Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Begun, the State Brand Wars Have

As the health reform law exchanges get closer to launch, we're seeing an interesting burst of marketing creativity that shines a spotlight on the various cultural items that differentiate U.S. states in the public imagination. Sarah Kliff reports on Minnesota's playful new "MNsure" marketing campaign which features a slapstick Paul Bunyan and the slogan "land of 10,000 reasons to get health care" (a play on "land of 10,000 lakes").

Given the unavoidably positional nature of state identity, I do wonder how the folks in the Minnesota state tourism office are holding up. When I hear "10,000 reasons to get health care" and see lots of images of horrible accidents involving Minnesota-centric activities, vacation alternatives along the lines of beach-lounging in Florida start seeming relatively more attractive.

edit: New York state's got a decent pitch also.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ingredients of a Good Bike City

What would Jesus ride? Photo Credit: backalleybikes.wordpress.com

The idea of identifying "the best bike city in America" (or something along those lines) is one that pops up with a fair degree of regularity. But what exactly does it mean? Most traditional rankings look at certain urban amenities that support the enterprise of bicycling, with some taking into account slipperier factors like observed biking levels or motivation. In fact these two approaches are linked in a complex relationship that makes simple list-making tricky. What we're really looking for is the capability to flourish on a bicycle: what cities enable the ability for anyone to employ well the bicycle to pursue their goals of living a good life. A few thoughts on some relevant bike city elements:
  1. Bike Lanes: Clearly these are nice, and make everyone feel safer. The amount of bike lanes is easy to measure and easy for politicians to brag about, but what's more important is the quality. Is the paint fading? Do they disappear and pick up again on the other side of the street? Are they separated by medians or parked cars, or do they hug the edge of the road, forcing cyclists to make the no-win choice between exposing themselves to either dooring or collisions from passing motorists. Consistency in bike lane design is massively undervalued. Do they go along sensible, efficient routes? Also, do they get cleaned? I've personally been excited for the construction of a new bike lane only to see it fill up with gravel, broken glass, and puddled water. Upkeep matters.
  2. Road Quality: This doesn't get a lot of attention, but boy does it matter. Smooth, well-paved roads make biking dramatically more enjoyable. Safer too: fewer obstacles in the road means a less-erratic riding line. Big east coast cities are old, with crumbling infrastructure. Younger cities experiencing population booms out west probably have better roads.
  3. Density: In the broad scheme of things, this is the most important factor influencing the quantity of cycling. Simply put, if you live in a rural area, you won't be able to substitute biking for driving due to the large distances between stuff. But average population density can also be misleading; what really matters is architectural density. Los Angeles has an impressive average population density, but the road-centric urban form makes cycling less appealing. Philadelphia has a tight, cramped city core that limits the speed and craziness of drivers, making cycling dramatically more enjoyable. 
  4. Weather: The influence of weather on cities is tricky to measure. One can say that, all thing equal, warmer cities are better for biking. But in reality there are simply not enough big cities in each climate to cancel out all the effects from other factors like urban form, history, culture, politics, etc., so we'll never know.
  5. Norms: Do drivers and cyclists have a respectful or adversarial relationship? Do motorists and pedestrians regularly occupy bike lanes? Norms receive a lot of attention because they play into the "style" and "identity" of notorious bike cities like Portland and Amsterdam. No doubt this factor exists to some degree. But much of what we assume derives from some special cycling je ne sais quoi actually comes from other factors. The more people who cycle, the more well-trained motorists and pedestrians will be to notice them. Variation in local traffic enforcement rules also structures the decisions of motorists and cyclists. 
  6. Psychic Torment: Perhaps the best way to identify great bike cities is to look at the actual experience of riders themselves. For some, cycling is terrifying. For others, it's a delight. Why not just ask people!? The popularity of cycling as measured by public opinion polling surely varies by city. Throw in some survey questions like, "do you wish you could bicycle more, less, or about the same as you do now?" and you've got the makings of a sophisticated account of which cities are great for biking. A benefit of this approach is that it incorporates both the supply of bike amenities (like density and bike lanes) and the psychological profile of cyclists. Some hipster bike salmon are going to ride on any road, no matter what--do we really want to count those people when considering the best bike city?
  7. Motivation: On a related note, should considering why people bicycle play a role in identifying great bike cities? Some people choose to cycle for recreation or exercise. Others may choose not to cycle because they're unhealthy, old, or obese and it's physically strenuous. Big east coast cities have tons of food delivery people zooming around on bikes for a paycheck. Some ride bikes because they're poor and can't afford other options. Underlying this is a deep question about what drives people's transportation decisions. Biking exists within a world of trade-offs between walking, driving, and public transportation (and their respective inputs like public transit quality and gas prices). We can't just look at cycling in isolation. If we did, we might get the perverse result of a good bike city simply being one where public transit is terrible and driving sucks. When we're looking for the best bike city, does it matter that people adopt cycling for the right reasons?
The bottom line is that there's no clear way to identify the best bike city. The supply of bicycle amenities isn't something that you simply maximize to win the title. Different people bike in different ways, for different reasons, and you have potential confounding factors like demographics: young, fit people cycle more, so cities with more of those people record higher rates of cycling compared to older, fatter cities.

Perhaps the best approach for evaluating different cities and their relationship to cycling is to compare them to national averages. Presumably some demographic groups (race, income, education, age, health, etc.) have higher rates of cycling in some cities than others. By aggregating many different comparisons, you could see which cities "punch above their weight" so to speak.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Scientific forestry was originally developed from about 1765 to 1800, largely in Prussia and Saxony. Eventually, it would become the basis of forest management techniques in France, England, and the United States and throughout the Third World. Its emergence cannot be understood outside the larger context of the centralized state-making initiatives of the period. In fact, the new forestry science was a subdiscipline of what was called cameral science, an effort to reduce the fiscal management of a kingdom to scientific principles that would allow systemic planning. Traditional domainal forestry had hitherto simply divided the forest into roughly equal plots, with the number of plots coinciding with the number of years in the assumed growth cycle. One plot was cut each year on the assumption of equal yields (and value) from plots of equal size. Because of poor maps, the uneven distribution of the most valuable large trees (Hochwald), and very approximate cordwood (Bruststaerke) measures, the results were unsatisfactory for fiscal planning."
That's from Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott. It's a fantastic analytical history of the terrible damage caused by central planning initiatives throughout the twentieth century.

Federal Environmentalism Is Unavoidable

What are his thoughts on dependency ratios? Photo Credit: jacksonhole.net
I'm generally a big fan of environmental action by governments occurring on the state level. Policy and implementation can better utilize local knowledge, achieve a closer fit with local conditions, and experiment with a wider range of ideas. Politically, state-specific issues can create novel coalitions that cut across the calcified Democrat-Republican stalemate. But Sarah Keller in High Country News highlights a problem with this approach:
Wyoming Game and Fish’s plight is indicative of a growing dilemma for wildlife management agencies in sparsely populated, but wildlife-rich, Western states. Wildlife and habitat threats are growing, and agencies are increasingly charged with managing non-game species, dealing with wildlife diseases and invasive species, overseeing controversial predator reintroductions, and helping bring  young people into the outdoors. Meanwhile, the public’s outdoor interests are changing and becoming more diverse. Game and fish departments aren't just hook and bullet agencies, though hunters and anglers still provide much of their funding.
In Wyoming, 80 percent of game and fish’s budget comes from license fees, as well as federal taxes on hunting and fishing gear. But that license pool is shrinking. Ironically, wildlife managers have had to reduce Wyoming’s mule deer and antelope licenses as herds have declined, cutting into the very revenue that would help with studying those declines and improving habitat for the species.
This is a classic story of 'institutional drift': public policy not adapting to changing conditions in the world. In this case, state conservation agencies have bigger agendas than ever, but their funding streams are based on historical patterns of population and outdoor recreation behavior that no longer exist. Given the current trajectories of urbanization and climate change-driven environmental degradation, Western states are sure to see these sorts of mismatch issues intensify in the future.

Western states have a disproportionate share of America's environmental capital. Asking these states to shoulder an increasing burden of environmental management spending while their funding base shrinks raises equity issues. The fact that most federally-owned land is out West further reinforces the case for some sort of cross-subsidy.

Some might see a federal program of redistribution from high-population/low-environmental capital states to low-population/high environmental capital states as unjust. After all, much of the West's beauty and richness is highly experiential and hard to access from big coastal population centers. But given the uncertainty of climate change's effects, some risk-pooling seems appropriate. Additionally, America's environmental endowment is an integral component of the national identity, and deserves to be empowered regardless of population trends.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Architecture Break

The Pasona Group offices in Tokyo:
The Pasona building
Photo Credit: Kono Designs
From an aesthetic perspective, Kono Designs has successfully implemented the "vertical farm" idea, playfully evoking the image of a standard office cube being inexorably consumed from within by wild nature. This contrasts with the tightly designed interior spaces, which seem to employ fully-functional agriculture plots as space dividers, artistic room accents, and stylish furniture substitutes. No word yet on the energy costs or food production efficiency levels, but its cultural fit and aggressive rejection of factory-chic make this building spectacular.

For more check out this short video by Monocle magazine.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Adaptation and Resilience Are More Boring Than You Think

For some time now, the hot new thinking in the areas of climate change and environmental degradation has been all about "adaptation": how political, economic, cultural, and biological systems will respond to environmental changes to minimize human suffering (or maximize human flourishing; pick your moral poison). This is in contrast to "mitigation" efforts, like enacting carbon taxes, which seek to prevent harmful environmental changes in the first place. "Resilience" is best understood as adaptation's conceptual cousin: how can we preemptively modify our political, economic, cultural, and biological systems to reduce the human costs of disruption caused by adaptation to environmental changes?

These concepts seem highfalutin, but they're not. In fact, they're so straightforward and mundane that examples abound in any daily newspaper. The Economist recently had a nice piece about how the fishing industry is splitting into two market segments: more efficient, more commoditized "aquaculture" (farming), and costlier, more upscale "capture" (wild). Also in the news has been the "in vitro" burger, a lab-grown synthetic meat product.

It's not just about community spirit guys
Photo Credit: baylocalize.org
The environmental dimension in these stories isn't immediately apparent. After all, these are simple technological changes that one might expect given the similar market dynamics at play. In both cases, we have shortages increasing (or threatening to increase) the price. In beef's case, increasing demand in developing countries is placing strain on available land. For fish, the ocean's collapsing ecosystems are reducing supply. That these market changes are terminal in nature creates a huge incentive for producers to develop low-cost alternatives.

But these two new production methods are also increasing the global food system's resilience. By decoupling the production process from nature (beef from farmland, fish from oceans), these products get less exposed to environmental risk. Adapting to future environmental changes, such as further ocean ecosystem collapse, or marginal farmland becoming unavailable, will be much easier. Beef and fish will still be around for consumption, preventing an economically (and culturally) painful transition away from them.

The more we recognize that existing, mundane market mechanisms are the channel through which most environmental adaptation and resilience will occur, the better off we'll be in confronting future challenges.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reducing the Costs of War Increases War

Photo Credit: The Guardian
The controversy in some circles over the U.S. government's use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for military purposes often seems to miss a major point about the effects of new technology on warfare. Some military technologies, such as the atom bomb, dramatically raise the destructive capacity of a nation. Others, such as drones, dramatically lower the destructive impact of a military decision by radically increasing the target efficiency of a given action.

In other words, some technologies increase the costs of war (nuclear weapons) and others decrease them (drones). Unsurprisingly, corresponding incentive effects abound. The unthinkable horror of nuclear war has undoubtedly contributed to the relative peace among nuclear powers. On the flip side, emerging drone technology has made tiny, "surgical" military actions incredibly easy, resulting in tons of tiny, "surgical" military actions.

To some, drones are heralded as a humanitarian victory for the world: the vital risk to soldiers and pilots is reduced. Seen in a different light, the increased "variablizeability" (i.e. costless scaling) of war is ominous to the extreme. By crashing the domestic political costs of military action down to nearly zero, drones can potentially beat out other less-violent alternatives in foreign policy dilemmas, such as statecraft or economic sanctions. One even wonders if a simple "drone fix" might become the go-to policy choice of unencumbered politicians.

The key point here is that war is not simply a question of easily-quantified costs and benefits. The act of one sovereign state exerting coercive force over another has strong moral, psychological, historical, and cultural dimensions and associations. These other facets of war don't necessarily track with simple physical destruction: one bomb fired by a robot killing one person might nonetheless be interpreted as a grave moral and ethical affront to an entire society. It might just be a really good time to double-check our constitutional and bureaucratic procedures for authorizing the use of violence in foreign territory.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dentistry Gets No Respect

The share of news coverage devoted to the healthcare industry and health science seems to grow every year. This makes sense: as people grow richer and longer-lived, personal health should be more highly valued compared to other life concerns. Additionally, healthcare is increasingly a driver of local and national growth and employment. But as we hear more and more about dazzling new medical devices and cutting-edge healthcare business innovations (minute-clinics! urgent-care facilities are so hot right now! checklists!), one important sub-field seems curiously overlooked: dental health.

The medical industry has changed a lot, and it's been pretty easy to track this via big national news providers. In my personal experience, dentistry has also changed a lot, yet I've heard next-to-nothing about the landscape of the industry or the current big innovations and ideas.

The procedures involved in regular dental check-ups today have changed considerably compared to just ten years ago. There's clearly been some paradigm-shift regarding the efficacy of fluoride treatments. The primacy of flossing is a fairly recent development (current 20-30 year olds were intensely socialized to brush every day, but flossing wasn't stressed), and optimal brushing standards are shifting to be more floss-like (emphasis on gums over teeth). Mouthwash used to be supplementary but it seems to be edging its way into everyone's nightly routine. In short, things are happening in dentistry that we're not hearing about, which is unfortunate, because it's a fascinating sub-field of healthcare.

Unlike traditional holistic conceptions of "health", which are ambiguous regarding what constitutes "healthy", teeth and gums are fairly straightforward. Healthy mouths should be able to mildly stress themselves by eating food and flossing/brushing without pain or discomfort. Aesthetically, social standards are simple and universal: white, straight teeth without bad breath. The existence of a simple and clearly-defined upper-limit on dental health differentiates it from "healthcare" broadly and begs the ultimate question: when will we eliminate gum disease and tooth decay altogether?

Considering this question requires a deep understanding of the complex social, economic, and psychological web of factors that cradle outcomes in dental health. The role of diet seems to be important, but gets downplayed compared to fancy toothpaste marketing materials. There are likely some good statistical studies out there looking at good and bad outcomes in dental health and identifying specific causal factors, but I've never seen one reported on in a newspaper. Likewise with randomized controlled trials investigating specific technologies or lifestyle interventions. Historians, anthropologists, and paleobiologists probably have much to say about dental health, given that humans have been eating food with their teeth for quite a while. Looking at dental health in animals (who don't brush or floss) would also seem to be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Ultimately the end-goal of preventative dentistry should be to develop a pill to destroy or control the bacteria that cause gum disease and tooth decay. Whether this is scientifically possible, or even advisable, I'm not entirely sure. The ethical issues involved would mirror those of obesity drugs currently in development: should we really use a pill to hack some biological mechanism to fix a problem while potentially leaving in place the deep causative factors (like not brushing/flossing or eating unhealthy foods)? These are all fascinating and important questions, but don't expect to read about any in your local newspaper or website.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Suppose cities required all fast-food restaurants to include french fries with every hamburger. The fries would appear free, but they would have a high cost in money and health. Those who don't eat the fries pay higher prices for their hamburgers but receive no benefit. Those who do eat the fries they wouldn't have ordered separately are also worse off, because they eat unhealthy food they wouldn't otherwise buy. Even those who would order the fries if they weren't included free are no better off, because the price of a hamburger would increase to cover the cost of the fries. How are minimum parking requirements different? Minimum parking requirements force people who are too poor to own cars to pay for parking spaces they don't use, and they encourage others to buy more cars and drive them more than they would if they had to pay separately for parking. I'm not saying that there should be no parking. I am saying that parking should be supplied in a fair market."
That's from The High Cost of Free Parking by UCLA economist and urban planner Donald Shoup. For more on this idea check out these two recent articles by Tyler Cowen in The New York Times and Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Conservative Environmentalism: It's Not Just About Ideology

The New York Times today has an interesting op-ed written by several former EPA administrators on the Republican case for climate change and the executive branch's capability for direct action in light of congress' legislative inaction.

Every time I hear calls for conservatives to embrace environmentalist public policy I'm struck by how logical it seems: conservatives support free- and well-functioning markets, the existence of environmental externalities prevents efficient markets, thus policy that corrects environmental distortions is conservative. Even the marketing angle is tight and clean: conservatives are the "stewards" of the free market, which necessarily implies being stewards of the earth. These logical connections are arguably superior to liberals' attachments to environmentalism, which are numerous, often complex, and always mushy (chemicals are evil, mountains are beautiful, etc.). In politics, simple messaging is the most effective. On this measure environmentalism should be squarely located within Republicans' policy wheelhouse. So why isn't it?

On this issue more than any other, the primacy of identity affiliation in politics is apparent. Political parties are coalitions, often tightly linked to logically consistent moral philosophies, but not always. Through a complex array of contingent historical and demographic factors, the Democratic party became affiliated with environmentalism and Republicans opposed (more on this in a future post). Today, one of the biggest forcing mechanisms holding this status quo together is social identity. Democrats signal their affiliation by supporting environmentalist social trends, policy, fashion, etc. Republicans oppose environmentalism for the same reasons--they don't want to affiliate with all those hippie bourgeois bohemians in cities.

Many of the arguments you hear on both sides of the aisle justifying the status quo in terms of the political parties' established moral philosophies are actually post-facto rationalizations with questionable logical consistency (more on this here). Consequently, the most exciting prospects for environmentalist policy action concerns the identification and manipulation of novel issue dimensions that can confound and muddle the existing Republican-Democrat stasis. Local issues can trump national party allegiance. Big business sectors with a rational interest in preventing climate change doom scenarios, such as property insurers, can leverage their existing links to pro-business Republicans to shift policy. Humanitarians concerned with rural poverty and malnutrition in developing nations can push for more R&D in genetically modified crops, appealing to bleeding-heart Democrats. The list goes on, but one thing is for sure: framing a "Republican environmentalism" is a nice soundbite but substantively next-to-useless in achieving real policy change.