Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square

Facing political & economic turbulence, it can be useful to stop and smell the tulips

Fuelled by various political developments, the past few months have been a turbulent time in the global economy. Q4TK suffered a bit of neglect and indeed a bit of uncertainty as your correspondent sought to make sense of the situation. Reason, facts, and the normal analytical tools employed by the economics profession are being challenged. We economists are struggling to face up to the new populism evident in various parts of the globe. At the same time, most of us do recognise that some folks have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

Wanderings around London

And, so, today, I’m bringing you a few photos from my Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square. On Saturday, I decided to set aside my charts and tables. I simply walked out into the unfamiliar London spring warmth and sunshine. London was radiant as my spouse and I headed into the great metropolis. The parks and gardens bloomed in full glory. The area around Embankment was filled with folks spilling out to take a look around and soak it all in.

There were drum circles protesting tow path closures. Folks from a brewery gave out free beer samples. Small clumps of people sat on blankets enjoying picnics and glasses of wine. Tourists visited the key sights. Locals stopped to admire the flowers. Your correspondent used the occasion to stop and ponder whatever caught his fancy, except work. The tulips were in full bloom. But, I resisted the impulse to ponder the Dutch tulip mania, a time of price inflation and collapse in the 1600s. Rather, I stopped and enjoyed their fragrance.

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens, seen on our wanderings around London

Still, economics can be hard to escape. For example, in the gardens at Embankment there is a fountain dedicated to Henry Fawcett. Henry was a blind economist who campaigned in the mid-19th century on behalf of women’s right to vote. The fountain says it was erected by his fellow countrywomen in his memory. During the struggle, he was moved to propose to a woman who he had met in the campaigns. But, after her polite negative response (she was pursuing her medical studies), he eventually married her sister.

Renewal accomplished

After a great lunch at Barrafina in Adelaide Street (very much a place in pursuit of no-frills excellence and highly recommended), the wandering led us to the National Gallery. This museum is architecturally gorgeous and the collection is world class.

As the day drifted into evening, it was time to head home. Every once in a while, a day like this is required. It has a spiritual value, refreshes the mind, and helps to restore the inner strength needed in the quest for truth and knowledge.

Note: The gallery below is annotated. Click on the up or down arrows under the thumbnail display in order to see the notes and see additional pictures.

London 8 April 2017 - from National Gallery to Embankment

A few photos from our Saturday wanderings around central London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and back

[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-peekachu-people-and-a-pigeon.jpg]70National Gallery, Peekachu people and a pigeon
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-entrance.jpg]70National Gallery entrance
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_whistlejacket-by-george-stubbs-1762.jpg]70Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, 1762
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-marble-floor.jpg]60National Gallery marble floor
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-wonderful-floor-grates.jpg]70National Gallery - Wonderful floor grates
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_cellphone-art.jpg]90Cellphone art?
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_trafalgar.jpg]60Trafalgar Square looking towards Westminster
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-crowd-of-busses-heads-down-whitehall-to-big-ben.jpg]70A crowd of buses heads down Whitehall to Big Ben
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_cleary-gardens-london-loire-valley-grape-vines.jpg]60Cleary Gardens London - Loire Valley Grape Vines
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-half-pint-of-badger-bitter-at-the-ship-and-shovell.jpg]60A half pint of Badger Bitter at the Ship and Shovell
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-river-of-tulips-in-embankment-gardens.jpg]60A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_embankment-gardens-wildlife.jpg]60Embankment gardens wildlife?
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_robert-raikes-founder-of-sunday-schools.jpg]60Robert Raikes - Founder of Sunday Schools
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_henry-fawcett-a-blind-economist-campaigned-for-womens-suffrage-in-1800s.jpg]60Henry Fawcett - A blind economist campaigned for women's suffrage in 1800s
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-cow-in-garden-of-two-temple-place.jpg]60A cow in the garden of Two Temple Place
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_amb-benjamin-franklin-lived-here.jpg]60Amb Benjamin Franklin lived here
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-really-big-crane.jpg]60A really big crane
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_looking-out-from-the-roof-of-my-bathroom-greenwich.jpg]60Looking out from the roof of my bathroom - Greenwich

 

In politics, lies matter. That’s a fact. And we all may pay the price.

Are lies a political reality?

In a sign of the times, on 10 September 2016, the Economist published a lead article entitled the “Art of the lie“. Taking stock of the level of political discourse in the United States’ presidential election season and the United Kingdom’s Brexit debates, the Economist sums up the situation as a time of “post-truth politics”. In this era, the emphasis is on feelings and reinforcement of prejudices rather than facts. Assertions of what one feels should be true replace reality. Lies have become a more important feature of the political scene.

This distortion of reality is not a trivial matter, especially when it is manifest in leaders of nations. Incorrect information is a threat to the quest for truth and knowledge. But, the damage does not stop with impairment to one’s understanding of reality.

Promises, promises

A review of the academic literature on campaign promises posted on the web site FiveThirtyEight found that in fact politicians do behave in a consequent manner. In a majority of instances, once elected they do strive to attain their promised objectives. Politicians in the United States act to deliver on about two-thirds of their promises. In the United Kingdom, governments control both the legislative and executive branches (ie, a parliamentary system). There, the rate of follow through is more than 80%. Similar patterns were found in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece or the Netherlands.

False perceptions of reality can have tangible impacts in the direction of government. This poses risks to the economy, education, health, security and the other domains covered in  public policy. Whether in democracies or authoritarian governments, it is not in the public interest for governments to set off in a wrong-headed direction. Real damage is done.

Bad choices

A recent essay by the Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, Through the Venezuelan Looking Glass, assesses why it is that nations engage in such self-defeating behaviour. In a nutshell, he points to dysfunctional belief systems.

Justice, at the entrance to the World Trade Organization in Geneva

Justice, by Luc Jaggi, 1925

 

Significant portions of a society may align on sets of beliefs that are not in line with reality. They do not reflect the facts. Damaging political decisions may follow. Hausmann cites the example of the Salem witch trials (1692-1693). He notes that if one believes in the Devil and thinks that Satan can take over women’s souls, then it may be reasonable public policy to hang those accused of witchcraft. On the other hand, in reality, such policy is incomprehensible to most folks.

Just the facts

As Hausmann puts it, “Politics is about the representation and evolution of alternative belief systems.” In setting the priorities for a society, there are a range of reasonable competing possibilities. There is ample room for debate on different options and approaches to improving our welfare. While science has a clear role to play, there is also a subjective element and preferences may vary among people. But, if the starting point is not even based in reality, then it becomes more difficult to make a viable choice and achieve tangible progress. Indeed, it can all end quite badly. One need look no further than the witches of Salem.

Listening to a poet

“There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

Excerpt from the poem, “Blossoms”, by Li-Young Lee
from the collection entitled Rose, BOA editions, 1986.

It seems to me that I make far too little time for poetry. Sometimes, I am reminded that I regret this. On those occasions, I seek out an opportunity to pause and make space for listening to a poet. Bill Moyers, for example, reminded me of this with his reporting on the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2009. Often, when poetry connects for me, it is about experiencing a moment: something I know or something I am seeking or something new to me.

Last month, a family member’s medical condition led me to drop everything and head back to the United States for a short visit to North Carolina. This is a state that I know from experience. I have been coming to North Carolina periodically to visit family since 1979. There are many things I’ve come to love about this state. Beaches, wonderful diversity in food and restaurants, kayaking (of the tame variety, on the Neuse River or at the coast), family and friends, book and music stores, bagels, splendid rural settings, folk arts and music (often with poetic lyrics), fine museums, and a tradition of investment in higher education, among others. Although it is a state of contrasts and stresses, sometimes disturbing, I still find joy there in many familiar things and many new experiences.

On my way to the hospital, I tuned into WUNC’s program on the “State of Things”, which features interviews on local developments. First up was an interview with UNC economist Stephen Lich-Tyler whose father had been murdered. The discussion focused on capital punishment and Lich-Tyler’s scheduled participation as a witness at the execution of his father’s murderer. The discussion was thoughtful and moving. Among other things, I was struck by Lich-Tyler’s language, which seemed clear and communicative to me. (Being an economist myself, I suppose this may be due to our shared academic experience, something like a shared tribal affiliation, perhaps?)

Next up was an interview with the poet Li-Young Lee who had served as a judge in a NC poetry contest and was returning for the awarding of the prizes, where he would give a reading of his own material. His experience is incredibly wide-ranging and rich. Lee’s great-grandfather was an elected president of China. His dad was a personal physician to Mao. After a falling out with Mao, his family fled to Indonesia, where Lee was born. There, his dad helped found a university. During Sukarno’s rule there were ethnic conflicts in Indonesia and his father was persecuted and jailed. Eventually, the family fled to the USA. And, this was just the starting point for Lee’s education and emergence as an award-winning poet in the English language. His poetry relates his experience with careful observation, reflection and clarity.

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

In his interview, Lee was asked about his own story, but instead he first referred back to the previous interview with Lich-Tyler. Lee was moved by Lich-Tyler’s story and the experience of suffering. Here he shared an insight that struck home with me: he thinks that art may help. He characterised art as permitting communication about suffering via symbols that transcend language and culture. This communication may take place via various artistic channels, such as stories, poetry, paint or sculpture. This really spoke to me in the context of my visit. Lee continued this line of thought referring to martial arts in Asia as well as art more generally. He portrayed the creation of art as working through issues, leading to clarity in perception of the true nature of objects. “Disillusionment” he called it, as in removing the illusion, getting to the essence of something, achieving a clear perception of a reality. Via clarity, one may be more confident and avoid conflict without a fight, perhaps even finding a win-win scenario in peace.

I was surprised to Iearn that Lee was giving a reading at NC State that very evening. I quickly rearranged my plans and made space in my life to listen to this poet. I arrived early and was glad I did. Lee spoke to a full house. During his talk he read four poems. He spoke about his wife falling asleep in his arms, lulled by his reflections on life. In turn, he reported on his wife’s reflections during an intimate moment. He noted a blurring of divinity and erotic art in his poetry. I was enamoured with a number of his poems touching on food, fruit, blossoms and associated experience. His reading was delivered with a good sense of humour, but also depth and insight.

While taking a few questions he pointed out that his poems are never finished, but he goes back to revisit and rewrite them. Does he ever face writer’s block? Indeed! The problem is that poetry potential is all around. What not to write is the hardest decision; in writing the first word on paper, the writer takes a very hard step, committing to a certain direction.

For me the experience delivered lots of food for thought. It also confirmed that despite the political stress in NC these days, there is still a rich intellectual current in North Carolina that engages all sorts of folks. The poetry prize winners ranged from students to retirees. It amazed me that I could drop in from another continent one day and land at such a poetry reading the next. This positive and encouraging experience left me hungry, so I adjourned to another experience that I don’t often get in France: a big Mexican dinner of fish tacos and all the complements. Looking out across a big margarita on the rocks, I resolved to make more space in my life for listening to poets.

The Amazing (Generally) French Highway System

The French Highway System: A Road to Somewhere

Occasionally, the French find interesting market-oriented ways to deal with strategic challenges. Sometimes they arrive at a capitalist destination in a manner that was not necessarily part of the original plan. A fine example of this is the amazing (generally) French highway system.

Capitalist tendencies

The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre
The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre (Credit: Pecold / Shutterstock.com)

The autoroute system was established under the direction of the state, which granted concessions to state firms to build specific sections. These firms were largely privatised in recent decades, in some cases with substantial portions of the shares winding up in the hands of institutional investors, employees and small investors. Nowadays, these privatised firms and some emerging competitors from the private sector operate most of the long-haul sections of the system as toll roads. The tolls are generally based on distance travelled and the rates are fairly high compared to what toll roads charge in some countries such as the United States. Only in urban areas and Brittany, do the main highways generally remain in state hands with mostly toll-free operation.

My way is the highway

The amazing thing is that the intercity portion of the system works very well. Despite the heavy presence of the state in the French economy, somehow the government hit upon the right idea of exploiting a market-based solution to further the development and operation of the highway system.

Across most of the intercity network, the roadbed is generally well maintained with wide shoulders. With a legal speed limit of 130 km per hour (80 mph) outside of built-up areas, it is easy to cover distance quickly. Capacity is generally adequate except during peak travel seasons (though, admittedly, traffic can be periodically heavy at other times as well).

Rest stop on way to Nantes

Rest stop on way to Nantes – Accommodations in a non-commercial rest area

There are rest areas every 15 kilometers (10 miles) or so. Many of the rest areas are quiet, non-commercial parks with restrooms, telephones, picnic tables, playgrounds and space to walk dogs. The accommodations in the non-commercial rest areas are basic with unheated restrooms and no hot water. Others areas, at less frequent intervals, are more standard car and truck stops with gas stations and restaurants, heat and hot water.

Yay, infrastructure!

The investment in infrastructure is quite impressive, often implemented with architectural flair. A fine example is the Normandy Bridge across the Seine near La Havre. The various installations are often accented with splashes of color. In some places, there are engineering marvels like the new tunnel in the outer beltway around Paris. With little disruption on the surface, the tunnel cuts under a dense urban area as well as parkland. Built by the construction firm and highway operator Vinci as a toll road, the tunnel uses a duplex approach with North- and Southbound lanes stacked on top of each other in a large tube. The result of such investment is reduced travel time and improved quality of life, all while making a contribution to stimulate the economy.

Beautifully bucolic

View from the wetlands of a rest stop in Picardie

A view of lush farmland, looking across a wetland built into the landscaping of a highway rest area in Picardie

The highways offer an excellent option for exploring the gorgeous French countryside. But, even along the roadway the landscaping is attractive with occasional sculptures and special plantings, and no billboards. As in most countries, the French urban road network may be stressful and challenging to drivers, but out here in the countryside it often feels like one is driving through a postcard setting. Indeed, when travelling across France it pays to budget a bit of extra time for a foray or two off the main road. A surprising number of temptations are situated along the highways, ranging from vineyards to splendid natural sites, from historic monuments to gastronomic wonders.

Conclusion: Time for a Road Trip?

The French highway system is a confirmation that public-private collaboration can indeed make a positive contribution to quality of life. While a country road, less-travelled, can offer many charms and attractions in France, the highway travel to the start of the country road may also be a worthwhile part of the experience (particularly if you plan ahead to avoid peak travel seasons and heavily-utilised routes). Could it be time to hit the road?

 

Mission to Planet DC

Planet DC

National Zoo Sign

Washington: A National Zoo?

There is something other-worldly about Washington. Power, wealth, poverty, urgency and complacency are in the air. It is disorienting, amazing, distressing. I got a chance to experience this world up close in July thanks to a month-long mission to Planet DC.

Although I travel there often, this was my first extended visit to the city in a couple of decades: a chance to settle in, observe and swim in the sea of local life. It left me in a funk that has continued after my return to Paris. I am still trying to process all that I saw and experienced.

My mission

During July, I had the opportunity to pursue my economic research agenda in Washington, DC, operating as a visiting scholar based at a Federal government agency. I was struck by the dedication and competence of my colleagues there as they pursued their duties.

They believe in their mission and are seeking to improve policies and government operations. In the same spirit, they generously took time to provide me with constructive input and suggestions for advancing my policy research.

Time and again their positive energy amazed me. Theirs is not always an easy lot. Federal employees encounter many daily challenges including consequences of budget cuts, periodically hostile press and politicians, arbitrarily compromised objectives, and stakeholder conflicts, among others issues.

My agenda involved a series of interviews with experts (government, private sector and academic), collection of data, and research to track down various reference materials. I had the opportunity to travel far and wide across the city and to meet folks from various walks of life. To say the least, the city exhibits quite some cultural and economic diversity.

Quest for excellence

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso (West Africa) broiling under the intense mid-day sun of the hot season, I discovered the joys of pulling up a chair in a shady spot outside of our mud hut and reading. Not much else was going to happen until things cooled off. It was during such a season back in 1983 that I found the time to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had never read anything like it. The book describes a motorcycle trip across the United States and an inquiry about values. A central theme for me concerned the importance of the quest for excellence, a message that has stuck with me since.

As the political capital of the largest national economy in the world, Washington is certainly in the position to cultivate excellence. There are some impressive manifestations of this. To cite a couple of examples from my recent mission:

  • Library of Congress – During the course of my research I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress, which is certainly a fine historical example. The Thomas Jefferson Building (1897) is a world-class architectural gem. I witnessed people from around the world gawking at the grandeur of reading room. Moreover, the collection itself is also extremely impressive. I took advantage of this to track down references that I’d been unable to obtain in Europe.
  • US Botanic Garden – A more recent example of such excellence is the renovation of the US Botanic Garden, which included establishment of the adjacent national garden. The US Botanic Garden, originally established in 1820, is just up Independence Avenue from the Capital Building and Library of Congress. The renovation of the greenhouse, a Bartholdi fountain (Bartholdi also sculpted the Statue of Liberty), and gardens greatly moved me. Completed in the past decade, this effort resulted in a facility that provides for education, art, entertainment and, in my view, spiritual renewal. It is a place of beauty and yet somehow the renewal was accomplished in a time of tight budgets and partisan in-fighting.

Of course there are many, many more examples across the city. Such examples demonstrate that there can be a positive role for government in contributing to our advancement directly or in partnership with the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

But, on the other hand…

Despite encounters with excellence as I wandered through the world of Washington, there were nonetheless some concerns nagging at me everywhere in the background. These concerns started with the impression that part of the infrastructure is in poor condition. They grew as various contacts and news items pointed to social challenges, civil rights issues, undue impediments to legitimate businesses, environmental degradation and other pressing issues. Some are local, while others are a reflection of national malaise. Although Washington came through the Great Recession with less damage than some other parts of the US, it is not fully insulated and the challenges are visible.

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

My concerns deepened after an admonition from my host to be careful during my commutes into town. He had been stabbed in a mugging a while ago and held up at gunpoint another time. As an economist I am concerned with such problems and their many social and economic roots, but I am not used to facing them as a personal threat on a daily basis.

Then, there was the metro. I recalled the system with an initial sense of pride, thinking back to my days in DC during the 1980s. Nowadays, however, it is only just getting a much needed makeover after years of relative neglect. In July, during a brutal 10 day heat spell, I discovered that the system operators were no longer maintaining the air conditioning on the cars where it had broken down. Commuters were faced with the choice of running from car to car in search of A/C or potentially having to tough it out in a crowded, non-air conditioned carriage.

Next came political issues. A few weeks after my arrival, Bill Moyer’s had an interesting show on Washington, DC, based on a very troubling interview with Mark Leibovich. Leibovich recently authored “This Town“, a book about the workings of the place. He highlights the problem of the rotating door in DC between policy making and lobbying, political fund-raising and interest peddling. He highlights what is essentially a disconnect between the objectives of many of the powers-that-be and the national interest. The insiders with ties to either of the main political parties have access to potentially large incomes if they work on behalf of various vested interest groups. Thus, there are disincentives to tackle issues head-on. Unfortunately, in the interview Leibovich does not offer much in the way of solutions.

Partly as a consequence of the insiders game, progress to obvious problems comes slowly. Outside of the political realm, I have the impression that many average folks are hunkered down living busy lives and, in many cases, dealing with some financial stress. Several news items came up during my stay that underscored the problem. One item showed labor income declining as a share of national output while inequality increased:   see this article from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland. After progressing somewhat in the 1990s, median household has been falling significantly. Another item came from a study by the Economic Policy Institute, showing US workers putting in more hours in a effort to maintain incomes. Then, more recently, Robert Putnam presented an op ed on Crumbling American Dreams using his home town as an illustration.

There were other national news items that added to the gloom:

  • US Health – Recently, a spreadsheet from the Organsation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) caught my eye: OECD Health Data. New data on health developments in 34 wealthy countries of the world were just released. The United States was at the top of the list for healthcare expenditure, spending some 17.7% of GDP in 2011 (GDP is an indicator of our economic output). This was nearly twice the health expenditure in OECD countries on average: 9.3% of GDP. Moreover, US healthcare expenditure is far ahead of the other countries: second place goes to Netherlands, but even they spent just 11.9% of GDP.
    What do we get for our large expenditure? In 2011, American women on average at birth have a life expectancy of 81.1 years, whereas in the average OECD country, women can expect 82.8 years. For American men, the figure was 76.3 years, whereas the average OECD country offered its men the prospect of a life expectancy of 77.3 years. In Netherlands, women and men at least have something to show for their above-average health expenditure. That is, they have above-average life expectancy: 83.1 years for women and 79.4 for men. In the US, we are paying nearly twice as much as the OECD average and our lives on average are shorter by a year or more.
  • Climate change – Then, there were several items on climate change developments. One that really came as a wake up call was authored by James Hansen et al (2013) on Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level and CO2. The authors provide compelling evidence that the damage from the C02 already pumped into the atmosphere is not yet fully manifest due to lagging responses from some natural systems, and that if we continue we can expect significant impacts in terms of sea level rise and disequilibrium in key natural systems. According to these authors, if we persist in use of all available fossil fuels, we can expect this: “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”
  • Voting Rights – There were other news items from several states on voter disenfranchisement in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. Taking North Carolina as an example, the Huffington Post reported on proposed changes that eliminated college students’ ability to use their state-issued student IDs for voting purposes, reduced early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and a student civics program, killed an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive and lessened the amount of public reporting required for so-called dark money groups, also known as 501(c)(4)s.
  • Impediments to business – It is not all a bed of roses for business either. There are bureaucratic and regulatory barriers and other challenges related to government dysfunction. One example can be found in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators.  The “paying tax” indicator shows that the administrative burdens in the United States are far in excess of other leading countries (and, it is not just the tax rates, but also the hours it takes to comply administratively with the requirements). According to this tax burden indicator, the United States ranks 69th among the world economies, just below Madagascar and just ahead of Mongolia. Hardly a leadership position!

These matters are serious and getting clear information about each issue is not always easy. One cannot rely on the evening news for balanced reporting and it takes a bit of digging to identify a reliable source of factual information. Still, the cumulative effect of this news flow is daunting. I can certainly appreciate the urge to keep one’s head down and to press on with more immediate daily challenges. Unfortunately, a failure to respond to some of these issues will entail heavier costs if one waits to address them later.

Next steps?

This is not to say that I am pessimistic. I was encouraged to find people inside and outside of government working to assess problems empirically and seeking a factual basis for discussing policy options and responses. In addition, there is an emerging debate in the United States that recognises the limits of empirical assessment and the need to have an open debate about the subjective aspects of some policy questions such as dealing with inequality. For example, see this paper on income inequality by G. Mankiw, a former Bush administration official. I don’t agree with all of his suppositions or conclusions, but it is a useful starting point recognising the role of preferences. It has unleashed a helpful debate.

I think we also need to be open to consideration of the role of government as part of the solution. This was underscored to me upon my return to France. I spent my Saturday here running errands on foot, using public transportation and walking to shops past some wonderful public spaces: a forest park, a new fountain, newly repaved roads, and a public-private redevelopment zone downtown. France has many economic problems of its own. For example, the state is large and weighs heavily on entrepreneurship. But, the French example does underscore the benefits of having some public investment in areas where there is a need for a coherent system-wide plan or where there is a market failure. We should not rule this out now in the United States. There are positive examples in the US as well: for example, the initial development steps for the Internet. Government has contributed on occasion to attainment of excellence!

Reviewing the list of issues discussed above, I certainly seems that there is need for action. In the United States, we need to break out of our complacency. We need to challenge the system to do better and to be more responsive to unmet needs. We should not accept business as usual in “This Town”. And, once we have decided that there is a role for government in provision of a given service, then we should insist on government’s quest for excellence in the matter. Why should we the citizens and taxpayers accept anything less?

 

 

Sketching Viroflay

Springtime in Viroflay

The transition to Springtime continues to lag here in the Parisian suburbs. Today was cool and a little breezy, with poofy clouds alternating with sunshine. It seemed a perfect time to go out walking, so I loaded my iPad into a day pack and headed out to see what I might find worth sketching in Viroflay.

Hippolyte Maze

Viroflay City Hall ParkThe first thing that caught my eye was the garden behind Viroflay city hall. It was peaceful and the statue of Hippolyte Maze seemed radiant in the afternoon sun. Hippolyte was at various times an academic historian, an elected representative in national government and a regional administrator (préfet). He also dabbled in economics. Among other achievements, he wrote a book entitled the Republic of the United States of America (1869). In addition to some facts about Hippolyte, his monument has three words inscribed on the side: science, humanity, homeland. I’m not sure why these three words were selected, but I read somewhere that Louis Pasteur (i.e., the guy who invented pasteurization, who also lived in the 1800s) once said that “the homeland of science encompasses all of humanity.” Coincidence? Perhaps. But, I’m not so sure.

Saint Eustache

Viroflay Church - Original City HallNext stop came in the center of town. There sits the small church dedicated to Saint Eustache. Dating back to the 12th century, the structure is in good shape, having benefited from a couple of restorations over the centuries. Across the street is a small two-story building that became city hall and the first public school in Viroflay after the French revolution (in 1794, actually). Some other buildings from that period and some of the cobblestone pavement also survive. There is a former water trough for horses and the town has planted a few flower beds. In the sunshine this afternoon, it was a perfect spot to sit and sketch and soak in the historic ambiance.

House of cards?

Viroflay - House of CardsBy now it was getting to be late afternoon and I was about to head home, when I noticed an interesting half-timbered home up a little cobblestone dead-end lane. The home is now rather old and weathered, and the shutters are closed tight. But, what caught my eye was that someone long ago had marked the facade of the home with the symbols for the four suits of cards. It turns out that the four suits (hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds) were first used in French card decks in Rouen and Lyon in the 15th century and later were taken up by the English-speaking world. I am not sure what the connection is to this old home, but it lives on in the facade.

Our house

With that, the time had come to get back home. Our old stone house was built just outside the Viroflay city limits in the late 1800s, around the same time that Hippolyte Maze passed away (he died in 1891). As I headed around to our side yard to do a bit of weeding in the garden before sunset, I was struck by the important role that the various historical sites play in this community. They provide a sort of bridge across the centuries, offering glimpses into the rich history and a measure of continuity across time in this place.

[If you have trouble viewing the images in this blog post, please click this link for a better view: http://wp.me/p2sfPf-nE .]

(Doug, ©2013)

 

 

RIP: Albert Hirschman Exits

Exit, Voice and Loyalty

Some 20 years ago I was working with a Russian colleague to assess labor market developments in Russian enterprises during the economic transition. As these firms struggled in the face of a transition to a market economy, I was struggling to get a handle on the behavior of their management, workers and consumers. Then, my co-author pointed me to Exit, Voice and Loyalty, a little book by the economist Albert Hirschman.

Published back in 1970, Hirschman’s book offered a succinct and nuanced view of human interaction in economics and politics. Economics, in particular, had tended to oversimplify decision-making, emphasizing the role of price in driving choices of consumers, managers, suppliers and others. The decision to buy or sell was mainly seen as being driven by price. But, Hirschman took note of other factors that may on occasion cause some stickiness in the way the market functions.

Consumers, for example, may demonstrate loyalty in the face of declining quality in a product and, instead of switching, may agitate for management to fix the problems. Workers in a failing firm may speak up for reforms instead of simply quitting. Members of political parties may lobby for change within, rather than changing their allegiance to a rival party. On the other hand, in other cases, these folks might simply break the existing relationship and move on. Using engaging illustrations and clear explanations, Hirschman noted conditions that may shape the paths that such decision-making might take.

Hirschman’s optimism and clear writing style made Exit, Voice and Loyalty a pleasure to read. Discovering the analytical framework laid out in the book was a real eye-opener for me. It helped me to tackle the confusing situation in the Russian enterprises that we were studying. Here is one illustration: Back in the mid-1990s, why would so many Russian workers stay on with their employers, despite being unpaid for months? Answer: They still reaped some social and economic benefits from their affiliation, like housing or healthcare. Outside of the firms, conditions could be even worse for these individuals.

Hirschman’s analytical framework also had many other applications for me. Suddenly, I found a new means to assess, for example, my own difficult employment situation at the time or to ponder the political developments in my country. From time to time I still make reference to this book, which is now more than 40 years old.

Thus, it was with some sorrow that I learned last December that Albert Hirschman had passed away. Aged 97, he had lived a long and fruitful life. Hirschman made other contributions to economics, in particular with respect to challenges of economic development in Latin America. But, it was only upon reading his obituary that I learned of his other impressive  accomplishments.

And here is the amazing part

According to the New York Times obit, Albert Hirschman was born in Berlin in 1915 and by the 1930s had advanced in his study of economics. However, he also made time to join in the Spanish civil war on the side of the anti-fascists. He later joined the French Army to resist the Nazis. After France fell, he worked as part of a team helping people escape via routes over the Pyrenees. He then made his way to the United States and joined the Office of Strategic Services to assist the US army in North Africa and Italy, as well as to serve during an early war crimes trial. And that was all before he moved to Bogota, Colombia, as an economic adviser for a few years and then launched a 30 year academic career at Yale, Colombia and Harvard.

Wow! A full life indeed! Thank you, Albert Hirschman. May you rest in peace.

A concussion, but then came the siskins

The past month has not been a fun one for me. A bad fall left me with a concussion and other injuries. I had my first-ever hospitalization and drew on medical services from a range of providers across the region south-west of Paris. Friends, family and colleagues lent their support, while nature also chipped in some entertainment.

Access to health care – mending a concussion

The experience gave me a first-hand look at emergency health care in France and really reinforced my appreciation for the social protection available to me. I had ready access to quality medical care. My employer was extremely helpful in providing moral support, sick leave and insurance coverage. In addition to all the care provided by my dear spouse, friends and colleagues checked in on me and helped me to maintain a positive attitude despite the slow pace of recovery. While I was able to do a little work from home, I am grateful that the system encouraged me to focus first of all on my health.

Support from nature

Male Siskin in full spring courtship plumage (c) Martin Pateman, Schutterstock

Male Siskin in full spring courtship plumage
(c) Martin Pateman, Schutterstock

Meanwhile, nature was also doing its part to give me a boost. This week a new type of bird put in several appearances by our feeder: the siskin (in French: tarin des aulnes). They arrived in little flocks of 6 or 8, sporting striking spring plumage and spreading out to comb the ground in search of seed. At the same time, our various chickadees — especially the blue ones (mésanges bleues) — happily accommodated the siskins. The chickadees rooted through the food offered at the feeder, searching for peanuts and casting other seeds overboard in the process. Like manna from heaven, the siskins were bombarded with all sorts of goodies from the feeder, which helped to top off the ground-level food supply already available in our organic garden.

Complementary activities

This little show of nature complemented the other care and support that I’ve received in recent weeks. Taking place outside our dining room window, it boosted the morale of residents and visitors alike, and left me smiling. One more thing for which I am grateful!

 

 

 

 

 

State of Diversity: California

Saturday:

A news report on National Public Radio today noted that by next year, Hispanics would be displacing non-Hispanic whites as the largest ethnic group in California, the most populous state in the United States. A SF Gate article highlights the diversity of California: minorities already constitute the majority of the state’s population.

Visiting friends and family in Los Angeles this week, the diversity was clearly evident. During my late morning walk around an inner city neighborhood today, there were a number of people coming and going from the local conservative synagogue. I heard some of the men disputing on the sidewalk in a language that I did not recognize (not Hebrew). One block down the street I passed the local Coptic Orthodox Church (with a sign in Arabic by the door) and then, a few meters further, the Guru Ram Das Ashram. In the corner park, a group of Hispanic men sat on benches sipping coffee and discussing something engaging, as a group of young African-Americans played a pick-up game of basketball on the court behind them. In the distance, there were signs with Korean and Chinese characters for several Asian businesses. Billboards with images of pop star Psy hawked a brand of soju, a distilled beverage from Korea.

What an amazing mix of people and cultures is this California! And LA is a particularly mixed up corner of this great state (so to speak)!

View from the landing of an apartment on an alley in West LA

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Claremont, California

People of the sun: Claremont, California

There is something about the availability of ample sunshine that sometimes transforms the way people view the world. At least in temperate climates, it seems to me that sunshine tends to encourage an active lifestyle and lingering in the great outdoors, which in turn gives people opportunities to mix. These conditions can promote greater openness and perhaps friendliness among people. Although ozone depletion and climate change are giving the sun a bad name, it still seems that this sunshine effect continues to operate in many places. (NB, I freely admit that there are many exceptions, including for example Oregon, which is grey and damp for much of the year, yet generally open-minded, outdoors-oriented and friendly).

In recent years, we have spent some time with people of the sun in Claremont, California. The Santa Fe Railroad gave the town its name and promoted its development in the late 1800s. A place in the sun! Pomona College served as a catalyst for further development. Nowadays, Claremont is an open and outgoing place, a great town to walk around, with a vibrant town center, farmers market, cafes, restaurants and delis, colleges and academic institutions, botanical garden, cinema, and more. Trees arch over the roads. There is a hint of Spanish influence in some of the architecture. Outdoor opportunities abound via nice parks and access to large nature reserves in the mountains bordering the town to the north. Claremont is not entirely a world apart, of course. It remains surrounded by the Southern California sprawl, and all of the good and bad that that entails, from excellence in the creative economy, natural beauty and cultural diversity, to frenetic freeways and seasonal air pollution. Nonetheless, inside Claremont, calm tends to reign and the good vibes win out over such troubles.

The Wikipedia entry for Claremont gives a great overview of the town:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claremont,_California.

Looking over a courtyard wall in Claremont

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Recommendations for great, low-key dining around Claremont

1) Downtown Claremont

42 Street Bagels, 225 Yale Street, Claremont, CA 91711; excellent bagels, friendly atmosphere, a low key and basic set up, but does a great job of delivering on its promise. Draws a crowd of regulars.

The Last Drop Cafe, 119 Harvard Ave., Claremont, CA 91711; excellent sandwiches and soup, way good chocolate chip cookies. This is a small establishment frequented by locals and students from the Claremont area. Free wifi.

Walter’s Restaurant, 308 N. Yale Ave., Claremont, CA 91711; quality dining, relaxed atmosphere with interesting menu (including some Near East-influenced fusion dishes) and great desserts, nice selection of wines & beers

2) In nearby (by LA standards) Arcadia

Din Tai Fung, 1088 S. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA 91007; authentic Taiwanese-Shanghainese dumpling and noodle house, with a bustling atmosphere and great food, served by an attentive and friendly staff, without much fanfare; expect a line, but it is worth a short wait.