Month: October 2019

Cutting down a tree in California

”Anything that’s going to happen under this tree has to be addressed,” said Mr. Sartain, a third-generation arborist, surveying the tree’s 90-foot canopy with the cheerful, clinical detachment of your favorite pediatrician. ”There’s a lot of issues.”

Indeed, Mr. Sartain’s visit is only the first step in a process that will require the homeowner, who asked not to be named, to hire a private certified arborist at a cost of $500 to $2,000 to take pictures, prepare a report and perhaps to recommend protective pruning or other measures before a permit is issued and construction can proceed. Penalties for removing a tree like this, worth perhaps $100,000 under city guidelines because of its size and age, could force an offender to plant trees worth an equivalent amount.

Santa Clarita is not alone.

In the past 30 years, as development pressures increased, scores of California cities and counties from Thousand Oaks in the south to Santa Rosa in the north have passed ordinances protecting not only various species and sizes of oaks, but also sycamores, walnuts, eucalyptus and other trees with a zeal that might make the poet Joyce Kilmer blush.

The specifics vary widely, but the ordinances have one goal in common: protecting trees that are almost as storied in California as its redwoods and that have long been threatened by ranching, wine-making, suburban sprawl and, more recently, mysterious diseases.

Here is more from a 2001 NYT report.  Deregulating tree-cutting, of course, is one way to limit the number of California fires.

Via Elaine on Twitter.

The ebb and flow of political correctness doctrine

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

What caused the P.C. movement to stall after the ‘90s? One theory is that it was due to two particular events. First, a Democratic president was impeached for his sexual conduct with an intern. That made the left (at least temporarily) less interested in rooting out and punishing all abuses of power. Second, the attacks of Sept. 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new and different focal point for activist energy: first anti-terror, then anti-war.

The history of political correctness also shows that ideas can have a long genesis, as this essay by Musa al-Gharbi illustrates. The idea of sensitivity training, for instance, was created by Kurt Lewin in 1946-47, and later popularized by Carl Rogers in 1961. The notion of “safe spaces” started in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. The term “microaggressions” comes from Chester Pierce in 1974. It is possible that the phrase “identity politics” comes from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977.

The lesson here is clear: If you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game — don’t be too discouraged by momentary setbacks. For all the talk of America having a throwaway culture that moves rapidly from one idea to the next, the history of political correctness does not support that vision. It is possible for people to promote and sustain ideas to give them resonance and influence.

Please note I am trying to learn from the history of the movement, and it is not the point of this column to condemn it excesses (which are very real).

Do Social Media Harm the Mental Health of Youth? Probably Not.

Time spent on social media has been blamed for increased suicides and depression, just as were other new technologies and pastimes such as phones and Dungeons and Dragons.

… but is social media the real culprit? Or are we engaged in a moral panic, perhaps not understanding the root of the problem? One major limitation of the current literature is that the vast majority of research on SNSs and mental health are cross sectional and cannot speak to developmental change over time or direction of effects. Additionally, research to date rely on traditional regression techniques that model between-person relations among variables. These techniques ignore individual processes that are vital to our understanding of the true relationship between these variables. Thus, the aim of the current study is to test a causal model of the associations between time spent using social media and mental health (anxiety and depression), using both between and within subjects analyses, over an 8-year-period of time, encompassing the transition between adolescence and emerging adulthood.

That’s from an impressive, 8-year long study. It’s not a random experiment but this is the most credible research on the question I have read to date.

Of course, this raises the question of why mental health is down and fragility is up among the young. One answer is that the evidence on mental fragility is flimsy, which is true in general, but the data on suicides is reasonably good and suicides among youth have increased a lot since 2000. I’m not sure of the answers but although social media fit the time trend I now down weight that explanation.

Hat tip: The awesome Rolf Degen.

The economic effects of private equity buyouts

We examine thousands of U.S. private equity (PE) buyouts from 1980 to 2013, a period that saw huge swings in credit market tightness and GDP growth. Our results show striking, systematic differences in the real-side effects of PE buyouts, depending on buyout type and external conditions. Employment at target firms shrinks 13% over two years in buyouts of publicly listed firms but expands 13% in buyouts of privately held firms, both relative to contemporaneous outcomes at control firms. Labor productivity rises 8% at targets over two years post buyout (again, relative to controls), with large gains for both public-to-private and private-to-private buyouts. Target productivity gains are larger yet for deals executed amidst tight credit conditions. A post-buyout widening of credit spreads or slowdown in GDP growth lowers employment growth at targets and sharply curtails productivity gains in public-to-private and divisional buyouts. Average earnings per worker fall by 1.7% at target firms after buyouts, largely erasing a pre-buyout wage premium relative to controls. Wage effects are also heterogeneous. In these and other respects, the economic effects of private equity vary greatly by buyout type and with external conditions.

That is from a new paper by Steven J. Davis, John Haltiwanger, Kyle Handley, Josh Lerner, Ben Lipsius, and Javier Miranda.  Via John Chamberlain.

My education podcast with Can Olcer

#7 Tyler Cowen (GMU) on less homework, Swiss science culture, and low university completion rates

In this episode with Tyler Cowen we talk about a broad range of topics. For example, why it’s important that students have less homework, the Swiss science culture, and the low university completion rates.

Here is the link, here is Can on Twitter.  Can currently runs Kosmos School, a K-12 science school realized through Virtual Reality.

How many NBA players have tweeted in support of Hong Kong?

As I am writing this post, zero (perhaps someone has done so by the time this pops up, but it won’t have been much).  And yet there are about 300 players on opening day NBA rosters, more in the preseason of course, maybe 450?

Presumably the league has, either directly or indirectly, told them not to run off at the mouth on this topic.

I don’t feel I am trafficking in unjust stereotypes to note that many of these guys are pretty big, pretty tough, and not so used to being pushed around.  They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and also countries and income classes.

One hypothesis is that all three hundred of these individuals are craven cowards, worthy of our scorn.  Maybe.

Another hypothesis, closer to my view, is that it has turned out sports leagues (and players) are neither the most efficient nor the most just way to combat social and political problems related to China.

There is plenty of worthwhile China-related legislation and regulation on tap, including expanding the role for CFIUS, discouraging our allies from using Huawei 5G, and protesting against American companies working in Xinjiang (and yes that does include the NBA training camp there).  Human rights legislation related to Xinjiang is another plausible option, though I have not studied the details of those proposals.

It is fine to favor those and other measures — in conjunction with our allies as much as possible — while simultaneously thinking this is not the NBA’s fight.  Trump himself is far more “anti-China” than any other U.S. president in recent times, and he too decided to push this issue aside.

Should you really feel so much better about “the NBA standing up to China” if they are doing it because the U.S. Congress has intimidated them into this new form of “free speech”?

What I observe happening is that many people have been “dropping the ball” on China for years.  A highly visible issue comes up, and one where they also can take a potshot at multinational corporations.  So they take an isolated stand on an isolated case, mood affiliating on two different issues at once, namely “stand up to China,” and “criticize corporations for their craven corruptness.”

I say think through the problem in the broadest possible terms.  The approach of “sound coordinated measures through our government and its allies, while retaining commercial friendliness and political neutrality for MNCs” is in fact a pretty good one.  It could be much worse, and most likely it soon will be so.

My Conversation with Ben Westhoff

Truly an excellent episode, Ben is an author and journalist.  Here is the audio and transcript, covering most of all the opioid epidemic and rap music, but not only.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: But if so much fentanyl comes from China, and you can just send it through the mail, why doesn’t it spread automatically wherever it’s going to go? Is it some kind of recommender network? It wouldn’t seem that it’s a supply constraint. It’s more like someone told you about a restaurant they ate at last night.

WESTHOFF: It’s because the Mexican cartels are still really strongly in the trade. Even though it’s all made in China, much of it is trafficked through the cartels, who buy the precursors, the fentanyl ingredients, from China, make it the rest of the way. Then they send it through the border into the US.

You can get fentanyl in the mail from China, and many people do. It comes right to your door through the US Postal Service. But it takes a certain level of sophistication with the drug dealers to pull that off.

COWEN: It’s such a big life decision, and it’s shaped by this very small cost of getting a package from New Hampshire to Florida. What should we infer about human nature as a result of that? What’s your model of the human beings doing this stuff if those geographic differences really make the difference for whether or not you do this and destroy your life?

WESTHOFF: Well, everything is local, right? Not just politics. You’re influenced by the people around you and the relative costs. In St. Louis, it’s so incredibly cheap, like $5 to get some heroin, some fentanyl. I don’t know how it works in, say, New Hampshire, but I know in places like West Virginia, it’s still a primarily pill market. People don’t use powdered heroin, for example. For whatever reason, they prefer Oxycontin. So that has affected the market, too.


COWEN: Did New Zealand do the right thing, legalizing so many synthetic drugs in 2013?

WESTHOFF: I absolutely think they did. It was an unprecedented thing. Now drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, all the drugs you’ve heard of, are internationally banned. But what New Zealand did was it legalized these forms of synthetic marijuana. So synthetic marijuana has a really bad reputation. It goes by names like K2 and Spice, and it’s big in homeless populations. It’s causing huge problems in places like DC.

But if you make synthetic marijuana right, as this character in my book named Matt Bowden was doing in New Zealand, you can actually make it so it’s less toxic, so it’s somewhat safe. That’s what he did. They legalized these safer forms of it, and the overdose rate plummeted. Very shortly thereafter, however, they banned them again, and now deaths from synthetic marijuana in New Zealand have gone way up.

COWEN: And what about Portugal and Slovenia — their experiments in decriminalization? How have those gone?

WESTHOFF: By all accounts, they’ve been massive successes. Portugal had this huge problem with heroin, talking like one out of every 100 members of the population was touched by it, or something like that. And now those rates have gone way down.

In Slovenia, they have no fentanyl problem. They barely have an opioid problem. Their rates of AIDS and other diseases passed through needles have gone way down.

And on rap music:

COWEN: This question is maybe a little difficult to explain, but wherein lies the musical talent of hip-hop? If we look at Mozart, there’s melody, there’s harmony. If you listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it’s something very specifically rhythmic, and the textures, and the organization of the blocks of sound. The poetry aside, what is it musically that accounts for the talent in rap music?

WESTHOFF: First of all, riding a beat, rapping, if you will, is extremely hard, and anyone who’s ever tried to do it will tell you. You have to have the right cadence. You have to have the right breath control, and it’s a talent. There’s also — this might sound trivial, but picking the right music to rap over.

So hip-hop, of course, is a genre that’s made up of other genres. In the beginning, it was disco records that people used. And then jazz, and then on and on. Rock records have been rapped over, even. But what song are you going to pick to use? And if someone has a good ear for a sound that goes with their style, that’s something you can’t teach.

And yes on overrated vs. underrated, you get Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood, and Seinfeld, among others.  I highly recommend all of Ben’s books, but most of all his latest one Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.

Get Government Out of the Construction Business

USA Today: Nearly three years after city voters approved a $1.2 billion construction program over 10 years, the city has  yet to see the first building completed. Average per-apartment costs have zoomed more than $100,000 past prior predictions, the study by city Controller Ron Galperin finds.

…At an average cost of $531,373 per unit – with many apartments costing more than $600,000 each –  building costs of many of the homeless units will exceed the median sale price of a market-rate condominium.

…Prices rose dramatically because of higher-than-expected costs for items other than actual construction, such as consultants and financing. Those items comprise up to 40% of the cost of a project, the study found. By contrast, land acquisition costs averaged only 11% of the total costs.

Based on a recent audit of the program.

It’s absurd for a government to be building houses, a task for which it is manifestly unsuited. What the government should be doing is easing restrictions on building, improving public transportation which increases the supply of effective housing and dealing with any shortfalls by using housing vouchers.