Wednesday, February 27, 2019

If a Tree Falls ....

There is an old philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?

The subjective idealists said no. A noise is a perception, an experience in someone's mind. If there is no experience, there is no noise.

Aristotle said yes. A noise is a "potency," the physical event that has the power to create that perception. If the physical event occurs, then there is a noise. Today, of course, we know that the physical event is a vibration of the air (or of water), which our eardrums detect and our brains convert to a subjective perception of noise.

This question has always been presented as an insoluble puzzle, but the answer should be obvious: It depends on your definition of noise.

If we define noise as a subjective perception, then the falling tree that no one hears does not make a noise. If we define noise as vibrations in the air that have the power to cause this subjective perception, then the falling tree that no one hears does make noise.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Taxing Tech for Affordable Housing

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times recommends taxing tech companies to fund affordable housing. It claims that, when tech employees drive up housing prices and displace people from their homes, it is an external cost similar to pollution, which economic theory says we should tax.

The comparison is not apt.  Pollution is pure external cost with no external benefit, so we tax pollution in order to reduce pollution. Well paying tech jobs have external costs, such as displacement of people who cannot afford higher rents. but they also have external benefits: if people have well paying jobs, they are less likely to commit crimes, and their children are more likely to do well in school, and of course, the well paying jobs also generate more tax revenues, which can be used to pay for a wide variety of social benefits.

No one says that a tax on well paying jobs should have the goal of reducing the number of well paying jobs, as a tax on pollution has the goal of reducing pollution - showing that we believe the benefits of having those well paying jobs outweigh their costs.

There are two reasons that tech jobs moving into an area leaves many people unable to afford housing: high levels of inequality and restrictions on building enough housing. In the short run, there is some value to building affordable housing to help these people, but in the long run, we need to deal with these two underlying causes.


In the 1950s and 1960s, as the economy grew, Americans' incomes went up at about the same rate for all economic groups; everyone got a share of the nation's prosperity. Since the 1970s, incomes have gone up very rapidly for those with the highest incomes, and slowly for those with moderate incomes. Since 2000, the rich have continued to get richer while median income has not gone up at all.  In the 1960s, American had about as much economic inequality as other developed nations, but now the United States has the worst inequality of any developed nation.

There are many possible ways to reduce inequality, such as free tuition in public colleges, which was common in the 1960s but is rare or unheard of today, in order to give everyone an opportunity to join the middle class.

But the simplest method, and the most effective in the short term is to use the tax system to reduce inequality: raise taxes on the rich, reduce taxes for the middle class, in increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for those with low and moderate incomes.

In the 1950s, when prosperity was widespread, the top marginal income tax rate was 92%. And President Eisenhower, a Republican, was the one who signed the law raising taxes to that level.

If we use the tax system to reduce inequality, then everyone will benefit from those high paying tech jobs. The techies will benefit from the high paycheck, though they will have to pay more of it in taxes, and the teachers, waiters, and other people who provide services for the techies can benefit from higher Earned Income Tax Credits.

Restrictions on Developing Housing

There was a massive housing boom after World War II, with most of the housing built in the new suburbs that were opened for development by new freeways. In the 1950s alone, the number of new housing units built was equal to 63% of all the housing units that existed in the US before that time.

The laws of supply and demand worked as expected, and all that new supply of housing drove down the cost of housing. As the middle class moved to the new suburbs, the price of housing went down in real terms in older urban neighborhoods.  In a few cases, most famously in the South Bronx, the price of housing went down so far that whole neighborhoods were abandoned because the low rents could not cover the cost of taxes and maintenance.

There was also massive construction of federally funded public housing at the time, but the amount of affordable housing provided in this way was much smaller than the amount that appeared in the cities as a side effect of constructing vast amounts of private housing in the suburbs. And much of the public housing was a failure in social terms: crime rater were higher in the housing projects than in surrounding neighborhoods, and hundreds of public housing projects were demolished under the federal HOPE VI program because of their high crime rates.

Today, there is much less housing being built. Because of environmental concerns, there are laws restricting the development of new suburbs; we now know that the suburban housing boom and the new freeways that made it possible created major environmental problems: sprawl destroyed open space, created automobile-dependency, and contributed to global warming. And there are also zoning laws - supported by NIMBY pressure - restricting the development of housing in existing neighborhoods.

But we can promote a housing boom that is environmentally sustainable by building more public transportation and by passing state laws that override local NIMBY opposition and allow development of dense walkable neighborhoods around the stations. Most  important, we can streamline approval of urban housing by adopting Form-Based Codes to regulate development, instead of conventional zoning, with development by right for all proposals that follow the code.

Dealing with the Real Problems

There is a place for public housing for marginal groups that are not able to succeed in the mainstream economy.  But when people with full-time jobs - including teachers and other professionals - cannot afford housing, that is a sign of bigger problems in the economy as a whole. We should deal with these problems by reducing inequality and increasing the overall supply of housing so that anyone who works full time can afford market rate housing, rather than forcing people with full-time jobs live in affordable housing projects.

Read the New York Times opinion piece.

Thursday, December 06, 2018


A recent article claimed that we could accommodate growing world population with less strain on resources by building "vertical cities":
A vertical city ... is an "arrangement of interconnected mega towers" that could support hundreds of thousands of people. These buildings could be as tall as 400 floors and contain housing, stores, hospitals, schools, farms, and outdoor spaces, all in one building or series of connected structures.
A quick reality check:

Going from sprawl, at about 2 people per acre, to the density of Paris, about 100 people per acre, saves a significant amount of land: close to 1/2 acre per person.

Going from the density of Paris to megaskyscraper density saves an insignificant amount of land - less than 1/100 acre per person.

Looking not only at the land the city uses directly but at all the resources people use, the average American has an ecological footprint of over 20 acres - representing all the resources he or she uses.
It requires less than 1/100 acre per person to live at Paris densities rather than in megaskyscrapers, a negligable portion of total ecological footprint.

It undoubtedly uses more resources to build these megaskyscrapers than to build the six to eight-story buildings common in Paris, since they must need very hefty steel skeletons. They probably also require more heating and cooling, since they are more exposed to the elements. The extra resource use may well be greater than the small savings of energy used for transportation and of other resources.

Someone should calculate the total ecological footprints of a city build of megaskyscrapers and a city built at Paris densities, both using the best possible technologies to conserve resources. They would be close, but the megaskyscrapers would probably have a greater footprint.

Yes, sprawl wastes a lot of resources, but let's not go from one ridiculous extreme to the other. Which gives a better and more human-scale quality of life: Paris densities or megaskyscrapers?
The answer is obviously Paris - and it is wrong to imply that megaskyscrapers would save a significant amount of land compared with the midrise urban densities of Paris.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Shape of History

A recent op-ed in the New York Times had drawings illustrating various philosophers' views of the shape of history.  In response, I created the following drawing and explanation of my view of the shape of history.
New technologies give people more power over nature, and there is progress with setbacks along the way. The best graphic representation of this is a series of waves that generally tend upward and jump upward when there are major changes in technology.
  • 100,000 to 50,000 BC: Humans invented more complex tools, such as the spear and needle. Population increased slowly, and humans spread through the world by 10,000 BC. Setbacks were caused by changing natural conditions.
  • 10,000 BC: Agriculture began and gradually spread. Initially population increased rapidly. There were permanent settlements and, thousands of years later, complex civilizations. Setbacks included the collapse of the Roman and Mayan empires.
  • The industrial revolution: New technologies let population and output increase rapidly in the West and, after World War II, in most of the developing nations. Setback occurred because technology became powerfully destructive as well as productive. Aerial bombing and the atomic bomb caused immense destruction during World War II. If we do not control global warming, it could cause even more damage.
  • The future: New technologies will be even more powerful. There could be rapid progress, but there could also be weapons more destructive than nuclear bombs and environmental problems worse than global warming. The graphic shows the waves going up and down more sharply to indicate the potential for huge setbacks, but what will actually happen depends on whether we can control destructive technologies. 
See the New York Times op-ed here.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why Modern Art Is So Bad

There is a good clue to why most modern art is so bad in the recent review of an exhibit of Sterling Ruby's ceramics in the New York Times, which is a reliable source for the most conventional contemporary views of what art should be. 
The review says that the Museum of Arts and Design began as a museum of crafts and still shows to much work that focuses on craftsmanship and therefore is "technique-obsessed and uncreative." This exhibit is a refreshing contrast because Ruby is "at his most original and disruptive in ceramics." Many of the pieces "resemble giant high-sided ashtrays, filled with the detritus." They "exude signs of the artist’s hands — deep squeezes here, dragged fingers there and entire exteriors punched with thumbprints."
The word "disruptive" shows that the reviewer admires novelty for its own sake. Art is valuable if it breaks with tradition and disrupts our idea of what art is. The talk about "signs of the artist's hands" shows that the reviewer rejects artists who are skilled craftsmen focusing on the object they are creating and admires artists who focus narcissistically on themselves creating the object. 
Compare this critical attitude with the attitude behind a great work of art, Michelangelo's "David."
Michelangelo was not being "disruptive" by doing something totally different from traditional sculpture. On the contrary, he was working in a tradition that goes back to classical Greece. "David" stands out not because of its novelty but because of its excellence. It expresses the humanistic ideal behind classical sculpture more forcefully than it had been expressed before; this meaning is what strikes us when we look at the work. 
Michelangelo did not leave his thumbprints or dragged finger prints on "David." He is famous for the fine finish of his sculptures and for the careful study of anatomy that informed his works. He focused on the object he was creating, not on himself creating it. Could anyone conceivably say that this means Michelangelo was "technique-obsessed and uncreative"? And that Ruby is more creative because his work is sloppier?
The New York Times reviewer is stating the standards that today's art critics use in judging art. They admire disruption rather than excellence. And artists get extra credit for following one of the modern-art trends of the last century, as these ceramics follow in the footsteps of action painting, focusing on the process of creating the work rather on the object. 
We will produce great art again when critics care about excellence, craftsmanship and meaning rather than about disruption.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Jerusalem and the Traffic Engineers

We can get a lesson in the failings of mid-twentieth-century city planning by comparing the two most important gates to the old city of Jerusalem.

The Jaffa Gate was massively "improved" after the 1967 war, when Israel took the old city, and it became the main tourist entrance to the old city.  The traffic engineers built a highway below grade to create a large plaza for people entering this gate.

As a result, tourists have a good view from the plaza.
But there is a very weak connection for pedestrians coming from the adjacent Jewish neighborhood.  Tourists get off the bus and climb up this ramp, but people living right next to the old city rarely walk up to the Jaffa Gate.
As a result, the shops near the Jaffa Gate virtually all sell souvenirs to tourists. The vendors are generally Muslims, but the merchandise is Jewish or Christian religious trinkets.
By contrast, the Damascus Gate is the largest entrance to the old city from the adjacent Muslim neighborhood, so it was spared this sort of massive "improvement." There is a small plaza in front of the Damascus Gate because the old city is on a lower level than the surrounding city, but it gives you a view of the adjacent neighborhood, not a view of the distance. 
When you leave the plaza, a lively neighborhood is right across the street.
The people from this adjacent neighborhood go to the old city for their everyday shopping.  Inside the old city, near the Damascus Gate, there are stores selling clothing, toys, hardware, baked goods, and other useful products, rather than trinkets for tourists. 
At the Jaffa Gate, mid-century traffic engineering cut the old city off from the surrounding neighborhood. The Damascus Gate was spared by the traffic engineers, so the old city remains an integral part of the surrounding neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcendentalism and Liberalism

Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism, which says it originated with Locke, and that it was based on self-interested individualism that promoted economic growth.
For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? 'Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
When he says he wants an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, Emerson is in the tradition of Jeffersonian liberalism, which tried to limit growth,  but limiting industrialization was no longer a live issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson's day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time - he wrote "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us" - but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.