridership record in 2008.
Robert Puentes, the report's primary author, goes on to make several recommendations, most of which urbanists have been pushing for years: increasing both the federal and local gasoline tax, creating sustainable neighborhoods, putting a moratorium on new highway lane miles, and looking deeply into how transit can impact our cities and metro areas. See a 5-minute discussion of the paper below:



It's fortunate that we have an administration coming into office that at least seems willing to acknowledge these changing patterns. Mankiw points out that our new energy secretary has been a supporter of new gasoline taxes; Joe Biden is one of the most pro-rail politicians in government; if Obama can stick to his promises of change, then hopefully we can start looking forward, rather than backward, when it comes to transportation policy in America.
Nisha Chittal's blogging reflection is deservedly award-winning; and I want to draw attention to an interesting point she makes about college bloggers:
It’s no longer a simple matter of writing a blog and hoping someone reads: it overflows into every other area of my life. Now, I want to have more conversations and put out my opinion on everything. I want to seek out new people and new perspectives and constantly learn from everyone around me. I want to explore new ideas, challenge them, and be challenged. I want to do something worth doing, instead of just what everyone else is doing. And sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, most people aren’t willing to do that. But blogger are.

The mockers matter less and less, because, really, I’d rather drop them from my life now. When one of my favorite writers, who is far, far more successful than me, emailed me out of the blue and told me she loved a piece I wrote, the game changed a little. When my work started to get noticed by some others, the game changed a little. I no longer care to be just one of millions of college kids that are exactly the same. Who wants to blend in?
I've spent more than a little time questioning why people say that college is the best time of their lives. My belief is that it hinges on the college environment: densely populated campuses, 24/7 access to friends, fun things to do and interesting places to go, etc. What underlies all of this, of course, is the ability to fit in with the environment and to blend in with those around you. What Nisha suggests is that blogging is an activity that few students (at least undergrads) appreciate, and even fewer participate in. To be a blogger, thus, you have to be willing to be someone that few others are willing to be; you have to be willing to leave everyone else behind.

Today I tweeted about how few early-twenty somethings seem to be part of the Twitter community. In October, my buddy, Bubba, gave a presentation about Twitter to one of his undergraduate marketing classes and later tweeted about some anti-twitter comments that people who saw his presentation were making. Why does this sentiment exist so strongly among young people? For the generation that will never know life without Facebook, we sure are slow to embracing deeper, more personal, and much more public forms of social media.

Nisha is right, and at the end of the day, these individuals matter less and less; they will probably come around to embrace the activity someday. In a way, it is a shame that talented college bloggers need to be put into a position to ask whether they would rather fit in with their peers or take a chance on a community that exists almost exclusively on the internet. It is disappointing to walk around campus and look at the football players and the cheerleaders and wonder how what they do is any more valuable than what bloggers do. Make no mistake, blogging can be lonely at times, even to the point where you want to just quit, but in the back of your mind you understand the value of what you're doing; even if the thousands of people around you apparently fail to comprehend any of it.

Hire Me!

I've written about why blogging is valuable, pointed out some bloggers who get it, and now I want to draw attention to a post by Neil Perkin:

Times are tough. The recruitment market is tough. But here are 5 reasons why employing people who blog is more important than ever:

  1. They start fires. Blogging forces you to come up with new stuff. To be interesting.
  2. They understand the value of connection. And are connected. To other interesting people.
  3. They get digital. They appreciate the nuances and potential of social media. And how it works. Because they're doing it, not looking at it.
  4. They network like crazy.
  5. But most of all, because they're bothered. They have an opinion. They're not afraid to express it. They're passionate about their subject. And real passion is rare indeed.
(Thanks to Rana!)
Part Three: What the Academic Research Shows.

In part one of this series, I described how the ability to engage in incredible financial leverage made marketing home ownership as an investment popular. In part two I laid out the logical reasons behind why it would not be personally advantageous to own a home. Today, I direct your attention to academic research that supports the idea that home ownership may be far from the American Dream.

Richard Florida points out a new report coming out of the Wharton School:

I find little evidence that homeowners are happier by any of the following definitions: life satisfaction, overall mood, overall feeling, general moment-to-moment emotions (i.e., affect) and affect at home… They are also more likely to be 12 pounds heavier, report lower a lower health status and poorer sleep quality. They tend to spend less time on active leisure or with friends. The average homeowner reports less joy from love and relationships… Contrary to popular belief, I do not find significant differences in family-related time use patterns, family-related affect, number of normal work hours, indicators of stress or measures of self-esteem and perceived control of life by homeownership…

Homeowners are happier on average only on an unadjusted basis. Once household income, housing quality and health are controlled for, they are no happier than renters. What’s more, they report to derive more pain from both the neighborhood and their house and home. This positive pain gap remains stable and robust when health, neighborhood characteristics and financial stress are controlled for. As for the most frequently cited channels of a positive impact by homeownership, namely self-esteem, stress, health and family life, again there is very little supporting evidence in my data… [H]omeowners spend less time on active leisure activities or with friends, which have been documented as some of the most enjoyable affective experiences.

To me, this doesn't come as particularly surprising. Home ownership means being, more or less, locked into a neighborhood, even if it turns out to be a dud or fails to live up to expectations. Owning your own home also means dealing with inevitable maintenance problems, and keeping the home in tip-top shape, less it lose any of its resale value (or become illegal to resell at all). Considering that a lot of people have 100% or more of their equity tied up in an illiquid asset that requires constant upkeep in an always changing marketplace seems like it would be a bit stressful.

See Also:
Part One: How Did We Get Here?
Part Two: How Desirable is Home Ownership?
Part Four: Costs and Benefits to Society

Reflections on Blogging

In October, I wrote about the value of blogging. Today, Meg Roberts reflects on her blogging experience:

It recently hit me how dramatically my life has changed in the past year that I’ve been blogging. In twelve months, I have graduated from college, moved from Florida to the Nation’s Capital, left my family, interned at a prestigious public affairs firm, landed my dream job, and interacted with brilliant people from around the world.

Almost all of these milestones are a direct result of this blog. That may sound exaggerated, but it’s not. Launching my blog has significantly influenced my life in many ways, especially in my professional career, but more importantly – blogging has made me more appreciative of everything I have achieved so far and more willing to help others reach their own milestones.

Meg gets it. As blogging pessimists continue to write about the death of the individual blog, and suggest that we all quit and leave the activity up to professionals, Meg reminds us why blogging can be so personally rewarding. I am sure there are benefits to maintaining a blog that has incredibly high readership and many subscribers; but the best part of blogging is hearing from the people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say. The contacts you can make and the respect you can earn in the blogosphere is truly amazing. So much so, that I find it fascinating when other college students (and even professors and others) refuse to believe there is any value in blogging. No matter how many of my peers agree with my assessment, and no matter how many feel inspired by what Meg has to say; only a small number will give blogging a chance, and even fewer will stick with it. Some will claim to have no time (though this is an often questionable excuse when you look at how they spend the time they do have), others will admit to lacking motivation, and many will claim they don't have anything interesting to say. With as many people as the blogosphere reaches, I'm confident that there is always someone interested in whatever you might have to say, and once they find it, you'll both feel glad you blogged it.

Washington, New Columbia

Mother Jones thinks DC's shot at statehood is as good as ever:
After President-elect Barack Obama and enlarged Democratic majorities take power in January, the District of Columbia's longtime quest for congressional representation seems poised to succeed. But Obama supports something even more ambitious—statehood for the District, a position that, if pursued, would spark a vicious fight with congressional Republicans over what would almost certainly be two new Democratic Senate seats.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, but if DC is ready to become the nation's 51st state, let's go ahead and roll back the silly building height restriction that has made it illegal to build anything in the city more than a few stories tall. The implication has been significant. Two and a half years ago, the Washington Post laid out every negative the height restriction has caused:
...the D.C. height restriction has also promoted suburban sprawl, boxified the city's architecture and deadened Washington's downtown. It has inflated office rents, deflated the municipal tax base, limited affordable housing, contributed to the region's hideous traffic jams and generally helped keep Washington a second-tier city despite the unrelenting growth of its major industry -- the government.
The irony in Washington is that it has one of the better rail transit systems in America, the potential for incredible transit-oriented development, but the inability to build up around Metro stations means even the best attempts at such development are thwarted. And even more ironic is the fact that some of the country's most successful transit-oriented development has taken place in the DC metro area thanks to Metro - it just happened in places like Arlington, VA and Bethesda, MD - where the height restriction isn't a concern. The existence of the federal district has arbitrarily disenfranchised millions of Americans since it's creation, and the equally arbitrary height restriction perpetuates Washington's image as a sprawl magnet.

If we decide to give DC a shot at statehood, let's also make a point of allowing it to be the example of what urbanism in America can and should be.

Generation Y and Newspapers

Andrew Sullivan knows that newspapers are dying... and fast:
Take the newspaper industry. It has been faltering badly under the pressure of new media for a few years. For much of the past decade, circulation for all papers has been declining at about 2% a year. The last year has been a test case of sorts. Newspapers had the story of a lifetime: an election campaign of historic interest, suspense, drama and personality. From Hil-lary to Barack, from John Edwards’s love child to Sarah Palin’s Down’s syndrome child, from John McCain’s wild lunges for relevance to the first black president, it was the kind of year in which circulation should have boomed. If you live for a story, this year was an embarrassment of riches.

And yet the decline didn’t just continue. It accelerated.

Between March and September the 500 biggest newspapers in America reported an average circulation decline of 4.6%. In six months. That’s close to a 10% decline per year. No newspapers showed any but fractional gains. It is therefore a near-certainty that many towns and cities in America will no longer have a newspaper after the down-turn. And that may apply not just to small names but to some big ones as well. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has gone from a circulation of 1.1m to 739,000 since the turn of the millennium. Its staff has been halved. Morale has never been lower.

Landmark names – the news equivalent of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – are increasingly on the chopping block. The Chicago Tribune has seen its weekday circulation collapse by 8% in the past year. The Gannett company, which owns scores of papers, has announced a 10% cut in staff after a 5% reduction earlier this year. The Christian Science Monitor has gone from a daily to a website with a weekly print edition. The Rocky Mountain News is for sale. The profit margins of even the most established papers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, are so slim, the future looks extremely dodgy. Some analysts are even predicting that The New York Times will go belly up by the spring.
A huge chunk of blame is placed on the internet - with all the talented bloggers in the world, operating at costs well below those of newspapers; and with newspapers bringing in online ad revenue well below what they used to raise from print revenue, how can dead-tree media even begin to compete?

The part of the story that underlies this issue is that Generation Y just isn't into newspapers. Declining newspaper subscriptions are a combination of cancellations from people who have decided to get their content elsewhere, and young people who have never subscribed to a newspaper in their life and probably never will. It isn't that Generation Y isn't interested in the news, it's that newspaper aren't part of their culture. Land-line telephones face a similar fate. Those who grew up during a time when a telephone in the home was the only way to contact family and friends are more likely to have a subscription today. Those in Generation Y, who vaguely remember a time when you had to call a friend and ask the person's parents if they could come to the phone, perceive little value in ever subscribing to a telephone land-line.

The implication is still significant. Most individual bloggers simply don't have the time or resources to break stories or do truly investigative reporting; and in many cases, without newspapers, would have a lot less to say in general. Society has valued its news in the past, and was willing to pay a price for it. Newspapers are in a dark age, but the quest for news still exists; the key question is figuring out what value we are willing to pay for what little we have left.
Let's face it - urban dwellers and suburbanites don't always get along. Urbanists don't understand why someone would want to live in a place closed off to the rest of the world my an electric gate; why someone would want to live in a place where they have to get in a car to go to a store, a bar, or anywhere else; or why someone would want to spend hours per week maintaining a huge lawn. Suburbanites, on the other hand, don't understand why someone would want to live in the same neighborhood as people who are poorer than them; why someone would want to ride a bus, train, or walk anywhere; or why they wouldn't want to have a big yard to call their own. When it comes to lifestyle, it is probably best for urbanists and suburbanites to agree to disagree.

For whatever reason, suburbanites frequently seem to feel threatened by the prospect of urban development. The Overhead Wire points out a recent headline from Raleigh Durham that describes urbanists as wanting to "pack people in" to dense developments. If you appreciate your space, you ought to fear the urbanists trying to treat you like sardines in a can. David Alpert criticizes a Washington DC TV broadcast regarding a proposal to eliminate legal parking minimums for urban businesses. Apparently, the story wants viewers to believe that removing parking minimums meant that urbanists want to take away their cars! Yglesias reflects on congestion pricing in New York City, a policy that would have positive impacts on drivers, but is often spun as some sort of radical agenda-item pursued by malevolent non-drivers. I'm sure this list could go on and on.

The reality is that urban development is actually in the best interest of suburbanites.

Livable, walkable, urban communities thrive on density. They work best when many people live within close proximity of each other; and the more the better. Higher density means that more businesses can afford to open within walking distance of your home; you get to choose from more restaurants, more bars, more grocery stores. More density means more job opportunities in your own neighborhood; and more people on the streets makes them feel safer and more secure. Sidewalk traffic is something to strive for. Even the busiest sidewalks in Manhattan might be annoying at times, but they are never so crowded as to create major delays.

Suburbs, on the other hand, crumble under the stress of growing populations. In the suburbs, asphalt is a precious commodity, and it is a dog-eat-dog world for everyone trying to cram onto the same roads and into the same parking spaces. These places were desirable to my parent's generation because living in a suburb meant the big yard, the big house, and as they figured, amenities reasonably close (when distance is measured in time, this theory makes sense. A store might be a quarter mile away and take 5 minutes to walk to, but another store 2 miles away might also take 5 minutes to drive to). In the early days of suburbs, roads were freshly paved and traffic flowed smoothly. Over the years, things began to change. Seeking an upgrade on the "suburban experience" people packed up and moved to bigger houses even further away. Streets began to clog with cars, and soon, open roads became scarce, available only in the middle of the night and on major holidays, if then. As more and more people moved to the suburbs, the overall experience began to decline.

Now urbanists are trying to rejuvenate America's cities. We are pushing for walkable communities, dense developments, and more intelligently designed transit - but suburanites feel threatened because it isn't a lifestyle that they find comfortable. Without a doubt, traffic and congestion problems are some of the biggest downfalls of suburban life. Instead of wishing and praying for policies that incentivize building less dense suburbs further away from cities to escape to, suburbanites would be wise to support urban developments that allow people to move back to cities. When someone new moves to the area, they can choose to live in the city or in a far-flung suburb.. If more people choose in these far-flung suburbs, congestion will only get worse.

Suburbanites are typically supporters of the 8, 10 and 12 lane highways that connect cities to suburbs; they typically criticise transit projects, but are gung-ho about new road building projects (though they curse the driving gods during their construction). New roads and highways only work for a limited period of time, like the original suburbs mentioned above, eventually a tragedy of the commons will create a new scarcity of resources. Spend any time in the suburbs of Houston or Dallas and you will quickly discover that even the most gigantic highways can't accommodate all the cars that want to drive on them. The obvious solution would be to get the cars off of the highways, not make more space and encourage more cars to join the party.

Some will say that this is all too idealist, that people actually want to live in suburbs and there is no stopping them. I suggest that we analyze cities with the worst congestion problems and consider at the premiums on homes in the urban core. In most cases, on a cost per square foot basis, dense urban developments are significantly more expensive that their suburban counterparts. There are many who would love to live in an urban core but simply can't afford it. More ubran development can help alleviate that problem; it can increase the housing options available to society; and it can help free up congestion that can make suburban life frustrating. Anyone who loves the suburbs ought to be in favor of increased urban development.

Reducing Oil Demand

Yesterday's "Idea of the Day" headline from the Center for American Progress reads: Offer Shorter Commutes and Alternatives to Driving. I am excited to see CAP actively promoting driving alternatives; but I was slightly disappointed with the actually text of the idea:
In addition to fuel efficiency and greater use of biofuels, oil use can also be reduced by a series of measures designed to get the most mileage out of each car and reduce driving time. These measures could include increased mass transit opportunities and smarter growth measures that bring housing closer to places of work. They could also encourage people not to drive as much by offering pay-as-you-drive insurance that would allow car owners to pay less insurance if they drive less and through congestion pricing.

The federal government could also encourage increased efficiency of existing cars through maintenance measures such as providing vouchers for free maintenance, providing free air and accurate air gauges at all gas stations, and requiring efficiency standards on replacement tires that would increase efficiency by 8 percent or more and reduce demand for oil by about 0.6 million barrels per day. Together these measures should reduce demand for oil by 1.4 million to 1.8 million barrels per day.
Mass transit, smart growth, car-sharing, congestion pricing, and similar policies are all excellent ways to positively impact both the environment and the sprawl that has devastated far too many cities across America; but why do they have to come "in addition to" fuel efficiency and biofuels? Why do measures that actually eliminate driving (rather than just making it marginally more efficient) get pushed aside as some sort of secondary consideration?

Vouchers for maintenance? No thank you. Some cities and states already have regulations on the books that are designed to keep poorly maintained cars off the roads. Arguably, many of these policies are corrupt and full of loopholes, but reforming them would be ideal to bailing out car-owners for their maintenance costs. Instead of coming up with ideas for how to reduce the demand for oil through efficiency; CAP should be primarily focused on how to reduce the demand for driving, which, in effect, would have a similar effect on the demand for oil with the added benefit of helping create vibrant, livable communities across America.

Buy Me a Book

Winter break is one of the few times during the year when there is enough time to sit down and get a good deal of reading accomplished. For any avid Extraordinary Observations fan who would like to give the gift of knowledge this holiday season, my Amazon Wish List is updated with ten books at the top of my list. The reality is that there is probably over a hundred books that could be on this list, but time is a precious commodity, so I've gone through the painstaking process of picking the ones that interest me the most. This year's reading list covers a wide range of topics, including politics (The Power of Progress by John Podesta), economics (The Logic of Life by Tim Harford), urbanism (The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger), psychology (Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein) and a few other fun ones (The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow). If anyone else has recommendations feel free to let me know!
Only a few weeks have passed since attendees at McCain/Palin rallies were shouting about the threat of "Obama the Socialist". Whether or not socialism is an ideology to be welcomed or feared is another debate entirely; but it turns out that these individuals may have simply been fighting against inevitability. Two interesting pieces have come out in the past month or so describing the power that two single individuals wield over the entire US economy.

First, James Surowiecki in The New Yorker on the role of the Treasury Secretary:
Still, no Treasury Secretary has ever entered office with as much responsibility as Geithner will have. That’s partly because the crisis is so huge, but it’s also the result of an evolution in the role that we expect government to play in the economy. For much of American history, Treasury Secretaries were nondescript, and their powers circumscribed. When the Panic of 1907 nearly froze financial markets, it was to J. P. Morgan, not Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou, that investors turned for a solution. Our contemporary preference for government rescues has its roots in the Great Depression, when Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon became notorious for his contention that, even as the economy was collapsing, the market should simply be allowed to do its work. “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” he coldly advised. The perceived failure of this approach discredited non-intervention, and ended up enhancing the influence of Mellon’s successors.
And Brad DeLong in the American Prospect on the Fed Chairman:
Ben Bernanke is the closest thing to a central economic planner the United States has ever had. He bestrides our narrow economic world like a colossus. Unelected (he was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by an overwhelming majority in the Senate) and unaccountable (unless the Congress decides that it wishes to amend the Federal Reserve Act and take the blame for whatever else goes wrong with the economy), he is responsible only to his conscience -- and his open-market committee of himself, the other six governors of the Federal Reserve Board, and the 12 presidents of the regional Federal Reserve banks.

The fate of the economy in the next administration depends far less on the president than on this moral-philosopher-prince to whose judgment we have entrusted a remarkable share of control over our destiny.
Real socialists, of course, are still holding out for universal health care and free college tuition, so Republicans will likely still have some socialist-fear ammunition ready for future election cycles.

Loneliness and the City

Jennifer Senior's recent cover story in New York Magazine is a great read and it touches on two issues important to me: loneliness and big city culture. In September I suggested that one of the reasons we are quick to describe college the best time of our lives has to do with the densely populated nature of college campuses and the close proximity to our work (ie classes) and friends.

Urban isolation theory holds that urban dwellers, despite being surrounded by people everywhere (on the street, on the bus, at stores and in coffee shops), ultimately choose to hole themselves up alone in an apartment. Senior points out that, at least in New York City, the data confirms the rate of single-dweller housing units:
Until I was 37 years old, I lived alone. It never struck me as particularly odd. If you’ve been in New York for any length of time, you know from both intuition and daily observation that many people live on their own in this town. But I never fully appreciated how many—and by extension, how colossally banal my own solitary arrangement was—until I checked with the Department of City Planning a couple of months ago. How many apartments in Manhattan would you have guessed have just one occupant? One of every eight? Every four? Every three?

The number’s one of every two. Of all 3,141 counties in the United States, New York County is the unrivaled leader in single-individual households, at 50.6 percent. More than three-quarters of the people in them are below the age of 65. Fifty-seven percent are female. In Brooklyn, the overall number is considerably lower, at 29.5 percent, and Queens is 26.1. But on the whole, in New York City, one in three homes contains a single dweller, just one lone man or woman who flips on the coffeemaker in the morning and switches off the lights at night.
The assumption that someone who lives alone is automatically a loner is a belief that ultimately has to be called into question. Senior looks to work from John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago for answers:
Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”
Considering this idea in relation to my theory about college campuses and happiness, I think a lot of it makes sense. College freshman are generally required to live on campus and with at least one roommate. "Roommate" is used about as literally as it can, as dorms usually pack two or more people into a single tiny square room. You could argue that such a living situation constitutes living with someone, but reality suggests a bit of a different story. Upperclassmen, not surprisingly, opt for single units in the dorms or move off campus to achieve that goal. Living in your own room doesn't mean you aren't living with other people, it just means that you aren't crammed into the same bedroom with someone else. Even those who choose to move off-campus pick rental units within a fairly close proximity of the school; mostly withing walking distance or a drive of no more than a few minutes. Obviously, living in your own room in a dorm, or a studio apartment near campus, doesn't mean you are completely isolated from other people. It doesn't mean you can't walk down the tall to chat with your buddy to walk a few blocks to study with a friend.

Even on my all-time favorite TV show, Seinfeld, all of the main characters, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and (to some extent) George live alone in Manhattan. Few would suggest that because Jerry and Kramer live across the hall from each other, rather than share a 2-bedroom apartment, that they are loners; nor would they suggest that because Elaine and George have to grab a taxi or a subway to get to Jerry's apartment isolates the friends from each other.

The idea that we either have to be constantly social or complete loners is a misguided dichotomy that leads to weird interpretations of urban culture. The key to happiness is finding a solid balance between. In the city the never sleeps, it makes sense that someone who has been surrounded by people all day would want to spend at least a little quiet time on their own at some point during the day. The beauty of big-city culture, of course, is that the option is always there. When you live alone, there is always an empty apartment waiting for you; if you want to see friends, they are never an inconvenient distance away; and if you want to meet new people, there is a seemingly endless group of them right outside your front door.
As I stepped off of a Red Line rapid train at Cleveland Hopkins Airport last Friday, I commented to my traveling companion about how easy it can be for Clevelanders to take the airport rapid for granted. For two years I lived in University Circle, a neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland with a direct Red Line link to the airport; on a number of occasions I was able to stumble out of bed in the morning and arrive inside the airport terminal in well under an hour, door to door. The trip, by car, would have been a little over 16 miles each way. With the rapid there was no bribing friends to wake up at 6am to drop me off, there was no worrying about whether or not the cab driver would decide to show up, and at a cost of 2 bucks per trip (and even less for me at the time, as I had a student-issued transit pass) even a poor college kid could afford the trip; it was perhaps a nearly perfect way to get to and from the airport.

Last January I moved to Dallas, TX. I lived almost exactly 2.5 miles from Love Field Airport, where I traveled in and out of frequently during my few months down south. Getting to and from the airport couldn't have been a different experience. My options were either to bum a ride from a friend (which I always felt somewhat bad about, knowing I could never return the favor), walk half a mile and wait for an infrequently scheduled bus (which, in my neighborhood, wasn't always the best idea, especially with a laptop in my backpack and an iPod in my pocket), or catch a cab, which I never found pleasant. In addition to having to deal with some of the rudest individuals on the planet, I had to shell out 12 bucks (including tip) to travel the 2.5 miles down the street to the airport; doing that a few times per month certainly added up quickly.

So I felt a little disappointed this morning to see the Plain Dealer's front page piece about how badly Cleveland's airport rapid service is being neglected these days.


Cleveland was the first city in America to provide rapid-transit service to its airport when the station opened in 1968; according to the PD, about 4000 daily passengers used the airport station during its first few months. This year, an average 330 of people use the service every day. With around 80 daily departures and 80 daily arrivals at the airport station, that averages out to a little more than 2 passengers per train. To make matters worse, about half of those riders are airport employees, not travelers. At the end of the day, less than one-half of one percent of all travelers arrive at the Cleveland airport via the rapid; or, from another perspective, for every one traveler that takes the rapid to the airport, 212 arrive by some other means.

Of the 100+ international airports in the United States, Cleveland is one of only about ten cities with a direct link between its airport terminal and rail transit system. Some airports (like JFK and Miami) require a connection to a people mover; others (like Oakland, Boston, and Los Angeles) require a shuttle bus transfer from the nearest rail station to the terminal; and a few have no reasonable transit connection at all.

I don't have statistics on airport transit usage in other cities, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that airport transit service is incredibly popular in many cities. Frankly, I am somewhat surprised at the incredibly poor ridership on Cleveland's airport rapid. Granted, the Red Line was built in the 1950s on the cheap, utilizing an existing freight rail right of way and sharing several miles of existing light-rail track on the east side of the city; nevertheless, Red Line stations are served by dozens of RTA bus lines. As long as you live within a few miles of the actual line, chances are good that a bus can take you from your home to one of the stations. Plus, I always imagined the Red Line would be more highly utilized by east-side travelers who found it less of a hassle to get a ride to the University Circle station that all the way out to the airport.

Cleveland's airport rapid service is an incredibly valuable asset; I fear that if locals continue to take it for granted, RTA may eventually be forced to slash service, and like the streetcars that used to travel up and down Cleveland's streets, one day we may be talking about the airport rapid merely as a piece of historical trivia.
Gary Fisher, considered one of the inventors of the modern mountain bike, gives his perspective on car culture and where we are headed:



I partially agree with Fisher on the question of shopping; the challenge, I believe, will be convincing people that you can haul an entire shopping trip's worth of groceries home on a bike. Or... that it isn't such a bad thing to take your bike to the grocery store twice a week instead of taking a car once.

(Thanks to Brian at Carfree USA)

Blogging Outliers

I normally don't write book reviews here on Extraordinary Observations, and I won't post a comprehensive review now, but I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, and I think some of his analysis can be connected to the world of blogging. Outliers is a solid book that I would recommend to anyone. I'm not sure I enjoyed it quite as much as his other works, Tipping Point and Blink, but for a quick and easy read, Gladwell's new book is worth your time. (The rest of this post contains some teasers, so if you are serious about going into the book fresh, you might want to check this post out once you're finished with the book).

The description of Outliers reads:
Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" - the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
One question that Gladwell doesn't address, but is highly relevant given his thesis, is: how did all-star bloggers get to where they are today?

Gladwell argues that success is a function of intelligence, hard-work, and, more or less, being in the right place at the right time. In Chapter two of Outliers he highlights the 75 wealthiest individuals in world human history. 14 of them (nearly 20% of the total), share something interesting in common. These men and woman, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, Jay Gould, Marshall Field, George F. Baker, Hetty Green, James G. Fair, Henry Rogers, J.P. Morgan, Oliver H. Payne, George Pullman, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, and Philip Danforth Armour, were all born in the United States between 1830 and 1840. The rationale, according to Gladwell, is that these businesspeople were the perfect age to capitalize on newly built railroads, the creation of Wall Street, and the beginning of industrial manufacturing when the rules by which the economy had functioned were broken and remade. Had they been born after 1940, they would have been too young to take advantage of the moment; had they been born before 1830, they might have had to pass up entrepreneurial ambitions for family and other responsibilities.

The same can be argued during the computer era. When the first personal computer hit the market in 1975, someone who was between 20 and 25 years old would have been at the perfect moment in life to capitalize on the technological revolution. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born between 1953 and 1956. Had they been born too early, they would have missed out on the opportunity to learn primitive computer programming while still in high school and college; had they been born too late, others would have already beaten them to the punch. This isn't meant to underscore the intelligence or determination of these individuals, but is meant to point out that they also were incredibly lucky to be born when they were.

So back to the blogosphere. A recent piece in the Economist identifies a rising group of public intellectuals blogging their way to the top. Among these elite are Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Will Wilkinson, and Matthew Yglesias. The age thesis doesn't fit quite so nicely here, as McArdle and Wilkinson were born in 1973, eleven years before Klein came into the world in 1984. They do share a very specific trait, however, and Yglesias has it partially figured out:
I think it would be strange if the main qualification for becoming a high-profile public intellectual in the future is that you had to start a personal blog in 2002 or 2003.
Starting a blog in 2002 or 2003 might not be a requirement for becoming a high-profile intellectual, but it would help explain why the bloggers mentioned above are acknowledged by the Economist and others aren't. Think about it, Blogger.com launched in 2000, but really took off in 2003 when it was acquired by Google. Early adopters had to be people who were willing to give a primitive technology a shot, but they also had to be mature writers with something worthwhile to say. Had they been too young, they wouldn't have had the skill or intelligence to write about anything interesting (take me, for instance. I was only 15 years old in 2002; when Extraordinary Observations launched in 2004, I still lacked solid writing skills and a perspective on the world beyond my high school's walls). On the other hand, had they been older, they might have been skeptical of the new online medium, or perhaps unwilling to be among the first to switch from dead-tree journalism to blogging.

2002 and 2003 are key years because they represent the very beginnings of the blogosphere. The best bloggers during that time period adopted a small but loyal following that encouraged them to continue blogging. As they blogged, they got better, they gained respect, and they picked up even more followers along the way. This isn't to suggest that these bloggers aren't incredibly intelligent or don't deserve the respect they get; but the fact that they all started blogging in 2002 and 2003 may turn out to be more than a coincidence, and it may not be as strange as Yglesias originally thought.

End Black Friday

It wouldn't be the day after Thanksgiving if I didn't have something to say about the institution of consumerism in America. In 2006 I pointed out the irony of how we act on Thanksgiving verses how we act only hours later on Black Friday; last year I blogged about some minor injuries that people endured, some fistfights, and scuffles with police over the purchases of trivial items.. This year, I was planning to find some footage of people acting like animals and poking fun of it here on Extraordinary Observations. When I logged on to YouTube this morning, however, I found something more sad and disturbing than I have ever seen before.



What happened this morning on Long Island is tragic, and it should never happen again. 364 days of the year we can function as a society without this type of violence and savage behavior at retail stores. Only on Black Friday are we not only given the opportunity, but also in some ways expected, to act this way. Why do retail stores need to open at 4am? Why do they encourage people to line up outside all night to run through the store like rats when the doors open? Does this tradition really boost a store's profits by that much?

We don't need this. Black Friday needs to end. The holiday retail season can still exist without the need to encourage people to push and shove to be the first through the doors on the day after Thanksgiving. Out of respect for Jesus Christ (who is the reason we even have Christmas) let's abandon this terrible tradition.

Update (3:50pm) - Over on the west coast, two people are dead after a shooting inside a Toys R Us in Palm Desert, California; bringing 2008's Black Friday casualties up to 3. Honestly, what is the value of saving a few bucks?