Friday, January 19, 2007

Five More Thoughts (unoriginal edition)

I've got to get those social and economical thoughts out of my head, lest I gain a reputation for a political deep thinker or anything. Here are five thoughts that flirt with seriousness.

1. Big sigh everybody, more about housing.
Like it or not, new home construction is, if not a key economic indicator, an oft-cited one. New home construction is up, the economy is saved! Now it's down, and we're all sinking with it. Why is it so important?

The housing market, we're frequently told, is an economic bellweather. From the bottom view, having an economy built on real estate means that people occupy homes and service businesses come to employ people and pay them, and as such, the Starbuckses and Wal-Marts that follow the population also sustain them. It seems a little like a perpetuum mobile, complete with corporate demons, but value really is being created. It's generated in developing the real estate from idle fields into valuable homes, and it's generated in moving those services near to them. The problem is, there is only so much real estate, and only so many people to occupy it.

New home construction, to my mind, is one of those easy-to-identify bubble quantities. Yes, the population changes (grows, natch), as does the fraction of it that rents, or the number of people per home, or even the number of houses that people own, but there are still some hard limits to the number of homes that can be sustained, correlated to the actual number of people. Growing an economy on real estate seems to work by picking up the market and moving it somewhere else, again and again ...until there is nowhere else to put new ones. And what a nasty, sterile shithole my kids will be living in then.

Shouldn't we be creating new markets by creating new technology? New services?

unoriginal: I've rediscovered the obvious. Also, it seems every third post of mine is on this subject

2. I've heard this before.
Listening to NPR last week (as I usually do on my inexcusably long commute), I caught a piece in which the U.S. ambassador to Iraq (or possibly it was the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S.) was talking up Bush's bold new surge. Paraphrasing the radio interview from memory:

"What does this surge change on the ground? What will you do differently now?"

"Well, we must reduce violence in the streets if Iraq is to be a soveriegn yada yada blada blah blah..."

"Interesting. And so what are the goals of the surge?" [And NPR has the good interviewers, right?]

All this surge talk sounds awfully familiar to me. If you've worked in a company with sufficient turnover in management, you've heard it too. Once or twice a year, the newer leaders prove their meddle by organizing some kind of corporate initiave, and whether it's for "excellence," or "super value," or "world class organization," or some similar pleasing-sounding but meaningless bullshit, it's first greeted with great fanfare, causes a few extra meetings for a while, and then it's clean forgotten in about five weeks. The initiatives result in precisely zero lasting change in anything, and us working stiffs learn to ignore them after the first few iterations. (Maybe the company's going under because we just don’t believe hard enough.)

Your MBA president, everyone.

unoriginal: I got excited and posted this last week as a comment on the lovely hipparchia's blog.

3. Ten bucks an hour to do what?
Don't tell them there's a war on or anything, but our daring Democratic congress made it an agenda item in their first hundred hours to raise the minimum wage. (Did they get it through? I meant to write this two weeks ago.) Long live the donkey, the poor are saved!

I'm pretty ambivalent about the minimum wage. I'm not too happy about people being underpaid, mind you, and empathize with anyone who's in the unenviable position of trying to subsist on one. The problem that I have with it, is that some jobs aren't made for subsistence. Johnny Q. McDipshit should be able to work after school peddling gas or sweeping warehouses for beer money, and not bankrupt his employers while doing so. Mrs. Kathleen O'Frazzled should be able to make a few bucks on the side as she hides from her children a couple times a week. The problem with minimum wage jobs (assuming the liberal anecdote is true) is that people rely on them to live. Maybe that low unemployment is thanks to the greeters at those new suburban Wal-Marts, or the foam wiper at the shiny new Starbucks. Is our economy ever fucked, or what?

In any case, in a head-slapping moment, I realized that the minimum wage is about redistribution. That's a loaded word of course, but it's not like we don't have our share of upward redistribution. The minimum wage is designed to make employers spread out more in wages than to shareholders or CEO bonuses or lobbyists or graft. It's to compensate rampant inequality. But I doubt it actually works much. Not only do I think it targets the wrong employers, but if you're in a position where an extra buck an hour can save you, you've still got it pretty rough.

unoriginal: I've rediscovered the obvious again.

4. Another head-slapper
So I was assigned a little light reading a couple weeks ago about the U.S. health care system. When confronted with gigantic problems like that, it's my inclination to try and reduce them to the clearest possible representation that I can get to without actually doing any actual research (ahem). One important question among many: can the government administer medical insurance effectively enough and responsibly enough for a single-payer system to be effective. Though I'm as distrustful of government as anyone, I can't help but note that even if other countries aren't quite as stratospherically super-dee-duper in their top-tier medical technology, then they still look like they're getting more care for their euro or their loonie. Would we be better off with Medicare?

Believe it or not, Medicare is less expensive to administer. One serious detractor was only able to come to the conclusion that the difference, while extant, wasn't as big as advertised, and that was by taking care to include the either sort of provider's administrative costs. Medicare does something that the private companies don't, however, which is include anyone. In fact it insures a segment of society that is far more likely to be sick. What does private insurance have that Medicare doesn't? Well, I'm pretty sure they hire more actuaries. Those extra costs are to find ways of not paying insurance.

(But I am not at all certain that Medicaid works.)

unoriginal: hipparchia got this one out of me too

5. Fuck the po-lice
It's that time of year again:

"Mr. Resident? This is Bubba from the fraternal order of--"

"Not interested."

"Don't you want to support the po--"

"I don't take phone solicitations."

"But this isn't a solicitation." [Which, parenthetically, is of those statements that categorically can't be true when it passes someone's lips.] "If you pay just fifteen dollars, you'll get a sticker that--"

"Fuck you. Goodbye."

Even the hardcore libertarians (I'm a softcore one, I guess) agree that internal justice and security are legitimate functions of the state. And it's not that I don't support the cops in principle, or even that I object to policemen's charities. The problem is the damn sticker. For one thing, I don't think it's going to get me anywhere if I'm stopped doing 80 along the backroads, but more to the point, I oppose it on principle. Those strong hints are to suggest that the cops are going to give me (or beningly neglect some) extra cop service for supporting them with their goddamn decal. That's crossing the line from a civic service to a protection racket.

(Don't forget to ask me about red light cameras.)

unoriginal: These are my words, but I'm pretty sure I read a similar rant ten years ago on another forum. I'm annoyed enough to regurgitate it.



august said...

1. One of the most important things about home ownership for me is that it gives me what folks call "cost certainty." Some renters in New York have this, most don't. I think for that reason (rightly or wrongly) it boosts consumer confidence. Sure there are limits, but the mechanism does not strike me as inherently sinister

2. Today on NPR -- interview with somebody supporting the surge saying "I don't see any other proposals for victory out there." Interviewer pointed out the Iraq Study Group plan, which got bypassed faster than my recent spate of job applications. Same response as you mention.

I think it's more sinister than jargon. Jargon seems to me to lead to people not really doing anything. In this case, there are concrete results, however grim.

3. Yeah.
For no good reason, you remind me of my complicated thoughts on subsidized housing. There are a certain number of people in housing programs in New York who will lose their homes if they make more money. That seems kind of stupid.

My sense in general is that homelessness is a bigger problem than povery or hunger. But yeah, income redistribution. I don't have a better way to go about it...

4. I defer to your wisdom.

5. They won't get off my back. They are really aggressive.

tangent -- I have complicated feelings about the police in general. But I don't have any better suggestions, so I'm going to give this one a pass.

Observation: this post and my post are similar to the open thread idea -- toss some ideas out and see what people make of them. I like it.

Keifus said...

1. What I lacked for that was some good numbers on how it breaks down. Is new home construction due to people no longer renting? (In turn, perhaps, due to the economy being less urban-centered overall.) Is it being driven by investment-property yahoos?

Given that the most expensive areas are still around cities, I suspect it's a matter of more single-family homeowners as a percentage really. In that case, it'll grow out until everybody's commute grows unsustainable, or until they run out of renters. In my nerdy parlance, that means housing growth would be kinetically limited instead of thermodynamically. (It's a little contrary to my first point, but I originally thought about throwing both out there.)

2. The solution is do-nothing bullshit, but that don't mean it isn't expensive do-nothing bullshit. And good lord, the problem's real enough.

Maybe we ought to believe harder...

3. Was thinking the other day that if I had a car (and no dependents), I'd rather be homeless than hungry. Without one, then no thanks. Also, it depends a lot on where you're homeless. I fantasize sometimes about disappearing from all this and living in the woods. (But then I get hungry.)

5. Cops are a necessary evil maybe, one of those eternal vigilence things. Not crazy about them as a rule.


I did mean to compliment you on your use of the number five in your other post. (It's because I don't have enough material for ten!)

You know, I haven't decided if I'll post this at botf yet. A slightly larger audience, but I'm not sure if I want the myriad noodleheads to follow the links.


august said...

re. homelessness (sort of): Is this a gender/spousal role type thing? I was telling mrs. august just the other evening (we'd just seen the Pursuit of Happiness)(not very good) that I'm all the time worrying about what we'll do if we're homeless, or have problmmes of car accident, hurricane, intruder coming in through the window, lost cat, debilitating disease, poisoned water, major water leak, fire, stolen property, etc. Usually this is what I daydream about on the subway, where I also wonder what I'd do if I fell off the tracks or if somebody else did (I am not likely to be a subway hero). mrs. august barely thinks about any of this stuff.

Even granted that I may be more paranoid than most (and New York has not been helpful in this regard), I wonder if there isn't a tendency among couples to include one who worries with one who doesn't, just as those who talk seem to pair off with those who don't.

switters said...


T-shirt I saw yesterday in the grocery store: "Ask Me About Forklift Rentals"

So I did. It wasn't pretty because I didn't ask him about how I could possibly rent a forklift. No. I asked him about the ontological properties the renting of a forklift may or may not have, e.g., "So were I to rent a forklift, would that presuppose a need for a forklift, and therefore be a self-realizing forklift as forklift-like?"

He was not amused.

I heard that interview and had a similar reaction. I believe it was, "Okay, when did Katie "Softball" Couric leave CBS and begin slinging mud for All Things Considered? (And if I'm not mistaken I believe it was the Iraqi Ambassador. Maybe.)

Marketplace, a great show on NPR that comes on at 6:00 PM CST here, had a blurb about Barnanke (sp?) basically saying we're all going to die of poverty if we don't do such and such, or something. And I'm thinking, "Yeah, good, sugar coat it." When they start talking about inflation and interest rates, my eyes start to glaze over and I put on Access Hollywood.

Really good post. Have a great weekend.

TenaciousK said...

1. Only so much real-estate, true, though looking in the big cities, I see this is being exponentially magnified by availing themselves of vertical space.

2. [sigh...] I am at a complete loss. How do we get outta' there without being complicit in a genocide? A coalition of Arab States? Would they do it if we paid all costs?

3. How 'bout "living wage" legislation? Remember, your housewife and HS student are competing directly with people who have IQ's in the low 80's.

4. Medicaid functions as more of a subsidy to the insurance and healthcare industries than Medicare does. All you have to do, to qualify, is liquidate every asset, and spend every dime, you own.

Medicaid also ends up providing most of the primary care services for some of the most vulnerable.

Even so, primary care services in the US absolutely suck, compared to other industrialized nations. If we wanted to improve population health outcomes, this is where we'd get the most bang for our buck, by far. Because we are only really interested in improving sub-population outcomes, the people without anything are the ones most likely to get screwed.

Oh, and did you find a statistic on the number or recipients that take what percentage of the pot? Organ transplants end up taking a disproportionate share. It makes absolutely no sense, until it's your kid who needs a kidney.

5. Yep. I guess protection money's a venerable tradition, in many parts of the country - just like Union leg-breakers, "tribute" to the local Don, and donations towards the summer youth league, thoughtfully collected by those colorful young men who always wear jackets for that sports team - which one was that, again?

Whadya' got against tradition?

Keifus said...

august: my wife and I worry equally, but it's about different things (I am paranoid about home fires, flying). I think there's only so much room for any kind of defect, and when both feel it, there's some feedback loop that can only lead to explosion.

switters: Someday please, let's get drunk together and wander around obnoxious. Please?

I caught the intro to that piece, but it came on as I was pulling in. I heard the preview, and wondered who was taking what position.

1. I know they can make the vertical apartments as attractive as suburban homes. Why don't they compete better? I visited Spain as a kid, and a flat was a fine place to live. Not so much here. (Or so I perceive)

4. Medicare actually worked similarly for my grandparents' estate. I just have studied up less on the 'caid.

As far as the 'it's your kid' (or you!) thing, yeah, let's pay for that.. Just let's not pretend we're not.

5. It's the unadvertixed fees.