Tuesday, May 23, 2017


I'm with the YIMBYs: advocates of less restrictive urban housing development, including development of more market-rate housing. This column by Noah Smith lays out the YIMBY case, while trying to be sympathetic to NIMBY concerns. As he concludes, "the YIMBY viewpoint has the weight of evidence and theory on its side." The outrageous cost of housing in the Bay Area, which imposes very real hardships on the poorest members of our community, is in this view largely a product of supply not being allowed to respond adequately to demand.

One point that could be added to the YIMBY argument is the evidence that over time market-rate housing "filters down" to lower-income renters, as argued in this recent article by Stuart Rosenthal:
While filtering has long been considered the primary mechanism by which markets supply low-income housing, direct estimates of that process have been absent. This has contributed to doubts about the viability of markets and to misplaced policy. I fill this gap by estimating a "repeat income" model using 1985-2011 panel data. Real annual filtering rates are faster for rental housing (2.5 percent) than owner-occupied (0.5 percent), vary inversely with the income elasticity of demand and house price inflation, and are sensitive to tenure transitions as homes age. For most locations, filtering is robust which lends support for housing voucher programs.
Of course, skeptical NIMBYs might claim that "filtering" smacks of "trickle-down," a theory of income distribution that seems to have been pretty well refuted by the evidence. But there is a big theoretical difference between the impact of increasing supply of housing at the top and the impact of transferring income to the top. Not to mention the weight of the evidence. Build baby build!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Oh no! Harsher!

Ross Douthat has out-harshed harsh David Brooks:
...ultimately I do not believe that our president sufficiently understands the nature of the office that he holds, the nature of the legal constraints that are supposed to bind him, perhaps even the nature of normal human interactions, to be guilty of obstruction of justice in the Nixonian or even Clintonian sense of the phrase....
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the Republican leadership’s duty to their country, and indeed to the world that our imperium bestrides, leaving a man this witless and unmastered in an office with these powers and responsibilities is an act of gross negligence, which no objective on the near-term political horizon seems remotely significant enough to justify. 
Good luck with that, Ross. Those are your people in charge now, and they are craven political opportunists first, members of the central committee of the capitalist class second. Our best hope is that they see the president as a threat "on the near-term political horizon." Then we get to deal with Mikey Pence, friend of the working man and woman. Shit.

Monday, May 15, 2017

So harsh!

David Brooks seems to think our president is an "infantilist." Ouch. But on the up side, we've got the greatest, the best, the biggest baby!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Should computer programming be a prerequisite for learning statistics?

Andrew Gelman isn't sure, but gives programming a higher priority than math.
So, sure, no need to learn programming before you take that statistics course. No need to learn math, either. If you had to choose between them, I’d choose programming. Better to have both, though. Programming and math are both useful. Programming’s more useful, but math helps too.
Hmm... You really do have to have enough math to be comfortable with basic algebra, I think. And I find, sadly, that many students can pass through two courses in calculus and still be shaky solving two equations in two unknowns. Let's go with "both-and."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Poetry and politics in China

Burton Watson on the "public side to poetry" in China:
From early times, Confucian scholars have seen poetry as playing a vital role in the ordering of the state, functioning as a vehicle through which the officials and common people might celebrate the virtue of a just ruler or, as is more likely to be the case, decry the hardships inflicted by an unjust one. This view of poetry as a medium for social and political complaint has led to the composition of many moving and impassioned works, realistic descriptions of the griefs of the tax-burdened farmers, outcries against military conscription and the ills of war, and attacks on social injustice in its many guises. 
According to Confucian theory, the ruler was expected to welcome such complaints as expressions of loyal concern on the part of his subjects. But in an authoritarian governmental system such as that of imperial China, reasonable complaint was in practice all too often interpreted as treasonable impertinence, and countless officials found themselves summarily demoted and “exiled” to minor office in some remote province as a result of their poetic criticisms. It is a tribute to the courage and integrity of the Chinese poet-officials that, in spite of such risks, so many of them continued over the centuries to pour out their remonstrances in poetry.
The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), pp. 4-5.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Satsu and Mei

Burton Watson, RIP

I'm a novice reader of classical Chinese poetry, so I can't say that the translations I prefer are truer to the original, if that even makes sense. Watson's were spare and direct, but not without some music...
Thinking of East Mountain
It's been so long since I headed for East Mountain –
how many times have the roses bloomed?
White clouds have scattered themselves away –
and this bright moon – whose house is it setting on?
                                                              - Li Po

Friday, May 5, 2017

William Baumol, RIP

Baumol probably should have won a Nobel in economics, but it eluded him, and he is now dead at the age of 95.

Baumol was most famous for the notion of "cost disease." The idea is pretty simple, but powerful: Industries that experience more rapid productivity growth will see their relative costs– and therefore relative unit prices– fall. Conversely, industries in which productivity gains are difficult will see their relative prices rise and, assuming demand is relatively inelastic, will take up a growing share of the economy in value terms. This cost disease particularly afflicts high-skill service industries where mechanization and automation cannot readily displace skilled labor. It's one explanation for the growing share of health care in the economy, and for the tendency for education costs to rise more rapidly than inflation.

This post has an excellent discussion of Baumol's work on innovation and market structure. He also did interesting work on money, and on fairness theory. He was a very clear expositor of important economic ideas. For a while I taught using his fine little book, Perfect Markets and Easy Virtue: Business Ethics and the Invisible Hand, with Sue Anne Batey Blackman (1992). This book uses standard arguments from the literature on market imperfections to help the reader understand when markets do a good job steering the pursuit of profit toward the social good, and when they do not. It is an excellent antidote to the usual claptrap about socially responsible business and the unalloyed virtues of markets.

He was a prolific writer and a prolific painter. Not nearly as good an economistic painter as Wassily Kandinsky, but no doubt a better painting economist.