State of the Union

I’ve been dithering about writing on the State of the Union, as I’m not sure I have that much to say, other than: if you want to go to heaven, do not use circles to compare the magnitude of something unless you are prepared to deal with the hassle of pi. US GDP is not five times bigger than Chinese GDP. It’s a bit less than three times bigger.

The major message from the White House on the infrastructure front is high speed rail, and oh, by the way, the Federal government, even though America is rich and has the dadgum biggest big circle among the big circle crowd, is (like California) brokity broke broke.

I honestly think that the emphasis on HSR is counterproductive for him politically. It adds fuel to the fire that he is fiscally irresponsible even if you are an arm’s length sympathiser like me. Everything he wants to do, with LaHood, could be accomplished on the down-low through the FTA if he can swing the budgetary resources. There’s a reason that high-profile Republican governors have turned down HSR money, and it’s because the Republicans are lining up on it at the party level–and it’s not a bad bet to throw down on right now with everybody freaked out about the costs of healthcare reform and the economy, and the shortage of funds at the state level. The Feds are expecting the states to pay, the states are expecting the Feds to pay, and everybody is wishing and hoping for private sector miracles. I think it’s too messy to try to win on right now.

This week’s acquisitions

The Little Professor is one of my favorite academic blogs. She is a professor of Victorian Literature, and she owns the distinction of actually probably buying more books than I do. She reports her library’s acquisitions on a weekly basis, and while I probably won’t do it every week, it’s kind of a cool idea.


1. Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and The Oxyrhnchus Papyri by AnnMarie Luijendijk. Early Christians in Egypt, and the diffusion of Christian culture across the ancient world.

2. The Shah by Abbas Milani.What looks to be a very comprehensive treatment of the Shah’s life.

3. R Graph Cookbook by Hrishi Mittal. A bit disappointing for me, but it would be terrific for a student just learning to use R.

4. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor. The title says it all.

5. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer. I think I’d probably hate Geoff Dyer if I met him in real life, but his travel essays are extremely diverting, as he describes his travels throughout the world and why most Americans get treated better abroad than they deserve.

6. Saul Bellow’s Letters Edited by Benjamin Taylor. Pretty obvious what this one is about. I suspect that this reading experience will be awesome with awesome on top.

7 The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp. Sharp brought us Black Swan, White Swan, which I just loved. In this novel, a 100 year-old woman remembers her life in the Russian ballet and mistress to Nicholas II.

8. The Weeds That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley. If there is a more interesting young adult heroine, than Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, I’m not sure we could handle it. Unlike the insipid Bella from those yucky Twilight books, Flavia has personality–in spades. She’s a bloody-minded little pest with a brain, an oversized sense of curiosity, and no real parental supervision. The results are a delight.

What did I read this week? I read the Geoff Dyer book this week, and I also read When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson. I have a weakness for sports books.

Not sure what to pick up next…

USC’s Gen Giuliano giving the Martin Wachs Distinguished Lecture in Berkeley

Around here, we generally just refer to Gen as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” But out in the wide world, she is a distinguished scholar who deserves every honor heaped upon her head. One such honor is giving the Martin Wachs Distinguished Lecture in Transportation. If you are in Berkeley, check it out.


The Fifth Annual Martin Wachs Distinguished Lecture in Transportation

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reception, 5 p.m to 5:30 p.m.

Lecture, 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.

Faculty Club, Heyns Room

University of California, Berkeley

“What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Transit Policy?”

A lecture delivered by:

Genevieve Giuliano

Margaret and John Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government

Senior Associate Dean of Research and Technology

School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California

Director, METRANS Transportation Center

Now in its fifth year, the annual Wachs Lecture draws innovative thinkers to the University of California to address today’s most pressing issues in transportation. Created by students to honor Professor Martin Wachs upon his retirement from the University, the lecture rotates between Berkeley and UCLA, the campuses at which Marty taught.

Marty’s commitment and integrity as a scholar, professional, and educator have profoundly affected his students, peers, colleagues and friends. We invite you act on that inspiration by contributing generously to the Lectureship. Your tax-deductible gift today will help to endow the Lectureship, securing its future as an annual event.

Please visit this online link to give to the Lecture:

This year, we are privileged to have Genevieve Giuliano address “What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Transit Policy?”

Talk abstract: Public transportation is a critical element in US transportation planning. Planners and others advocate for better public transit as a means to achieve a broad array of urban planning objectives: attracting people out of private vehicles; reshaping US metropolitan areas; solving congestion, energy and air pollution problems; revitalizing urban neighborhoods; and supplying basic mobility for those who have no or limited access to private vehicles. Over the past four decades, support for public transit has greatly increased. In 2006 all levels of government spent an estimated $36 billion on transit capital investments and operating expenses. However, public transit continues to serve a small share of the travel market even in the largest metropolitan areas. This talk examines outcomes of four decades of transit policy. Using two examples, mobility for the disadvantaged and transit impacts on land use, I show that little progress is being made in achieving transit’s objectives. Public transit, however, continues to receive strong public support, and subsidies continue to grow. I argue that investment and service decisions that generate public support are major barriers to achieving public transit’s urban planning objectives.

About Genevieve Giuliano: Genevieve Giuliano is Professor and Senior Associate Dean of Research and Technology in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS joint USC and California State University Long Beach Transportation Center. She was named the Margaret and John Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government in 2009 for her work in regional transportation policy. She also holds courtesy appointments in Civil Engineering and Geography. Professor Giuliano’s research focus areas include relationships between land use and transportation, transportation policy analysis, and information technology applications in transportation. She has published over 140 papers, and has presented her research at numerous conferences both within the US and abroad. She serves on the Editorial Boards of Urban Studies and Journal of Transport Policy. She is a past member and Chair of the Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board. She was named a National Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, received the TRB William Carey Award for Distinguished Service in 2006, and was awarded the Deen Lectureship in 2007. She has participated in several National Academies of Sciences policy studies; most recently for the NAS study, America’s Climate Choices.


We look forward to seeing you at the Wachs Lecture at the Faculty Club on February 3rd.

Privileged auto infrastructure, disadvantaged rail infrastructure

So as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been reading for awhile, I don’t have a lot of patience for the complaining rail advocates indulge in when they claim that “rail is subjected to higher standards” than highways/any other public investment. I think that’s largely just self-serving nonsense, and, moreover, it’s an empirical statement, so back up the whinge with actual analysis that shows rail projects are held to higher B-C ratios than water infrastructure or new ozone standards if you want me on board. In general, all new spending initiatives get the business in the hurly burly of politics.

However, if you did want to argue about fair play in B-C analysis, there are I think two things about B-C in highway investment that should be challenged.

1. The large numbers game. Many highway improvements get a nice boost on the benefit calculation even if the estimate of delay reductions per person are low simply because some highways serve thousands of drivers and passengers a day. With that client group, a two-minute delay reduction can look pretty good in the benefit column even if it’s doubtful that overall welfare really improves from scattering small time benefits across large groups. It seems like we do hit an asymptote at some point. Look! I save a trillion people a nanosecond!!! YAY ME AND MY PROJECT.

2. The safety benefit. This one is harder to describe, but highway projects get a pretty big benefit bump if they promise safety improvements, and most do. Most transit projects do not claim safety improvements, even if they claim environmental benefits. The question for me: in what world does it make sense to count not killing people as a benefit rather than the baseline expectation of a mobility system? We have a system that kills people, routinely, and we accept this state of affairs because cars are convenient, blaming drunks, bad drivers, and God instead of technology and a system that routinely fails to protect people. And when we want to invest more in that system, we use the fact that it will kill and maim marginally fewer to rationalize that investment to expand the killing system. WOO benefit. If not killing people is such a great thing, how about we not kill even more people and shut the damn thing down entirely, then.

Now, of course, you want to invest in things where many people benefit and where investment protects human life, but I think you really do need to be making substantial benefits on the first to be legitimate. And with the last, we should be thinking differently about how safety should work.

Ed Glaeser, Richard Green, economics, and freedom

My wonderful colleague Richard Green takes issue with Ed Glaeser’s essay in the New York Times about how economics has a moral core centered on freedom of choice. Let’s just say: barf. I don’t think we should be in the business of conflating economics with markets, for one.

Richard smartly points out that most tenured professors, particularly somebody like Ed Glaeser, have never had their backs up against the wall when it comes to anything, let alone having to chose between letting your husband beat your face in or be a single mother making minimum wage with a toddler. Yes, she’s got choices, but the rest of us have a moral obligation to her, her child, and her abuser and that obligation is not to lecture her about her choices—it’s to reflexively examine her constraints and ask how we socially and economically have co-constructed those constraints–with her and with him. And to deal with the crisis.

Poverty affects what you can even dream, let alone choose. Why that’s hard to understand is beyond me. When everybody you see on television and movies are from the city and trust funders, there is no reason to believe that you will have a better life leaving your coal mining town than you would living in a city where you know no one and where you are basically in the same labor market as unskilled rural labor from anywhere else in the world.

What markets have as their more core: the freedom for individuals to optimize, given their constraints. I do think markets can shift constraints, and lift them outwards. But don’t blow smoke up my butt about how there are no social, political, and cultural constraints for individuals in markets, or that markets make those magically disappear.

Please God, Ed, use your big brain to make useful points. I’m too old for a freaky deaky Milton Friedmann renaissance. Aren’t there any young libertarian philosophers out there with new points to make? Thomas Sowell HAS to have some students running around with something new and clever to say about freedom rather than rehashing this stuff.

Red State, Blue State, and the mortgage interest deduction

Perhaps nothing reinforces the social scientists’ biggest lament that findings with catchy, reductive labels take hold far more than detailed, contextualized, and nuanced findings like the Red State, Blue State thing. It doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. But it gets used, and this morning I was reading an interesting note on it.

Via Tax Prof blog this morning comes a story on a short analysis from Martin Sullivan on the geographic distribution of the benefits of the mortgage interest deducation, arguing that California and Maryland homeowners get more from the deduction than do people in West Virginia and other rural states. The story appears in Tax Notes.

The comments are, as usual over there, pretty sharp. I’m not sure why this report is a surprise to anybody: these are average benefits, and California has far more multi-million dollar homes than West Virginia does, pushing the distribution of benefits up, and the more interest you pay, the more valuable the deduction is for you, and the higher your bracket, the more valuable it is. The deduction has always had a free food for millionaires quality towards it, and regional housing markets differ markedly. No, it’s not fair that the mortgage interest deduction benefits blue states more than red states, but professors in Iowa City live like real estate kings while I get rent an apartment—or pay four times what they do—for housing.

It would be interesting to break this down with a more structural look: I’m not sure anybody has done so, but theory would suggest that banks, homebuilders, and landowners would receive at least a part of the benefit, as part of the distortion would be increasing the relative attractiveness of mortgages and homes over other goods.

One of the other interesting breaks in the theories here for sustainable development concern the assumption that many urbanists make that if you eliminated the deduction, people would rent more and live in apartments more. I’m sure some of that would occur, but both higher benefits from the mortgage interest deduction and more apartment dwelling are driven by regional housing markets–a lot of people wanting to live in the same place drives up land values, which drives up housing values and increases the returns to density.

At the margin, perhaps–those in small houses go back to renting in apartments, those in higher levels of the market buy smaller than they otherwise would. But I also suspect that smaller regions get a boost from when housing costs more in major metro areas; no, many people do not have discretion in where they live, but many others do–with some predictable effects about mobile, young worker boosting regional economies like Austin, TX and Charlotte, NC. Sorting doesn’t just occur within regions, iow, it happens among regions, and where you can buy may be important to some demographics.

Urban Tomographies by Martin Krieger

One of my wonderful colleagues has a new book out from the University of Pennsylvania Press: Urban Tomography by Martin Krieger.

From the book’s description:

Tomography is a method of exploring a phenomenon through a large number of examples or perspectives. In medical tomography, such as a CAT scan, two-dimensional slices or images of a three-dimensional organ are used to envision the organ itself. Urban tomography applies the same approach to the study of city life. To appreciate different aspects of a community, from infrastructure to work to worship, urban planning expert Martin H. Krieger scans the myriad sights and sounds of contemporary Los Angeles. He examines these slices of life in Urban Tomographies.

The book begins by introducing tomographic methods and the principles behind them, which are taken from phenomenological philosophy. It draws from the examples of Lee Friedlander and Walker Evans, as well as Denis Diderot, Charles Marville, and Eugène Atget, who documented the many facets of Paris life in three crucial periods. Rather than focus on singular, extraordinary figures and events as do most documentarians, Krieger looks instead at the typical, presenting multiple specific images that call attention to people and activities usually rendered invisible by commonality. He took tens of thousands of photographs of industrial sites, markets, electrical distributing stations, and storefront churches throughout Los Angeles. He also recorded the city’s ambient sounds, from the calls of a tamale vendor to the buzz of a workshop saw. Krieger considers these samples from the urban sensorium in this innovative volume, resulting in a thoughtful illumination of the interplay of people with and within the built environment. With numerous maps and photographs, as well as Krieger’s unique insights, Urban Tomographiesprovides an unusually representative and rounded view of the city.