Supply-side hipsterism fails

March 21st, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

Richard Florida, who has long claimed that urban planners should target the desires of the “creative class,” recently conceded that this approach is a mistake. Joel Kotkin’s summary of the problems with this approach is worth reading; chiefly, “the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members and do little to make anyone else any better off.” Florida’s epiphany comes after a large wave of hilarious but tragic attempts to replicate Vanuatuan cargo cults in major American cities, in which local governments spent years and millions of dollars building hollow simulacra of Seattle, San Francisco, or Brooklyn instead of spending hours and locally-sourced lumber building hollow simulacra of air traffic control towers.

Unfortunately, building pretend hip neighborhoods doesn’t do anything more to attract these mythical upper-income “creative class” types than building pretend runways does to attract cargo planes full of food and durable goods. Even worse, in Florida’s words, “talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.” (Apparently, the rising tide created by expensive nods to the whims of the creative class lifts only artisanal boats.)

You’re probably are as shocked as I was that choosing to incentivize SWPL is a poor basis for public policy. But establishing a cargo cult seems to be the most natural strategy for many decisionmakers: the same impulse is the one that says “increasing homeownership will swell the ranks of the middle class” and “college degrees lead to good jobs.”

The scarlet NaCl

April 21st, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I suspect that most federal appointees and policymakers would claim to have a dim view of “legislating morality,” if asked point-blank about the matter. But this is clearly not the case: some spheres of morality are more than ripe for regulation, legislation, and public shamings for those who offend the sensibilities of our betters.

Consider salt, which has had a rough few months: first, it was the target of a bill in the New York State Assembly intending to outlaw its use by restaurants. Now the FDA has decided that we aren’t capable of reading nutrition-information labels and that they must change the public’s taste for salty foods by ratcheting down permissible salt levels in commercially-prepared food over time:

“This is a 10-year program,” one source said. “This is not rolling off a log. We’re talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We’re talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people.”

(The linked article is also notable for mentioning that the “director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute” is a man named Morton Satin, which is one of the best vocational aptonyms of all time. When it rains, it pours, I guess.)

The difference between this sort of decision — to change the tastes of a generation by bringing several industries under the gradually-tightening yoke of regulation — and most government actions conventionally considered to be “legislating morality” is one of essence, not of degree. In the latter case, by outlawing (for example) dogfighting or prostitution, government actions merely codify overwhelming public sentiment. In the case of salt (or related issues, like CAFE standards for cars or what sorts of light bulbs one should use), policymakers perceive their actions as necessary to override overwhelming public sentiment.

Chickens and doctors

June 11th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  2 Comments

I’ve noticed many cars here in scenic Madison, WI featuring a bumper sticker saying “A woman voting for McCain is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.” While I think it’s probably time for the drivers of these cars to “move on” from the 2008 presidential election (or move to Arizona before 2010), I do appreciate their willingness to shine a bright light on Sen. McCain’s terrible and grossly underreported woman–frying activities. Thanks, hippies!

In an unrelated story, I note that the American Medical Association has issued a statement opposing government-run insurance plans. Smarter people than I have constructed arguments as to why we should side with the doctors over the bureaucrats, but I’ll just say this: as someone who would probably be dead at least twice over if he’d been born in Ottawa instead of Minneapolis — and who wants his 401k returns to continue to beat inflation — I’m glad to see some pushback against the McDonalds-in-the-cafeteria promises made by the advocates of this constellation of absurd ideas.

Papal epidemiology

March 24th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II, I went out to lunch with some grad school classmates, as I often did when I was younger and had more free time. This lunch in particular was memorable because the entire lunchtime conversation was devoted to the topic of who would succeed him as Bishop of Rome. As a confessional Lutheran, I had regarded the elevation of a new pontiff as a matter of some minor interest — as the decision would affect a great swath of Western Christendom and many of my close friends — but primarily as a matter internal to the Roman church and not really any of my business.

I was especially amused by this lunchtime conversation because all of the other principals were secular materialists, who surely had even less of a stake in the matter than I. I asked the loudest participant why he was so concerned about the workings of the College of Cardinals, and he suggested that a new pope could greatly help “Africa, because they need condoms.” I suggested that the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa was almost certainly not attributable to individuals’ overly-rigid adherence to Catholic moral teaching, but I believe that this point was rather too subtle for the discussion.

As it turns out, the truth is almost the opposite: adherence to the traditional dictums about chastity and fidelity is actually just about the only thing that reliably prevents HIV transmission “at the population level,” argue Edward Green and Allison Herling Ruark, of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard. Their article includes the following fascinating special case of what is surely a reliable general observation about human behavior:

It has been clearly established that few people outside a handful of high-risk groups use condoms consistently, no matter how vigorously condoms are promoted. Inconsistent condom usage is ineffective—and actually associated with higher HIV infection rates due to “risk compensation,” the tendency to take more sexual risks out of a false sense of personal safety that comes with using condoms some of the time. A UNAIDS-commissioned 2004 review of evidence for condom use concluded, “There are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on ­condom promotion.”

If Green and Ruark are correct, then it’s better for sub-Saharan Africa that Benedict hasn’t revised John Paul’s position on promoting contraception. However, their article is not merely negative; indeed, they are able to suggest a variety of tactics for fighting against the HIV epidemic that are shown effective and that don’t preclude the vigorous involvement of traditional churches.

RIYL: “A pope who will matter”