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Letter From a Birmingham Museum

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The goal of most Narratives, in both markets and politics, is to convince you to sit down and shut up. The goal is to take you off the board. This was true in the 1960s civil rights movement and it’s true today. I’m not saying that you should fight the Man, whatever that means to you. I’m saying that whatever you choose to do, make it the active choice of a free-thinking human being.



Keep on reading: Letter From a Birmingham Museum
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duerig
14 days ago
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An implicit goal of all societies (both just and unjust) is to maintain a quiescent populace. When the populace is not quiescent for whatever reason, the society cannot function. Sometimes order is maintained through brute force. Sometimes it is maintained by offering participation and ceding control (voting, official meetings), sometimes it is maintained by social pressures and communication (true or false).

So if you live in a society that is clearly evil then standing up together with others can improve things. You are throwing sand into the gears in order to achieve a greater good. If you are living in a society that has both good and bad aspects, it becomes much more ambiguous. When you throw sand into the gears, you are undermining both the good and bad. When you work within the system and grease the wheels, you are complicit with both the good and the bad.
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Woodworking, the opposite of software development

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While waiting for the BoltBus, I met a former software developer, who said that he's now a carpenter. Specifically, he makes furniture out of wood, so a more precise term for his type of work would be something like woodworking.

He says he quit software because customers would keep making change requests on short notice, even for features he was pretty sure they'd never actually use.

I asked him if his new job has the same problem.

He said, no, it's the opposite.

Nobody asks for new features for their bench or table or whatever. They show him a picture of a 100-year-old table and say "Make me that."

Sometimes, a former customer will call and say, "Hey, remember me? You made a table for me three years ago." Do they want to modify the table? Nope. "Can you make one exactly like it for my sister?"

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duerig
23 days ago
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I have built tables and I have built software. They are really quite similar. Maybe the difference the author perceives comes down to the ease of reproduction.

Since software is so easy to duplicate, all of the demand for 'I saw this app and want one just like it.' is trivially satisfied. What is left is the thorny tricky custom stuff with institutional customers.

By contrast, things like a table are quite hard to reproduce. Either you have set up a lot of special tools and jigs to make a bunch of identical tables (Ikea) or you make a new unique piece every time that is nevertheless in the same style as some other piece (woodworker).

But in either case, it is really a difference in the market. Not a difference in the task. Both require some creativity and some drudgery. Both are crafts that are very satisfying.
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2 public comments
jhamill
24 days ago
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I would like to be able to make a table someday.
California
LeMadChef
30 days ago
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I'm not going to stop software development, but this sounds nice for a change.
Denver, CO

Housing: Part 300 - The Global Bubble Hypnosis is a Larger Problem than NIMBYs

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Here is a recent article at the Financial Times.  The headline:
New York property jitters herald declines elsewhere
 The first line:
Clouds are hovering over New York’s housing market.

This is a great example of the mass hypnosis that has infected the public consensus on housing.

There is a broadening realization that the lack of access to urban labor markets and the lack of access to affordable urban housing are the prime challenge of early 21st century economics.  The problem is, solving that problem requires economic dislocation and upheaval of urban housing markets.  If you see falling real estate prices in urban centers should your reaction be to worry about "clouds hovering" over urban real estate markets?  I say, celebrate.

If our primary economic problem is that a lack of housing in urban centers causes it to be overpriced by a factor of 2 or more, then the DIRECT solution to that problem is that urban real estate needs to lose 50% or more of its value.  This article begins by noting that the median price per square foot in New York City has declined by 18% from last year.  Your reaction to that should be, "That's a great start!"  Full stop.  If that's not your reaction, then what are you doing?  What's your purpose?

Further, the article argues that global capital markets are leading to a new synchronization of urban real estate markets, so that additional supply is such a strong factor in bringing down urban housing costs that new units in New York City can bring down prices in London.  Your reaction to that should be, "Wonderful news!  Supply is a much more powerful factor than we thought."  Full stop.  If that's not your reaction, then what are you doing?  What's your purpose?

Reasons given in the article for this drop in New York prices include: (1) removal of tax benefits, (2) "glut" of luxury supply, (3) globalization, (4) "financialization", (5) "ultra-loose" money.  Your reaction to that should be, "Oh.  OK.  Those must all be good things.  Let's do more of those things."   Full stop.  If that's not your reaction, then what are you doing?  What's your purpose?

But, that's not the direction the article takes.  The article notes that sales volume is also down, and, as is the convention, it treats this downturn as the inevitable end of a boom bust cycle.  So, instead of seeing the drop in sales as a sign that all these good things might come to an end - as something we should counter - the article treats the boom that preceded it as the problem, and the solutions proposed are all policies aimed at stopping the real estate expansion before it develops!

This is an explicit defense of a monetary and credit regime that is specified to ensure rising urban real estate costs.

Now, admittedly the problem of solving urban costs is difficult, because normalized, unconstrained urban housing markets would require building with few unnecessary obstructions and low costs.  And, part of what happens in these regimes is that the bridge between basic costs and market value gets filled with all sorts of "limited access" rent seeking.  Developer fees, concessions to advocacy and neighborhood groups and municipal powers, queuing, etc.  These added costs emerged.  They didn't develop as some sort of plan.  So, if supply actually starts to increase enough to bring rents down to a reasonable level, these extra costs will have to be reduced in order to allow new development to come online profitably. Since the cost of queuing is pure waste, the first step here is "easy".  Just keep pushing through more projects for approval that are bringing in those "clouds".  There are a few trillion reasons why local planning boards aren't going to do that to existing owners and developers.

But, for activists and researchers who want to solve the urban housing problem and for global financial journalists who cover these markets, the reaction to that political problem should not be to kill any booms in their infancy.  The reaction should be, "How do we entice these urban planning departments to keep pushing through new supply when it looks like a downturn is coming?"  Because, to refer to any supply in these cities as anywhere close to a "glut" is a laugh.  A horrible, dark, depressing laugh.  There will be a glut of supply when rent in New York City is similar to rent in Atlanta, or even Chicago.  Until then, any use of the word "glut" to describe New York City housing should be met with laughter.

The reason we are engaged in this odd public rhetorical house of mirrors is because we all have a virus in our brain.  It's a cultural meme.  And it's a received canonical premise that there was a housing bubble, and that bubble was caused by loose money and loose credit.

The housing bubble, such that it was, was caused by an extreme shortage of urban supply.  Because of that shortage of supply, the process of meeting the public need for housing requires a "bubble" and the availability of credit that is flexible enough to allow for ownership where rents regularly take 50% or more of a household's budget.  Since supply in those cities barely responds to price, prices in those cities have to be bid up to high enough levels to induce outmigration so that new housing can be built in the rest of the country where supply can react to high prices and high demand.  At the peak of the US housing "bubble", credit markets were just beginning to push market prices to a level that induced that new supply.

Now, it would be better to build ample units in the urban centers.  But, since that doesn't appear to be close to happening, this was a second-best solution.  And, in terms of rent - which is the appropriate measure for considering housing affordability - 2005, briefly, was the one point since 1995 where supply at the national level was abundant enough to moderate rising rents.

Unfortunately, the Closed Access cities in the US are such a problem that in order to create enough housing at the national level, we had to induce a mass migration event out of those cities, and that mass migration event was the source of the dislocations in places like Phoenix that drove the country to demand a credit and monetary contraction.

This is the first step to fixing the problem.  We need to get that virus out of our heads.  The problem, all along, was supply.  Trying to pop the bubble before it inflates is the opposite of what we need to do.  I think the first rhetorical step to beat this virus is to stop thinking about housing affordability and housing markets in terms of price.  Price is a secondary function.  Affordability is about rent.  And, in the end, price is also about rent.  And, in the past 25 years, there have been two successful means for moderating rents.  (1) build like it's 2005, or (2) pull back on the money supply and credit so severely that a good portion of the country is foreclosed upon.

If we had committed to (1), today rents would be lower, prices would be higher, homeownership would be strong, and American balance sheets would be healthy.  It would be nice if a lot more of those American households could also live in the coastal cities.  I don't know if that can happen, but it sure as heck isn't going to happen if there is a consensus reaction to protect those precious urban real estate values every time the solution actually starts to play out by worrying about a "glut" of supply, and then by accepting pro-cyclical credit and monetary policies in order to "pop" the "bubble".

In that counterfactual, where the urban supply problem isn't solved and the rest of us commit to abundant supply, there would be gnashing of teeth about how the Federal Reserve is feeding bubbles and they are at fault for making home prices too high.  We have indulged that intuition for a decade now.  Now we know how wrong that is.  This was the darkest timeline.  Let's roll the dice again and proceed with the knowledge that doing it wrong has provided us.

New York real estate is getting cheaper and is pulling housing costs down in other cities, says the Financial Times, because (1) removal of tax benefits, (2) "glut" of luxury supply, (3) globalization, (4) "financialization", (5) "ultra-loose" money.  OK.  Those must all be good things.  Let's do more of those things.  What's your purpose?
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duerig
42 days ago
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This article really does show the inconsistency in our thinking. Everybody wants housing prices to stay low. But everybody wants houses to appreciate in value because they are 'investments'. And that is why the reporting on it is muddled.

There are so many similar confusions when it comes to economics. People want a 'strong' dollar, but get outraged at other countries manipulating their currency to make them artificially cheap. People want to reduce deficits by lowering taxes and keeping their benefits.
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Fake reviews now generally necessary to do business online

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"The temptation to pose as an impartial reviewer of one’s own work will be familiar to many authors across history, writes Simon Parkin. "But the Internet has, as with all vices, smoothed the transition from temptation to action."

Such self-fluffing is at least supposed to be secret. But the review systems are so crude and easily-gamed that it enables nakedly public manipulation. When The Gamers want to waltz around Amazon's useless "verified purchase" wall to punish a developer for offending them, it's easy...

“People would buy our game, not play it, leave the terrible review, and instantly request a refund,” Sean Vanaman, Campo Santo’s co-founder, told me. “It’s a well-worn tactic.” In his estimation, user-review systems such as those used by Valve, Steam’s developer, are so vulnerable to exploitation that they require as much moderation as social-media platforms.

Worse, without fake positive reviews, your thing -- your book, your restaurant, your startup -- is at a disadvantage in the apps and platforms that potential customers use to scan for new stuff. Once the medium is corrupt, everyone has to follow suit to survive. Get a load of this wonderful nonsense at TripAdvisor:

For the recent test, he created his own fake business, which he called the Shed at Dulwich. (It was named for his garden shed, in Dulwich, London.) He photographed plates of carefully arranged food (created using household products such as shaving cream and dishwasher tablets), bought a burner phone, and added the Shed to the site. Within four weeks, he had posted enough fake reviews to move the spectral establishment into the top two thousand restaurants in London. Eventually, it became the highest-rated restaurant in the city, and Butler was fielding scores of calls from people hoping to book a table. Such was the nonexistent restaurant’s success that it even attracted a one-star review, from what Butler assumes was a rival. “TripAdvisor removed the review on the grounds that it was fake,” he said.

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duerig
47 days ago
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Yes. People who don't cheat are at a disadvantage. Which is the reason why people cheat. That doesn't mean cheating is 'now generally necessary'. The people who claim that it is generally necessary are simply engaging in self-justification of bad behavior.

Overall rating of this article: 1 star. :-)
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The Are No Magic Words That Can Dispel The Idea That Liberals Are Smug Elitists

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Paul observed yesterday that “[t]elling people that voting for an openly racist and sexist candidate means they’re OK with voting for an openly racist and sexist candidate makes those people angry, and therefore less likely to vote for somebody else” is s”omewhat true but in a complex way that robs the claim of pragmatic value.” I think this is exactly right. One really obvious problem with the Democrats-Lose-Because-Liberals-Are-Smug-Coastal-Elitists-Hot-Take-Industrial Complex is that smug liberals are a constant while election outcomes are cyclical. A second obvious problems is that there are smug elitists of every political persuasion and this also explains nothing. In this excellent post, Paul Waldman adds another critical piece of the puzzle: the conservative media has a major vested interest in presenting liberals as smug elitists who look down on white working class people, and liberals have no meaningful access to these voters that would allow them to change this perception:

If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some obscure liberal professor who said something offensive, some liberal celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.

[…]

The same is true of Hillary Clinton. At a town-hall meeting in March 2016, she was talking about how to revitalize communities that had been dependent on coal but had been devastated by a loss of jobs driven mostly by automation and the fracking boom that made natural gas cheaper than coal. Here’s what she said:

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

Wow, that’s pretty respectful! It acknowledges the people’s hard work, their sacrifices, their contribution to the rest of the country. And yet because she also acknowledged that all those millions of coal jobs aren’t coming back, but said it in a way she would surely have liked to rephrase — “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — the only thing anyone remembers is that one half-sentence, which was immediately turned into “Hillary hates coal miners! She wants to destroy their lives!” All the respect-offering she tried to do was meaningless once it was chewed through the gears of the conservative outrage machine.

[…]

In the world Republicans have constructed, a Democrat who wants to give you health care and a higher wage is disrespectful, while a Republican who opposes those things but engages in a vigorous round of campaign race-baiting is respectful. The person who’s holding you back isn’t the politician who just voted to give a trillion-dollar tax break to the wealthy and corporations, it’s an East Coast college professor who said something condescending on Twitter.

So what are Democrats to do? The answer is simple: This is a game they cannot win, so they have to stop playing. Know at the outset that no matter what you say or do, Republicans will cry that you’re disrespecting good heartland voters. There is no bit of PR razzle-dazzle that will stop them. Remember that white Republicans are not going to vote for you anyway, and their votes are no more valuable or virtuous than the votes of any other American. Don’t try to come up with photo ops showing you genuflecting before the totems of the white working class, because that won’t work. Advocate for what you believe in, and explain why it actually helps people.

And, as David Roberts notes in this thread, the mainstream media is also strongly committed to the narrative that liberals are coffee-drinking, mustard-using urban elitists. It’s baked in.

Johnny Unbeatable fantasies aside, there is no Democratic presidential nominee who will be able to go through an entire campaign without saying something that can be yanked out of context or ordering a salad with anything in it but iceberg lettuce or something else that can be used repeatedly to show that he or she despises white working class voters. Emperor Perez cannot impose message discipline that prevents any college sophomore from heckling a professional conservative race-baiter or calling the poke special at the cafeteria cultural appropriation. The only winning move is not to play.

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duerig
62 days ago
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There is a lot of cruft in this article (and the broader discussion that it is part of). But I think that it provides the key insight that unravels all these arguments:

Electoral outcomes in a democracy are cyclical. One party loses and one party wins. The party that just lost didn't lose because it was 'broken'. The party that just won didn't win because they found the secret formula for permanent success.

After 2008 and 2012 elections, there was a lot of ink spilled about how the Republican party needed to fix itself. And it was just as misguided.

Today we have two political parties and one of them is broken. Not because of which party won in which election. But because of who the parties chose. One party chose a conventional candidate with long experience and moderate views. The other party chose a loser with a Napoleon complex and a congress full of lickspittles to bolster up his fragile ego.

So by all means, lets talk about strategy and how to change the message so the wannabe authoritarian is kicked to the curb before his dreams come true. But if we want to fix a party, we should be clear that it is the party that selected the shithole candidate that we need to fix. Because our republic is in grave danger right now. And even if we eject President Comrade from power, our republic won't be safe until the Republican party is fixed.
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Famous

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wreichard
62 days ago
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Well, this pretty much sums me up.
Earth
duerig
63 days ago
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I'd be tempted by an 'I'm famous, but I'm pretty low-key about it.' shirt.
norb
62 days ago
I used to have a shirt that just said "Local Celebrity" on it. I got lots of comments. Most of them were "I don't know who you are." to which I replied "Well, I'm only a celebrity within the confines of the t-shirt. Hyper local, if you will." Mostly it was a lot of blank stares after that.
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