Saturday assorted links

1. The culture that is West Palm Beach: “The loop of “Baby Shark” and “Raining Tacos” is a temporary fix to keep homeless people off the patio.”

2. Federal Reserve comic books now on-line.

3. Why are women’s voices deeper today?

4. Alien beauty subverts world of fashion.

5. Could the Apollo moon landing be duplicated today?

6. “We are granting early access to our India local data series: 500k villages, 8000 towns, 4000 constituencies. 25 years of admin data on firms, public goods, consumption, labor, elections, demographics, forest cover, etc.. All hyperlocal.”  Link here.

Zoning Out Shade

Is it too hot to walk around the block? Sure, blame global warming, but in many parts of the country there is also a noticeable absence of shade. Why? As Nolan Gray, a city planner in New York, argues one reason is that shade has been zoned out.

…vernacular architecture in the U.S. was often designed around natural climate control. In the humid Southeast, large windows and central corridors encouraged airflow. In the arid Southwest, thick facades and small windows kept cool air inside. In both cases, most houses were packed tightly together to cast shadows over streets, with awnings, balconies, and roof overhangs used to protect indoor spaces from direct sunlight.

These design elements survive and thrive in cities built before air conditioning, like New Orleans, but are conspicuously absent from most modern Sun Belt metros. With houses sitting squat and far back from the street, and most commercial spaces sitting behind a veritable desert of parking, shade in cities like Phoenix and Atlanta is few and far between. 

The irony here is that the cities that most need shade are the least likely to have it…Older, urban cities with mild summers—think Boston—have shade in spades, while our newer Sun Belt cities —think Las Vegas—have virtually no shade at all, resulting in an unhealthy dependence on air conditioning. 

Why did this happen? A big reason is the way we started planning cities in the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1910s, planners declared a war on shade as a means of responding to slum conditions and high-rises. As described by researcher Sonia Hirt, early land-use planners were inspired by the vision of the detached single-family house on a large lot—a development pattern that’s fine for cloudy Massachusetts, but spells trouble for sunny Florida. Assuming no shade as the ideal, the framers of modern zoning set out to design a system of regulations that make many naturally cooling design elements practically illegal.

…In most suburbs, for example, houses are legally prevented from sitting close to the lot line by setbacks, which prevent any shade from being cast on sidewalks or neighboring homes. 

Strict rules surrounding building heights and density cap most suburban buildings at a standard height of 35 feet, well below what could potentially cast a cooling shadow. And shadows from high-rises are treated as an unambiguous evil in planning hearings, even in otherwise dense urban environments like San Francisco.

The criminalization of shade goes beyond land-use regulations; it extends to the way we design public spaces. Despite more and more cities encouraging street trees as a valuable source of shade, many state transportation offices continue to ban them, privileging ease of maintenance over outdoor comfort.

Trees in particular would not only create more shade but also reduce air pollution.

Why zero temporal discounting *within* a life is less plausible than across generations

For an individual there is both cardinal Benthamite utilitarianism (“utils”) and preference utilitarianism.  The two sometimes conflict (would you take a pill that gave you joy when you saw suffering?), and a plausible consequentialist theory attaches some weight to both.

Most of the arguments for zero discounting of utility apply to the cardinal measure.  Don’t put off going to the dentist just because you don’t like pain — when the pain finally arrives, it will be no less real.

But now shift your attention to the preference utilitarianism.  Let’s say a person had a strong preference that “the Knicks win an NBA title in 2022,” deciding that it isn’t nearly good enough for the Knicks to win that title in 2030.  That is a kind of positive time preference.  Arguably it is ungrounded and irrational, but that isn’t quite grounds for dismissing it.  Preference utilitarianism simply counts the preference and whether it is satisfied.  You might as well argue it is irrational to care about the Knicks in the first place, never mind 2022 vs. 2030.  And indeed it is, just like so many other of our preferences do not really admit of defense or justification in external terms.

And thus, through the medium of preference satisfaction utilitarianism, we cannot altogether dismiss positive time preference for the individual.

When considering trade-offs of utilities across the generations, there are Benthamite comparisons but there is no meaningful preference utilitarianism, since there are different persons at stake.  That leaves us with one fewer argument for positive time preference in the intergenerational case.

From the comments, what if big business hated your family?

Suppose Big Business did hate your family, what would that look like?

Would it mean adopting a working culture that made it ever harder to rise to power within it while also having said family? Would it require those with career ambitions to geographically abandon extended family and to live in areas notoriously difficult for raising families? Would it mean requiring long delays on family formation while you got credentialed, worked with little remuneration while getting your foot in the door, and then place huge amounts of time and effort on career growth rather than investing in your family? Does corporate culture act like it hates your family?

Would it mean selling products which have strong correlations with family strife and dissolution? Would it market products known to be destructive to thousands of families relentlessly? Would it market products that consume time in great quantities at the expense of family time investment? Would it routinely mock and denigrate your family roles for cheap publicity?

Would it mean lobbying for policies which are good for the business, but bad for your family? Would it support seeking a larger supply of labor via immigration? Would it support visa restricted immigration of labor that is less able to defy corporate diktat without having legal or financial issues? Would it argue for child care subsidies for the people it wishes to employee rather than for all Americans and all child care arrangements?

I believe businesses are amoral and are just maximizing money, power, and prestige for those in positions of power within them. Yet, this formal indifference seems to be giving rise to a lot of behaviors that are, at best, perceived to be hostile to families. I mean what exactly are the pro-family things that business endeavors to do? Provide a cornucopia of goods and services? I guess, but that seems pretty neutral at best for supporting families as opposed to other societal arrangements.

Because everything is political these days, and particularly because Big Business has decided to be political we might ask how corporations compare to families. The majority of American families (even if we include everything except single adults living alone) have priorities that diverge significantly from business. If we take a slightly stricter view of “family” as either parents or married, we find business diverges even more from the median family.

After all, both the median parent and the median spouse are vastly more religious than the country as a whole. Both are vastly more likely to vote Republican. And even within the Democratic party, marrieds or parents tend to be right of their unmarried and childless peers. When it comes to the expressed preferences of the median “family”, the median corporation is in opposition most of the time. On the many issues where the nation is split near 50/50, business comes down on the side with more single, childless people the vast majority of the time. And hence they are ever more often backing the partisan politics opposed to the wishes of the majority of families.

There is nothing wrong with this, and certainly nothing illegal about it, but I would be shocked if large organizations that are disproportionately filled with the single and childless who are located in regions that are disproportionately single and childless and who are busy virtue signalling to academia, politics, and other left bastions that are disproportionately single and childless managed to somehow not end up at cross purposes for the majority of families. And frankly I would be shocked if this antagonism did not spill over into emotional terms.

Certainly, I am always told that this sort of analysis is why [Structure X] is antagonistic, if only implicitly, against racial minorities. I see no reason why parents or spouses would feel any differently.

That is from Sure.

Inventor CEOs

One in five U.S. high-technology firms are led by CEOs with hands-on innovation experience as inventors. Firms led by “Inventor CEOs” are associated with higher quality innovation, especially when the CEO is a high-impact inventor. During an Inventor CEO’s tenure, firms file a greater number of patents and more valuable patents in technology classes where the CEO’s hands-on experience lies. Utilizing plausibly exogenous CEO turnovers to address the matching of CEOs to firms suggests these effects are causal. The results can be explained by an Inventor CEO’s superior ability to evaluate, select, and execute innovative investment projects related to their own hands-on experience.

That is from Emdad Islam & Jason Zein, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Which of these claims is false?

The Democratic-controlled House just voted to abolish the “Cadillac tax” on employer-supplied health plans.

The Independent Payments Advisory Board no longer exists, having been abolished with support from both parties.

In the public option for Democratic-controlled Washington State, reimbursement rates were set at up to 160 percent of Medicare levels.

Single-payer health care will save America a great amount of money.

Should Alaska cut state university funding by 41 percent?

That is what they have done, in order to boost the Permanent Fund Dividend payments to the citizenry.  Here is the closing segment from my Bloomberg column:

I see Alaska’s decision as reflecting two broader trends in the U.S. First, a lot of small educational institutions are closing, consolidating or drastically cutting back, most of all in out-of-the-way places. Second, regions are diverging, both economically and culturally. More and more educated people are moving to the major cities.

You may have mixed or negative feelings about these two developments. Taken together, however, they could lead to a bunch of state schools on the chopping block. I suppose it’s fine to complain about this outcome, but far better would be to address the underlying trends.

There are things government could do if it were bold enough. How about a series of state-specific visas to foreigners, designed to encourage them to settle in Alaska and other underpopulated states? Alaska’s population could well rise to more than a million, and then the benefits of a good state university system would be more obvious, including for cultural assimilation. In fact, how about a plan to boost the population of Alaska to two or three million people? What would it take to get there?

That’s my biggest worry in all this: that that the diminution of the University of Alaska amounts to a kind of giving up. Alaska is supposed to be the American frontier, a place for taking chances. It is a sign of defeatism if the state has now decided that its main task should be mailing out dividends to its residents. The animating spirit should be one of science and exploration, as might be enabled by a well-functioning university system.

The University of Alaska in Fairbanks is rated among the world’s top science institutions for studying the Arctic, a region that might well grow considerably in importance, in part due to climate change. A well-developed and well-educated Alaska is a kind of option on future Arctic development and also on geopolitical influence. If new frontiers are opening up, then Alaska — and America — should want to be ready for them.

We really do need dynamism to keep our institutions going.  Allison Schraeger put it well on Twitter: “a preview of our UBI future.”

Rhino bond markets in everything

Conservationists have started marketing a five-year rhino bond, which bankers say will be the world’s first financial instrument dedicated to protecting a species.

Investors in the $50m bond will be paid back their capital and a coupon if African black rhino populations in five sites across Kenya and South Africa increase over five years. The yield will vary depending on changes in the rhino population, which has fallen rapidly since the 1970s.

The bond is likely to have different categories of investment, with some investors taking a “first loss” position. If rhino numbers drop, those investors will lose their money depending on the scale of the decline and the terms of their investment, while investors in other categories will be repaid.

That is from John Aglionby at the FT.

Thursday assorted links

Bryan Caplan on Spain

He spent a bunch of weeks there, there are many good observations, here is one of them:

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

And this:

The worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.

Do read the whole thing.

*The Body: A Guide for Occupants*

That is the title of the new Bill Bryson book, and it delivers in all the ways you would expect a Bryson book to do.  Here is one sample paragraph:

Before penicillin, the closest thing to a wonder drug that existed was Salvarsan, developed by the German immunologist Paul Ehrlich in 1910, but Salvarsan was effective against only a few things, principally syphilis, and had a lot of drawbacks.  For a start, it was made from arsenic, so was toxic, and treatment consisted in injecting roughly a pint of solution into the patient’s arm once a week for fifty weeks or more.  If it wasn’t administered exactly right, fluid could seep into muscle, causing painful and sometimes serious side effects, including the need for amputation.  Doctors who could administer it safely became celebrated.  Ironically, one of the most highly regarded was Alexander Fleming.

By the way:

…the average grave is visited for only about fifteen years…

You can pre-order the book here, I would be interested to read more about Bryson’s work, writing, and research habits.

EU markets in everything?

I had never heard about this before:

The controversial practice of picking corporate sponsors for the European Union‘s rotating presidency is to continue, despite an outcry from MEPs.

EU countries have been raising eyebrows by doing deals with increasingly controversial multinational corporations during their stints overseeing debates at the EU council.

Romania’s presidency in the first half of 2019 was sponsored by Coca-Cola, with the US drinks giant’s logo plastered over banners and signs at meetings. One council summit in Bucharest featured Coca-Cola branded bean bag chairs, and a fridge of free drinks plastered with statistics about the company’s contribution to the economy.

Other sponsors of the council presidency have included car manufacturers, software companies, and other firms with vested interests in influencing EU policy.

But hopes that the incoming Finnish presidency, which took the helm this summer, might end the practice, were dashed after it picked German car manufacturer BMW as a sponsor – despite the firm being hit with a fine over its cars’ diesel emissions earlier this year.

Here is the full story, via Jon Stone.

Profile of Raj Chetty

By Gareth Cook, interesting and excellent throughout, here is one good bit of many:

For example, the strongest correlation is the number of intact families. The explanation seems obvious: A second parent usually means higher family income as well as more stability, a broader social network, additional emotional support, and many other intangibles. Yet children’s upward mobility was strongly correlated with two-parent families only in the neighborhood, not necessarily in their home. There are so many things the data might be trying to say. Maybe fathers in a neighborhood serve as mentors and role models? Or maybe there is no causal connection at all. Perhaps, for example, places with strong church communities help kids while also fostering strong marriages. The same kinds of questions flow from every correlation; each one may mean many things. What is cause, what is effect, and what are we missing? Chetty’s microscope has revealed a new world, but not what animates it—or how to change it.

Here is the full piece.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.

And:

COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…