Why are skyscrapers so short?

Brian Potter has a delightful primer on the physical, economic and regulatory barriers to building height beginning with the Great Pyramid of Giza and running to today. He concludes that the limit today isn’t technological–we could build much higher–but regulatory:

…we can estimate the magnitude of building height restrictions by comparing the cost of rent to the marginal cost of adding an additional floor. When Glaeser et al. 2005 did this for Manhattan, they found that the cost of rent was approximately twice the marginal cost of an additional floor, concluding, “the best explanation for why [developers] do not take advantage of this opportunity is the reason they tell us themselves: New York’s maze of building regulations effectively cap their building heights.” Cheshire et al. 2007 found similar magnitudes of rent-to-cost ratios in a variety of major European cities. When Glaeser et al. tried to estimate the size of building height externalities in New York, they concluded it was nowhere near the magnitude of the rent/construction cost difference, suggesting current height limits are far stricter than necessary.

These building height restrictions make us all poorer – not only do they cause a deadweight loss by artificially restricting the supply of available building space where it’s needed the most, but they also screen off the potential agglomeration benefits that accrue from increased density. This makes workers and businesses less productive and innovative than they could be, which not only hurts them, but everyone else who would benefit from cheaper and better goods and services.

The upshot is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in building taller buildings. We don’t need to invent any new technology for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to build, we just need to stop getting in our own way.

I concluded the same thing when I looked at building height in Mumbai, India. This video also contains a very nice explanation of the Floor Space Index also known as the Floor Area Ratio.

What drives people to extremist YouTube videos?

There is a new and very interesting paper on this topic by Annie Y. Chen, Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Ronald E. Robertson and Christo Wilson.  Here is the abstract:

Do online platforms facilitate the consumption of potentially harmful content? Despite widespread concerns that YouTube’s algorithms send people down “rabbit holes” with recommendations to extremist videos, little systematic evidence exists to support this conjecture. Using paired behavioral and survey data provided by participants recruited from a representative sample (n=1,181), we show that exposure to alternative and extremist channel videos on YouTube is heavily concentrated among a small group of people with high prior levels of gender and racial resentment. These viewers typically subscribe to these channels (causing YouTube to recommend their videos more often) and often follow external links to them. Contrary to the “rabbit holes” narrative, non-subscribers are rarely recommended videos from alternative and extremist channels and seldom follow such recommendations when offered.

I am traveling and have not had the chance to read this paper, but I do know the authors are very able.  I am not saying this is the final word, but I would make the following observation: there are many claims made about social media, and many of them might be true, but for the most part they are still largely unfounded.

Local changes in intergenerational mobility

We study changes in intergenerational income mobility over time at the local level in the U.S., using data on individuals born in the 1980s. Previous research has found no change in mobility at the national level during this time period, but we show that this hides substantial increases and decreases in mobility at the local level. For children from low-income families, there is convergence in mobility over time, and average differences by region become much smaller. For children from high-income families, the geographic variation in mobility becomes much larger. Our results suggest caution in treating mobility as a fixed characteristic of a place.

Here is the published piece by Christopher Hnady and Katharine L. Shester.  As for a few concrete results:

1. Mobility in the southeast has been rising.

2. Mobility in the northeast has been declining.

3. There is more mobility from rural than urban areas, and this gap has been rising.

4. For wealthier families, mobility depends more on where you live.

For most of these claims, the data are from cohorts born in the 1980s.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Graveyard Clay* [Cré na Cille]

The author is Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and I am surprised how compelling I am finding this novel, translated from the Irish.  The premise is that the dead inhabitants of a graveyard complain and bicker about their lot, most of all about the new arrivals sent their way.  Dear reader, these are NIMBY dead people.  Imagine Dante’s Inferno, but instead of the elegant circles of hell it resembles the kind of squabbling and black humor you might find in a cranky Irish pub.

Excerpt:

I wonder what sort of funeral I had?  I won’t know until the next corpse I’m acquainted with arrives.  It’s high time now for someone to come.

This is a well-known novel, especially in Ireland, and often it is considered the best Irish-language novel of all time.  But I’ve never heard people telling other people they ought to read it, and in that sense it doesn’t seem so very well known in the United States at all.  This is the translation I have been enjoying.

The pull of the equilibrium?

Man who never wanted to ride in fighter jet accidentally ejects himself

A man who was terrified by his retirement gift from co-workers — a ride in a fighter jet — grabbed the ejector handle in a panic and was launched through the skies 2,500 feet above the ground, says the official government report on the incident.

The ride on March 20, 2019, had been arranged as a surprise gift to the 64-year-old man, who was leaving his job at a French defense contractor. His co-workers took him to the Saint-Dizier air base, 100 miles east of Paris, and announced he would be flying in a Dassault Rafale B.

The man had never expressed any desire to fly in a fighter jet and had no military aviation experience, said the report  by investigators for France’s aviation safety agency…

Safety checks were apparently lax, and he was allowed to adjust his own gear. His helmet strap was unfastened, his  oxygen mask unattached, his visor was up, and his seat  harness was loose.

On takeoff, the pilot and passenger were subjected to 4 Gs. Leveling off around 2,500 feet, that dropped to negative 0.6 Gs, a feeling of weightlessness. At that point, said a translated version of the report, “the insufficiently strapped and totally surprised passenger” grabbed for the nearest handle — which turned out to activate the ejector seat.

He landed in a field near the German border with only minor injuries.  Here is the full story.

New developments in the economics of fertility

The economics of fertility has entered a new era because these stylized facts no longer universally hold. In high-income countries, the income-fertility relationship has flattened and in some cases reversed, and the cross-country relationship between women’s labor force participation and fertility is now positive. We summarize these new facts and describe new models that are designed to address them.

That is from a new NBER paper by Matthias Doepke, Anne Hannusch, Fabian Kindermann, and Michèle Tertilt . Another result is that quality vs. quantity tradeoff models for children no longer perform very well.  And fertility-education relationships are greatly weakened, just as the income-fertility relationships are.  The marketization of childcare is likely an important cause of this shift.

Italy and Spain are two countries where the income-fertility relationship is not being reversed.

Father contribution rates to child-raising are growing in importance for fertility.  Fathers seem most interested in their children in Norway, and least interested in Russia, of the countries sampled.

If a couple disagrees on having another kid, the chance they do is relatively small.

In Denmark in 2015, six percent of all births occurred with some kind of medical help related to conception.

There are now positive correlations between public childcare provision, though I do not in this paper see any reliable causal estimate.

The paper has a section on social norms, but it oddly fails to consider religion.

There is some evidence for peer effects mattering for fertility, for instance in a workplace.

98 pp. of text, perhaps no huge revelations, but interesting throughout.

A devil may care attitude?

A Pennsylvania school district has voted against a parent’s request to launch a satanic group’s After School Satan Club at an elementary school for students who want to participate in an extracurricular program that is non-religious.

In an 8-1 vote Tuesday, the Northern York County School Board based in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, rejected the request to establish an “After School Satan Club” at the district’s Northern Elementary School.

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting indicates that Samantha Groome sought to establish the club on a “probationary basis.” A video clip of the school board meeting, obtained by the York Daily Record, shows parents and others gathered in the crowd standing up and erupting into applause after the effort to create the satanic club was defeated.

Groome said she wanted her children to be able to participate in extracurricular activities, but sought a secular alternative to the Joy El Christian club, which operates at nine of the 16 school districts in the county and offers off-campus activities.

And:

The flyer touted some of the activities participants would engage in, including “science projects,” “puzzles games,” and “arts and crafts projects,” and listed “benevolence and empathy,” “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” “creative expression” and “personal sovereignty” as concepts children will learn there. It also asserted that the United States Constitution protects the After School Satan Club’s right to distribute flyers on public school grounds.

Here is the full story, via a loyal MR reader.

There is No Pink Tax

The so-called pink tax is an alleged tendency for products consumed by women to be more expensive than similar products consumed by men. In 2015 NYC put out a study under mayor Bill DeBlasio alleging a 7% pink tax across a range of goods. The pink tax is implausible. Products produced in competitive markets will be close to marginal cost. Even if firms have monopoly power it’s not obvious that women have systematically more inelastic demand curves–indeed, the stereotype tends to be that women are the more careful shoppers. Preferences differ systematically across genders leading to subtly different products even in categories which appear similar on the surface. To give just one example, the NYC study compared the price of a single 2-in-1 men’s shampoo+conditioner product to the combined price of a women’ shampoo plus a women’s conditioner (oz per oz). Give me a break. There are reasons why a one-and-done hair product appeals to men more than to women and why this will also be correlated with other characteristics which make the all in one product different and likely of lower quality.

In anycase, economists Sarah Moshary, Anna Tuchman and Natasha Bhatia have done a much more complete and careful study and they find that once you control for ingredients and compare like-to-like there is no pink tax. Indeed, sometimes men pay a bit more. Overall, there are no big savings from cross-buying. Women and men could save money by buying products primarily marketed to the opposite gender–like 2-in-1 shampoo+conditioner–but only by buying products that they prefer less than the products they choose to buy.

We find that the pink gap is often negative; men’s products command higher per-product prices in six of nine categories that we study and higher unit prices in three of nine categories. We then estimate the pink tax via a comparison of products manufactured by the same firm and comprising the same leading ingredients. Men’s products are more expensive in three of five categories when we control for ingredients. These findings do not support the existence of a systematic price premium for women’s products, but our results do reveal that gender segmentation in personal care is pervasive and operates through product differentiation. A back-of-the-envelope calculation implies that the average household would save 1% by switching to substantially similar products targeted to a different gender.

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence must evolve

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, about 3x the normal length.  Here is one excerpt:

From the vantage point of 2022, it is clear that the norms doctrine, while it served useful functions for decades — just as did the MAD doctrine — has its limitations. The most obvious is that norms tend to weaken and eventually collapse.

Once the use of nuclear weapons became classified as “unthinkable,” political actors tried to extend that designation to other kinds of weapons. In doing so, they weakened the concept of unthinkability. The broader category of “weapons of mass destruction,” for example, was also supposed to be unthinkable. Yet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This led some countries to support Iran, but Saddam remained in power until former President George W. Bush led the war against Iraq roughly two decades later.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin that they should agree that chemical weapons should not be deployed in Syria, as that would constitute a “red line.” Syria went ahead and used them, and there was no major kinetic U.S. military response, thereby erasing that red line and possibly others.

The pattern is evident: Once the category of “unthinkable” weapons is created, it is expanded so much that it loses its credibility. Politicians tend to spend down the reputational capital that their predecessors build up.

And:

Another problem with the norms doctrine is that, sooner or later, there is value in breaking a norm — precisely because the norm was successful.

Think back to your high school. Your teachers probably set up behavioral norms that most everyone followed. That left room for a rebel who dared to defy those norms, if only for attention and to signal non-conformity.

With nuclear weapons, it’s not as if Putin or some other political “rebel” would use a bomb to make a point or to seem cool. Rather, Putin has been finding it useful to threaten the West and NATO with possible nuclear weapons use. If enough scary threats are issued, the use of nuclear weapons no longer seems unthinkable. And as the unthinkability norm erodes, eventually someone — Putin or not — may use nukes.

Finally, as mentioned above, the norms doctrine assumed the major nuclear powers all had a stake in a status quo…

Cameo by Thomas Schelling!

Those now-automated service sector jobs?

Arshia Khan asked a group of older adults in Minnesota what they would like in a nursing home, and their answer surprised her. They wanted standup comedy, but not just any comedy: They wanted off-color jokes.

Dr. Khan, a professor of computer science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, programs robots to work in nursing homes.

On a March afternoon in her lab, surrounded by a dozen robots of different sizes and designs, Dr. Khan asked one to show off its stuff. The robot, a four-foot-tall white plastic figure named Pepper, with a tablet screen in its chest, blinked its eyes and wiggled its hips.

“So, which one of you requested the dirty jokes?” Pepper asked, in a computer voice.

There followed a risqué joke about the robot’s relationship with its charging plug, and another about an unhappy date with a Tesla (too conceited). After each, the robot giggled. “I went on a date with a Roomba last week,” the robot said, gesticulating with its arms. Pause. “It totally sucked.”

But alas:

Later this year, pending approval from the university’s institutional review board, 16 of Dr. Khan’s robots will go to eight nursing homes around the state — though without the off-color jokes.

Here is the full NYT story, via a loyal MR reader.

Polyester facts of the day

Four decades later, polyester rules the textile world. It accounts for more than half of global fiber consumption, about twice that of second-place cotton. Output stands at nearly 58 million tons a year, more than 10 times what it was in the early ’80s. And nobody complains about polyester’s look and feel. If there’s a problem today, it’s that people like polyester too much. It’s everywhere, even at the bottom of the ocean.

Here is more from Virginia Postrel.  That is from the new issue of Works in Progress, which has many interesting pieces, recommended.

My excellent Conversation with Thomas Piketty

Lots of disagreement in this episode, though always polite.  Here is the transcript, video, and audio.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss just how egalitarian France actually is, the beginning of the end of aristocratic society, where he places himself within French intellectual history, why he’s skeptical of data from before the late 18th century, how public education drives economic development, why Georgism isn’t sufficient to address wealth inequality, the relationship between wealth and cultural capital, his proposal for a minimum inheritance, why he turned down the Legion of Honor, why France should give reparations to Haiti despite the logistical difficulties of doing so, his vision for European federalism, why more immigration won’t be a panacea for inequality, his thoughts on Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I visit every major country in Europe, what I observe is the highest living standard is arguably in Switzerland — Norway and Luxembourg aside. Switzerland has one of the smallest governments, and they attempt relatively little redistribution. What is your understanding of Switzerland? What if someone said, “Well, Europe should try to be more like Switzerland. They’re doing great.” Why is that wrong?

PIKETTY: Oh, Switzerland. It’s a very small country, so it’s about the size. . . . Actually, it’s smaller than Île-de-France, which is a Paris region. Now, if you were to make a separate country out of Île-de-France, GDP per capita, I think, would actually be higher than Switzerland. Of course, you can take a wealthy region in your country and say, “Okay, I don’t want to share anything with the rest of the country. I’m going to keep my tax revenue for me. I’m going to be a tax haven based on bank secrecy.” That’s going to make you 10 percent or 20 percent richer. I’m not saying —

COWEN: It’s been a long time since Switzerland relied on bank secrecy, right? Following 9/11, that Swiss advantage largely went away.

PIKETTY: Oh, that’s wrong. Oh, you’re wrong on this.

We talk about Matt Rognlie and Greg Clark as well.  Recommended, this was fun for me to reread.

Further jobs with your voice

I’m a re-recording mixer and sound mixer so I can confirm that the people who provide such specialized voice talents are amazing. There are also many more varieties: one of the films I mixed featured a dog as a lead character. There are two people who are known for their abilities to mimic dogs and make between 5 and 10 thousand dollars a day.

There are also the amazing people who work in “loop groups”. They provide the background chatter that you hear in any scene with more than a few people. Whether it’s a scene with a few people in an office, or a large group in a restaurant, they have to provide talking without actually saying any identifiable words. It’s particularly important as many countries, especially Germany, will block any films that have identifiable English in the sound files. These background vocals are known as “walla”.

That is from Michael Farnan in the comments.