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Showing posts from October, 2011

In Defense of Road Tolls

I don't do much driving, but this year, I've made a couple of long-distance trips. The first was a round-trip between Washington and Akron - about 700 total miles. The second was the round-trip between Washington and Virginia Beach I did back in August - about 420 total miles. The first trip cost an extra $30 in tolls. The second trip was "free" as we often think of it. The first trip was generally low-stress and easy to drive. The second trip was high-stress and challenging to drive. Both trips took roughly the same amount of time (6 hours each way).
(from Joming Lau on Flickr)

When I tell people that I paid $30 to drive on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, they usually respond with "oh, what a ripoff" or "that's really expensive" or something of the nature.
I think the price is completely worth it.
See, people want to drive on a road as nice as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with as little traffic, they just want it to be "free". The…

Yelping

There's a really interesting article over at GOOD about the power that Yelp has on local businesses. It describes my behavior pretty accurately, and makes me realize just how crucial a tool Yelp has become in my own life; and also for the businesses I patronize.

(from roboppy on Flickr)

Of course, Yelp has been around since 2004, and the idea of rating and reviewing businesses is nothing new. What is new is that a significant number of people now have smart phones, iPads, and other devices that can access to Yelp whenever and wherever they want.

Recently I was thinking about the appeal of Starbucks. It's not a place I go very often for a cup of coffee, but I do visit occasionally. Imagine you're on a road-trip, and it's getting dark, so you decide to pull over at the next rest stop. Inside the food court there's a Starbucks and a place called Carl's Coffee. Which do you pick? This Carl might have the best coffee in America; but he also might serve some truly awful…

The Groupon Effect

Last week this headline caught my attention: "Pizzeria Eschews Groupon, Offers Own Half-Off Deal". The article is about a gourmet pizzeria in Arlington that will offer half-price pies every Monday... all you have to do is walk in and ask for the deal.
(from afagen on Flickr)

There's nothing novel about businesses offering discounts on slow days. These discounts have been around for as long as there's been commerce. Groupon and it's endless copycats have been around for about 2 or so years, and already we've forgotten about what life used to be like before they existed.
When I was in college, I ate 40-cent wings every Monday. That's more than 50% off the menu price, and no coupon required, just come on any Monday after 3pm and order them. This bar also had specials on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Half-price pizzas, steak dinner for under 10 bucks, and 5-dollar burgers. It was designed to bring people in during the slowest part of the week, and from what …

Talking Coffee

Kojo Namdi did a very good show on coffee last Wednesday. Click through and listen to the segment, it's about a half-hour long and it's very good. They even produced this little video up at Qualia Coffee (hands down the best coffee shop in DC).



The show covers a number of coffee-related topics that I've written about here, including home roasting and culture around good coffee. Coffee is an interesting drink because the quality can vary so wildly depending on how it's roasted, ground and ultimately brewed. And unlike wine or beer, coffee is always made to-order. Someone can appreciate good wine, but wine is fermented and then stored in glass bottles. Beer is brewed and then canned or bottled. Someone who appreciates good coffee has to also appreciate the process by which its brewed in the moments immediately before it's enjoyed.
Also, for what it's worth, if you're in DC, check out the new website DistrictBean. It's not 100% there yet (I find some boilerp…

Streaming Video Will be Like Cable TV

Streaming video is the wave of the future? Right? That's what Netflix seems to believe, and what a lot of people are really wishing will be true. I'm not quite as optimistic.

(from craig1black on Flickr)

I actually see a future where streaming video is more like premium cable than like a high-tech video rental store.
With cable, if you want to watch an HBO series, you have to pay for HBO. If you want to watch a Showtime series, you have to pay even more for Showtime. On the other hand, the old "video store" concept ensures that, no matter which movie you want to rent, you can go to any rental store and find it there. We have the first sale doctrine to thank for that; and it's the reason why you can find virtually anything on Netflix. Unfortunately, no such thing exists when it comes to streaming video.

Already, streaming video providers are starting to sign contracts with content producers, some of them exclusive deals. Fox recently signed a deal with Amazon. Dreamwo…

On Monopolies

Lydia DePillis wonders if competition will really improve car sharing in the District. I'm not too certain it will, as I wrote over the summer. In any case, plenty of people are happy that there's competition coming, because they love the idea of competition. Monopolies, on the other hand, have a pretty bad reputation.

(from masck on Flickr)

Not every market is perfectly competitive. Sometimes monopolies can and do provide goods and services more efficiently than several competing companies. This is usually the case in industries with high start-up and capital costs, which is very much the case with car sharing. The monopoly chapter of any intro to microeconomics textbook lays this out pretty clearly.

When people say they don't like monopolies, I think what they're really saying is that they don't like taking on the risk that the monopolist is going to fail to provide good customer service or reasonable prices.

Comcast is a great example of this. In much of the DC area…

Housing Markets 101

Stephen Smith has a post about housing and gentrification that I think hits on some good points, but it only tells one piece of a bigger story about how housing markets works. He opens with this:
When libertarians (and liberals) argue that increasing the supply of urban housing will lower the price of urban housing, they’re drawing on some pretty basic and well-established economic concepts. And yet, the coexistence of gentrification and housing supply growth seem to put a lie to that theory – in cities across America, we see neighborhoods adding housing while still seeing rapid increases in the price of housing. From the point of view of the poor and often non-white residents who are being pushed out, the market remedy of increasing supply just doesn’t seem to be working.
Count the number of times the word "supply" appears. Now count the number of times "demand" is in the above paragraph. Herein lies a major problem with this discussion: it focuses way too heavily o…

A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

I've got a new post over at Greater Greater Washington about two coffee shops in my neighborhood. A block apart from each other, one opened just a few months before the other closed. In a twisted way, the situation shows that 14th Street is both a desirable place where businesses want to be, and a place where it's nonetheless difficult to run a business.

(from NCinDC on Flickr)

When I lived in Cleveland, it was painful to watch businesses fail. Usually, it happened because there weren't enough customers, and the businesses couldn't generate sufficient sales. It happened because businesses just couldn't get people in the door and at the end of the day that was hardly any money in the till.

In DC, it's like the polar opposite. On 14th Street, businesses are closing because they can't afford the rent. They need affordable retail space in order to survive, and they simply can't get it in a neighborhood that's becoming popular.

Both situations demonstrate pr…