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Showing posts from December, 2008

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 uni…

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). T…

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 proba…

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 s…

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 su…

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, Pre…

Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.

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 (residenti…

No Car = Bigger Wallet

Brett Arendsmakes 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 …

Confessions of a Mediocre Student

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 th…

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 Surowieckihas 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 bui…

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 les…

The Problem With Academic Journals

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 th…

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 g…

Extraordinarily Unique

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 oth…

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:They start fires. Blogging forces you to come up with new stuff. To be interesting.They understand the value of connection. And are connected. To other interesting people.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.They network like crazy. 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!)

Home Ownership & The American Dream

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…

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 blo…

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 …

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. I…

Suburbanites Should Embrace Urbanism

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 "p…

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 gau…

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!

America's Economic Authorities

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…

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 e…

Taking Airport Transit Service for Granted

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…

Gary Fisher on Car (and Bike) Culture

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)