June 24, 2015

QotD: Surge pricing

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

New York just killed every economist’s favorite thing about Uber: surge pricing. Sure, many economists also love convenient car service at the touch of a button. But black-car services have been around for a long time. Explicit surge pricing — which both creates new supply and rations demand — has not, but it’s long been a core feature of Uber Technologies Inc.’s business model. While it can be annoying at times (during a recent rainstorm, I noticed a sudden epidemic of drivers canceling rides, which I suspect was due to the rapidly rising surge price), it also allows you to be sure that you will be able to get a taxi on New Year’s Eve or during a rainstorm as long as you’re willing to pay extra.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Megan McArdle, “Uber Makes Economists Sad”, Bloomberg View, 2014-07-09.

April 26, 2015

Debunking the myths about the destruction of NYC’s Penn Station

Filed under: History, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I admit up front that I’m a fan of railway architecture, so I readily followed along with the narrative that the wanton destruction of Penn Station in New York City was merely the most recent vandalic excess of the urban rejuvenation movement. Jim Epstein suggests that I was wrong:

Penn Station 1910In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Act — Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today — you’ll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it’s as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization.

“Seven-year-olds gasp…[when] we show them the old Penn Station,” Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law’s half-centennial.

Penn Station 1910-2Penn Station’s destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic.

But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn’t care for it very much — when it was still around, at least. It’s easy to revere the dead.

February 16, 2015

Even if you do nothing, you can still be arrested for “resisting arrest”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

We’ve seen examples of this before, but if the NYPD gets its way, the all-purpose charge of “resisting arrest” will become a felony offense:

The most half-baked “weapon” in any policeman’s arsenal should never be raised to the level of a felony. “Resisting arrest” is the charge brought when bad cops run out of better ideas. This truism runs through nearly every law enforcement agency in the country. When you take a look at videographers and photographers who have been arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights (and backed by a DOJ statement), you’ll see plenty of “resisting arrest” charges.

When a San Francisco public defender tried to head off a detective who wanted to question and photograph her client without her permission, she was arrested for “resisting arrest.”

When someone has been brutalized by the police, the words “resisting arrest” are repeated nearly as frequently as the mantra that accompanies every taser deployment and baton swing (“stop resisting”). Resisting arrest is a dodge that makes bad cops worse and marginal cops bad.

Turning resisting arrest into a felony shouldn’t happen anywhere. But perhaps especially not in New York City.


To turn this into a felony is to grant bad cops a longer leash — and allows them to do much more damage. Not only will the victims of excessive force have to deal with injuries and psychological trauma, they may also find their futures severely disrupted by a felony charge that will follow them around for years.

The protests following the clearing of the officer involved in Eric Garner’s death, followed shortly thereafter by the murder of two NYPD officers by a civilian, have turned the NYPD against the public. Bratton’s support of this abhorrent idea makes it clear he’s willing to put more power in the hands of his worst officers. However bad he feels the situation is now, this action will only make things worse. The answer lies in greater accountability from the NYPD, not additional punishments for members of the public.

January 23, 2015

QotD: Taxicab cartels

Filed under: Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Around the world, the government-charted monopolies and cartels that run the taxi business responded with protests and violence to the emergence of technology-empowered competitors such as Uber, which does not undercut traditional taxis on cost — in New York, its drivers earn about three times what a traditional cabbie makes — but is much more convenient for those who do not live or work in areas that are generally well-served by traditional taxis. As in most cities, New York law imposes price uniformity on taxis and long protected them from most competition, with the entirely predictable result that consumers are the worst-served parties in the taxi business. (It does not help matters that, unlike their London counterparts, famously steeped in “the Knowledge,” the typical New York cabbie cannot find the Brooklyn Bridge without GPS or turn-by-turn instructions from the passenger.) The lack of consumer focus has some perverse consequences here in New York: The taxi fleet schedules its shift change from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., meaning that taxis all but vanish from the streets during the hours when they are most needed. The New York Times calls this an “apparent violation of the laws of supply and demand,” which, New York Times geniuses, is exactly what happens when you use regulation to take supply and demand effectively out of the equation. A platform that combined Uber’s on-demand service with Google-style driverless cars would probably put the traditional taxi out of business — assuming that the cartels are not able to use government to strangle innovation in its cradle.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Race On, for Driverless Cars: On the beauty of putting the consumer in the driver’s seat”, National Review, 2014-06-01.

January 2, 2015

Debunking the “Broken Windows” theory of crime

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:51

In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at the frequent claim on the political right that the “Broken Windows” model of policing was pivotal in reducing urban crime:

The “Broken Windows” theory suggests that tolerance of small acts of disorder creates an environment that leads to rising amounts of serious crime. So if police crack down on small offenses—petty vandalism, public lewdness, etc. — crime reductions will follow. George Kelling was one of the originators of the theory, and NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton is one of its strongest proponents.

It sounds reasonable, but as Drum points out, it takes credit for improvements that it couldn’t have been driving:

Violent crime 1985-2012So here’s the thing: this is almost certainly wrong. Not even controversial. Just wrong: broken windows policing may well have been helpful in reducing New York’s crime rate, but there’s flatly no evidence that it’s been pivotal. It’s true that crime in New York is down more than it is nationally, but that’s just because crime went up more in big cities vs. small cities during the crime wave of the 60s through the 80s, and it then went down more during the crime decline of the 90s and aughts. Kelling and Bratton can dismiss this as ivory tower nonsense, but they should know better. The statistics are plain enough, after all.

Violent crime big vs small cities 1985-2010Take a look at the two charts on the right. The top one shows crime declines in six of America’s biggest cities. As you can see, New York did well, but it did no better than Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles, none of which implemented broken windows during the 90s. The bottom chart is a summary of the crime decline in big cities vs. small cities. Again, the trend is clear: crime went up more during the 80s in big cities, but then declined more during the 90s and aughts. The fact that New York beat the national average is a matter of its size, not broken windows.

Now, none of this is evidence that broken windows doesn’t work. The evidence is foggy either way, and we simply don’t know. My own personal view is that it’s probably a net positive, but a fairly modest one.

December 25, 2014

Repost – “Fairytale of New York”

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03


“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This song came into being after Elvis Costello bet The Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet. The outcome: a call-and-response between a bickering couple that’s just as sweet as it is salty.

December 18, 2014

A mandatory registry that might actually do some good

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Reason, Ed Krayewski suggests that a Police Offenders Registry might be an excellent start to reduce some of the worst interactions between the police and the public they are supposed to serve:

This week, the Department of Justice announced new guidelines against racial profiling. The changes don’t actually change all that much. As regular incidents of police brutality get more and more mainstream media attention, it’s time for a bold move from the White House.

There’s a moral obligation to keep bad cops off the streets. A job with a police department is not a right and shouldn’t be treated like one. Police unions that push for permissive rules that end up protecting bad cops pose a serious public safety threat. Nevertheless, dismantling them where they’ve taken root is a difficult prospect even in the long-term. There are other ways to keep bad cops off the streets. The federal government, and state governments, ought to create and encourage the use of a police offender registry list. Such a list would register individuals who while employed as law enforcement officers were found unfit for duty or faced serious disciplinary issues they may have resigned to avoid. Just as any other component of comprehensive police reform, this won’t eliminate excessive police violence, but it’s a start.

When actually identified, a surprising (or not) number of officers involved in controversial, high-profile use of force incidents have previously disciplinary history. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City cop who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, had been previously accused, at least twice, of racially-motivated misconduct, including strip searching a man in the middle of the street and allegedly hitting his testicles. The police union in New York City is among the strongest in the country. When a rookie cop shot Akai Gurley in apparent panic last month, he didn’t think twice to reportedly contact his union rep first. A man lay dying in a stairwell for no other reason that he startled a rookie, and the fact that the officer called his union representative before calling for assistance isn’t shocking enough to lead to the officer’s termination. Even if it were, it would still be impossible to terminate the officer immediately. While all this is happening, the state of New York is on the verge of placing even more of the disciplinary regime that applies to cops under the purview of the police unions.

April 2, 2014

Mapaholics rejoice!

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:53

The New York Public Library has released over 20,000 historical maps under a Creative Commons license:

Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division is very proud to announce the release of more than 20,000 cartographic works as high resolution downloads. We believe these maps have no known US copyright restrictions.* To the extent that some jurisdictions grant NYPL an additional copyright in the digital reproductions of these maps, NYPL is distributing these images under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. The maps can be viewed through the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections page, and downloaded (!), through the Map Warper. First, create an account, then click a map title and go. […]

What’s this all mean?

It means you can have the maps, all of them if you want, for free, in high resolution. We’ve scanned them to enable their use in the broadest possible ways by the largest number of people.

Though not required, if you’d like to credit the New York Public Library, please use the following text “From The Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library.” Doing so helps us track what happens when we release collections like this to the public for free under really relaxed and open terms. We believe our collections inspire all kinds of creativity, innovation and discovery, things the NYPL holds very dear.

World's Fair New York 1939-1940. Proposed World's Fair site.

World’s Fair New York 1939-1940. Proposed World’s Fair site.

Complete railway map designed and engraved from the original maps, charts and schedules furnished by railway engineers, agents &c. to accompany the American Railway Guide (detail)

Complete railway map designed and engraved from the original maps, charts and schedules furnished by railway engineers, agents &c. to accompany the American Railway Guide (detail)

February 16, 2014

The crime that launched a thousand (bad) editorials

Filed under: Books, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:20

In the New York Post, Larry Getlen retells the tale of Kitty Genovese’s murder and the myths that grew up around it:

The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.

The Times piece was followed by a story in Life magazine, and the narrative spread throughout the world, running in newspapers from Russia and Japan to the Middle East.

New York became internationally infamous as a city filled with thoughtless people who didn’t care about one another; where people could watch their neighbors get stabbed on the street without lifting a finger to help, leaving them to die ­instead in a pool of their own blood.

The people of Kew Gardens — before that, a relatively crime-free neighborhood where few bothered locking their doors — were referred to in the press as monsters.

But as journalist Kevin Cook details in his new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (W.W. Nor­ton), some of the real thoughtlessness came from a police commissioner who lazily passed a falsehood to a journalist, and a media that fell so deeply in love with a story that it couldn’t be bothered to determine whether it was true.

December 22, 2013

Fairytale of New York

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01


“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This song came into being after Elvis Costello bet The Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet. The outcome: a call-and-response between a bickering couple that’s just as sweet as it is salty.

October 16, 2013

Cultural organizations and unions

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:41

Richard Epstein looks at two recent disputes between unionized employees and cultural organizations:

This past week featured two stories about major orchestras dealing with their adamant unions. The first incident occurred on Wednesday, October 2 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. A fancy opening night gala, featuring the violinist Joshua Bell and the young jazz performer Esperanza Spalding, was called off due to a surprise strike by Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The second dispute, still unresolved, involves the protracted labor impasse at the Minnesota Orchestra. On October 1, true to his promise, star music director Osmo Vänskä resigned because of the inability of the orchestra and its musicians’ union to hammer out a new contract in time to prepare for concerts scheduled at Carnegie Hall on November 2 and 3. The issues in these two labor disputes could scarcely be more different. But each of them, in its own way, illustrates the long-term toll that American labor law takes on the cultural lifeblood of our nation.

The incident at Carnegie Hall raised more than a few eyebrows when it was revealed that the strike was organized by the five full-time Carnegie Hall stagehands who were members of Local One. Their annual compensation in wages and overtime averaged a cool $419,000 per year, making them — one properties manager, two carpenters, and two electricians — five of the seven highest paid workers at Carnegie Hall after Carnegie CEO Clive Gillenson. Other union members in unspecified numbers were called in to help from time to time, presumably at rates on par with those Carnegie Hall paid to its full time workers.

As befits the sorry state of labor relations in the United States, the dispute was not about the status of these five workers. Rather, it focused on the new jobs that would open upon the completion of a new education wing in 2015. Mr. Gillenson was not exactly breathing fire when, well-coached in the pitfalls of labor law, he eschewed any anti-union sentiment and announced that he expected union workers to take the stagehand slots in that new facility. It was just that he insisted on dealing with unions that lacked the clout and the wages of the hardy men from Local One.


The bargaining dynamics could not have been more different in the Minnesota dispute. It is no secret that unionized musicians command a short-run monopoly premium for their members. The orchestra knows that it can earn back some fraction of that wage premium by securing the most talented musicians. But by the same token, any generous deal opens the orchestra up to financial ruin if its endowment shrinks or if its key donors cut back their support in hard times. But usually the large gains for older musicians carry the day.

Unions in all industries — think of the debacle at General Motors — do not do well in negotiating givebacks to management. Yet, ironically, the higher the premium that unions are able to extract during good times, the larger the give-backs are needed to bring the employer’s fiscal position into balance during bad times.

Just that dynamic was in play with the Minnesota Orchestra. The high wages before 2009 led to one round of union concessions. But in 2011, the budget was still out of balance, and management came back with a request for further cuts of about 32 percent. It later softened its demands to insist on wage cuts that would reach 25 percent after three years. Those cuts would be offset by a one time $20,000 bonus, which would, of course, not be part of the wage base in future years.

The union proposals were for pay cuts in the range of six to eight percent. This would have left an annual deficit in the order of $6 million. In the end, no deal could be reached, which precipitated Vänskä’s departure and the subsequent huge hit to prestige of the orchestra’s hard-earned international reputation.

August 20, 2013

The odd pre-history of the Statue of Liberty

Filed under: Europe, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:52

B.K. Marcus on what schoolchildren don’t learn about the famous New York city landmark:

Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi wanted wealth and world renown for building a celebrated colossus, and he was willing to shop the idea around — even to the era’s most illiberal customers.

His first pitch for a giant, torch-bearing statue was to the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, which was, at the time, the single greatest commercial conduit for the international slave trade.

The statue that now stands in New York Harbor is officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World” (La Liberté éclairant le monde). The statue in Egypt was to be called “Egypt Enlightening the World” or, more awkwardly, “Progress Carrying the Light to Asia.”

Failing to close the deal in Egypt, Bartholdi repackaged it for America.

When this bit of backstory reached the American public, Bartholdi denied that one project had anything to do with the other, but the similarity in designs is unmistakable.

Egypt was a vassal state of an authoritarian empire and the gateway for the colossal African slave trade into Asia — whereas the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty proposed a monument not merely to liberty but to the recent abolition of American slavery. (Picture the broken chains at the Statue of Liberty’s feet.)

The original statue was to be an Egyptian woman — a fellah, or native peasant — draped in a burqa, one outstretched arm holding a torch to guide the ships on the great waterway over which she would stand.

Bartholdi had wanted to place his piece at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal in Port Said because the canal represented French greatness in general and engineering greatness more specifically. His statue was to be a synthesis of French art and French engineering, as well as a political symbol of the progress that France offered the East.

The canal was indeed a great engineering accomplishment and a giant step forward for world trade and greater wealth and comfort for everyone — including the toiling masses. But it was built on the back of slave labor, a 10-year corvée that forced Egyptian peasants to do the digging. Thousands died.

July 31, 2013

Even police chiefs can get racially profiled

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:17

An absolutely fascinating story in the New York Daily News. (It’s from several years back, but brought to my attention today by Radley Balko):

At least one cop has been disciplined for ordering the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed black officer out of his auto while the three-star chief was off-duty and parked in Queens, the Daily News has learned.

“How you can not know or recognize a chief in a department SUV with ID around his neck, I don’t know,” a police source said.

Chief Douglas Zeigler, 60, head of the Community Affairs Bureau, was in his NYPD-issued vehicle near a fire hydrant when two plainclothes cops approached on May 2, sources said.

One officer walked up on each side of the SUV at 57th Ave. and Xenia St. in Corona about 7 p.m. and told the driver to roll down the heavily tinted windows, sources said.

What happened next is in dispute.

“What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want – namely, green publicity, not energy savings”

Filed under: Business, Environment, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:24

A bit of LEED debunking at The New Republic:

When the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, the press praised it as one of the world’s “most environmentally responsible high-rise office building[s].” It wasn’t just the waterless urinals, daylight dimming controls, and rainwater harvesting. And it wasn’t only the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification — the first ever for a skyscraper — and the $947,583 in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It also had as a tenant the environmental movement’s biggest celebrity. The Bank of America Tower had Al Gore.

The former vice president wanted an office for his company, Generation Investment Management, that “represents the kind of innovation the firm is trying to advance,” his real-estate agent said at the time. The Bank of America Tower, a billion-dollar, 55-story crystal skyscraper on the northwest corner of Manhattan’s Bryant Park, seemed to fit the bill. It would be “the most sustainable in the country,” according to its developer Douglas Durst. At the Tower’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gore powwowed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and praised the building as a model for fighting climate change. “I applaud the leadership of the mayor and all of those who helped make this possible,” he said.

Gore’s applause, however, was premature. According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York — and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.


“What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want — namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin, testified before the House last year.

Governments, nevertheless, have been happy to rely on LEED rather than design better metrics. Which is why New York’s release of energy data last fall was significant. It provided more public-energy data for a U.S. city than has ever existed. It found the worst-performing buildings use three to five times more energy per square foot than the best ones. It also found that, if the most energy-intensive large buildings were brought up to the current seventy-fifth percentile, the city’s total greenhouse gases could be reduced by 9 percent.

July 24, 2013

Actually, these sound like typical characteristics for political candidates

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

Jim Geraghty talks about the treasure-trove of media gaffes that is the Anthony Weiner campaign:

We can still laugh at Anthony Weiner… and we will be laughing at him for a long time. But it is starting to feel like we’re watching a man with serious, deep-rooted psychological issues relating to his sexuality, his self-control, his ability to assess risk, his inability to admit the truth unless confronted with overwhelming evidence of his falsehoods, his willingness to see others as objects and God knows how many other issues…


Did anybody really think Weiner had really changed from the man caught in scandal two years ago? Some may have hoped that fatherhood would make him grow up some, and some may be surprised that he would be so reckless as to choose to run for mayor with additional women out there, waiting to tell their tales of his much more recent tawdry behavior… but did anybody really believe that he had turned over a new leaf and become a changed man? Back in June, BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer quoted professional therapists who contended Weiner’s description of his short stay at a psychiatric evaluation center did not come close to what they would consider serious treatment.

People go into politics for a lot of reasons – some altruistic or idealistic or principled, some base, and for many, a mix of both. A career in politics can provide an individual with a lot of what they desire – power, admirers, fame, money. Kissinger declared power to be the ultimate aphrodisiac, so perhaps political stature is indeed a great way to enhance one’s sex appeal. (Right now, half my male readers working in politics just mumbled to themselves, “I must be doing it wrong.”)

Clearly, those fulfilling those desires can be addictive. We’ve seen the comeback playbook executed by politician after politician, time after time, so that it has become a boring, predictable cliché; the more a candidate sticks to the playbook, the less persuaded we should be that there is any real remorse or acceptance of responsibility.

After the “deny, deny, deny” strategy (as Monica Lewinsky quoted Bill Clinton) blows up in a politician’s face, he admits some portion of the accusations, but denies others. (A “modified limited hangout.”) There may be counter-accusations; there is an acceptance of some consequences but not others. At the press conference, the wife may be rolled out as a human shield. There is an insistence that the focus on the scandal has been a distraction from the politician’s real work. There is an insistence that this wrongdoing was a private matter and not the public’s concern. The accusations are driven by partisan motives, anyway. There is an admission of sin and often a very public seeking of spiritual counsel from political allies who are religious figures. There is a soft-focus interview that appears to be an open confession but that remains vague on key details; the privacy of others will be cited. God will get mentioned a lot. And throughout it all, the politician remains convinced: I can come back from this. This isn’t the end of me. As his presidential campaign flopped and his sex scandal ticked like a time bomb, John Edwards was utterly convinced he could trade his endorsement for the running mate slot to either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton; when that effort went nowhere, he set his sights on being attorney general or, ultimately, nominated to the Supreme Court.

They need this. They so, so need this. They really cannot go on to living a life outside the spotlight, just practicing law somewhere or running a hardware store. (Well, John Edwards is apparently returning to practicing law.)

The spoils of political victory – power, fame, groupies, lucrative post-elected-office jobs in lobbying or consulting – will always attract a certain number of unscrupulous head cases, egomaniacs, narcissists, and borderline unhinged. They will only go away when the voters say “no.”

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