Author Archives: drschweitzer

About drschweitzer

Lisa Schweitzer is an assistant professor at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern Calfornia. She studies sustainable cities and transport.

ACSP would be way better if we had food fights and other futile and stupid gestures

I hate all group activities of every kind. Therefore, most conference activities are a bit like the 8th level of hell, only with (thank God) a hotel bar.Now, I’m picking on ACSP, but all conferences are the same as far as I can tell.

Of the many sad, boring, and futile group activities at conferences, none is more stultifying than anything that falls into the following categories: speaker dinners, plenaries, keynotes, and other opportunities where the incumbents in a profession use their incumbent/oldie old person status to monopolize the podium. Yep, all of you out there enjoying your rubber chicken meal slathered in indifferent sauces and overcooked side vegetables, all you enjoying the feast of reason and the flow of soul, you put a sock in it and genuflect while we with status talk about ourselves and our few, consecrated cronies in a boring circle jerk of such epic boringness the entire thing is like a cosmological experiment to disprove the possibility that black holes are made of boredom because if they were truly made of boredom, academic conference dinners/plenaries/etc have already generated such infinite densities of boredom that we should have already caused the universe to be so riddled with wormholes that every downtown Marriott would have been sucked somewhere east of Bajor by now.

Thus, the confession:

When I do show up to these things, I spend the entire time during the self-congratulatory blather fighting off the desire to pick up one of those inedible white flour rolls and huck it, in a graceful, yet forceful, arc across the room, to bounce it off some full professor’s little white-guy bald head. Given the incredible prevalence of full professors who are white guys with little bald heads, I don’t even have to do any training for this. The chances are so good even with utter incompetence, right?

I see it over and over in my mind, while I am sitting there…the perfect, slow-motion arc…perhaps it is one of those lop-sided faux brioches, or one of those little tripartite buns that look (and taste) much like pincushions, or maybe one of those split rolls that are shaped like a football that achieves a perfect spiral mid-flight…and then it hits….

SPACK!– crusty bread meets flesh….

and then


off it bounces, hitting the temple of another scholar at an adjoining table, who immediately assumes the original victim threw it…and responds in kind.

Outraged old guys all get up in a fury, and a big, bench-clearing, really sloppy food fight, where every academic slight is avenged between combatants via slices of banana cream pies to the face. (This is obviously fantasy. The anti-obesity people have made it to the boring-fest so that all deserts are now sensible portions of indistinguishable red fruit-blobs that don’t explode upon impact, more’s the pity. They probably stain, at least. That could be ok.)

The more I visualize this, the more I yearn for it all to happen, just like all those power-of-positive-thinking people say, and the more agonizing it is to sit there while prim little butt kisses are rationed out from the podium, and I fear that as I age, and become even less concerned about my status as a pariah in the profession, that my self-control, none-too-reliable under the best of circs, will break and I will be unable to stop myself from launching that first, fateful bun.

It would be glorious.

By publicly admitting these desires, I seek to establish accountability for myself via peer effects. I can never ever do this now, can I? No, I can’t. No.

Alternatively, should one of you other abused, passed-over, dumped-on, silenced, shut-down associate professors out there see my confession as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wang a crusty bread product off the middle of an offending full-rank forehead and let Schweitzer catch the blame–well, I’d understand. I wouldn’t judge.

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Marlon Boarnet and his better-looking, taller and smarter colleague (me) discuss his field experiment with rail transit ridership

See it here:

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Politico’s essay on conservatism in Mesa, Arizona is God-awful

So Joseph Cordes got me up this morning with this piece from Politico this morning, which is really nice in the way it talks to residents and really awful in the way it talks about cities: Are Conservative Cities Better?

We start off with Mesa, Arizona. Yay, conservatism! The part where he covers the politicians bragging about themselves and their city is fine. Whatever. Standard bloviating.

Only, whatever. Here’s the first howler:

While it’s willing to make investments, Mesa is also lean in ways that more bloated liberal cities can’t boast. Take the City Council. Despite Mesa’s hefty population, council members are part-timers who have day jobs in fields from education to copper mining. City leaders also pay themselves considerably less than those in other cities do. Mesa City Council members make only $33,000 a year, and the mayor is paid only $73,000. (And those salaries represent the fruits of a big raise: Before last year, city councilmembers made less than $20,000 a year and the mayor earned only $36,000.) By contrast, as of 2012, in similarly sized Fresno, the mayor made $126,000; city council members brought home nearly $65,000. In neighboring Phoenix, meanwhile, the mayor makes $88,000 and city councilmen earn more than $61,000.

Read more:

Mesa has 450,000 people in it. Phoenix has 1.5 million. And the higher salary of the folks in Fresno? Fresno in the original study has no policy preference; it’s governed by both, and it’s in 15 cities more conservative than the remaining 50 shown. Phoenix is among the top 25 most conservative in the rankings. He’s done some research, but he’s not thinking , nor is he really using the study that prompted him to start writing in the first place. These comparisons could actually be interesting: Mesa’s median home value is $270K, Fresno’s is $170k. Those Fresno salaries do seem pretty far out of line, but Fresno policy mix is where it is in ranking–more conservative than most cities.

The next howler:

As the great, Democratic-run cities across the country—Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles—face fiscal calamity, America’s conservative cities are showing that there’s another way.

Read more:

Ok, well, yes, those “Democratic Run” cities. Except for those are metropolitan regions, cherry picked for the fact that they have had money trouble, and yeah, they are solidly Democratic, but there are many solidly Democratic cities that are doing just ducky. Can I name some? Um, yes: When was the last time New York had a Democratic mayor? Then there’s San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minneapolis,etc.

Look, I don’t have to do that work. Politico is trying to make a story out of something that isn’t really a story. Why isn’t it a story? According to Tausanovitch and Warshaw’s original measure of conservative policy mix that prompted the story, there are 11 cities that are actually negative in the measure of conservatism in their ranking, and the distribution of the index scores is solidly positive. Now, they have data that goes past the rankings, but we have an index measure. On the ranking there are about 40 other cities, all leaning more liberal but ranked against each other. So generalizing that those liberal cities are ‘in trouble’ has no basis in these data.

I’ve read the original paper, it’s very interesting and the methods are promising, but what is currently posted is a draft. I’d wait for the full paper–the authors themselves haven’t even figured out what their data mean. They are trying to figure out if voter bases prompt municipal governments to reflect those in a policy mix. They’ve been able to show that there is a difference in federal and urban policy mixes, but I don’t see where they show the differences among cities are significant, and if that’s true, then we’ve established that people have differences in their preferences for federal policy but somewhat less variation in their preferences about local government policy, which theory leads us to suspect. The methods are cool, but the paper is sprawling, undisciplined thought piece right now, and they haven’t digested their results yet. But with that kind of imbalance in the groupings with a tortured index variable, it’s going to be very hard to show what the authors are seeking to show.

And none of it evaluates whether a city is well run or not, or whether a city is a fiscal trouble.

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Why do planners love charging for parking but not for congestion?

Granted, Don Shoup is a charismatic spokesman for his ideas on parking, but parking charges and congestion charging are both applications of Bill Vickrey’s pricing ideas. But you can’t mention parking with some zealous planner affixing you with glittering eye like the ancient mariner and subjecting you to a lecture on economics, but road pricing? Eh. Politically infeasible. They shrug and move on. Or talk about how it just can’t work.

I think they are interested in parking charges because many of them work at the municipal level and parking charges both manages the parking problem, penalizes the sinful auto, and yields a pot of money. (But congestion pricing does the same thing!)


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In memoriam of David Prosperi

David Prosperi, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, died a few weeks ago. I’m usually faster about putting up remembrances, but with this one, I was hoping that if I didn’t write about his leaving us, he’d still be there at ACSP in Philadelphia for me to sneak outside with when he decided he had to have a smoke. We enjoyed making fun of terrible papers–gently, of course. He had edges, but he wasn’t mean.

I met David when I was a fresh-out assistant professor at Virginia Tech, and he was part of an accreditation team. I was worried, rightly it turns out, about accreditation, but nobody else seemed to be. (I would say I was perceptive, but actually, I just worry about everything so that of course I’m going to be right now and then). Thus my attempts at getting some coaching from the more experienced faculty went unanswered–honest and decent of them, really. I sat down in my interview with the accreditation team, a nice, very accomplished gentleman from an eastern university, a wonderful practitioner, and David Prosperi. I figured…he’s from Florida Atlantic, and he’s an old guy. He’ll be easy to handle. He started by asking me a thorny, unpleasant question. No preliminaries. I deflected it. He said, “Nice answer, but that’s not what I asked you.” I looked at him, and we locked eyes, and there was a lot said in that look. A gun recognizes another gun, as they say, and with that look, he communicated everything he needed to, along the lines of “Look, kid, I’m not an idiot. Try again.” The rest of that conversation was a chess match between the two of us, and both of us liked each other intuitively afterwards. Whenever we met, we’d chat and enjoy the camaraderie of two people who do not fit in well within the profession: edgy doubters with our own minds, him responding kindly to my inexperience and roughness.

Farewell, friend. I was reading this bit from Donne the other day and it reminded me of David’s passing.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

David Prosperi’s obituary from Elsevier discussing his pivotal role in founding the journal, Computers, Environment, and Urban Systems.

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Bleg: The confusing universe of online academic marketing and social media

We have discovered a topic where Dr. Lisa does not have an opinion. I KNOW, RIGHT?

I’m confused. I feel like I don’t know what I should be doing to market myself online anymore. I love blogging, and I feel like I do a service here by posting ways to think about things that interest me, even though I am wrong a lot and people tell me that. Which is fine. I learn that way.

But I don’t really have a personal webpage beyond the “Here’s Lisa” website at USC which is honestly never kept up-to-date because it’s a hassle to do so.

How important do you think personal websites are to academics?

And there are so many sites where I think I should probably beef up my stuff, like ResearchGate and How important are those? Should I be pestering my PhD students to get posting on them and begin marketing themselves?

Opinions, please.


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Monsters and monstrous things in the light of the NFL and Ray Rice

This exceptionally touching reflection by Lacy Johnson over Good: Stop Calling Abusers Monsters. Her point is that these domestic abusers are not, in fact, monsters. They do not have tails, they do not have fur or sharp teeth; they do not breathe fire. They are men who walk readily around among us, as Ray Rice would have done, had the video not been made public and a media outlet seize on it. But let’s get real. I grew up in a small town where we knew full well some men were “hard on their wives.” This never disqualified them from from a seat at the bar, or a party invite. No point in making trouble with a neighbor, right? He’ll probably grow out of it, and they’ll settle into a happy marriage someday. Unless it “goes to far.”

What all this shit covers up is that there two people who need help. Rationalizing and minding your own business in this context is simple enabling. Liberty and minding your own business is not an excuse for failing to lead or for tolerating the intolerable.

The NFL, which thrives off violence and the objectification of women, and its posturing is just another entry into the game of appearing to care about domestic violence while not really caring. The Ravens fired Rice, which is useless. Rice didn’t need to lose his job. The man needs help, and so does the victim. He was ordered to go through counseling by the court, which is pretty standard for domestic abuse. I agree that it seems light, but I also think that counseling can make a difference. But only if the participants and their supporters are ready for it to make a difference, and the way to help the Rices be ready is to support them in that direction. Not make a sideshow of their lives or make gestures to protect your own reputation.

People are not monsters, even though they do monstrous things. From C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”

Only he wasn’t, not really. Under all that dragon skin, he was still just a boy.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #21: Lisa Bates and Stacey Triplett

Apologies for all the typos. I’m in a rush.

Lisa Bates is an associate professor at Portland State University. The piece of hers I decided to read and report on is:

Bates, Lisa K. and Triplett, Stacey, “Getting Your House in Order: A Model for African-American Financial Education” (2014). Urban Studies and Planning Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 82.

This is a research report rather than a journal publication, but I like it so much and I think it’s so important that I wanted to circulate it anyway. The report examines how to develop financial training that helps African Americans attain home ownership. If you don’t understand why this is an issue, then you haven’t been paying attention. Banks may make a big show out of your down payments supposedly being the product of savings and not a gift, but most people get their downpayments from their parents or grandparents, who are homeowners themselves. When that isn’t true for you, being able to pull together enough money for a downpayment, particularly in the super heated markets along the coasts, can be an insuperable challenge.

On top of that, if you have never had parents, or known anybody else, with a mortgage who can help you, you face a bewildering array of issues when dealing with mortgages, and absolutely positively none of the professionals engaged in the industry have your best interests at heart. This is particularly true for black credit-seekers. Sometimes you get a really good mortgage broker in the mix–I did like and respect mine because he is a no-be guy of guy–but honestly all of them are steeped in the industry jargon and blather on about things that make no sense to those of us outside the game: “You’ll be paying points if you do that.” Huh? The whole system is extremely byzantine, so that when you add the fact that it is stacked against black families, it’s hard to tell when you are being presented with wealth-stripping evil versus a decent deal that reflects your real credit-worthiness.

The gap in home ownership between black and white Americans is 45 to 76 percent, and that gap goes a long ways to explain differences in intergenerational wealth:

Persistently low homeownership rates contribute to the Pew Center’s finding that the average African American household has a net worth of just $6,446 compared to $91,405 for an average white household (2013).

There are many reasons for these differences, but most come down to discrimination in labor, housing, and financial services markets.

The rest of the report describes an educational program designed to foster financial skills tailored towards Black Americans and their experiences with white-dominated lending institutions, as well as ‘developing a healthy relationship’ with money. They use focus groups to evaluate the issues and the ideas that need to come into training directed at helping people get their finances set. One persistent finding was, simply, that most black participants over-estimated their credit rating. Frankly, I am surprised ANYBODY guesses their credit rating properly. Talk about a rigged game.

The training topics that emerged stress ways of thinking and feeling about money as well, in a way that reaffirms individuals’ entitlement to use their money for their own priorities and security.

The results here are good: some debt reductions–I have no idea what would be sizable here– and increases in savings and credit scores among participates. One quote I thought was particularly apt:

“I learned more how to protect my credit…being comfortable to sit in front of this guy that doesn’t look like me and ask him questions before I apply for something, because I’m more informed. And so I feel more empowered…And I’ve built myself up.”

This strikes me itself as a pretty good use of education. Congratulations!

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Some good reporting on public housing from Jake Blumgart

Anybody who reads and references Ed Goetz’s wonderful work is all good by me, but this is the first bit I’ve read from Jake Blumgart, and I’m happy to note it’s a well-written and well-reasoned piece on public housing. In the United States! By a US writer! Go read it here.

One of the money quotes:

Because Congress gave sweeping discretionary authority to locals, political machines controlled the staffing of the housing authorities. Thus staff and management positions were transformed into so many patronage appointments. This became an even greater problem as many housing authorities began to exclusively serve deeply impoverished and unemployed populations. Such a task is difficult even for committed public servants of a well-oiled bureaucracy. But that is most emphatically not who was running most U.S. housing authorities. Goetz notes that “public housing was the backwater of local public administration in many cities.”

That’s putting it nicely. Public housing offices because a den of unconscionable thieves stealing from poor people–stories with police reports that would curl your hair in fury, including some horrible scandals in the city Blumgart currently calls home–Philly.

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The ALS Bucket Challenge, Clean Water, Fantasy Football, Botox, and the Insect on the Leaf

Attention conservation notice: If you would like to solve the world’s water problems, I’m on board, but going after ALS is silly. Instead, go after fantasy football and botox, if you are going to equate dollars with importance.

Disclaimer: My beloved husband lost his mother and grandfather both to ALS, and he and I have spent years and years facing the shadow of his having that disease hanging over us. So I get rather shirty with the pronouncements that ALS is not ‘sufficiently important’ to merit the fundraising that has occurred around the Ice Bucket Challenge. I’ve lost track of how much they’ve raised–$70 million was my last count. So while others are able to talk about the disease and whose death matters in the abstract, I can’t do that here.

As Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebeneezer Scrooge:

Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh, God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

But I think the other reason I’m so grumpy, other than the facile way people seem to be deciding whose suffering is important and whose isn’t, is the way in which utilitarianism seems have to leapt forward as the default mode for thinking about the morals of the challenge. And that way madness lay. Friends don’t let friends become act-utilitarians.

The argument goes something like this: ‘only’ about 5,500 people die every year of ALS in the US. Then we tote up the body counts that occur from other things: lack of potable water, as one example, and the relative bigness of that number compared to the relative smallness of ALS, and then we conclude that people are over-giving to ALS because of the relative bigness of the other, bigger problems.

The problem with toting up bodies to decide relative social value of lives lost is that it’s unlikely, unless you are talking to economists, to convince anybody for any real length of time. Yes, of course, we can agree it’s worse when 10,000 people die than when 5,000 people die, but it’s not like that really decides resource allocation in human society. So one popular new thread is to note that 3.5 million people die from unsanitary water every year. So much more important than ALS. And I agree: it is a devastating loss of human potential, and absolutely unacceptable.

Except that we have the technology to save the victims of waterborne diseases. We’ve had relatively low cost solutions that could save millions and millions of lives, and we’ve had these solutions for decades. It’s not like ALS where there is no known cure, and money for research might find a cure; we’ve got the cure for waterborne diseases, but we won’t implement them. There’s evil here, but it’s not that ALS gobbled up all the resources, and there’s none left to solve the mystery for why some children die from waterborne diseases and others don’t.

According to the WHO, it would cost about $22 billion a year to get everybody access to clean drinking water. We could raise that money if every American would toss in $7.07. I’m in! By all means. Raise my sales tax on iced caramel lattes. They are bad for me anyway.

Or, everybody who plays fantasy football could knock that off and give that money to clean water. Fantasy football is a $70 billion-dollar-a-year industry when you factor in ad revenue, and $15 billion in hard sales. $15 billion a year isn’t the total bill, but it would more than halve the number of deaths from waterborne diseases.

So while we can denounce giving to ALS because it is ‘less important’ than waterborne diseases, people blow through over three times what it would cost to fix waterborne illness on fantasy football and selling other things we probably don’t need on fantasy football websites. I’m picking on fantasy football; we could easily go with the global beauty industry which is expected to hit $265 billion a year by 2017. We could provide clean water to every baby on the planet 12 times over (and some change) if people stopped buying lipstick, hairspray and botox. How clever of me to have solved the issue, eh?

The Mexican government once found $22 billion in cash stashed in the walls of one drug lord’s house. Boom. There’s one year of clean water, right there.

ALS’s 70 million is looking a little like chump change now, though, isn’t it, when we evaluate $$$ and priorities. So ALS might not be as important as waterborne disease, but I’m thinking that BOTH ALS and waterborne diseases are more important than pretending to manage teams where grown men play with a little ball. Or botox.

And yet. Here we are. Fantasy football and botox get to amble on, unquestioned in their moral importance because a market exists for them. But ALS and the people giving to it? Utterly wrong! Because waterborne disease!

Critics of the ALS challenge assume the ALS giving has displaced giving to other charities, but I’d sure like to see the data on that because I’m betting much of what they raised came from new gifts. We don’t know that the money given to ALS would have gone to another cause, let alone a worthier one. That’s what Kant helps us grasp: humility regarding the metaphysics of assumed values of future or counterfactual states. Maybe every single $ raised under the ALS bucket challenge would have otherwise been spent on Twinkies, bacon, cocaine, Vin Scully bobblehead dolls, pay-per-view mixed martial arts matches, and fantasy football etc, etc. etc. Thus debating the marginal benefit versus the opportunity cost is entirely speculative until we get the data. There are lot of places that money could have gone (cigarettes, porn, Halloween costumes for your iguana, etc) other than worthier diseases.

Even settling that empirical question does not settle the moral questions, and this is where the universe of spending on social welfare has, to me, gotten even murkier in our neoliberal world. The idea that we might, somehow, as a society suss out what social concerns (like disease and cures) should be funded and what should wait might be adjudicated through the welfare state charged with figuring out what society’s most important problems are. But one of the idealogical bases for deconstructing the welfare state has been to avoid forcing people through taxation to give their money to solve social ills they don’t agree are either a) ills or b) solvable or c) more important than their own priorities for that money. Thus, dismantle the welfare state and leave people alone to do what they WANT to give their money to, into the hands of the voluntary, private sector, both private and nonprofit, where atomistic organizations, like ALS and my little rescue nonprofit, compete for the hearts and minds and dollars of donors. That environment rewards innovation and entrepreneurship…like deriving cute and fun fundraising strategies which get celebrities involved.

That is a much different moral context than the assumption that we can wind up with a collective, unitary, public interest ranking for spending on social ills that truly captures an aggregate social welfare function. That context creates analogues in charitable giving for consumer sovereignty where it is entirely possible that people enjoy doing the bucket challenge and prefer to give their dollars to ALS, and to be a part of a particular circle of giving, than to give to some other, supposedly worthier cause that offers them less fun ways of giving and less of a chance to be part of something. So what if your cost-benefit rationale shows society would be better off with that money going to cancer or mosquito netting, under these circumstances? I’m sure we could do a c-b that shows society would be better off if consumers bought more brussels sprouts and fewer onion rings, but voluntary transactions depending on individual utility curves don’t work that way. Whatever distribution results from individual choice has its own prima facie legitimacy based on noncompulsion unless we can make a case for externalities or other information problems. If ALS really isn’t worth curing and the Ice Bucket Challenge was not what people really ought to be doing, then…why did so many people do it, and why do so many people continue to do it even after potential information problems in the market were addressed? That is, as soon as the challenge went viral, claims that ALS doesn’t merit such largesse came up almost immediately and in high-profile venues. And yet there are still buckets going over heads.

Finally, and this is the big surprise: the fact that ALS is a “small” disease might actually make it much, much worthier of charitable giving based on need than big-number diseases. Big number diseases, like cancer, offer some pretty damn good incentives for private companies to stay in the hunt for research and treatments. The lab who develops the anti-diabetes pill and the anti-cancer treatment will stand to make money. That’s much less likely to be true for for a disease that ‘only’ kills off a relatively small number of people. In that instance, charitable giving may have a huge role to play in shoring up what is likely to be a consumer set undervalued by the for-profit part of private sector because of the relative size of future revenue streams compared to other markets. Isn’t charity supposed to fill exactly those kinds of market gaps?

There is absolutely nothing preventing somebody from responding to the challenge with “Cancer/Clean Water/Foster kids are closer to my heart than ALS, but here’s my bucket, and here’s my checks for these other causes, and I challenge Bob and Judy and Marcus to give to their favorite charities, too.” And again, that could be an empirical question. Maybe all those shaking their fists at the ALS challenge have taken this moment to write that check to the cause that meets their standard of importance, and giving overall to every worthy cause might go up as the challenge got people thinking about giving when they otherwise might not. I can’t think of a downside to that.

Instead, I strongly suspect that people are just complaining and opining. Because, you know, the social value of those activities? Utterly priceless.

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