So this is why banks are so crooked?

Fboo friend Kenneth O’Brien sent this across my desk this morning, and it’s a worthy read: The Real Reason Why Banks Have So Many Scandals.

The money quote:

So why can’t today’s bank CEOs prevent their employees from cheating and breaking the law? How come derivatives traders can get their buddies to submit false LIBOR quotes so they can make their trades look better? The amount of money at stake is certainly one reason. The individual payoffs are much, much higher than in other businesses. Another is complexity. It’s hard for managers, even those who used to be traders, to properly evaluate the sophisticated trades that are routine in a contemporary proprietary trading operation.

But the main reason is that they just don’t want to.

Justin Hollander’s Sunburnt Cities

I am currently reading Justin Hollander’s Sunburnt Cities, available from Routledge. The central problem in the book concerns how you fold negative growth into the idea of sustainability–how you shrink. It’s a short volume, a little rushed due probably to our stupid tenure clock, but still a very nice contribution to the discussion about how cities should move forward given the foreclosure crisis and the fact that some of our boom time and Rustbelt neighborhoods are never coming back.

He suggests using land banks and offering tax-reverted properties to abutting property owners at a low cost. All of us who have had a bad neighbor have thought about it–being able to buy the house next to ours, and give that housing to student rentals or an older family member.

The other idea that I think is interesting concerns relaxing the zoning code once vacancies reach a tipping point, so that a broader range of market options becomes possible.


Conversations on Social Justice at the Price School

We launched a series of conversations about social justice and social welfare. You can find them here.

  1. Richard Green, Professor and Director, Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, discussing housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the foreclosure crisis.
  2. LaVonna Lewis, Teaching Professor at the Sol Price of Public Policy, on communities and health
  3. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, on immigration and cities
  4. La Mikia Castillo, community development practitioner and organizer for Get on the Bus, one of my favorite programs for prisoners and their families
  5. Sacha Klein, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University, on child welfare policy and practice in the US.

Reflections on small, slow businesses as art and community–WalMart and The Flower Shop by Leonard Koren

A few weeks ago, brilliant colleague responded to one of my brilliant students about her participation in a protest about WalMart moving into Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Richard asks the question in a series of blog posts about what’s so wrong with WalMart:

Yes, WalMart’s wages are awful, where he and very informed commentator discuss findings from a paper by esteemed colleague Marlon Boarnet, and a second post, Marlon Boarnet on his WalMart study.

The major points being, among the technical stuff that gets economists a-going, that WalMart pays terrible wages but offers affordable groceries to those who don’t have a lot of money. As I’ve noted before, I think WalMart has actually retained retail in many rural parts of the country. It gets blamed for driving out mom and pops, but…I don’t know. The mom and pops where I grew up were owned by such elderly people with kids living far away in cities that those businesses had for all practical purposes dried up already. Just my experience, but still.

I was reflecting on these issues yesterday, as I picked up a lovely book by Leonard Koren called The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty & Tenderness in a Commercial Context . It’s about a flower shop (duh, Lisa) in Vienna, and the flower artist who allows her employees to create and experiment and have fun with flowers and customers. Koren is an astute observer and an elegant writer, and while much of what Koren writes is all a bit precious, the people involved in trying to make beautiful things and a beautiful place are too generous and keen to judge too harshly. Workers at the flower shop are encouraged to have fun, play music loudly if they feel like it, laugh and make jokes with customers. Customers are treated as guests. Capitalism and community are balanced together, in a thoughtful, meaningful way. Nobody is getting rich; the point is that life unfolds as a series of pleasant days working with beautiful things and getting to know people. The contributions to the creative life and the community, though, strike me as pretty big: one shopper leaves her little boy there while she runs errands. The shop’s owner tends to give away flowers to children in a willy nilly fashion.

Much of what I personally deplore about WalMart has nothing to do with the larger societal meanings of cheap stuff from China sold to those with limited means, using lousy wages and skunky business practices as the mechanisms for keeping prices low and profits high. I don’t have to approve or condemn it from a policy perspective, as I simply don’t know what the right answer is.

I do know that I personally haven’t been into a WalMart for years because, unlike the flower shop described above, WalMart is too immense, ugly, and impersonal and full of unhappy workers for me to deal with. I am assuming that there are some folks who work at WalMart and who enjoy it; but the last one I was in was so grey and depressing that I never wanted to go back.

I also don’t go to grocery stores, except for Trader Joe’s, which I realize makes me a yuppie elitist, but TJ’s are usually small, still too immensely loud for my taste, but the people who work there seem to be happy enough.

We once in awhile go to a Target in Baldwin Hills. I can only manage about a quarter of its acreage before I start to get overwhelmed. But the staff is jovial.

I find I miss my little Iowa chain grocery store: Fareway. I’m sure they weren’t wonderful to work for, either, but you could walk the entire store in less than 10 minutes. Instead of having 25 different types of toothpaste (overwhelming), they had 10, at most. They were closed on Sundays, so that none of their workers had to give Sunday to their job instead of their families and themselves.

Management makes a difference.

David King on not getting to stoked about the back-to-the-city numbers–or too down

He’s interviewed here in The Atlantic City blog.

One of the things that confuses me in this debate is that there has been little control for relatively urban suburbs–not the ones that are changing to grab onto the New Urbanism or other design fads/trends (whatever you wish to call it). I mean suburbs that have always been rather urban in their look and feel. So North Hollywood is a suburb. But it developed as a fairly urban place with its subway stop. Oh well. I suppose the hardcore urbanists would say that places like that aren’t fooling anybody. I live a stone’s throw from downtown, but it’s quiet place–single use and suburban.

He’s got a response:

One of the reasons it’s frustrating that you just hear about city versus suburbs is there’s so much heterogeneity of suburbs, that it’s really not fair to treat all suburbs as the same. Some suburbs are dense. Some are old streetcar suburbs. Some have been trying, through transit investment and investment in main streets downtown, to create walkable denser communities. This has been happening throughout the country.

It’s pretty clear I don’t get the distinctions that many make between cities and suburbs. Dave lives in New York, the urbanist’s jewel; I don’t. For a reason.

LA Streets blog covers South LA’s lousy bus stop design

This is a wonderful, overdue piece–it was put together by Sahra Sulaiman, who did a terrific job.

The City has a 20-year contract with outdoor advertising company CBS/Decaux to provide Angelenos with “street furniture.” The Coordinated Street Furniture program grants CBS/Decaux the exclusive right to install and maintain kiosks, bus benches and shelters, trash cans, and outdoor restrooms in exchange for the right to sell and display advertising in the shelter and kiosk windows. The arrangement, initiated at the end of 2001, is intended to provide the city with a share of the revenues generated by the advertising.

Because CBS/Decaux’s profits are tied to advertising, they have a greater interest in placing shelters nearer more affluent commercial districts. On their website, they market themselves to potential customers as being strategically placed in “top locations,” namely “Main Upscale Neighborhoods,” “Key Entertainment Venues,” “Major Sports Venues,” and the “Largest Universities.”

Not even this rationale makes sense. Large universities? I work at a “large university” and our bus stops are crap and unshaded too, because we’re in that universe of terrible city service, south of the 10.

LA shouldn’t be ashamed of its transit–but people are. It SHOULD be ashamed of its bus stops.

Another quibble with the article concerns Sulaiman’s comment here:

While the above-ground light rail stations have been explicitly designed to shelter patrons in unique and community-pride enhancing ways, the more frequently used approximately 9,000 bus stops around the city have suffered from significant neglect.

The Expo Line stations have decorations, not shade. Those stupid wavey things look nice (I guess) when you drive by them, but they are generally useless for shade except at noon. Most of the rest of the day the sun bakes on one platform or the other while the shade falls brilliantly onto the tracks…so useful. Well done, architect.

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Well, maybe California will prove Keynes right with their high speed rail experiment…

So Jerry Brown won–the California legislature voted to approved $4.7 billion in bond sales to start high speed rail construction. I’m worried, because Brown has played a fairly big budgetary gambit to win this thing: a state budget based on the voters approving tax measures I doubt they will pass, a bunch of federal pork for transit to pay off Democrats around the state.

I have to say, it’s not often I agree with the National Review, but this time I do, as this project is a big expense. Here’s John Fund:

It was wrenching to watch the California state legislature — for which I worked in the 1980s — as it led California over a fiscal cliff. The high-speed-rail line that was approved on Friday is a train to nowhere. And it’s offering Californians a nonstop ticket to their future as residents of a homegrown version of Greece.

A bit overstated, perhaps, but still.

However, there are reasons to take solace. The most recent business plan isn’t the steaming pile of poop that previous ones have been. They’ve been forced to tell people the truth about how much the project is going to cost, so bond buyers know what they are getting into, as do California voters in the fall. If Obama wins in the fall, there will be more money because he loves the trains, so there may be more billions from Washington. And it will be an experiment in Keynesianism, that nice billion-dollar-spit-in-the-ocean idea that, when the state is in recession, the state should stimulate demand by handing billions to Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Are you stupid if you don’t know what the Higgs Boson is?

No. But it does say something about America’s level of science illiteracy that people seem completely unable to give the barest of definitions, something as simple as “the biggest unanswered question in particle physics.” It would be nice if they knew about atoms, and a bit about subatomic particles. I’m not confident of my own knowledge, but the Higgs Boson has been the Holy Grail for particle physicists long enough that educated Americans should at least be able to know what debates the new evidence contributes. My take on not knowing the Higgs Boson is that level of disengagement is somewhat akin to not knowing who Toni Morrison is.

Apparently no. The web is whirling with collected Twitter statements about how atheists have been “proved wrong” because “they have found the God Particle” and other nonsense. One hopes this material is satire.

This selection here from Slate is a bit refreshing as instead of taking potshots at the usual media target (fundamentalist Christians), the piece takes a look at people who are likely to have been to college–residents of Brooklyn. The guesses include bands, art installations, etc.

Go away from my page and read something about science.

Mayberry as a Slow City

The thing about the Slow Cities movement, which I generally support, as I approve of anything that values slowness over haste, is that I am not sure that cities ever were slow. They’ve always promised dynamism, and there’s part of the Slow Cities idea that smacks of a commercial gimmick to me–a “getaway lifestyle resort inland” tourist mentality. I think the people who generated the idea and the movement are more sincere than that, but it’s a bit precious in the contemporary global order.

That said, I still hope they take over the world and cell phones can’t ring in public.

The passing of Andy Griffith last week had me reflecting on the Andy Griffith Show. To refer to something as “Mayberry” has become a slur, don’t you think? A symbol of 50s and 60s white America which had convinced itself of the virtues of its own perverse social ordering. The show was on reruns forever, and I just don’t remember much of it from my childhood–what I do remember centers mostly on the music in the show, and the idea that people might sit on a porch with a guitar rather than watch television all night every night.

Since Griffith’s death, I’ve watched a few episodes in the show, and in my random sampling, I’m not sure the critique of the show as white America pablum isn’t rather a reaction to what people think was on the show more than what was actually on the show. In some respects, watching these few scattered episodes, it strikes me more as a better-intentioned, less cynical version of Seinfeld, in which not very much happens. Griffith is a kindly sheriff who is genuinely decent to everybody he encounters, who values peace and quiet. Aunt Bea is a lovely woman who seems to enjoy taking care of other people, which can be, in fact, an enjoyable thing when people are grateful for the work you do.

Here’s a lovely meditation on how to spend a Sunday, how to run an economy, how to piddle around on your porch with a guitar, how to peel an apple, and how to demonstrate hospitality.