Nashville: Snitch City

In Nashville, complaints about vague code violations can be made anonymously. The city gets fine revenue. There are a mix of black and white, poor and rich residents, and newly gentrifying neighborhoods. The result: a perfect brew for evil busybodies, meddlers, and assholes trying to leverage the power of the state to make a buck. A story to make you mad as hell from the great Radley Balko.

…to get to the main problem, I have to take the couple’s long driveway up to the house and enter the backyard to find the carport that extends out from the home. Benford spends a lot of time under the carport. He works on the Coronet here. He tinkers at his workbench and listens to the radio. On the blistering June day I visit, it isn’t hard to see why he likes it. The trees provide shade, rustle up a nice breeze, and bathe the area in dappled light. As we talk, the couple’s lab mix Bella patrols a T-shaped patch of grass.

“See that mini fridge over there? He wrote me up for that,” Benford says, referring to the Codes inspector. “I never heard of something so dumb. A man can’t have a mini fridge in his own garage?”

Benford sighs, rolls his eyes, and continues. “He wrote me up for having tools out here. Said you can’t have tools that aren’t put away. He said I can’t have the work bench. Once I was drinking a can of soda when he came over. He told me to put it away. You believe that? I’m a grown man, and you’re telling me to put away my soda. Everything you see out here, they told me I can’t have.”

Benford’s hardly a hoarder. At worst, you could say the carport has some clutter. There are a few chairs, some tools, a grill and a couple empty kerosene tanks. In 2018, his wife suffered a fall in the shower, hit her head, and sustained injuries that required brain surgery and a long convalescence. Benford himself recently had knee surgery. So there’s also a walker, a cane and assorted medical devices.

The structure is enclosed by the house on one side. The other three sides are open. And that, apparently, is the problem. “If that was an enclosed garage, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says Jamie Hollin, the couple’s attorney. “But they can’t afford to build a garage. So the city won’t leave them alone.” The carport isn’t visible from any public space, and as far as I could tell, the surrounding neighbors would have to strain to see it.

…Those reports attracted the attention of a particular Codes inspector, who then became a thorn in the couple’s side for nearly two decades. “At first he’d only come around when she called in a complaint,” Benford says. “But then he just started showing up on his own. He’d just come into the backyard and start telling me to put things away. Neighbors told me he’d sometimes park in their driveway and watch us with binoculars.”

The Coronet also became an issue. Nashville prohibits residents from keeping inoperable or unregistered vehicles on residential properties unless they’re stored in an enclosed garage. Paradoxically, the city also forbids residents from making major repairs on their own vehicles — again, unless it’s done in an enclosed garage. For Benford, that means when the Coronet has broken down over the years, his only legal option is to have it towed to a garage and pay someone else to fix it, even though he has the skills to fix it himself. According to Benford, the same Codes inspector has repeatedly shown up at his home over the years solely to demand that Benford prove that the car is operable. “I lost count of how many times he made me do that,” Benford says. “More than 20.”

“It’s just outrageous and demeaning,” says Hollin. “You’re going to come out and make this man start his car for you on command? You’re going to put a lien on this couple’s home over an old car? Some chairs in a carport? A goddamn refrigerator?”

That is just one example:

…Because complaints are anonymous, it’s almost impossible to prove who filed them. But in 2019, Nashville’s Fox affiliate WZTV ran a series of reports alleging that developers have been weaponizing codes to target properties they want to acquire. Two reports focused on Evelyn Suggs, a beloved, then-94-year-old Black landlord in North Nashville. Suggs told the station several of her properties had recently been hit with a rash of Codes complaints. Shortly after, developers began contacting her with offers to buy those properties. Some made reference to her battles with Codes. Other local residents, including Freddie Benford, have similar stories.

It’s possible that these developers simply scoured the complaints and court records available online to find property owners with fines, then made offers to those owners. But Burt, the local builder, says he’s witnessed it firsthand. “It absolutely happens,” he says. “I’d go so far as to say it’s common. I’ve personally heard developers boast about ‘lighting up Codes’ on a property they want to buy.”

Advocates like Weiss and Maurer say this is common in other places. “It’s just eminent domain by another name,” Maurer says. “Instead of officially declaring a property blighted and handing it over to a developer, you just hit it with codes complaints until the owner is overwhelmed.”

Now on top of this nonsense add vaguely written regulations and an administrative system that thinks it’s a court but isn’t subject to any due process or oversight.

Property rights aren’t simply about buying and selling for profit they are about privacy, individuality and freedom from busybodies. The urge to collectivize all decisions is a curse. Property rights, they make good neighbors.

Addendum: Yes I am in a bad mood today. I am, however, pleased to have played a very small role in the story. Read the whole thing for more.

They modeled this

…we demonstrate that individuals who hold very strict norms of honesty are more likely to lie to the maximal extent. Further, countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict civic norms have proportionally more societal-level rule violations. We show that our findings are consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If perceived norms are so strict that they do not differentiate between small and large violations, then, conditional on a violation occurring, a large violation is individually optimal.

Life at the margin!  That is from a new paper by Diego Aycinena, Lucas Rentschler, Benjamin Beranek, and Jonathan F. Schulz.

*The Case Against the Sexual Revolution*

The author is Louise Perry and the subtitle is A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.  Definitely recommended, here is Louise’s brief summary of part of the book’s arguments:

In this book I’m going to ask — and seek to answer — some questions about freedom that liberal feminism can’t or won’t answer: Why do so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests?  What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might like to think?  What do we lose when we prioritise freedom above all else?  And, above all, how should we act, given all this?

Some of my conclusions might not be welcome, since they draw attention to the hard limits on our freedom that can’t be surmounted, however much we try.  And I start from a position that historically has often been a source of discomfort for feminists of all ideological persuasions: I accept the fact that men and women are different, and that those differences aren’t going away.

This book is very well written and I believe it will make a big splash.  I am closer to a consent, libertarian viewpoint than is the author but still I read this eagerly.  Here is Louise Perry debating Aella about the sexual revolution on YouTube.  A smart set of exchanges.

Friday assorted links

1. An AI avatar makes a video pitch to me.  So far I have declined.

2. “In 1858 the Foreign Office had a staff of 43. By 1902, at the almost peak for the British Empire the headcount was down to 42. Today it’s somewhere over 10,000.”  Link here.

3. Progress Studies and MIT.

4. Does just thinking of uncertainty make uncertainty worse?

5. Alice Evans podcast with Daron Acemoglu.

6. The new temperance movement.

7. Howard Rosenthal has passed away.

8. A CWT parable.  Related to Honduras and charter cities.

Have we seen peak social media?

That is the question I raise in my latest Bloomberg column.  Please note it is one scenario, not a prediction.  Here is one bit:

If I consider my own social media use, it is WhatsApp (also owned by Meta) that is steadily on the rise, which is consistent with the trend toward private and small-group messaging.

So is writing for a private, selected audience poised to eclipse writing for a broader public on social media? What would more private messaging, more texting and more locked social media accounts mean for public discourse?

Public intellectuals might still write on open social media, but the sector as a whole would shift toward more personal and intimate forms of communication. Again, this is not a prediction. But is it such an implausible vision of the future?

One of the more robust forms of social media is online dating, though these companies do not have the largest valuations. The percentage of couples who have met online continues to rise, and that trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. But online dating may not be as “social” as other forms of social media: People view some profiles and then switch fairly rapidly to private communications.

Private communications would seem to solve many of the problems cited by critics of social media. Social media wouldn’t corrupt so much public discourse because there would less public discourse to corrupt. And criticizing the new manifestations of these (formerly?) social media platforms would be akin to criticizing communication itself.

I do consider video, YouTube, and TikTok, all likely to prove robust in my view, in the broader piece.

What is wrong in this picture?

Developers in west London face a potential ban on new housing projects until 2035 because the electricity grid has run out of capacity to support new homes, jeopardising housebuilding targets in the capital.

The Greater London Authority wrote to developers this week warning them that it might take more than a decade to bulk up grid capacity and get developments under way again in three west London boroughs — Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow.

Here is more from the FT.  Via Patrick Collison, #punycivilization.

The climate segment of the new bill

The bill aims to tackle global warming by using billions of dollars in tax incentives to ramp up wind, solar, geothermal, battery and other clean energy industries over the next decade. Companies would receive financial incentives to keep open nuclear plants that might have closed, or to capture emissions from industrial facilities and bury them underground before they can warm the planet. Car buyers with incomes below a certain level would receive a $7,500 tax credit to purchase a new electric vehicle and $4,000 for a used one. Americans would receive rebates to install heat pumps and make their homes more energy-efficient.

I would like to know more details, most of all about how things actually happen (for instance can they succeed in keeping the nuclear plants open?).  At the very least I will reiterate my oft-repeated claim that the age of policy gridlock has been dead for some while.  (And Congress just passed the Chips and Science Act.)  Here is the full NYT story.  I do hope to cover the new bill more as details come out, but in terms of broad sweep most of the basic ideas already have been analyzed on MR.

*The Messenger*

The author is Peter Loftus, and the subtitle is Moderna, the Vaccine, and the Business Gamble That Changed the World.  An excellent book, here is one very short excerpt:

The FDA usually follows a rigid process of interacting with the drug companies it regulates.  Normally, it can take months for a company to schedule an in-person meeting with the FDA.

Culture dies hard, here is Alex on the Invisible Graveyard.  And this:

…Moderna executives expressed confidence they could hit the enrollment targets without significantly slowing down overall enrollment.  But Fauci and Slaoui said they actually wanted Moderna to slow down overall enrollment in order to ensure they enrolled more minorities.

The book estimates the delay here at three weeks — how many lives was that in winter of 2020/2021?

Thursday assorted links

1. Ed Coulson, an urban/housing economist at UC Irvine, now has a Jeopardy winning streak.

2.”We’re currently running a prize at Open Philanthropy (https://www.causeexplorationprizes.com) for people to suggest new cause areas for us to explore on the global health and wellbeing side. We’ve extended the deadline for submissions to August 11th, and we’d love to see as many people applying as possible!”

3. Who deserves a festschrift more than David Gordon?

4. How Wikipedia influences judicial decisions.

5. NYT covers Barbados at length.  Parts are very good, but it no longer seems allowed to criticize Caribbean nations for making their own policy mistakes.  A useful but in some ways deeply misleading article.  At what level does the “censorship” enter?  The incentives of the writer or the world view of the writer?  I suspect it is the latter.

6. Austin Vernon on paths for geothermal.

Economics of Ideas, Science and Innovation Online PhD Short Course

The Institute for Progress is hosting a six week course on the economics of ideas, science and innovation taught at the PhD level by Pierre Azoulay, Matt Clancy, Ina Ganguli, Benjamin Jones, and Heidi Williams. What an all star-cast! The syllabus is excellent. The course is aimed at first year or more PhD students. More details here.

The Covidization of science?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a massive mobilization of the scientific workforce. We evaluated the citation impact of COVID-19 publications relative to all scientific work published in 2020 to 2021, finding that 20% of citations received to papers published in 2020 to 2021 were to COVID-19–related papers. Across science, 98 of the 100 most-cited papers published in 2020 to 2021 were related to COVID-19. A large number of scientists received large numbers of citations to their COVID-19 work, often exceeding the citations they had received to all their work during their entire career. We document a strong covidization of research citations across science.

Here is the full article, by John P.A. Ionnidis, et.al., via Michelle Dawson.

My Conversation with Leopoldo López

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

As an inquisitive reader, books were a cherished commodity for Leopoldo López when he was a political prisoner in his home country of Venezuela. His prison guards eventually observed the strength and focus López gained from reading. In an attempt to stifle his spirit, the guards confiscated his books and locked them in a neighboring cell where he could see but not access them. But López didn’t let this stop him from writing or discourage his resolve to fight for freedom. A Venezuelan opposition leader and freedom activist, today López works to research and resist oppressive autocratic regimes globally.

López joined Tyler to discuss Venezuela’s recent political and economic history, the effectiveness of sanctions, his experiences in politics and activism, how happiness is about finding purpose, how he organized a protest from prison, the ideal daily routine of a political prisoner, how extreme sports prepared him for prison, his work to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: In 1970, you were richer than Spain, Greece, or Israel, which I find remarkable. But do you, today, ever look, say, at Qatar or United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and think the problem actually was democracy, and that here are oil-rich places that have stayed stable, in fact, but through autocratic rule, and that it’s the intermediate situation that doesn’t work?

LÓPEZ: Well, I think that I, personally, will always be in favor of a democratic regime, a democratic system that promotes a rule of law, the respect for human rights, the respect of freedoms. I think that’s a priority. For me it is, and I believe it’s a priority also for the large, large majority of the Venezuelan people that want to live in a democracy.

However, there has been great mismanagement due to misconceptions of the economy, to a state-led economy that did not open possibilities for a private sector to flourish independently of the state, but also with the level of corruption that we have seen, particularly over the past 22 years — it’s what has led Venezuela to the situation in which we are.

In Venezuela, you could argue that we did much, much better economically, and in terms of all of the social and economic standards, than what happened during these last 20 years of autocracy. This autocracy had the largest windfall and the largest humanitarian crisis.

During the democratic period of 40 years, Venezuela became one of the most literate countries in Latin America, with the largest amount of professionals being graduated every year, with the best in social, health, and education standards, vaccination rates, housing programs that were in Latin America. So, we did perform much better under the democratic period than has been the performance by any means in the autocratic regimes of the last 22 years.

Interesting throughout.

Ireland fact of the day

It appears that, in 2020, Ireland overtook South Africa as having the latest marrying couples worldwide.

The average age for a groom is 37.8 and for a bride is 35.7, for opposite-sex couples. This is the fairer comparison because same-sex marriages obviously aren’t allowed everywhere and are less relevant to reproduction.

37.8!

If you consider first-time marriages only, the average age of grooms marrying for the first time was 35.7 years and for brides the average age was 34.2 years.  By comparison, for first-time marriages the United States is 30.5 for males and 28.6 for females.

That is from Sam Enright, with an assist from Fergus McCullough.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Jimena Hurtado interviews me (briefly) about my life, and Colombia.

2. Significant new academic paper on the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy.

3. Possibly Germany is rethinking its nuclear power exit? (FT)

4. “I Share, Therefore I Know? Sharing Online Content — Even Without Reading It — Inflates Subjective Knowledge.”  Link here.  Has to be true, right?

5. Did Sharia law benefit northern Nigeria?

6. Even Bangladesh is asking for IMF support.