Populism vs. popularity

There are many adjectives that can be used to describe the Trump administration, but “popular” isn’t one of them. The protests against Trump have attracted historically large numbers of people.

Some people have cited the strength of this opposition as evidence that Trump isn’t really a fascist, or at least not a good one. But I’m not convinced.

Steve Bannon is a dangerous man

Steve Bannon is a dangerous man.

This is not news, or at least I hope it isn’t. We’re talking about a man who has called himself a Leninist; who wants to “destroy the state”, and “bring everything crashing down”. We’re talking about a man who unironically compared himself to Darth Vader and Satan. We’re talking about a man who, before joining the Trump administration, was most famous as the head of a far-right propaganda outfit, and who has since called for the media to “keep its mouth shut”.

Before January 20, pundits observed that Trump seemed to be setting up conflicting power centers among his advisors and subordinates. Since the start of his term, however, it has become clear that Bannon is calling the shots. This is literally true, in the sense that Bannon has been writing Trump’s executive actions. But perhaps more importantly, the executive actions (and Trump’s other steps) are part of an overall strategy that has Bannon’s fingerprints all over.

Yom HaShoah

I am a 5th-generation immigrant. All 16 of my great-great-grandparents (and 2 of my great-grandparents) were born in the Russian Pale of Settlement, mostly in what is now Ukraine and Lithuania. Along with about 2 million other Jews, these families moved to the US during the wave of immigration that took place roughly between 1880 and the start of World War 1.

Perhaps unusually among American Jews (and particularly people without any recent non-Jewish ancestry), every single one of my relatives was living in the US by 1915. The last ancestors of mine who was born in Europe died in 1984, three years before I was born. The only relatives I’ve ever met grew up speaking English, not Yiddish. I loved reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, but to my childhood self, the world of the shtetl — or even the pre-war Lower East Side — seemed as remote as Columbus’s voyages.

The self-defeating American Dream

Sometimes, the world works in mysterious ways.

For centuries, property ownership, and especially homeownership, has been used as an economic weapon by the rich and privileged (e.g. white, or Protestant, or whichever group was favored at the time) against the poor and unprivileged. In recent history, the US government has provided major financial subsidies to homeowners, while simultaneously encouraging and enabling policies that blocked Black households from purchasing homes in certain areas (i.e. redlining).

Meanwhile, since 1980, the federal government has been steadily tearing apart the New Deal: lowering taxes on the rich, and finding every excuse to cut back on programs that help the poor.

When you put these two together, you end up creating a generation that has systematically lower homeownership than its predecessors. The percentage of Americans between ages 23–34 who own homes is 15% lower now than it was 30 years ago. The same result holds for the subset of those Americans who are married but have a single income. (Homeownership is still high among those young households with two full-time workers, but we’ll see how long that lasts, given that there’s pressure at both ends.)

In other words, it turns out that the most effective thing the government can to do boost homeownership is to provide a social safety net, so that young couples can buy homes without worrying that doing so will bankrupt them. When you pull out that rug, homeownership collapses.

UK election: what May 7 means for Americans

In case you didn’t know, the UK is having a national election in five days.

Even if you don’t care about UK domestic policy, this election has two important international implications. The first concerns Scotland; the second concerns the EU.

I read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I liked it

On 2015-02-13, it became clear that I was going to read Fifty Shades of Grey.

On that day, the Fifty Shades movie was released to US cinemas. The buzz surrounding the movie’s release was deafening. And — unsurprisingly, really, for what is undoubtedly the highest-grossing BDSM-themed movie to date — the controversy was inescapable.

Much of the criticism has been predictable and tired. Some people are furious that the movie shows people being tied up and physically hurt. Some people are furious that the movie shows naked people. Some people are furious that the movie started out as a book that started out as Twilight fan fiction.

But there were other critiques that I found harder to ignore. Most famously, Sophie Morgan (of The Guardian) wrote:

*One of my big frustrations with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is that there is so much of the main relationship that plays into the misconception that a sexual relationship based around BDSM is, at its core, an abusive one. As such, feminists, quite rightly, have a massive problem with it.*

Like Morgan, I am a submissive and a feminist. If Fifty Shades of Grey was doing damage to feminism, or to the public image of BDSM, then I wanted to be able to speak out. But if I wanted to articulate what the book got wrong, then I would have to read it.

So I did.

New MBTA

I really like this:

http://newmunimetro.com/m-market/

While I haven’t spent very much time in San Francisco, I have spent a lot of time in Boston. The Green Line has the same problem, and it could benefit from the same solution.

Milton Friedman was wrong

Supposedly, Milton Friedman once said, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand”.

Well, the government (in the US) is in charge of roads and parking. And far from a shortage, the US actually has an oversupply of both. Supposedly, nearly 40% of the land in downtown Detroit is devoted to parking. And streets take up 40% of all land in Portland, OR.

Meanwhile, housing is largely a private good. And many American cities — especially the booming ones — really do have a shortage of housing.

If past precedent is any indication, then putting the government in charge of providing housing would be much more likely to create an oversupply than a shortage.

My 2015 resolution: Do less harm

It’s the first day of 2015, and many people will be resolving to change their behavior for the better.

If you’re a vegetarian for moral reasons, I urge you to consider giving up eggs, dairy, and leather, too.

Pedestrian access

I’ve been thinking about making a map of pedestrian access in Seattle (and possibly other cities, depending on how much I can automate the work).

The map will have three colors:

  • Contiguous pedestrian spaces will be green (good).
  • Spaces that are not pedestrian-friendly, but are still possible to cross, will be yellow (meh).
  • Spaces that are completely uncrossable on foot will be red (grr).

A contiguous pedestrian space is any contiguous land area that can be accessed without having to cross fast-moving vehicular traffic.

The price of market freedom

I’ve found that many people conflate supply and demand, or price-based resource allocation, with the pseudo-ideal of a libertarian “free market”.

Supply and demand is an explanation for how the world works, not a value statement. If the number of people who want X and don’t have it exceeds the number of people who have X and don’t want it, then there is scarcity. Somehow, X will be allocated, and not everyone will get it.

Small towns and social networks: why Facebook is doomed

The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies is most famous for drawing a distinction between two types of social networks. Gemeinschaft, loosely translated as “community”, describes networks built on informal interpersonal relationships. Gesellschaft, loosely translated as “society”, describes networks built on formal rules and structures that exist independently of any particular person.

While Tönnies described a dichotomy, I think it’s more of a continuum. There are plenty of social networks that fall somewhere in between. But I think it’s a useful way to understand the difference between a small town and a big city. A Gemeinschaft is a place where, if a teenager tries to buy alcohol from the one liquor store, her parents will know about it before she even makes it home. A Gesellschaft is a place where you could eat at a different restaurant every day for the rest of your life, and never run into the same waiter twice.

I’ve always felt more of a personal affinity towards the Gesellschaft side of the spectrum. A weirdo like me is never going to fit into a traditional social circle, but I can follow the rules of a larger society. A Gesellschaft is a contract: if I follow the rules, then the rest is up to me. A Gemeinschaft doesn’t give me that freedom.

Galway's Lessons for Seattle

I recently went to Galway, Ireland, which was my first time out of North America. I had a ton of fun, and I also learned lots and lots. This is the first in a series of posts where I will try to share some of what I’ve learned.

As usual, a disclaimer: Nothing that I say should be taken as representative of American urbanists, or residents of Seattle, or residents of/visitors to Ireland. I speak only for myself, and any errors in fact or analysis are my own.

I believe that Galway is a shining example of how urbanist principles can lead to vibrant, delightful places, even with a surprisingly small population. My overarching thesis is that we must heed these lessons – which have been the foundation of city design for millenia – if we want Seattle to truly succeed as a city.

Civil rights and CEOs

I don’t know Brendan Eich. I do know his work. He created JavaScript. He has overseen the creation of the Rust programming language, which is my favorite programming language in the world. (I even like it better than the one I helped to create at Microsoft.) He has spearheaded the effort to “rationalize” JavaScript (officially ECMAScript), introducing badly-needed features like modules, as well as powerful innovations like template strings. Overall, he has helped to catalyze the web as the world’s dominant application programming model, and has tirelessly fought for open standards, protocols, and platforms.

Of course, Eich is also famous for donating $1,000 in support of California Proposition 8, a ballot measure that would have constitutionally outlawed same-sex marriage in the state of California.

With today’s announcement that Eich has been appointed CEO of Mozilla, Eich’s 2008 contribution has once again become newsworthy. Debbie Cohen, Mozilla’s Chief of People, now reports to Eich. In addition, while Eich was not exactly a private individual before, he is now the main public face of Mozilla.

I am not going to accuse Eich of hatred, or of being a bigot. I don’t know him, and other than his donation, I have no reason to believe that he is a hateful person. I know that the Rust community, led by Graydon Hoare, has gone out of their way to celebrate diversity and to make it clear that bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated. This speaks well of both Hoare and Eich.

I am not outraged by today’s news. But I am saddened, and disappointed, and confused.

Jekyll

Yesterday, I discovered the existence of Jekyll, a “static site generator”. Jekyll is based on the insight that doing something once is better than doing the same thing multiple times. A blog, for all intents and purposes, is a collection of articles that pretty much don’t change. So rather than dealing with all the complexity of a content management system like WordPress, you can simply write posts, and “compile” them into a static website. For readers, the benefit is a site that loads instantaneously. For me, the benefit is cheaper hosting, easier maintenance, and much better security.

Transit fantasy sports

Crazy idea I had (inspired by a friend’s G+ post). Fantasy football, but for bus network design. Here’s how it might work.

You start with a real city with a popular bus network. Somehow, you obtain information from the city’s bus agency about how many people board or exit at each of these stops. The more often you get this, the better. You also obtain information on the agency’s operating budget; the number of service hours; and the cost of a service hour. (Obviously, with two of these figures, you can calculate the third.)

Each participant in the game starts with a budget equal to the agency’s current operating budget. Participants can draw networks between the existing bus stops. They can follow any valid road path, as defined by some mapping service (e.g. OpenStreetMap). Existing stops can be bypassed, but no new stops can be added. Then they can decide on service levels. Because the game is already very complex, let’s assume that there’s only one service level for now, representing all-day service (noon). The total cost of their network cannot exceed their budget. They can go under budget, but they probably won’t want to go under by much. Their score is simple: get the highest ridership every day.

Multiple-choice tests

The College Board recently announced a series of changes to the SAT. One of them will be to remove the “guessing penalty”, i.e. the point deduction for incorrect answers.

I think that the College Board is making the right decision. Most multiple-choice tests that students take in primary and secondary school do not have guessing penalties. To the extent that we need standardized tests, I think they should resemble what students have practiced in school as closely as possible.

However, this got me thinking about multiple-choice scoring systems. Sometimes, a student is able to eliminate three answers to a five-choice question, but can’t decide between the remaining two. What if we allowed students to express that information directly, rather than forcing them to risk making an incorrect guess?

Conservatism and parking policy

From Seattle:

“Mayor Mike McGinn has agreed to roll back parking rates in the Chinatown International District a year after restaurant owners and community leaders complained that the longer hours had caused a sharp drop in business.”

From San Francisco:

“There are also objections from neighborhood merchants who fear they’ll lose business if people squat all day long in parking spaces outside their stores.”

I don’t mean to imply that San Francisco is better than Seattle; after all, the mayor wants to raise transit fares to pay for free parking! But this difference speaks to the powerful bias towards the familiar. In Seattle, businesses want free parking because it’s what they’re used to. In San Francisco, businesses want paid parking for the same reason.

On writing

I write a lot. I frequently have days where I write more than I talk.

Many people I care about – my wife, my parents, my close friends – have asked me, on occasion, why I don’t tell them more about what’s going on in my life. My answer is always the same: “Read what I write!”. (Ironically, of course, I don’t always manage to say it.)

Tax-free savings

In the US, individuals who would like to shelter their savings from taxes have two main options. Traditional retirement accounts allow investors to defer paying taxes now, in exchange for paying them at retirement. Roth accounts allow investors to deposit money that grows tax-free. For both types of accounts, investors pay no taxes on investment gains while the money remains in the account. (Each flavor of account is further subdivided into IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc., but for now, I’ll ignore these differences.)

Improving the grid in Pike/Pine: a modest proposal

Over the past few years, the southern section of Manhattan’s Broadway has steadily transformed from a major vehicle arterial into a “complete street” and pedestrian boulevard. Instead of a “car sewer”, Broadway is now an inviting thoroughfare for walkers and cyclists, and a destination for shoppers, diners, and tourists. The changes have also improved mobility, even for drivers. It may seem odd that removing traffic lanes could make driving easier. But as the article says:

In pursuing a policy that discourages automobiles from using the street, traffic planners see themselves as issuing a corrective to history: They say the diagonal of Broadway should never have been allowed to cut a path across the orderly right angles of the Midtown street grid. The resulting three-way intersections can slow down cars and tie up the broader system.

New York isn’t the only city engaging in “grid repair”. In Seattle, a combination of road projects will culminate in the closure of Broad Street to the east of 5th Ave N. Like Broadway, Broad Street cuts across the grid, creating difficult traffic patterns and an inhospitable environment for pedestrians. (Broad Street is also partially grade-separated, which makes things even worse.)

Broad Street isn’t the only street in Seattle which “breaks the grid”. Madison Street runs along an uninterrupted path from the Seattle waterfront to Lake Washington. It is the only street east of Broadway and north of Yesler that follows the downtown street grid.

When Madison Street was first laid out, it played a vital role in regional connectivity. A cable car ran the length of the street, and ferries waited at the other end to take passengers across Lake Washington. Today, Madison Park is a quiet residential neighborhood, and cars and buses travel across Lake Washington along two wide freeways. In addition, the Pike/Pine corridor has experienced a renaissance, becoming one of the most vibrant (and expensive!) parts of the city. And yet, Madison continues to carry 4 lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting through the south end of Capitol Hill in the process.

In the spirit of this revitalization, I would like to propose a change to Madison Street. As with the Broadway and Broad Street projects, the goal of this change is to create better spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, and other “slow” uses, while simultaneously improving mobility for drivers and transit users (or at least not harming it).

How large should the basic income be?

As the saying goes, if you ask ten basic income supporters to tell you how much money citizens should receive every month, you’ll get twelve answers. I think there are two factors at work here. First, no one is quite sure what level of popular support a basic income proposal would receive – particularly if it were accompanied by steep revenue increases. Second, it’s difficult to pin down precisely what kind of lifestyle the basic income should accommodate. Obviously, we’re not going to be giving everyone an expense account at the Four Seasons. But we don’t want people to have to eat dog food, either.

These two factors are closely related. Many basic income supporters hand-wave away the revenue issue, claiming that we fund a basic income entirely by eliminating existing government welfare programs. But that only works if the resulting payout will be large enough for low-income people to buy the goods and services that used to be subsidized.

Luckily, the Alliance for a Just Society has produced a report that calculates a “living wage” for households of various sizes throughout the country. Their report gives us a great starting point for figuring out what a living wage could feasibly replace.

The report includes eight categories of expenses. Let’s consider each one in turn.

Charitable consumption

When talking about charitable contributions, it’s common to make analogies about wasteful daily spending. For example, let’s say that you buy a latte every work day for $4. At about 250 work days per year, that’s about $1,000 per year — enough for the Against Malaria Foundation to buy 200 long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs).

This is definitely a good rule of thumb for individuals: if you find yourself spending money on things that produce a poor marginal return on your own happiness, then you can redirect that spending towards a better cause, while causing yourself very little suffering of any kind.

Efficiency and equity

Let’s imagine that you have a city of 100,000 people, each of whom earns $50,000 per year. Each of these people has different preferences: where they want to live, how they want to travel, what kind of food they want to eat. From the study of microeconomics, we know that markets and prices are a very good way to decide how to allocate scarce resources in this city: how many and what kinds of homes to build, what restaurants and stores to open and where, etc.

For example, suppose that there is a concert, and the venue can fit 200 people. If the performers choose the correct price — the price at which exactly 200 people decide to buy tickets, without any scalpers or anybody waiting in line or anybody getting turned down — then the 200 people who attend the show will be the 200 people who derive the highest utility from attending.

Now, let’s change the scenario. Imagine that half of the people earn $100,000 per year, and the other half earn $10,000.

You don’t need a deep understanding of microeconomics to see that there’s a problem.

Homo suburbius

I am generally a strong advocate for increasing residential and commercial density in cities, as much and as quickly as possible. However, I have met quite a few folks who do not support this level of growth, or possibly do not support growth (in their neighborhood) at all.

Should Metro fares depend on distance?

King County Metro has a revenue crisis. They are currently facing a $75 million annual shortfall, and without a new source of revenue, they will be forced to institute a 17% cut in service hours.

Most of Metro’s money comes from taxes and fares. So if Metro needs new revenue, then it’s only logical to look to these sources. King County is actively working on a plan to raise the sales tax and the vehicle license fee (paid annually on vehicle registration renewal) to address this shortfall, as well as providing some additional money for local road maintenance. I strongly support their efforts, and will enthusiastically vote for the measure when it hits my ballot.

However, there’s something that’s always bugged me about Metro’s fare structure. If Alice rides the bus for two stops, and Bob rides for 15 miles, they both pay the same $2.25 fare. (And if Bob has a monthly pass, he may end up paying _less_ than Alice on a per-trip basis.) No other transportation service works like this. Taxi fares are based on distance and time. Toll roads cost more the further you drive. Airlines set fares based on costs and demand. Long-distance trains and buses, commuter rail… the list goes on. Only local transit networks have flat fares.

I’m not the only person who finds this worrying. Steven Farber, a researcher at the University of Utah, has found that flat fares seem to negatively impact low-income populations, who tend to make shorter trips than people with higher incomes. His research was conducted on behalf of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which is exploring a move to distance-based pricing, as a way of improving equity and financial stability.

Does the UTA have the right idea? Should Metro be looking at implementing distance-based pricing?

The progressive value-added tax

It might seem weird that I support the enactment of a value-added tax (VAT). Aren’t consumption taxes highly regressive? Well, yes. But the most regressive tax is the “tax” of low government spending. The real crime in Washington State isn’t that we tax the poor; it’s that we raise so little money that we can barely afford to take care of our residents.

Why $15/hour? Why now?

Over the past year, there has been a growing faction in Seattle that believes the minimum wage should be higher — much higher. The amount is $15/hour, a 60% increase from Washington State’s current $9.19 (which is already the highest state minimum wage in the nation). The “instigator” is Kshama Sawant, an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College, and a Socialist Alternative politician who is now a member of Seattle’s City Council.

Whenever you propose to increase the minimum wage, there is always someone who cries foul. Local perennial candidate Goodspaceguy (yes, that’s his legal name), whose election manifestos read like a cross between Dr. Bronner and Robert Heinlein, frequently opines about the “job-killing minimum wage”. Closer to Earth, small business owners fear that a higher minimum wage will make it harder for them to stay in business.

Do these criticisms have merit? Can we really legislate our way to a living wage?