Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from January, 2009

The New Journalism

On Tuesday The Printed Blog distributed the first issue of their new newspaper. I give these guys a lot of credit for generating someimpressive PR over the past few weeks. Their business model is interesting: a dead-tree newspaper using blogs, Flickr images, and other online content to fill the pages. Locally supported advertisements provide the monetary support to keep the operation running. Right now, the paper is distributed in Chicago (and possibly San Fransisco?) with expansion plans contingent on the success of the prototype. Frankly, I'm extremely skeptical that the business model makes any sense; but deep down I'm rooting for these guys, because at least they've got fresh ideas about the future of the newspaper.

If they succeed, and even if they don't, the role of journalism could be at the brink of a fundamental change. Historically, journalists have made their careers breaking news and writing stories - it might not have been a glamorous or luxurious career, b…

More Sprawl, Less Mail

Yesterday the Postmaster General told congress that the USPS might have to slash a day of mail delivery to close a large and growing deficit. A lot of explanations for the decline of the Post Office are floating around: The rise of email, decline of letter-writing, and growing competition from private companies are common explanations. On the other hand, the growth of Amazon, Netflix, eBay, and other services that virtually didn't exist more than a decade ago has provided at least decent amount business for the Post Office. In their book, Andres Duany et al describe another theory that typically isn't discussed:
Another organization that has had difficulty coping with sprawl is the U.S. Postal Service. An ex-Postmaster General once explained to us where most of the postage money goes: to those little Jeeps and vans delivering mail on the suburban fringe. These vehicles are the main reason why the post office is perennially hiking its rates, and why aluminum mailboxes at subdivi…

In My Humble Opinion...

Sullivan links to Patrick Ruffini, who thinks Rush Limbaugh should replace Kristol at the NY Times:
Either we engage the liberal media on our terms or on none at all. The Times needs someone who is as far to the right, in as hard-edged and partisan a way, as Paul Krugman is to the left. The fact that strident left-wing voices one step voice up from Kos appear on the op-ed page is not considered a problem, so why shouldn't the same be true on the right?I find this to be an incredibly odd comparison. As far as I know, the only thing that Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman have in common is that they both sit a recognizable distance from the political center and aren't afraid to express their views. The key difference is that Krugman isn't just ideologically liberal, he is a highly respected intellectual with a record of academic achievements. Limbaugh, on the other hand, is a college drop-out with a history of controversies and blunders.

This leads me to believe that either a) con…

IBM Smart Tolls

A few of my favoriteblogs have posted a new IBM commercial that has been airing during recent NFL playoff games:



After the previous discussion about the need for better toll policy, I was curious as to how the Stockholm congestion system actually works. The idea is relatively simple. Tolls fluctuate based on the day of week and time of day (Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and nights are free) with peak hours charging the highest price. There are no toll collectors or stopping points, the technology merely records the cars that pass through entry and exit points and bills the owner at the end of the month. Some vehicle types (buses, motorcycles, and a few others) are exempted.

The primary barrier to enacting anything similar in other parts of the world will be political rather than technological. Even in Stockholm, the plan faced decent opposition in referendum votes; and debates over whether to spend state-raised revenue on new road construction or on public transit was a key factor in th…

Quick GWB Observation

Over the past week or so I've noticed a surge in the number of people on Facebook joining groups called "I support George W. Bush" or writing comments like "I sure will miss Dubya". Now, I haven't taken the time to ask each individual person why they decided publicize these thoughts, but given the timing of Obama's inauguration and his overwhelming popularity at the moment, I can't help but suspect that these comments are at least partially being made in protest of a new president who may not have been their favorite pick.

Nevertheless, even if you don't love Obama or you would have preferred to see McCain and Palin in the White House, these are independent of whether or not George Bush did a good job as president. There may be two major parties in American politics, but inside those parties are individual politicians, some better than others, and each with a unique job to carry out. With eight years of evidence that Bush's presidency fell we…

Who Actually Wants to Live Downtown?

The debate over whether more people prefer to live in urban areas or suburban places is a deeply emotional topic intensified by the fact that each side typically presents strong case. On one end of the spectrum, in his book, Chris Leinberger argues that relatively high rents in walkable urban neighborhoods are the result of a huge pent-up demand for this type of living. In a comment at Brewed Fresh Daily, John Ettorre suggests that humans have a primordial desire for open space, which is why so many choose to live in suburbs and exurbs. These are only two of hundreds or thousands of possibilities. The problem, as I see it, is that when the debate takes place at an aggregate level, the ability to shed light on this topic becomes blurry.

Brent Larkin's column in last week's Plain Dealer suggests that if Cleveland city employees aren't forced to live inside the city's limits, they will inevitably flee to the suburbs, eliminating the last of the middle class in the city. In…

Wheelan for Congress

Anytime someone asks my recommendation for a good introductory economics book, I don't hesitate to suggest Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan. For someone without any training in economics, Wheelan's book is fun and educational; even for those with an education in the subject, his book is both entertaining and hilarious. Now, Wheelan is running for Congress in Illinois's 5th District (currently held by Rahm Emanuel) and I can't hesitate to support him for Congress.

Wheelan is a smart guy, he works at the University of Chicago, and his book demonstrates that he can make economics understandable to anyone. On issues important to this blog, Wheelan is right on the money. He thinks we should use congestion pricing and index the gasoline tax to inflation; he suggests investing stimulus money in infrastructure including high-speed rail links; and he advocates "smart growth" instead of suburban sprawl.

Oh, and Wheelan is running as a Democrat, just in case his stance …

What Would an Inauguration without Public Transit Look Like?

Monday and Tuesday of this week are now officially the two single busiest days in Washington DC's Metrorail history. Some out-of-towners inevitably took Metro service for granted, barely noticing the role it played in the Inaguration festivities. Others perhaps found the system wonderful and wondered why their own home city doesn't provide such excellent public transit. A few cursed the system, annoyed that trains were packed to capacity with mostly clueless tourists. For thousands, yesterday was their first experience on one of our country’s better transit systems; without it, the ability to hold such a grand ceremony may not have even been possible at all…

Obligatory Inauguration Post

After John Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004 I purchased one of these stickers...


Now that the day has finally come, I guess I can throw it out recycle it.

Is College a Rip-Off?

Friday night's episode of 20/20 features a segment by John Stossel arguing that because college has gotten so expensive, it simply isn't in the best interest for everyone to attend. Watch:



This is a topic that has been getting a lot of attention in recent months. As I noted in my post about the student debt dilemma, I believe a major problem is that high school students simply aren't in a position to make rational decisions about whether or not to go to college, where to go, and how much to borrow. This is why I think the statistic referenced in the video that says 40% of graduates wouldn't attend to their school again exists.

The reason this issue appears to be getting more attention now than ever is that the costs of dropping out or getting a degree without a high-profile career are higher than ever. If college were more affordable, going for two years, dropping out and deciding to try something else would primarily cost a person their time - but now, it costs both tim…

Home Ownership & The American Dream

Part four: Costs and Benefits to Society.

Logic dictates that encouraging homeownership should be a public policy goal because it positively impacts society. Someone who owns a home is theoretically more inclined to care about the home and the neighborhood. In order to maintain resale value, they have incentives to keep the home properly maintained and to be active in their community; they have incentives to keep crime low and support local public schools. This is, regardless of how happy homeownership makes people feel, why government has subsidized homeownership for decades. Is society better off as a result? Stephen Slivinski of the Richmond Fed questions these assumptions:
To understand how the ranks of homeowners grew, we need to understand the spread of homeownership in 20th century America. It is largely a tale of how the urban and economic landscape changed and the rise of suburbanization… Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser suggests this illustrates what is now practica…

Psychology and Imperfect Information

When cities propose new rail transit lines they often have to submit rigorous environmental impact assessments, which inevitably propose bus routes as possible alternatives. Proponents of buses (many of whom have little intention to use the new transit line regardless of the vehicle type) typically cite buses as significantly less expensive and more flexible. Apples to apples comparisons of projected ridership also show that rail will likely have higher ridership than buses. I have always wondered exactly why this is the case?

There are a few theories that I know floating around. The most common is that buses are stereotyped as the poor man's ride, while trains cater to the better-off. Another belief is that the complicated zig-zag routes that many buses take disorient rides, as opposed to the simple and well known routes that rail lines have (even if the routes aren't actually simple, well-drawn transit maps creates that perception). Still another suggests that the flexibility…

The Importance of Transit Data

I have always had a strange ability to memorize maps and give directions without anything but the pictures in my head. When I was a kid I used to lead the way to different roller coasters at amusement parks, merely by recalling the park's map. When I lived in Dallas last winter, people who had lived in the city for their entire lives often called on me for directions. It is a skill I have never particularly known how to put to valuable use, and I have always been at least somewhat resentful of the growth in personal GPS devices. Imagine, being able to go anywhere without an even basic comprehension of maps...

The reality, of course, is that GPS technology isn't going anywhere. More and more new cars will have these devices factory-installed, and as the price of stand-alone units continues to depreciate, more and more individuals will purchase them. GPS is a technology that is significantly more useful to drivers than it is to pedestrians or transit-riders. Fortunately, technolo…

Bicycle Revolution

Earl Blumenauer is quickly becoming my favorite Congressman. I have to admit, a year ago today I had never heard of Blumenauer, but the work he has done and the media attention he has generated over the past few months have been impressive. This week the New York Times published another profile of the Representative from Oregon:
Mr. Blumenauer, a passionate advocate of cycling as a remedy for everything from climate change to obesity, represents most of Portland in Congress, where he is the founder and proprietor of the 180 (plus or minus)-member Congressional Bicycle Caucus. Long regarded in some quarters as quixotic, the caucus has come into its own as hard times, climate concerns, gyrating gas prices and worries about fitness turn people away from their cars and toward their bikes... But Mr. Blumenauer’s goals are larger than putting Americans on two wheels. He seeks to create what he calls a more sustainable society, including wiser use of energy, farming that improves the land rat…

Urbanism 101: Intro to Sprawl

For one of the best introductions to sprawl in America, spend a few minutes watching David Brancaccio's report that aired on PBS's NOW. If this is a topic that interests you at all, this story is well worth your time.



One thing to add is that this piece was obviously filmed at a time over the summer when media was still obsessed with high gasoline prices. The reality is that it isn't the gasoline prices per se that are the problem, it is the fact that those costs trade-off with other things a family could be doing. In that sense, an economic downturn with falling real wages could have the same theoretical effect on suburbia as a rise in gasoline prices; I suspect that is exactly what we are seeing now.

Certainty or Doubt?

I saw the movie Doubt over the holidays. I am typically a big Philip Seymour Hoffman fan and think he has appeared in some excellent films recently. Admittedly, when I first walked out of the theater I felt frustrated. Not because the movie wasn't well-acted or well-written, but because the ending is intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation.

In my best attempt not to spoil the plot, I am perfectly willing to admit that I have absolutely no idea whether or not I think the main character is guilty; there simply is no conclusive evidence either way. Each side can construct a convincing argument using the plethora of circumstantial evidence thrown around throughout the movie. The problem, of course, is that none of this circumstantial evidence is responsive to the opposing arguments; it is, as we used to say in debate-speak, like two ships passing in the night. Two people fighting over the guilt of the main character would be, more or less, unable to refute each other's a…

Good School, Bad Teacher

I used to go to a "good" university. In fact, I used to go to the "best" university in the entire state of Ohio, according to US News & World Report and any other official-sounding source that wanted to throw the university's marketing department a bone. Was it truly a good school? I don't know... it didn't seem like a bad school; and I've only attended two universities, so I don't have much basis for comparison. The question is, what makes a "good" school truly good? And does attending one mean that you leave smarter or better educated than a peer from another school? Or even that the opportunity to do so exists?

I already shared my feelings toward higher education, and my belief that some of my best learning occurred outside of the classroom. Malcolm Gladwell's newest piece in The New Yorker raises more important questions on this topic:
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher …

Reading Habits

McArdle describes her book reading habits:
As a youngish adult, I read about a book a day, maybe a little more. But over the last few years, things have crept up on me. I spend a lot more time on the web, and going to panels and events than I used to of an evening. I don't always commute via train, which is prime reading time. And for the last few months, I've been in constant moving frenzy... The upshot is that since the first of the year, I've actually completed exactly four books... By my count, that means I'm on track to read perhaps a hundred books this year. My New Year's Resolution to become better read already looks like a bust.At first I felt pretty self-conscious and even a bit inferior. Between school, work and all the time wasted commuting between the two, I'll be lucky to finish 50 or so books this year. Of course, today being the first day of the new semester, I quickly felt a lot better about myself, realizing that most of my peers probably w…

The Urban School Conundrum

During my sophomore year of college I took one of the most interesting courses in my career as an undergraduate. The course was called Economics of State and Local Governments, but a more appropriate name probably would have been Economics of Education. The professor was Dr. Eric Bettinger, who has authored several respected papers on the topic of education, and if I understand correctly, is now at the Stanford School of Education (though I'm not 100% sure). The class didn't have a textbook but we did read publications and working papers from prominent economists in the education arena; people like Eric Hanushek, Caroline Hoxby, and David Card. We looked at theoretical models of school vouchers and charter schools; we studied teachers unions and other teachers' incentives; we compared the American education system to those in Europe and Asia. After all of that you might think I was able to develop some ideas about how to improve education in America. I did not - I have abs…

Arbitrary University

Ned Resnikoff points to an article about the arbitrary nature of college admissions and comments:
The reality, of course, is that there’s really no trick, and college admissions are as cruel and arbitrary as an uncaring god in a Beckett play. So to any high school students who may be reading this: Try not to freak out about admissions too much. You can write the best damn essay in the universe and still get rejected from your reach school because the guy reading your application that day has a bad rash. He doesn’t care about your future, because he has no real reason to. Think of it as school’s way of preparing you for the real world, in which CEOs and government officials will gaze down on you from high, assign you a number, and push you around based on whims that you will never understand.When I was in high school, I applied to five universities, but was only accepted to three. One of the schools that rejected me was an elite private school, and I've already written about being a…

The Case for Better Toll Policy

Eric Morris's two-partseries over at Freakonomics is an extremely well written piece and a great read on the case for congestion pricing.
Opponents of tolls are certainly not stupid, and their arguments deserve serious consideration. But in the end, their concerns are largely overblown, and the benefits of tolling swamp the potential costs. Unfortunately, it can be hard to convey this because the theory behind tolling is somewhat complex and counterintuitive. This is too bad, because variable tolling is an excellent public policy. Here’s why: the basic economic theory is that when you give out something valuable — in this case, road space — for less than its true value, shortages result. Without going in-depth on Morris's specific ideas, this quote is the key point. There seems to be a huge confusion over who wins and who loses from toll policy; even the title of Morris's posts help fuel this confusion. Roads have never been free, it is just that the users (read drivers) ne…

The Student Debt Dilemma

Pedro de la Torre posts a trailer for a new documentary called Default:



I think the current student loan situation is uniquely dangerous for a few reasons.

First, I am fairly convinced that high school seniors are unable to make rational decisions about where to attend college because they suffer the problem of imperfect information. High school counselors push students to attend the most elite schools so that the high schools can market that fact themselves. When students visit different campuses, they go on cheesy guided tours; maybe the attend a freshman lecture or spend the night in a dorm, but the visit is a far cry from spending the next several years on that campus. Most high school seniors simply have no idea what they want to do for a career; I am sure there is a statistic that shows a huge percentage of undergraduates change their major multiple times. Upon graduation, some students will claim to have loved the time they spent at a particular school, others will have hated it,…

Columbus: Up and Coming Cycling City?

Car Less Ohio points to an article describing how code changes in Columbus could provide hope for bicyclists and pedestrians in the future:
The changes to city codes will allow the city to develop policy rules and regulations pertaining to sidewalks and bikeways, said Mary Carran Webster, spokeswoman for the public service department. It establishes a requirement for bikeways when private land is developed and codifies a requirement for developers to provide sidewalks, she said. The legislation also promotes better community health and will improve safety, said Maryellen O'Shaughnessy, who served as chairwoman of City Council's Public Service and Transportation Committee until her resignation became effective Dec. 31...

Jeff Stephens is chairman of the Columbus Transportation and Pedestrian Commission and executive director of Consider Biking. "Bifurcating the issue allowed time to fully vet this," he said. "It is a guarantee from City Council that Columbus will b…

Smart People Matter

As a follow-up to last week's post over at Brewed Fresh Daily, take a look at what Edward Glaeser has to say about cities that do a good job of attracting a lot of smart and talented people: Wall Street is just about to finish the worst year since 1931. American housing markets are finishing their worst year in recorded history. New York’s economy is highly dependent on Wall Street; about 40 percent of Manhattan’s total payroll was in finance and insurance in 2006. These three facts should have created the mother of all price crashes in New York City real estate. Yet New York’s housing prices are doing remarkably well relative to elsewhere in America... the New York area’s unemployment rate, 5.6 percent in the latest figures, is lower than that in many other major cities...New York still has an amazing concentration of talent. That talent is more effective because all those smart people are connected because of the city’s extreme population density levels. Historically, human capi…

Cultural Happiness

Every year people I know fly down to the poorest areas in Latin America and build houses, rehab churches, or offer their time for some sort of charity. One thing that these people always comment about is how happy everyone down there is, despite having nothing. This is an anomaly that has always bothered me, because I can't figure out what it is that makes them feel so great. Kerry Howly and Richard Rodriguez had an interesting exchange on this topic on a recent episode of Blogginghads.tv. Howly thinks Latin Americans are statistical outliers because wealth and happiness are strongly correlated (a highly debatable point, but we'll let it go for now). Rodriguez thinks it has to do with how the different cultures derive identity. Watch:



In case you missed it, the key point is this: [Mexicans] do not take their identity from their work. They take their identity from their families. They take their identity from leisure. And in a culture in which work is a source of identity, menia…

Fun With Inflation

I recently came across this McDonald's advertisement from 1987.



Now, I haven't been to a McDonald's in months, and I understand there are plans (if it hasn't already been done) to replace the Double Cheeseburger with a product known as the McDouble (one slice of cheese instead of two); nevertheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, the cost of a 1987 Double Cheeseburger in today's dollars is roughly $1.85. So a Double Cheeseburger for anything less is still a good deal in real dollars. Of course, given the growing rates of obesity and other health related illnesses in America, maybe it isn't a good deal at all?

Lessons from Euclid Square Mall

When I was a kid, I remember shopping at a place near my home, the Euclid Square Mall. Like other suburban shopping centers, the mall is a single story building that contained typical corporate chain stores, a few fountains where you could toss pennies, and a parking lot that probably measures more square footage than the building itself. That was in the 1990s; nobody visits Euclid Square Mall anymore - it's dead, mostly abandoned, and might be an indication of what is yet to come elsewhere in suburbia.

There are perhaps a few reasons that Euclid Square Mall never made it; cannibalization of the retail market is one, a shrinking population in Euclid is another. But the simple reality behind suburban shopping malls is that they have to contain decent tenants; if the tenants disappear, the fate of the mall is not bright. Thus, anyone who loves the concept of the suburban shopping mall should be concerned with predictions for the coming year.
Already, malls are in a considerable amount…

City Beautiful

What better way to begin blogging for the new year than drawing attention to a working paper by Gerald Carlino of the Philadelphia Fed and Albert Saiz of the Wharton School. The key to economic growth in American cities may be as simple as creating beautiful places with high quality amenities:
The City Beautiful movement, which in the early 20th century advocated city beautification as a way to improve the living conditions and civic virtues of the urban dweller, had languished by the Great Depression. Today, new urban economic theorists and policymakers are coming to see the provision of consumer leisure amenities as a way to attract population, especially the highly skilled and their employers... “Beautiful cities” disproportionally attracted highly educated individuals and experienced faster housing price appreciation, especially in supply inelastic markets. Investment by local government in new public recreational areas within [a metro area] was positively associated with higher s…