24 March 2018

Deleting Facebook

Around the time I put this blog on hiatus in late 2014, I also shut down my Facebook account. I had been an early adopter of Facebook - Williams College was one of the early universities it expanded to in 2004. It's got a decade worth of pictures and social interactions with high school and university friends, and probably a few treasured memories and important contact details that I won't see again. (But some future data-miner might; ha ha.)

I didn't delete my account due to any moral opposition to the platform - merely a sense that I was getting fewer benefits from it, and being inconvenienced in various small ways. Subsequent events have generally confirmed that getting off Facebook was a good idea.

Now the company is facing some pretty serious problems with fake news and privacy breaches. Some people are arguing that Facebook is intrinsically bad:
A large and growing body of research confirms what probably ought to be obvious: Spending a lot of time alone, disengaged from other human beings, staring at your phone, and clicking on little buttons on a platform obsessively engineered by some of the smartest people on the planet to keep you staring and clicking is not good for you.

Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis conducted one of the best studies on this, partnering with Gallup to use a sample of thousands of people across three waves and looking at self-reported physical health, self-reported mental health, self-reported life satisfaction, and body mass index.
They find that “overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being,” whereas networking socially in the real world was positively associated with well-being and “the negative associations of Facebook use were comparable to or greater in magnitude than the positive impact of offline interactions.”
  • A smaller study showed that when people spend time comparing their real lives to the idealized versions of themselves that others present on Facebook, it leads to depression.
  • A separate study showed that Facebook use — but not general internet browsing — leads to negative mood driven by “a feeling of having wasted time.” The study also finds that users make a systematic “forecasting error” and predict that logging on will improve their mood when, more often than not, it does the reverse.
  • By December of 2017, even Facebook’s in-house research team was admitting that using Facebook the way Facebook is generally used in reality is harmful to users’ mental health and well-being.
The Facebook internal team’s fig leaf rationalization was to point out that using Facebook to have meaningful interactions with close friends and family makes people happier. It’s of course true that such meaningful interactions are valuable, and also true that Facebook contains some functionality that facilitates them.

But lots of technology companies offer messaging services — Facebook’s unique value proposition is its ability to “connect the world” and push you into endless cycles of interacting with strangers, quasi-strangers, and brands. 
Personally, I haven't experienced any major inconveniences from deleting Facebook, and I've avoided (on the margin) getting sucked into some of the fear and loathing that seems to be propagating on the platform. So my advice would be to just go ahead and leave.

The Pynchon files must be getting full by now?

This headline:

Satanism Drama Is Tearing Apart the Murderous Neo-Nazi Group Atomwaffen

Here's the crazy thing: my first thought upon reading this was "Oh, the Satanists are doing more good work opposing hate." That's because some sects of Satanists have been promoting progressive causes.

But it turns out that these Satanists are, in fact, bad:
White nationalists are disavowing the murderous neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division—not because of the murder, but because the group can’t shake persistent rumors that it’s a gateway organization for a satanic cult.

Atomwaffen is an extremist group that received national attention after being implicated in five murders from May 2017 to January 2018. But even before the most recent slaying, Atomwaffen was under fire from others on the far right who claimed the group was actually a mouthpiece for the Order of Nine Angles, a satanic group that encourages members to infiltrate extremist political movements, whose members might be susceptible to conversion.
The Order of Nine Angles is British-based, but steeped in Nazism. A fringe occultist group whose literature encourages human sacrifices, the ONA champions Nazi Germany and pushes Holocaust denialism. One of the group’s longest-running leaders, Anton Long, is rumored to have been a pseudonym for the known neo-Nazi David Myatt.

The ONA requires members (called Noctulians) to spend six months either hitchhiking, working as a burglar, working as a police officer, or infiltrating an extremist political group.

“Undertake the role of extreme political activist and so champion heretical views (by, e.g. becoming involved in extreme Right-Wing activism),” the group demands in one of its introductory books. “The aim is to express fanaticism in action and be seen by all ‘right-thinking people’ as an extremist, and a dangerous one.”
My reaction:


Let's leave the last word to the Nazis, or possibly the Satanist infiltrators of the Nazi cult:
“You guys can get all moralistic if you want about satanism,” one Atomwaffen member said in the leaked audio, “but at the end of the day when the fuckin’ race war comes, morals aren’t going to do anything but get you fuckin’ killed.”
Yeah nah.

23 March 2018

In Melbourne

This week I'm in Melbourne for work. I was invited to talk about the economics of walkability at a conference. I've also spent a reasonable amount of time actually walking around the place. It's pretty good, although not perfect. One of the great things about the Melbourne CBD is the abundance of interesting laneways and side-streets packed with cool stuff. It's a reminder of how good Australasian urbanism can be.

CBD aside, in many respects Melbourne reminds me of Chicago. It's some combination of topography (flat and sprawling around a large bay), buildings (a central cluster of skyscrapers, brick rowhouses and converted warehouses, and a large belt of suburbs), and transport (the tram and train networks). On past visits I've had a mild sense of deja vu, but it seems to be diminishing as I spend more time here and notice more of the things that are unique about this place.

22 March 2018


Nothing major on this, but I've been watching the American arguments over political correctness with a certain amount of bemusement, and a certain amount of outraged contempt.

So I thought that this piece by Mari Uyehara was spot-on:
On the topic of campus politics and free speech, Andrew Sullivan has written in New York magazine about a half-dozen articles, warning that "the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy." His colleague Jonathan Chait has written another dozen on PC culture, arguing that "these episodes are the manifestation of a serious ideological challenge to liberalism." In The New York Times, Bret Stephens regurgitated a speech as an article called "Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort," while David Brooks dedicated a piece to "Understanding Student Mobbists," for which he spoke to exactly zero students. In ten months, Weiss has racked up three articles on the subject. You would think that these "mobs" on college campuses and Twitter were sending the unwoke to a Soviet-style gulag.
The enthusiasm to defend those triggering libs makes the Free Speech Grifters uniquely susceptible to right-wing propagandists. In her last op-ed, Weiss featured an obvious parody Antifa Twitter account, run by alt-right trolls, and YouTuber Dave Rubin fell for the same gag. In 2016, Sommers unwittingly did a full hour on a Swedish white-supremacy podcast. And the same year, in a since-deleted tweet, she announced she would be "defending free speech and reason" with Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently outed by BuzzFeed for working with white nationalists to smuggle their ideas into the mainstream. He also appeared alongside Maher, railing about free speech, on Real Time. This isn't all complete ignorance. Columbia University College Republicans invited Tommy Robinson of the far-right English Defense League, while the new Canadian free-speech club Laurier Society for Open Inquiry announced white nationalist Faith Goldy as its first speaker. In the National Review, Elliot Kaufman chided fellow campus conservatives for purposely giving the alt-right a platform in an effort to bait the left into doing something "silly and destructive," so that they could play "martyrs for free speech on campus" and draw media coverage. "The left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos," he wrote. "They were the attraction."
As Adam Serwer in The Atlantic and Jamelle Bouie in Slate have pointed out exhaustively, there are many more deeply disturbing threats to free speech, namely those enforced by the state. (Technically, First Amendment protections apply to guarding against the state imposing on the free speech of people, not the battleground of ideas at universities.) Examples include laws that ban positive portrayals of homosexuality in public schools, and police unions urging their members to retaliate against private citizens who have lodged complaints of misconduct. At Trump's inauguration last year, an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist march called J20 resulted in mass arrests, including of journalists, medics, and legal observers. Originally, 239 people were charged with felony inciting to riot, facing up to 60 years in prison. Houses were raided. The ACLU got involved. And not a peep in an entire year from any of the so-called free-speech warriors. Ditto this past week, when a Wisconsin school administrator was fired for allowing black students to hold a discussion about white privilege in a district that is 90 percent Caucasian. How peculiar.
So yeah. I can't take these people seriously when they're mainly just whining about how other people are saying things that offend their sensibilities, while ignoring actual harm being done to free speech.

19 March 2018

Inadvertent psychadelic art

I took a panoramic photo in Albert Park the other day. It went a bit weird:

Beautiful day, though.

18 March 2018

The politics of housing

In Dissent, Benjamin Ross writes about the odd bedfellows that the 'anti-development left' has acquired:
Housing debates, on the left and on the right, have long been a mess of ideological contradictions. A zoning ordinance, as seen by its partisans, can preserve the exclusivity of a neighborhood or protect against rapacious capitalists. In the eyes of critics, it can abridge landowners’ property rights or act as a tool of racial segregation.

A far-reaching new legislative proposal in California, where rising rents have reached a crisis point, scrambles things even more—or perhaps begins to unscramble them. SB 827, introduced by San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener in early January, would overrule local ordinances that restrict new housing near transit. It applies to all property within a half-mile of a train station or a quarter-mile of a bus line that runs at least every fifteen minutes. Within that zone, bans on multi-family housing would vanish along with requirements for off-street parking. Buildings could go up to 45, 55, or 85 feet tall (varying with distance to the station and street width), or higher where local zoning permits.

California’s emerging urbanist movement—known as YIMBYs for “Yes In My Back Yard”—jumped for joy at the willingness of elected officials to move so far in their direction. Affluent single-family suburbs, always protective of their zoning, were predictably critical. The Beverly Hills and Palo Alto city councils condemned the Wiener proposal. Development foes from San Diego to Los Angeles to Marin County quickly joined in.

But SB 827 posed a challenge for the anti-gentrification left. One of that movement’s principal organizing issues—indeed, the one that wins it the most victories—is fighting new private development as a means of preventing gentrification. The policy argument for leftist opposition to new buildings, even when no existing housing is removed, is that the arrival of luxury housing and other amenities drives up nearby rents.
Only time will tell whether insistence on added tenant protection is a negotiating tactic or a disguise for irreconcilable opposition. But either way, the debate over the bill points to an underlying weakness in the community-benefits approach to land use. Community benefits are the fruit of inflated housing prices. A developer will pay for a zoning approval only to the extent it will bring extra profit. Success for SB 827—indeed, anything that makes rents lower—will make approvals less valuable.

To be sure, for most of the last forty years, a critique of community benefits along these lines would have been purely theoretical. Zoning was solidly entrenched in government institutions and public opinion, invulnerable to direct attack. There was no need to defend the system that created the wealth, even when contending for a share of it.

Severe housing shortages in West Coast cities now change that calculus, and SB 827 poses the issue with unprecedented clarity. Zoning is under attack as a system. It is a system that generates economic inequality; exactions on developers limit the damage only slightly. Builders’ profits represent only a small share of the wealth that housing inflation creates, and community-benefits agreements can capture only a portion of that. With this money, housing for the very poor can be built, something the market cannot do, but the far larger gains reaped by landlords and homeowners are left untouched.

Resistance to looser zoning thus traps community-benefits advocates in a political dead end alongside the anti-development left. As the Garcetti flip-flop illustrates, affluent single-family homeowners are the main obstacle to SB 827. Leftists who oppose the bill become their junior partners in a de facto coalition. The poorest and the wealthiest are pitted against those in between—something that is never a good basis for redistributive politics.

Zoning controversies have long made strange bedfellows. But the ease with which Beverly Hills and Marin County residents can adopt anticapitalist rhetoric points to an affinity that goes beyond mere electoral convenience. Whether out of ideological conviction, political opportunism, or love of the hip cachet of urban neighborhoods, left activists identify gentrification as the essence of the housing problem and resistance to new building as the cure. Progressive organizing thus evolves stealthily into a defense of the residential status quo. It is a status quo that Beverly Hills is happy to preserve.
From my experience, this weird political tie-up seems to be much less prevalent (although certainly not nonexistent) in New Zealand. Local governments, which are the locus of most pro-development/anti-development debates, have less unilateral power. Central government, on the other hand, bears the brunt of housing shortfalls as it's responsible for subsidising or providing affordable housing and dealing with the health issues from unhealthy or crowded housing. So as a result, we've recently had both left- and right-wing governments push towards making it easier to build housing in big cities.

I've also been thinking about counter-messaging, and what it would mean to put forward a pro-housing message from a leftist perspective. Here's an attempt from last year. I tried to frame things around abundance - which has been the classic dream of political radicals on the left since ages ago.
The problem of scarcity

Urban space is fundamentally limited. A person on a bike cannot occupy the same space as a truck – or, at least, it would be very unwise for them to try it. Two people cannot build houses on the same plot of land – unless they stack their homes and call it an apartment building. Consequently, access to many urban amenities, like coastal views or convenient commutes to a range of jobs, are also limited to those with the right and the means to occupy desirable places.

In a market economy, access to these amenities is usually rationed by price. People with the ability to pay for a nice location get to enjoy living there, and others must go elsewhere. This isn’t to say that non-market allocation systems will necessarily produce a fairer outcome. For instance, in the Soviet Union the best dachas, or holiday homes, were reserved for political and technical elites. However, it does suggest that, to get a more equitable outcome, we need to overcome the scarcity of housing in nice locations and the scarcity of good transport choices throughout the city.

Good urban policy can overcome scarcity. For instance, survey evidence shows that Aucklanders value their natural environment, including beaches, coasts, and public parks. However, a piece of research that I led last year found that home-buyers in Auckland pay substantially more to live near the coast but not to live near regional or local parks.

The difference is that coastal locations are in scarce supply, while parks are not. Because councils chose to build many neighbourhood parks and preserve major green spaces like the Waitakere Ranges and Maungawhau / Mt Eden, very few homes are more than a kilometre from the nearest park. Because there are many parks, access to them doesn’t have to be rationed by price.
Space for new politics?

This article has been primarily focused on policy, not politics. However, it is often the case that new forms of politics are needed to deliver policy change.

As I’m an economist rather than a political organiser, I won’t pretend to know how to catalyse new political movements. That being said, I hope that this article has offered some useful suggestions for shaping a progressive political agenda. First, it’s important to recognise that many of Auckland’s social and spatial inequalities are driven by scarcity – in particular, scarcity of housing, especially in desirable locations, and transport choices.

Second, we must react to scarcity by building bridges, not walls. In an urban context, progressive politics must respond to scarcity by delivering abundance. If people don’t have places to live, build more homes. If people can’t get around, provide them with abundant access. In a city, we are all citizens – we have a right to the place where we live.

17 March 2018

First-mover effect

A new apartment block in Auckland has attracted criticism from some surrounding businesses:
In what could be a glimpse of a less car-dependent Auckland, Ockham Residential is opening its radical new Daisy apartment block at 11 Akepiro St off Charles St, between New North Rd and Dominion Rd in a city fringe area.

The one- and two-bedroom block has extensive cycle parking but challenges the traditional basement garage model whereby apartment buyers usually try to get at least one bay per unit or even more if they have enough money.

"In lieu of private car parks Daisy has 12 scooter parks, 40 bicycle spaces and two shared cars for the use of residents, run through the Cityhop model," Ockham said yesterday.
The owners of Fuel Conversions & Automotive Repairs, on the other end of the short Mt Eden road, said the lack of parks in the new build would "without doubt" affect their business.

Sue Golding had run the business for more than two decades with her husband, Ross.

"There is absolutely nowhere to park around here anyway," she said.

"We have a guy that comes in at 6am every morning just to move cars from the shop where they've been overnight, on to the street so we've got space to work."
It takes a lot of nerve to complain that someone else is doing the exact same thing as you, ie not providing on-site carparks and expecting to be able to store a car on the street on occasion. But it's an incredibly common reaction.