Sunday, February 1, 2015


I have officially moved my blog over to enjoy!

The new politics of rent-seeking

Reihan Salam has an excellent article about the upper middle class that is sure to be a classic:
Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands.
The article identifies the upper middle class as the single biggest demographic cohort with a socio-economic position sufficient to benefit from political and economic rent-seeking. This is a powerful new way to understand how coalitions in our democratic policymaking apparatus sustain terribly sub-optimal policy over lots of issues. It's not that the upper middle class benefits materially the most from policies designed to protect and enrich interest groups. It's more about the qualitative difference that exists between benefiting from a subsidy and not. The distributive effects of rent-seeking aren't nearly as potent in driving political action as their absolute effects.

A political movement geared around opposition to rent-seeking has tremendous potential to unify disparate strands of liberalism and conservativism in the US, but unfortunately its feasibility is limited because it will require lots of upper middle class people to vote away subsidies that they benefit from.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Observations on cycling in Atlanta vs New York, ctd.

14. The perceived risk of getting 'doored' while biking close to parked cars is much, much lower in Atlanta. In New York, in my experience, a shockingly high proportion of parked cars have drivers sitting in their seats (doing what, I don't know). This might be because a larger share of NYC drivers are performing business stuff that requires precise scheduling. The lack of parking availability means that there's an incredibly high variance in the time it takes to find a spot. If you need to be parked and meeting someone at a specific time, you'd better start the search very early. A necessary consequence of that strategy is that lots of people get lucky and have to sit and wait in their cars. This sucks for cyclists.

Alternatively, it may be due to something more complex and subtle. Perhaps the congestion, lack of parking availability, or general stressfulness of driving in NYC means communication and planning tasks that ordinarily would be accomplished at the middle or end of a car trip need to be done before it begins. Whatever the reason, in my limited experience in Atlanta so far I haven't felt nearly as exposed while biking in the 'door zone', which is nice.

Information Nexus

1. Very good Ezra Klein on the current state of Republican healthcare policy
2. The best fight scene ever?
3. Peter Singer on surfing
4. Quality unplanned urban design
5. The ethics of nudging by Cass Sunstein

Friday, January 23, 2015

Brilliant ebook innovation

Via Marginal Revolution, an author is running a promotion whereby his ebook will be available for 24 hours only. This is a great example of something often talked about but rarely observed: leveraging the novel technological form of ebooks to innovate in the medium. While ebooks certainly enable some obvious innovation on the back-end, a really fresh and new customer experience has been lacking.

This destructible ebook thing is very reminiscent of Snapchat's schtick, sharing its layering of both social media and gamification onto a more typical technology. The growth of compressed "happening now" marketing events that spread virally on social media has yet to touch publishing--until now. I could easily imagine authors like JK Rowling or George RR Martin releasing short stories or novellas on a time-limited basis.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Very good questions to ask

The real question was whether low-income residents moved away from “gentrifying” neighborhoods at a higher rate than they did from nongentrifying neighborhoods.
That's from an excellent piece in Slate about the vagueness and questionable utility of the concept of gentrification. Of course the opposite of gentrification--neighborhoods that stagnate and decline--is a much bigger problem that doesn't always attract enough media attention. I agree with mostly everything in the article, although the idea of community value in neighborhoods not being priced into the property exchange markets doesn't really come up.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Observations on cycling in Atlanta compared to NYC

1. Atlanta is less dense and more spread out, meaning overall the utility of cycling is reduced (there are many important places that seem essentially unbikable). Outside of a few specific neighborhoods a car is basically required.

2. Bicycling in NYC is a competitive substitute for public transit because distances are very small. While moving trains and buses are faster, the fixed costs of walking to a station/stop and waiting are simply crushed by cycling, whose rapid movement begins immediately from any location. Add to this the fact that cycling is more point-to-point (no connections). Cycling in NYC also beats out travel by car, which must cope with terrible congestion and parking problems.

3. The distances in Atlanta are much greater, so the fixed costs of transit use are more compensated by the speed advantage once the train/bus gets rolling. This effect is somewhat offset by the added time required to get to a station/stop.

4. Cars aside, public transit options in Atlanta are so limited that cycling here (vs. NYC) may in fact be comparatively more valuable. This is mostly due to the tremendous coverage advantage cycling has over the public transit network.

5. There is much less cycling infrastructure in Atlanta (bike lanes etc.), but biking here actually feels safer than NYC. This is due to a number of factors.

6. Roads are less congested, so cars have much more physical space to safely overtake a cyclist by providing adequate passing room. Possibly related, the lack of congestion means motorists are more relaxed at stoplights and seem to accelerate much less aggressively compared to NYC (drivers in New York are stopped in traffic so often that they seize any open-road opportunity to zoom unsafely).

7. There genuinely seems to be a cultural difference that makes motorists more respectful and deferential towards cyclists. Possibly the lack of cyclists on the roads mean motorists aren't well-accustomed to car-cyclist interactions and take a risk-averse approach. This would cut against the conventional wisdom that more cyclists means safer cycling. Bottom line: NYC taxis are incredibly dangerous and fear-inducing, and biking in a city without them counts for a lot.

8. The quality and upkeep of roads and pavement seems to be much better than in NYC, whose infrastructure is crumbling and over-capacity. Fewer potholes and hazards means a less erratic biking line, meaning a safer trip.

9. Better weather.

10. Atlanta has many fewer pedestrians competing for space on bike paths and street crossings. This mostly eliminates a big source of fear and confusion, and leads to a more calm and pleasurable biking experience.

11. The transportation benefits of Atlanta's Beltline greenway network are overhyped. Although it links several decently walkable neighborhoods (and is expanding), its advantage over the typically-empty Atlanta roads and streets is only moderate.

12. That said, the economic, cultural, and urbanist benefits of the Beltline simply blow any other bike path out of the water, including the Greenway in Minneapolis. Atlanta is so starved of walkable, pedestrian areas with mixed commercial and residential development that the Beltline--ostensibly a transit project--is most valuable as an economic engine. The Beltline has more commercial and residential entrances facing the path directly than any other bike path I've yet seen. In context, however, this great value is largely an artifact of Atlanta's absolute lack of walkable dense neighborhoods.

13. Contrary to popular opinion, it is in fact possible to bicycle from the central downtown area of Atlanta to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport using a small number of low-traffic frontage roads along the MARTA train path. It takes approximately one hour.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is Sirius XM in a death spiral?

I recently had the experience of being at a diner for an extended period, during which time the satellite radio provider Sirius XM was playing. What struck me was the surprising quantity of advertisements that played in between songs--advertisements for Sirius XM subscription services and various highlighted stations.

The concept of satellite radio is simple: businesses (and to a lesser extent individual customers) pay Sirius to provide ad-free radio. Needless to say, the more advertisements Sirius interjects into its stream, the less valuable the subscription service becomes relative to the free + advertising radio models out there. If Sirius XM is introducing ads hoping to lure new customers, they run the risk of alienating existing customers on the margin.

In the worst-case scenario, this process edges into a 'death spiral', where the loss of existing customers forces Sirius to include more ads to cover the revenue losses.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jeff Bezos on books

"The most important thing to observe is that books don't just compete against books. Books compete against people reading blogs and news articles and playing video games and watching TV and going to see movies. 
Books are the competitive set for leisure time. It takes many hours to read a book. It’s a big commitment. If you narrow your field of view and only think about books competing against books, you make really bad decisions. What we really have to do, if we want a healthy culture of long-form reading, is to make books more accessible. 
Part of that is making them less expensive. Books, in my view, are too expensive. Thirty dollars for a book is too expensive. If I'm only competing against other $30 books, then you don’t get there. If you realize that you're really competing against Candy Crush and everything else, then you start to say, “Gosh, maybe we should really work on reducing friction on long-form reading." That’s what Kindle has been about from the very beginning."

That's from a very good interview from Business Insider.

Four overused corporatespeak items

1. Taking something "off line"
2. Referring to emails as simply "notes" (why?)
3. "leverage"
4. "reach out" (as in touch?)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Information Nexus

1. Tim Lee on the tension between deregulation and government action to prevent anti-competitive behavior by monopolists

2. GiveWell begins an investigation of the merits of donating to Ebola charities

3. The rise of the lumbersexual

4. Excellent article on sports analytics in basketball. And football here. Where is the ultimate frisbee analytics movement?

5. "... rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations." Article

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The politics of mean reversion

The Upshot recently had a column discussing the role that occasional voters play in tempering the more partisan policy preferences of reliable voters. While I don't have strong views about the ethics of voting or nonvoting (although clearly its possible to vote well or vote poorly), I have a very hard time seeing the macro benefits of sporadic voting.

A popular idea in US politics is that we're too polarized. That's not really accurate: the electorate isn't more polarized, rather the institutional arrangements that translate votes into policy are badly skewed towards partisanship and gridlock. A key problem is that the basic system of accountability has degraded. Parties have become more ideologically coherent, which enables increasingly rational collecting strategizing. This is especially important in the senate, where any majority lacking 60 votes can be effectively blocked by the minority. The minority wins politically when the majority loses--and the minority has the institutional power to make the majority lose. Not exactly a recipe for dynamic government capacity.

Here's where sporadic voting comes in. To get anything done in this political reality, the mechanisms of government require a party to control 60 senate seats. But sporadic voters--who tend to be more independent--hold majorities accountable. In recent years the dysfunctional gridlock in federal government has led to a vast army of unsatisfied moderate voters ping-ponging back and forth between parties. Neither Democrats or Republicans ever quite assemble a coalition sizeable enough to truly implement their policy vision before being cut down by moderate voters for their ineffectiveness.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Research methods FTW

Much of the recent controversy over that NYC catcalling video was caused by uncertainty about the research methodology of their 'study'. This article articulates the issue nicely:
The Hollaback video also shows why “data” without theory can be so misleading—and how the same data can fit multiple theories. Since all data collection involves some form of data selection (even the biggest dataset has selection going into what gets included, from what source), and since data selection is always a research method, there is always a need for understanding methods.
Read the article here. It's highly recommended.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A cultural stickiness approach to gender inequality

Project Syndicate has an interesting short essay about the economics of gender:
The finding suggests that in plough-using societies, patriarchal values circumscribed female mobility, and allowed men – as a result of their greater economic contribution – to undermine women’s autonomy. Remarkably, these values, shaped many centuries ago, when certain physical attributes might have been important, have survived in modern societies, in which such attributes have become largely irrelevant.