An Open Letter to the French, on behalf of all Americans who are not idiotic xenophobes

Dear France–

I love you. I really do. I love your cheese, I love your wine, I even love your beer and gin; I love your Riviera, I love (most) of your intellectuals, and I love it when you have labor unrest, and I even love your weird sense of humor even if I don’t get it.

There are things that probably change in any society, and I am sure that yours in no different from mine in that regard.

Please do not assume that the twelve angry men, and one angry lady, running for the nod on the right-wing ticket in the US reflects a general sentiment. I do not think it does.

Your friend,


Cars and guns do kill people, which is why we have redesigned cars and worked to displace them in cities…

One of the more popular memes flying around my pro-gun-loving friends on Facebook that either features Stewie noting that if guns kill people, then spoons make people fat and pencils cause grammar errors. I’ve written before about the connection between human agency and our material lives–e.g., that I suspect that tools and environments do factor into and shape human behavior, including choices. No, I don’t think that spoons make people fat, but it seems pretty clear that a simple choice to over-eat and under-exercise, the judgment levied at we fat people for ages–is also not a particularly good predictor of obesity. It turns out that families, neighborhoods, cultures, and food systems are pretty important supports in health systems. So maybe not spoons, but lots of other things residing very far outside of individual choice, do seem to matter. Turns out, child abuse is a pretty good predictor of obesity. Go figure. Treat a kid like crap and he learns his body isn’t worth loving or caring for. There’s a shocker.

That said, one of the analogies that is absolutely sticking in my craw concerns cars and guns. The old “Cars kill more people than guns, so why don’t we ban them” argument. First, there is a question about whether that is likely to remain true–see here, in the Economist.

And second, even if it is true, the fact that this argument is made tells us a lot about where Americans are in really understanding how our tools affect our lives.

To wit: we have long known that cars kill people and are, in general, not good for us, even as they provide copies mobility. As a result, we’ve worked and worked and worked on making cars much safer, and we have worked and worked and spent and spent and spent trying to get people to use them less! And while those on the left are likely to credit stricter standards and regulation with improving safety, those standards and regulations have come about not because government is looking after us, but because the insurance industry has skin in the game of crash deaths and injuries. They have been a very vocal lobby for enhanced vehicle safety.

If we had spent the time and the resources making guns safer as we have done with cars, guns might be safer. But it’s not like we haven’t spent any time and resources on guns: we have plenty of new technologies on firearms–in order to make them more effective.

Which is where every analogy breaks down, in the teleology. Cars are for mobility; injury and deaths are a side-effect. Pencils are for writing, and grammar problems are side-effect. Spoons are for eating, and perhaps over-eating and obesity is a side effect.

But the whole point of guns the telos–is to injure and kill, or at least threaten to injure and kill, for some other end: robbing, protecting, what have you. I doubt empirical evidence will ever convince gun-lovers that they and their family are probably not the exception to the statistics: they feel safer with guns, they want them, and there’s no reasoning around preferences. These folks think they are the exception, they are the exception, they are the exception: there was that one guy that one time who used his gun to stop a violent crime, and the media just didn’t cover it, because liberal media bias, and I’m competent like that one guy, not like the 100s of people who shoot themselves in the butt at Walmart.

I have long argued that we need to dispense with “car insurance” and “home insurance” and just require “personal liability and damage insurance.” If you, Bob, want to own a house and gun and drive a car, then insurance companies will figure what it takes to insure you, and you get to figure out if that is worth the costs. If you, Billy, want to ride a bike with no gun and live in a condo, then insurers will figure that out, too. That way, if the gun owner shoots his ass off in Walmart, well, then it’s on his insurance and not on health insurance to pay for it. If Billy the Bike Rider rides like an asshole and runs over some little old lady and breaks her hip, he’s on the hook exactly the same way he would be if he had driven a car and done the same injury.

THEN we would see real interventions into the gun market because insurance companies would have skin in the game, there, too, and there would be lots of incentives to have people sign up for classes on safety and other things that might help reduce the social costs.

I think Millennials are not entitled enough

It seems to be inevitable that every few weeks, I have to read some version of the following:

1. Some article that explains that Donald Trump is actually a sophisticated and wonderful candidate who is saving our democracy by exposing the hypocrisies of it, and if you don’t see that, you are some liberal elite instead of somebody who recognizes the pull of populist strongmen who appeal to xenophobic tropes;

2. Some article that writes about how the university is dying, and it’s all somebody’s fault, and while it is must be parents, tenure, donors, tenure, administrators, tenure, political correctness, tenure, the internet, or tenure, or students, or…well tenure, of course, because there is nothing in today’s society that can’t be fixed by filching more benefits away from workers, or

3. Some article about how Millennials are entitled, and that’s not good.

Today I am going to take up the third. I generally think the kids are all right, but of the various diagnoses of Millenials and their ills, I think the problem is that they are not entitled enough.

Wait for it, before you sputter.

I got reflecting on this one day in my transit class when I was expressing irritation about a very expensive textbook, in its third edition, that costs close to $200, that is riddled with math errors. My students kept looking at me in disbelief that I would be so irritated by such a thing, and then spent the rest of the hour pointing out my own math glitches, gleefully, as though I shouldn’t think myself above math errors. Frankly, I am just grateful that the price tag had stopped me from asking students to buy this damn textbook.

Whatever, students like to call out professors, and I don’t care, but I have been shocked by their attitude ever since: they don’t actually *expect* expensive textbooks to have been proofread. They don’t *expect* quality. Instead, they *expect* to pay a lot of money for a textbook because textbook publishers *can* charge a lot without putting much effort into a book in order to make the margin they need to publish the book, so they *do*, and it’s just something Millenials put up with.

Then it occurred to me: these students have lived entirely during globalization where they have always paid $50+ for shirts where the buttons came off after two washings. The “Made in the USA” label is an abstraction to them; for me, much older, it was a real time and real, living thing, where “made in the USA” represented both a) an unsuccessful attempt to resist footloose capital that would sell out American labor in a heartbeat, driving down wages and benefits and impoverishing my fellows; and b) *quality* manufacturing. Their parents probably did not belong to unions, nor are they likely to know anybody who belonged to a union or who, thus, talked seriously about the entitlements of making a living.

It makes me sad to think of it–that we have taught our kids to expect so little, and to think that quality work is something nobody has time for.

Learning from bad reviews: George Saunders on Doug Unger

George Saunders writes a nice little memoir about his writing workshop days in this week’s The New Yorker. All of it worth reading, but this bit on Doug Unger’s willingness to share his process surrounding an unkind review highlights a teacher’s inherent decency:

Doug gets an unkind review. We are worried. Will one of us dopily bring it up in workshop? We don’t. Doug does. Right off the bat. He wants to talk about it, because he feels there might be something in it for us. The talk he gives us is beautiful, honest, courageous, totally generous. He shows us where the reviewer was wrong—but also where the reviewer might have gotten it right. Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He’s in it for the long haul, we can see. He’s a fighter, and that’s what we must become too: we have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.

When I was a PhD student, Randy Crane let me see a set of reviews on a manuscript. He pulled aside the curtain a bit, to let me see the job, and made me better at it. It’s a very decent thing to do, one of the many things he did for me.

My students’ super visualizations of construction cost escalations on the Expo Line LRT in Los Angeles

I have my students examine Flyvbjerg’s Megaprojects work, and I ask them to do some of the legwork on a forensic budgeting exercise. This time out, we did the Expo Line Phase 1 LRT. It’s a difficult project, as the students have to do quite a bit of digging through board minutes and decisions. However, it’s useful because it allows us to really discuss the issues at hand: is it merely strategy to underestimate, over and over, the costs of projects?

In the case of the Expo Line, the project as delivered was quite a bit different than the project as envisioned. There were a lot of additions, and some of those additions were probably good ones. So here are some of my students’ visualizations.

The Cost of Doing Business Forensic budgeting forecasting By Justin Pascone Jewel Deguzman and Keegan McDonald

This cool, web-based, interactive one is by Justine Pascone, Keegan McDonald, and Jewel Deguzman. SO COOL.

Expo Line Assignment Visualization 2 pdf page 3 of 15

This graphic above is by Jinhao Mai, Daniel Bernstein, and Soma Senhat

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414122 1 Expo Budget Analysis pdf

Above by: Justin Bleeker, Amauri Casarin, and James Hamilton

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

These bottom two are by Ben Frazier, Teppei Yoshida, and Emily Finkel. I really like that second one because it shows where the money came from. They had to work pretty hard digging that out.

And yeah, my USC Price and Viterbi students are the freaking shizzle, in case any employers are watching.

The academy’s star economy protected Berkeley’s campus creeper, not tenure

So we get to go around the mulberry bush again with alleged campus creeper/super famous astronomer Geoff Marcy. That’s a nice article from Colleen Flaherty of IHE that you should go read.

Of course, lots of grumbling about how “tenure protected this guy.” Um, no, administrators protected this guy, and the reason was that he made Berkeley look good. Tenure actually protected his colleagues who refused to parrot the administrator’s party line about the guy when the media exposed their golden boy.

Gas and transit cross-price elasticity In Los Angeles 2013 to 2014

Back again, bragging about my students. We were working primarily with own-price elasticities, which are a problem simply because transit is not the only option, and price changes in other modes can influence demand as well. Well, one of my wonderful students, visiting USC Price from USC Viterbi Jinhao Mai found us some data on gas prices.

Fare Elasticity pdf 1 page

Gas prices are not helping Metro at all after their price change. How do you feel about having 2014 first year instead of 2013? Maybe we should flip em?

Rail fare elasticities are not uniform, at least not in LA, via @uscprice student Justin Bleeker (@jstnblkr)

As regular readers and students know, I’m quite fond of having students do work. Then I am quite fond of bragging about this work, as my students are really wonderful. I have an occasion for so doing today! Over the past few weeks, we have been working on fare elasticities in my transit class, and we have a natural experiment to work with: LA Metro raised its fares last September, by a lot. The base fare increase wasn’t a big deal: It was $1.50 and it went up to $1.75, but transfer policy changed:

Beginning Monday, September 15 that will include for the first time a two-hour period of free transfers on Metro’s bus and rail system when using a stored value TAP (Transit Access Pass) card to pay for the base fare. The fare changes, following extensive public hearings and Board approval last May, will raise the price of the base cash fare from $1.50 to $1.75, the Day Pass from $5 to $7, the weekly pass from $20 to $25 and the monthly pass from $75 to $100.

I got into some disagreement with certain transit experts about this, who thought it was unequivocally good policy because of the two hour free transfer. Now, that is good policy, they are right. Unfortunately, metro changed multiple things at once, and one of my worries was that the prior transfer policy actually encouraged people to buy day passes: you had a trip that required a transfer, and the to- and from- trips would cost you $6, and with that kind of charge, you might as well buy a day pass, and with that day pass, you might undertake more trips than if you were paying by trip.

My husband, Andy, routinely did that. We’d buy a day pass for him when we set out on transit as that way, he could go that day wherever I went with my monthly pass. At $5, you could do that. At $7, you think twice about doing that, and your probably don’t do it.

Anyway, the early evidence is that Metro succeeded in raising more revenues with the move: they had 7.7 percent bump in revenue, which is nice, but is not going to make much of a dent in their operating deficits. The bad news is that ridership also went down. Theory would tell us that this result is likely.

Brilliant student Justin Pascone lays it all out four us:

In comparing the Q2 of 2014 and 2013:

• Overall ridership is down 4.4% (from ~121M to 116M)

• Bus ridership is down 4.9% (from ~92M to 88M)

• Rail ridership is down 2.7% (from ~29m to 28M)

In comparing the change in Q2 ridership numbers and base fare

• Overall fare elasticity is -0.27

• Bus fare elasticity is -0.30

• Rail fare elasticity is -0.16

Now, APTA puts fare elasticity at about -.40, so we here in LA County are somewhat less price sensitive than on average, but I think this is an effect of who rides: we are probably serving a lot of transit dependents who really have little choice but to eat the fare increase. One thing to note: the rail riders are much less likely to step off than the bus riders. Now, there are multiple possible explanations: rail riders are getting such a good ride that they don’t mind paying more for it. But it is also likely that your rail passengers are somewhat higher income and, thus, less price sensitive. It could be both.

One possible answer to the budgetary and justice woes with transit fares might be , for example, to price discriminate and charge your rail riders more.

Justin Bleeker took an extra step to help us understand that these aggregate modal elasticities hide quite a bit of variance, however, and soaking our rail riders would have pretty steep distributional effects as well:

Metro Fare Elasticities Chart

I suspect that if we broke that bus figure out by a sample of bus lines, we’d have a similar situation, but it’s pretty clear: riders along the Blue Line, in south Los Angeles, are pretty price sensitive, and higher fares meant less travel.

This is not good news.

Also in the not-good-news department: the confounding thing is that metro ridership was declining even before the fare increase. (WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?? ARE WE NOT SPENDING BILLIONS ON TRAINS FOR YOU PEOPLE???).

I’ll revisit these questions later in the week with more cool student work.