Monthly Archives: August 2009

Chevy on Ebay

So what do people think of Chevy’s decision to put cars on Ebay? I am extremely interested in how this works out, in they have both the “Buy it now” options and the “make offer” options. Does this just represent a new model of negotiating? Or is it a dumb move?


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Tenure dossier creation is an ungratifying process thus far

Well, last night I sent Andy over to a friend’s house because I am so frantically trying to put together this dossier that I couldn’t take the time away. I missed sushi–LA sushi–for this.

Yes, I know it’s the last minute to be printing things out, thank you for pointing that out.

When I was UCLA, Brian Taylor was going through tenure, and I was one of his graduate students. While I sort of sympathized in my clueless, grad student way, you just don’t understand this until you’re in it. And then I think maybe like childbirth you forget the pain. Anyway, Brian was remarkably gracious and sweet to me, despite the stress and his father’s declining health, and had I been in his position I would have shaken me until I frothed.

Here is my assembled wisdom:

1) Do not assume that the Staples on Fig is going to have a binder big enough for your manuscripts. I would say this is a testimony to my big big productive self, but it’s more to do with the fact that last week was the first week of classes and Staples has nothing left on its shelves.

2) The good news: you can watch tv while you print. Did you know all the Dr. Babes on SyFy got their PhDs, tenure, and breast implants all at the same time? I know: I just saw it on Mega-Shark v. Octopus. Laugh if you will; it was awesome: a shark jumped out of the sky and ate an airplane. I have a new flying phobia now. Then there was Spring Break Shark Attack where the evil date rapist got eaten by sharks, and where they learned nothing from Jaws about not keeping the shark bait attached to the little ship with the put-put engines. Then there was Kraken, Tentacles of the Deep, with the Dr. Babe with fabulous Farrah Fawcett hair.

3) I am lonely and listless without teaching. Don’t tell my dean or I’ll never get another course release.

4) Do not try to assemble your dossier at the last minute in a loft that contains a six month-old kitten. There will be anguish.

5) Printing all this crud and putting it together takes longer than formatting your dissertation.

6) I am less worried about not getting tenure than I am by the deepening feeling that the big challenges seem to be behind me. Making full doesn’t seem relevant or challenging or interesting–I don’t know why. These first years have been without a doubt among the most enjoyable years of my life thus far, eclipsed perhaps by graduate school. Perhaps. I love what I do, and there is a weird part of me that loves the do-or-die performance aspect of it.* My icky competitive nature is the reason why I pursue grant money: I like the race; I like to win and I hate to lose, and all attempts to make me a better sport and more ladylike throughout my childhood failed–thank God.

But I like the race even better than the outcome. Tired as I am–and I am tired–I had fun. I guess now I am supposed to be an expert. Experts travel around, give talks, write “state of the field” papers and whatnot. I don’t really like doing those things. The best hours are the hours alone with the data and the ideas. I’d give any number of invited talks for a fresh dataset at this point. I don’t think I am supposed to feel this way.

6) The Staples in Pasadena by the Gold Line is also near Bev Mo, aka “heaven.”

7) It is remarkably comforting to talk to my Galileo finger puppet. He thinks I’m going to get tenure.

8) I think I’m proud of my binder. I think.

*Oh it will hurt if the answer is “die” but even if it is, I didn’t take a safe professional route; I did what I wanted, which was to write, think, read, and talk about ideas for a living. I’ve had a blast, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, I would have listened to Randy, Gen, and David more and mouthed off less.


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Minimal squawking and government capture

We’re behind with real work* here at SC&T Headquarters**, so we’ll talk about papers I wish I had written.

The most recent issue of the American Economic Review has this really interesting manuscript on “minimal squawking.”

Leaver, Clare 2009. “Bureaucratic Minimal Squawk Behavior: Theory and Evidence from Regulatory Agencies.” American Economic Review, 99(3): 572–607.
DOI:10.1257/aer.99.3.572

This paper develops a model in which a desire to avoid criticism prompts otherwise public-spirited bureaucrats to behave inefficiently. Decisions are taken to keep interest groups quiet and to keep mistakes out of the public eye. The policy implications of this “minimal squawk” behavior are at odds with the view that agencies should be structured to minimize the threat of “capture.” An empirical test using data from US State Public Utility Commissions rejects the capture hypothesis and is consistent with the squawk hypothesis: longer PUC terms of office are associated with a higher incidence of rate reviews and lower household electricity bills. (JEL D73, L51, L97, L98)


*Read: my tenure dossier and my fantasy football picks
**Read: an extremely messy loft in downtown Los Angeles

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Should option value count in rail benefit valuation?

One of my favorite selections from The Onion:


I am not sure how the Onion puts these things together, and they are often tasteless, but this particular satire so nicely captures the many conundrums for transit policy and planning in the US: everybody loves it, very few people outside of its largest markets actually use it. Let’s take a look:


Now, there are some very good systems in this chart, and yet NYC kicks the cookies out of every body else.

Between 1984 and 2006, transit supply as measured by vehicle miles increased by 35%. Supply of the various rail services increased much more rapidly than bus, with light rail more than tripling. Over the same period transit ridership as measured by unlinked passenger trips increased by 13.5%. This number is often cited as good news for transit. In all cases ridership grew less than service supply, meaning that over the period service productivity declined: unlinked trips per vehicle mile dropped from 2.55 to 2.14, and the share of operating cost covered by fare revenue declined from 39% in 1996 to 33% in 2006. Now some systems, like the DC system, are much higher in fare recoveries, and others lower [1].

There are many potential reasons for productivity decline. We could argue that

a) there is a lot of unproductive transit spending going on;

b) there is a time lag between investment, service quality improvements, and demand responses–otherwise known as a “network effect”–you have to get a critical point in geographic coverage and service quality before demand really solidifies for the system (discussed by Jim Moore, one of my colleagues here [2]);

c) it’s not clear to me that there have been productivity gains in passenger transport in general (highway, airline, or transit); it may be that rising costs throughout the sector (from land acquisition in particular) caused percentage increases in costs to outstrip percentage patronage gains.

Now, part of the reason for increased spending is that regional agencies control more of the planning and programming than they did 30 years ago, and local/regional sources of revenue have also increased. It makes sense that investment in regional systems, like rail transit, goes up under those conditions, even if the spending is less productive than we might hope in terms of overall welfare [3,4].

Nonetheless, the environmental-transit connection has been made convincingly in the democratic imagination if not so much empirically. I suspect that this connection has led, further, to an increase in option value for systems like the HSR and urban rail among those who are unlikely to take it–ever.

Let’s think about what that means in terms of benefits. Let’s compare this from the Onion’s satire:

“Expanding mass transit isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity,” Holland said. “My drive to work is unbelievable. I spend more than two hours stuck in 12 lanes of traffic. It’s about time somebody did something to get some of these other cars off the road.”

Ok, now this isn’t option value. This is somebody who would, if other people actually use the transit supplied, enjoy congestion reduction benefits. Those we know how to capture. We have cost estimates for carbon emissions reductions, though they vary widely. But we don’t necessarily have option value, which is trickier, and I think relevant to costing out mega-projects like HSR. So what I am asking here: Is it a legitimate benefit to count people’s willingness to pay for HSR, for example, simply because they want the US to have it “just like Japan and Europe”? It’s a symbolic value rather than a use value.

I should be clear about definitions. Option value concerns individual’s willingness to pay for something they may never use, but they like having the option or they like the fact that whatever it is exists. And option value has been calculated and used in economic analysis for a variety of things: one of the notable uses of option value occurred when assessing damages from the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska [5] So one cost occurred through devastated fishing; another through lost tourism revenues; and finally, using contingent valuation, a loss to those of us (like me) who have no intention of going to Alaska but who value intact ecosystems in the abstract.

So for rail there would be the direct user benefits/costs, nontraded benefits/costs (emissions, etc), and value placed on option. What do you think?

[1] Giuliano, G. and L. Schweitzer. 2009. “Her Money or Her Time: A Look at Contemporary Transportation Policy from a Gendered Perspective.” Forthcoming for the National Academies of Science Transportation Research Board.

[2] T. A. Rubin, J. E. Moore, II, and S. Lee. Ten myths about US urban rail systems. Transport Policy,
6(1):57–73, 1999 Doi: doi:10.1016/S0967-070X(98)00032-8.

[3] C. Winston and V. Maheshri. On the social desirability of urban rail transit systems. Journal of Urban Economics, 62(2):362–382, Sept. 2007, doi:10.1016/j.jue.2006.07.002.

[4] P. Nelson, A. Baglino, W. Harrington, E. Safirova, and A. Lipman. Transit in washington, DC: current benefits and optimal level of provision. Journal of Urban Economics, 62(2):231–251, Sept. 2007.

[5] R. T. Carson, R. C. Mitchell, M. Hanemann, R. J. Kopp, S. Presser, and P. A. Ruud. Contingent valuation and lost passive use: Damages from the Exxon valdez oil spill. Environmental and Resource Economics, 25(3):257–286, 07 2003.


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Filed under finance and pricing, rail

Gen Giuliano on Freight for the National Academies of Science

One of the great things about working at USC is that I get to work with Gen Giuliano, who is every bit as nice and generous as an everyday colleague as she is to meet at conferences.* She led the following effort for the Transportation Research Board:

Funding Options for Freight Transportation Projects

From the website:

TRB’s Special Report 297: Funding Options for Freight Transportation Projects explores ways to pay for projects that expand freight capacity or reduce the costs of freight transportation. The committee that produced the report found that present finance arrangements are inadequate for maintaining and improving freight transportation system performance. The report calls for finance reforms that promote productivity gains by targeting investment to projects with the greatest economic benefit and by encouraging efficient use of facilities.

*The only caveat is that she makes me work harder than I want to, which is to say she makes me work, which is more than I generally want to. Also, she’s outlandishly productive and makes the rest of us look bad. Don’t look at me. I do my best to try to distract her, but I am just one woman.


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Filed under finance and pricing

Beautiful people on bicycles

Today The Sartorialist features fashionable people on their bikes or with their bikes. How come I don’t look like this on my bike? I just look lumpen and sweaty!


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Service Quality Improvements in Rail

My wonderful colleague, Richard Green, discusses Robert Samuelson and Paul Krugman on whether high speed rail is actually worth what we will pay for it.

Richard Green captures the essence of the problem: he liked the train when he had it, but he is good at math. It is much easier to loudly advocate for high-speed rail if you can’t do math very well. Paul Krugman can, in fact, do math extremely well, and that’s why he cherrypicks the one location in the United States where HSR probably makes sense at this point: the US’s Northeast corridor, which is nothing but pavement from Boston to northern Virginia. It’s possible to look at the numbers, realize they are lousy, and still advocate for the project: we do it all the time. But it hurts your finer feelings if you are an analyst at heart.

One of my favorite colleagues at Berkeley is fond of saying “we don’t evaluate rail merely on cost-benefit analysis.” When pressed, she claims that rail somehow transcends the methodology, that there is no way to quantify how it revolutionizes a metro area. I’m the first to acknowledge that cost-benefit is a limited methodology, but honestly: if I ever hit up against a ready-made excuse for building bad projects, it’s the idea that your mode transcends cost-benefit calculus. Yes, I do think rail can have a powerful effect on urban land and human settlement patterns, but not all of those are positive. Rail makes sense in contexts, and it can set contexts, but it’s not like we can necessarily recreate San Francisco or DC using infrastructure alone. If she argued that we do a bad job costing out cost and benefits? Sure, I’ll buy that. But no; the literal interpretation is that what she wants transcends mere analysis. We’d all like to think that.

It seems to me what advocates are saying is that rail provides service quality improvements, and I do think that these are undercounted in cost-benefit analysis. Note that this does not save bad projects from John Kain [1} or Don Pickerell’s [2] infamous critiques: if you are offering service quality improvements and you’re not getting ridership, you don’t get to count the service quality improvement as a benefit (nor your emissions saved, etc etc).**

If it is the case that high speed rail offers service quality improvements, then it should be possible to quantify how much passengers value those service quality improvements by examining the cross elasticities between airfare and trainfare in countries where air and HSR are competitors. I don’t believe the California HSR plan does so, though the business plan suggests fares will be competitive with Southeast.

See? Those of you who can do math are trying to rough out how even a $34 billion project (let alone an $84 billion project) is going to retire its bond debt at $100 a ticket, and you’re getting a dull pain behind your left eyebrow, because even if you value carbon emissions savings at $200/ton, you don’t actually get a revenue stream from saved carbon emissions. This is what I mean. We all like trains–that’s not the issue. It’s that dull pain behind the eye you can’t get rid of.

I think one of the reasons why we haven’t done service quality calculation: we would have to be frank about the fact that HSR is high-end, luxury service way more like air travel than taking the car. People like me who have money are on planes (and HSR in Europe) all the time: people like Joe the Plumber (yeah, I know, I know) are not. And it’s not smart at this point of the HSR debate to be upfront of what we are proposing to build here: an expensive service for people like me rather than people like my mother in Iowa who never go anywhere and who would faint at the $350 ticket price it would take to get them to Chicago, where they would faint at the prices.

**And one of the irritating things about light rail and heavy rail is that ridership past a given point degrades service quality. One of the reasons I love the Gold Line in LA is that I can always get a seat. Great for me. Bad from an operations standpoint.

Manuscripts that informed this post:

[1] J. Kain. Deception in dallas: strategic misrepresentation in rail transit promotion and evaluation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 56:184–196, 1990. Journal Article.

[2] D. H. Pickrell. A desire named streetcar: fantasy and fact in rail transit planning. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 19(3):385–482, 1992. Journal Article.

[3] B. Flyvbjerg, N. Bruzelius, and W. Rothengatter. Mega-Projects and Risks: An Anatomy of Ambition. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Book, Whole.

[4] Theodore M. Porter. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life., Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 311 pages


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Filed under infrastructure, rail

The sort of day I wouldn’t wish on anybody

1. My CAREER proposal was sent back to me without review because of an administrative glitch and the fact I didn’t catch it prior to resubmission. Ouch. This was my second time out of the chute, but since I am going up for tenure this year, I won’t be able to resubmit. Unless I don’t get tenure.

2. I have gotten nothing done besides deal with this particular crisis.

3. I got in trouble for messing up my e-certification, which means the university might not pay my students. I love my students. Don’t pay ME as punishment: I’m the one who messed up and I, at least, have a savings account, but my students depend on their paychecks. Don’t punish them because I can’t figure out your byzantine online system.

4. The frosting fell off my cupcake and onto the floor. The dogs were happy, as I just let them have it because it was vanilla.

Gloom, despair and agony on me


My instructor for a queer theory class 800 years ago told me that Grandpa Jones, of Hee Haw fame and legitimate Nashville talent in his own right, was one of the original activists at the Stonewall? But I have never been able to verify this interesting little factoid.


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Slow Food, Julia Child, and James Bond

I am afraid I am not necessarily on board with the locavore food trend. I like farmer’s markets as much as the next person, but you’re taking caviar and champagne out of my cold, dead hands, ya got me? The nice thing about slow food, raw food, local food, or other types of food planning is that you don’t have to go at it with 100 percent zeal to enjoy either the health or the flavor benefits. My favorite new writing on these subjects comes from my former colleagues at Virginia Tech, Heike Mayer and Paul Knox:

Knox, Paul and Heike Mayer. 2009. Small Town Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental Innovation. Birkhäuser Basel.

On another note, I have loved Julia Child since I was a little girl; her free-spirited fun attitude; her unapologetically large frame that would have sent other tv personalities starving-to-a-size-6 syndrome; her long marriage.

In the relentlessly self-improving United States, we have largely taken the fun out of food. It should be feared, controlled, and efficient. Think about it: Ian Fleming’s James Bond loved food, sex, women, gambling, fine things, and risk. Now, James Bond has sex and kills people, with fancy gadgets and explosions. Sean Connery’s and Roger Moore’s Bond knew that you eat fresh figs whenever you can get them, that champagne should be chilled, not freezing, and was fussy about his drink.* You think about the Bonds since then, and the largely joyless way they go about conquering women and bad guys. Shouldn’t all that sex and travel be more fun? In some ways, this change in Bond exemplifies a larger social change: the imperative to consume has made consumption joyless. Bringing that franchise back to Casino Royale was a good idea if you can get past the torture scenes.

Here’s some fun with food on a Monday, brought to you by Julia:

Julia on MacDonald’s French Fries
Julia with a peep of chickens

*There is some debate about the shaken not stirred question on the martini, and some have argued this was a silly affectation, not a sign that Fleming’s Bond was a connoisseur. No. A shaken martini is properly referred to as a “Bradford,” but I suspect that Fleming was a smart enough marketer to know that most of his readers wouldn’t be cocktail-literate enough to recognize a Bradford. Shaken and stirred martinis tend to be pretty different drinks, and unless you are dealing with a good bartender (which are in short supply anymore, like good secretaries), shaken tends to yield a better vodka drink in my opinion. It’s too easy to do a bad mix on a stirred drink with a rushed/careless/palateless bartender.**

**And another thing about local foods: no cocktails, and I’m not giving them up either. Did you ever notice how much people drank on Bewitched? Samantha would make a whole pitcher of martinis for just the two of them–just two people. I mean, it’s not like they were expecting Larry Tate or Uncle Arthur every night. Damn. A whole pitcher is a lot for two people. No wonder Darrin was prone to imagine his wife could do magic.


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Wonderful people have rag-arms

At yesterday’s Dodger game, a whole group of cancer researchers and organizers threw out the first pitch. It was wonderful. However, most of them are rag-arms, and so the pitches went every which where, going hither and yon, with long-suffering players chasing the balls down. It looked more like popcorn being popped than first pitches.

Go friars, go Giants. The Rockies are on our heels, and I just hate the Cards on the principle.


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