What A Good Job Looks Like

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

When Matthew B. Crawford graduated, he found that there was more demand for his services as an unlicensed electrician than as a credentialed physicist. He discusses what a good job looks like:

The work of electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics cannot be outsourced. That is reason enough for a young person to consider going into the trades. But let’s take a broader view of the matter and consider also the possibility for real satisfaction, which may or may not be present in the work we do. Human beings seem to be built in such a way that we want to see a direct effect of our actions in the world and feel that these actions are genuinely our own.

Consider the striking fact that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, most workers simply walked out. His biographer, Keith Sward, wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

Obviously, the men who walked out had other options. Early on, the automotive industry had recruited people from carriage shops and bicycle shops–all-around mechanics who took pride in their skill and knowledge. To merely pull the same lever over and over on an assembly line was stultifying, and insulting too. Eventually Ford raised wages enough to keep the line staffed, and people got used to it.

This story has a parallel in our own time. White-collar work too gets routinized and dumbed-down. This fact often gets obscured by the fact that you may need an academic credential to get the job. I went to graduate school in the early 1990s and loved every minute of it. With my new master’s degree, I landed a job as an “indexer and abstractor.” I was to write brief summaries of articles in scientific and other academic journals.

It sounded really challenging. But my quota, after 11 months on the job, was 28 articles per day. The only way to meet the quota was to stop thinking, and in fact I was given rules for writing these summaries that were based on the supposition that it could be done in a routinized, unthinking way. The job paid $23,000 a year. I never did get used to it.

As far back as 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor-market demand creates for white collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

The current glut of college graduates, many of them with heavy debt loads, may need to overcome this problem of being “psychically” (not physically) unemployable in manual occupations, a disability acquired from sitting in classrooms from age 5 to age 22. I am happy to report that it is possible. After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, followed by another prestigious-sounding but soul-killing job at a think tank, I opened a motorcycle repair shop.

Motorcycles are made on assembly lines, but the work of fixing them isn’t too far removed from what those craftsmen in the bicycle and carriage shops were doing. There’s a lot of thinking involved, and it is always my own thinking. In fact, the work of diagnosing mechanical problems is often more intellectually challenging than my think tank job was. “Motorcycle mechanic” is a less prestigious answer to give at a cocktail party when someone asks what I do, but in saying it, I feel more genuine pride.

(He also wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.)

The History of a Congo Road Built Using German Aid Money

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

This history of a Congo road built using German aid money is quite depressing:

A part of it gets built and then the aid workers go elsewhere. Soon the first potholes form and the jungle begins to gnaw away at the shoulders of the road. Ultimately, it will disappear completely.

Welthungerhilfe is now building a section of road heading south from Lubutu and has committed to maintaining this new, flawless red-earthen highway until 2016. But what happens after that? Dörken hesitates. “Honestly, I wouldn’t dare to venture a guess.”

Originally, he and his colleagues had set up a system to maintain the road. They established “road committees” in the villages which then installed barriers to collect tolls. Revenues were to go toward maintenance work. The system worked well, Dörken says, but then the Congolese government in 2006 revoked Welthungerhilfe’s mandate for maintaining the road. Since then, tolls have continued to be collected, but the money is no longer reinvested in the road and it is slowly disintegrating as a result.

Isn’t that frustrating? “Yes, of course!” says Dörken, losing his ironic distance for an instant. Then, once again under control, he summarizes the entire problem with development aid in a single sentence: “We are waiting for the state to begin fulfilling its duties.”

Singapore After Lee Kuan Yew

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Perhaps the most critical aspect of Lee Kuan Yew’s success was meeting the requirements of multinational companies:

Designating English as the national language  was a primary advantage. Due largely to Lee, Singapore is a primarily English-speaking country, and global business tends to go where it is understood, and where its nationals can most easily function.

As a result, efficient, globally focused Singapore now boasts more than twice as many regional headquarters of foreign firms than far-larger Tokyo, not to mention Asia’s less affluent megacities. They provide expats working for multinationals with sanitation, parks, trees, clean housing, an educated workforce, and low corruption not readily available in the rest of south Asia. Anyone who has spent time in India, or even Vietnam, marvels at the relative ease of life in Singapore.

Singapore may be in spiritual crisis though:

The fertility rates in Singapore have fallen almost 50 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1. Overall, Singapore-based demographer Gavin Jones estimates that up to a quarter of all East Asian women now entering their 20s — including those in Singapore — will still be single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless.

“People increasingly see marriage and children as very risky, so they avoid it,” notes Singapore based demographer Gavin Jones. “Even though there’s a strong ideology in Asia to have a family, it is fading.”

Jones and others see this trend as something of a spiritual crisis, coupled with high housing prices and an overemphasis on work. In the old Chinese world, children were seen as essential to economic stability and social status. Now those values have drowned in a tsunami of materialism and global culture.


The tendency to put off marriage and child-bearing, as well as the focus on material gain, works against the fundamental values of patience and persistence that animated Lee Kuan Yew’s career, and also shaped Chinese civilization. A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future.

Tell Me How This Ends Well

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Thomas Friedman doesn’t dig deep, but he gets this mostly right:

Asian autocrats tended to be modernizers, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who just died last week at 91 — and you see the results today: Singaporeans waiting in line for 10 hours to pay last respects to a man who vaulted them from nothing into the global middle class. Arab autocrats tended to be predators who used the conflict with Israel as a shiny object to distract their people from their own misgovernance. The result: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are now human development disaster areas.

How the Easter Bunny Got So Soft

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

The price of plush Easter bunnies hasn’t changed since 1970 — the nominal price, that is, meaning they’re much, much cheaper in real terms — yet they’re much softer and higher quality:

“It’s a better product than it was years ago, and it’s not that much more expensive,” said Steven Meyer, the third-generation owner of Mary Meyer Corp., a toy company based in Vermont. Meyer joined the company in 1986, helping his father weather the tough transition to manufacturing in Korea. (“I grew up literally with a stuffed toy factory in the backyard,” he recalled. “It was 30 feet behind our home.”)

For example, Meyer explained that Korean and Taiwanese toymakers introduced safety procedures, later copied in China, to assure that toddlers’ bedtime companions didn’t contain hidden hazards. “Every one of our toys is put through a metal detector before it goes into a box, and that’s because a little shard of a sewing needle can break off and go into the toy,” said Meyer. “We never thought of that when we produced in the United States.”

More immediately apparent is how the toys feel. A stuffed animal that would have delighted a late baby boomer like me now seems rigid and rough. Today’s toys are stuffed with soft, fibrous polyester rather than the foam rubber, sawdust or ground nut shells of the past. That makes them squishier, as do plush outer fabrics that no longer have stiff backings; the yarns are knitted to one another rather than attached to a rigid fabric like a carpet. As a result, said Meyer, “The whole stuffed toy feels softer and slouchier.”


The secret to both wickable T-shirts and softer Easter bunnies lies in polyester microfibers. These high-tech textiles have replaced the acrylic and polyester plushes that used to cover stuffed toys as surely as they’ve nudged aside cotton for exercise apparel. They represent a remarkable technical and cultural achievement.

In the immediate post-disco era polyester was the epitome of textile yuckiness — synonymous with the cheap, uncomfortable and out of style. “Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Ronald Alsop in a front-page 1982 article chronicling manufacturers’ attempts to rehabilitate the fiber’s image. What brought polyester back into fashion wasn’t marketing but years of innovation, with textile engineers on three continents making extraordinary gains in producing ever-finer fibers.

Textile fibers, including polyester filaments, are measured in decitex or deniers, almost equivalent units unique to the business. For reference: Silk measures about 1.1 to 1.3 decitex, while human hair runs between 30 and 50. A microfiber is defined as anything less than 1 decitex.

Although polyester microfibers date back to Toray Industries Inc.’s development of Ultrasuede in 1970, they have only become widespread in recent years, thanks in part to massive plant investments in China that have swamped the polyester market and driven down prices. Back around the time that I was buying stuffed toys for my nephew, polyester fibers of around 3 decitex still “were considered fine,” said Frank Horn, president of the Fiber Economics Bureau, the statistical collection and publication arm of the American Fiber Manufacturers Association. But over the past decade or so, true microfibers have “become ubiquitous.”

Now, Horn estimated, the average is about 0.5 decitex — a reduction of about 85 percent — and some popular microfibers are as fine as 0.3 decitex. The finer the fiber, the softer the final fabric. That’s what makes today’s stuffed animals so extraordinarily silky.

Truly Nuts

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

We’re spending thousands of dollars of water to grow hundreds of dollars of almonds, Alex Tabarrok notes — and that is truly nuts:

As you may have noticed at the grocery store, almonds are in demand right now whether raw or in almond milk. Asian demand for almonds is also up. As a result, in the last 10 years almond production in California has doubled. That’s great, except for the fact that almond production uses a huge amount of water and water in CA is severely mispriced and thus misallocated. [...] More water is used in almond production than is used by all the residents and businesses of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. Here’s a chart from Mother Jones:

Water Misallocation in California


Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Facebook is giving us a new way to keep up with the Joneses, and a new way to worry that we may not be keeping up, the fear of missing out:

Today, where you are, how you are feeling, what you are doing, and what you have done have suddenly become valuable social currency — just as they were before the 20th century.

Then, most people lived in small communities. Everyone knew everybody else in the village. That meant everyone would just as likely know what you did with your time as how many possessions you owned, and how expensive and how good those possessions were. That meant, for signaling your status to others and establishing your place in the village’s social hierarchy, what you did was as important as what you owned. To signal status, the conspicuous consumption of leisure — that is, experiences — was equal to the conspicuous consumption of goods.

It was the arrival of cities that changed all that. The mass migrations of the 20th century, from small communities where everyone knew everyone else to large metropolises where you barely knew your neighbor, meant that what you did with your time became virtually useless as a way to signify status. In the relative anonymity of urban and, to a lesser extent, suburban life, your neighbors, friends, colleagues at work, and the people you passed on the street were much more likely to see what you owned than know what you did.

A material possession could deliver far more status than an experiential purchase. And so, in the 20th century, the conspicuous consumption of leisure was not nearly so effective as the conspicuous consumption of goods at telling others who you were.

Social media has turned this on its head. Now only a few people, relatively, might see your new sofa, or the car parked in your driveway. But with all your friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, many more will now know you are partying in Ibiza, are in the front row of a Jay-Z concert, or that you have just completed a Tough Mudder assault course. And these people are more likely to be in your peer group, the people, in other words, whose opinion you are most interested in.

The Null Hypothesis for Income and Wealth

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Arnold Kling shares the sort of evidence that Robert Putnam should confront, from a working paper by David Cesarini and others:

We use administrative data on Swedish lottery players to estimate the causal impact of wealth on players’ own health and their children’s health and developmental outcomes. Our estimation sample is large, virtually free of attrition, and allows us to control for the factors — such as the number of lottery tickets — conditional on which the prizes were randomly assigned. In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization, with the possible exception of a small reduction in the consumption of mental health drugs.

Our estimates allow us to rule out effects on 10-year mortality one sixth as large the cross-sectional gradient. In our intergenerational analyses, we find that wealth increases children’s health care utilization in the years following the lottery and may also reduce obesity risk. The effects on most other child outcomes, which include drug consumption, scholastic performance, and skills, can usually be bounded to a tight interval around zero. Overall, our findings suggest that correlations observed in affluent, developed countries between (i) wealth and health or (ii) parental income and children’s outcomes do not reflect a causal effect of wealth.

The Economics of the California Water Shortage

Friday, March 20th, 2015

The New York Times paints an apocalyptic image of California’s drought, but California has plenty of water, Alex Tabarrok notes — just not enough to satisfy every possible use of water that people can imagine when the price is close to zero:

As David Zetland points out in an excellent interview with Russ Roberts, people in San Diego county use around 150 gallons of water a day. Meanwhile in Sydney Australia, with a roughly comparable climate and standard of living, people use about half that amount. Trust me, no one in Sydney is going thirsty.

So how much are people in San Diego paying for their daily use of 150 gallons of water? About 78 cents. As Matt Kahn puts it, “Where in the Constitution does it say that the people of California have the right to pay 0.5 cents per gallon of water?”

Water is such a small share of most people’s budgets that it could double in price and the effect on income would still be low. Moreover, we don’t even have to increase the price of water for residential or industrial uses. As The Economist points out, “Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California, for example, but only 2% of economic activity.”

What that means is that if agriculture used 12.5% less water we could increase the amount available for every residential and industrial use by 50% — grow those lawns, fill those swimming pools, manufacture those chips! — and the cost would be minimal even if we simply shut down 12.5% of all farms.

Moreover, we don’t have to shut down that many farms, we just have to shut down the least valuable farms and use water more efficiently.

Designing Private Cities, Open to All

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan argue for private cities, open to all:

Gurgaon was a small town 25 years ago, but today it’s a city of some two million people filled with skyscrapers, luxury apartment towers, golf courses, five-star hotels and shopping malls. Often called “the Singapore of India,” Gurgaon is home to offices for nearly half the Fortune 500 firms.

Gurgaon, however, grew not by plan but in a fit of absence of mind. After the state of Haryana streamlined the licensing process, it left developers in Gurgaon to their own devices with little intervention from any national, state or local government. As a result, almost everything that works in Gurgaon today is private. Security, for example, is privately provided for almost all housing, shopping and technology complexes. Over all, about 35,000 private security guards protect Gurgaon, compared with just 4,000 public officers. Gurgaon also has India’s only private fire department, filling an important gap, because it must be capable of reaching Gurgaon’s tallest skyscrapers.

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But not all is well. No developer in Gurgaon was large enough to plan for citywide services for sewage, water or electricity. For a price, private companies provide these, but in inefficient ways. Sewage doesn’t flow to a central treatment plant but is often collected in trucks and then dumped on public land. Tap water is often delivered by private trucks or from illegally pumped groundwater. Reliable electricity is available 24 hours a day, but often using highly polluting diesel generators.

Compared with the rest of India, Gurgaon fares well but its functioning is far from ideal. Is there a middle ground between China’s ghost cities and the anarchy of Gurgaon? Surprisingly, privately planned cities may be an answer. And one of the oldest is in India.

Jamshedpur was founded by Tata Steel, as a company town, in 1908. It has landscaped parks, paved roads and even a lake, but it’s no playground for the rich. It’s a working town. Nevertheless, it is the only city in the state of Jharkhand with a sewage treatment plant, and it’s one of the few cities in all of India where residents enjoy reasonably priced, reliable electricity and safe tap water. In a survey by the marketing research company Nielsen, residents ranked the city among the best in India for its cheap and reliable provision of sewage, water, electricity, public sanitation and roads.

Jamshedpur works because Tata owned enough land so that it had the right incentives to plan and invest in citywide infrastructure. Tata has also had to maintain good services in order to attract workers. In Gurgaon, private developers built lots of infrastructure, but only up to the property line. By extending the property line to city-scale, the incentives to build large-scale infrastructure like sewage, water and electricity plants are also extended.

Management Theories of Roman Slave-Owners

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Most Romans thought cruelty to slaves was shocking, Jerry Toner says:

They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.

Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.

The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.

Why They Lost The Wheel

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Once, in ancient times, the Middle East teemed with carts and wagons and chariots, but they were totally driven out by the coming of the camel:

Good harnesses for camels were designed in Central Asia and, in the 19th century, in the Australian desert, but these did not affect the Middle East.

The only way to make use of this immensely strong beast for transport was to throw the load, averaging anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds, on its back. Thus the pack camel came to compete directly with the ox cart for heavy transport.

The ox cart was equally slow, and in the competition the camel had certain positive advantages. It ate otherwise unusable desert plants, which made its upkeep inexpensive. Little wood, a valuable commodity in the largely deforested Middle East, was required by ancient saddling technology. And its care and breeding could be left to the nomads and thus not be a burden upon the farmer or merchant.

These advantages meant that camel transport was about 20 percent cheaper than wagon transport, according to the edict on prices issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. Therefore, simple economic efficiency caused the camel to supplant the wheel, not some mysterious reversion to primitive life.

(Hat tip to commenter Harold!)

The Best Lifestyle Might be the Cheapest Too

Friday, March 6th, 2015

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? Scott Adams thinks it would be nearly free, because we know how to build homes that use zero net energy, greenhouses could provide food, etc. His ideas sound rather utopian, but one of the less utopian ones occurred to me a while ago — only I wouldn’t want Astroturf:

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

This is one facet of New Urbanist design, as in the Mueller Community, which sprang up to replace the Austin municipal airport after it closed 16 years ago:

A research team from Texas A&M University polled Mueller residents and what they found was striking. After moving here, respondents said, they spend an average of 90 fewer minutes a week in the car, and most reported higher levels of physical activity.

The poll results seem to validate new-urbanist gospel: good design, like sidewalks, street lighting, extensive trails and parkland, can improve social and physical health. Several mornings a week, a group of retired guys power walk through Mueller.

“We’ve lost weight. We’re certainly more fit than we used to be,” says Don Dozier, a retired accounting professor. He and his wife, Janelle, moved here in 2008 from a conventional subdivision south of Austin that had no sidewalks. “I think probably the main thing is that we have made an incredible number of friends,” he adds.

This social engagement is what a lot of residents mention. Frosty Walker, a retired TV cameraman, recalls the cul-de-sac where he used to live in northwest Austin.

“It was one of those situations that you would come into your house, and if a neighbor came, the garage door went up, the car went in the garage, the garage door went down,” Walker says. “You would see each other and wave every once in a while, and that was pretty much the extent of your relationships.”

You can never be progressive enough, NPR reminds us:

Mueller seems to have it all: electric cars, solar panels, green buildings, walkability and native landscaping. But what happens when one of Austin’s most progressive, welcoming neighborhood confronts racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don’t feel so welcome?

Thanks, Price Controls!

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Alex Tabarrok shares his (and Tyler Cowen’s) latest video, on price ceilings:

10% Less Democracy

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Garett Jones suggests we try 10% less democracy and see how that works out.

Politicians behave differently near the end of their term, when they play more to voters’ irrational biases, including their anti-market bias, make-work bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimistic bias.

Jones cites an unusual source — Jennifer Hochschild, Professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies at Harvard — on epistocracy:

Three uncontroversial points sum to a paradox:

  1. Almost every democratic theorist or democratic political actor sees an informed electorate as essential to good democratic practice….
  2. In most if not all democratic polities, the proportion of the population granted the suffrage has consistently expanded, and seldom contracted, over the past two centuries….
  3. Most expansions of the suffrage bring in, on average, people who are less politically informed or less broadly educated than those already eligible to vote….

Putting these three uncontroversial points together leads to the conclusion that as democracies become more democratic, their decision-making processes become of lower quality in terms of cognitive processing of issues and candidate choice.

Jones recommends six-year terms for the House and more autonomous agencies like the Fed.