2.28.2009

Philadelphia, Green Capital of the US



As a follow-up to yesterday's post on green jobs, it was nice to hear at a press conference none other than green job guru Van Jones of Oakland concede that Philly has been showing some impressive national leadership on the issue. And why not: Mayor Nutter has been a fiery supporter both here and in DC, the Energy Coordinating Agency has been way ahead of the curve on green jobs training, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia has marshaled all of this local enthusiasm, and the Philadelphia office of the Knight Foundation has stepped up with key investments. Philadelphia: green capital of the US? Why can't us?

Huang Family Newsletter, February 2009


Adults – Amy's been busy trying to keep up with a very difficult pharmacology class at Penn as well as stay on top of a proliferation of paperwork and appointments related to the kids' various therapy resources and associated insurance coverage. Lee's juggling work assignments, church responsibilities, and civic engagements, but was somewhat impaired on account of yet another hard-to-shake cold.

Kids - We celebrated Jada's birthday much as we did Aaron's last month: with an extended period for special activities and fun gifts. Both are improving on their respective speech and behavioral issues, with the help of their special instructors. Although we still have a long way to go and it is all very tiring for Amy and me, we're thankful for convenient day care for the kids to go to during the week and an abundance of fun places to go and people to see on the weekend.

Where Will the Jobs Come From


One of the allures of green jobs is that they run the gamut of educational requirements - "from GED to PhD," as Mayor Nutter puts it. But Mayor Nutter also admits that there just aren't going to be tens of thousands of well-paying, low-skill jobs like there were in the manufacturing age: "Green Jobs Grow Slowly in Philadelphia."

The fact of the matter is that the more we move from agricultural to industrial to information, the more we move from a fat pyramid to a skinny hourglass: from lots of jobs at the bottom and an elite at the top, to a fair amount of jobs at the very top and the very bottom, but perhaps not enough in the middle. This poses a challenge for those who are under-educated and too old to make up the educational difference, or who are young and under-educated but distanced from the resources to make up the educational difference.

(Check out the startling table on page 4 of this case study on concentrated poverty in Milwaukee. In 1970, the top ten employers in that city were manufacturers and brewers. In 2004, no manufacturers and brewers in the top ten; instead, knowledge and service businesses: health care, grocery, banking, utility, printing, retail, insurance.)

To be sure, as I noted in a post earlier this month, our economic system is far more equitable now than in previous ages; whereas land and capital were near impossible for the disenfranchised to access in the past, knowledge is still attainable for all, however slim the odds for some. I am certainly not advocating a backwards step in how our economy is structured.

Remember, too, where all the jobs have gone: we have automated them away. The relentless and astonishing efficiency of our free market system has squeezed productivity out of almost every sector, resulting in unprecedented windfalls to all of us worldwide in the form of better products, better health care, and a better quality of life. If our monetary salaries reflect greater inequity, that truth must be balanced against an equally compelling truth, which is that all of us as consumers have enjoyed huge gains in terms of price, quality, and volume.

But again: where will the jobs come from? Not from the manufacturing sector, which has been shrinking everywhere, not just in the US and not just because of the current recession. Oh sure, we'll still make things, so we shouldn't turn our back completely on heavy industry; but just as we are seeing a clarion call to retrofit our buildings and structures for sustainability's sake, so we need to invest in our human capital and get people the education they need to compete in a modern, knowledge-based economy.

We may lament that there are no more blast furnaces that employ legions of workers; but remember, the information age can be a mega-employer, too. Consider that Google was two guys from Stanford barely ten years ago, and now employs 20,000+ people. IBM, left for dead in the 1990's, employs almost 400,000.

Now, some of these guys and gals are uber-PhD's. But not all of them. Which is why the news that some Pennsylvania schools are considering "no frills" degree tracks is so promising. After all, we all don't buy Bentleys; some of us get by with Aveos. Similarly, the full-amenity, four-year (or graduate) degree isn't for everyone. If you want to go to Harvard or Yale Law, be my guest; but if you want to pursue a less prestigious but still well-paying career in the legal profession and don't have three years and $150,000, shouldn't the ABA accredit institutions that can provide that "Aveo" version?

So we have to educate everyone, and we have to offer a broader range of educational options that span the gamut of peoples' budgets, intellectual capabilities, and career tracks. And secondly, we have to encourage entrepreneurship, so that there are new companies sprouting up that will employ all of these newly educated worker bees. Let more H-1B's into the country; if you're smart and want to come to America to work and innovate, the message should be "come on in and help us grow," and not "not welcome until everyone that's already here has a job." Teach entrepreneurship at the college and high school level, to inculcate to people of all races, incomes, and genders that starting a business is not something for someone else to do. And fund incubators around the country that can cluster like-minded innovators and the resources and opportunities they need to grow their new ventures.

The information age may be more meritorious than the agricultural or the industrial age. But it still needs national leadership and national resources and national policy. We have it in us to create enough jobs for everyone, if we'll let go of dreams to return to past ways and mistrusts that keep potential innovators out, and we free the amazing engine that is American ingenuity to do what it does best: build a better mousetrap.

2.27.2009

Green Jobs in Philadelphia


Pats on the back to colleagues of mine on both the funding and doing side of the hot issue called "green jobs." Vice President Biden and a good chunk of President Obama's cabinet will be in town today for a hearing on the subject, and the Knight Foundation and the Energy Coordinating Agency are building a green jobs training center in Kensington to redeploy workers into the burgeoning fields of weatherization and renewable energy installations. Job creation, workforce development, economic stimulus, energy conservation, environmental sustainability, and more comfortable homes - that's a lot of birds for just one stone. Kudos all around.

Concentrated Poverty


The Federal Reserve Bank just put out a nice report called "The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America" [warning: large pdf]. Of course, it stinks to have no money; but from a broader, public policy standpoint, concentrated poverty is of particular concern, because the concentration of lots of people with no money is bad for both the impoverished and those around them.

The 16 neighborhoods featured in this report run the gamut of geographies, sizes, and demographic mixes. But there are a few running themes: history matters (disadvantage clusters over time), isolation is bad (physical, social, racial/linguistic), demographic jolts are often concurrent (an increase in immigrant and/or single-parent families, for example), and overall regional growth isn't always enough (if a region is too sprawling, poor people can't get to economic opportunity).

The solutions are easy to identify and hard to implement: fix the schools, provide housing, stimulate investment, build organizing capacity, and restore trust in institutions. From Native American reservations in New Mexico and Montana to ghettos in Cleveland and Milwaukee, from Little Haiti in Miami to destitute neighborhoods in the shadow of gleaming casinos in Atlantic City, residents and the organizations fighting for them treat concentrated poverty not like an interesting policy topic but an oppressive and seemingly unbeatable reality. For them, here's hoping that our global recovery comes swiftly, and that its effects reach far enough.

Infrastructure and the Stimulus Bill


I attended an excellent presentation by Ballard Spahr earlier this week in which the major infrastructure pieces of the recent stimulus bill were discussed. Several panelists referenced the American Society of Civil Engineers’ recent report card on infrastructure systems in the US. The report card, which is all C's and D's, offers some jaw-droppers:

* One in four bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

* Leaking pipes lose about 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day.

* We currently spend $70 billion a year for highway capital improvements; we really need to be spending $186 billion.

* We currently spend $10 billion a year for transit capital improvements; we really need $16 billion to maintain current conditions and $22 billion to improve to good conditions.

So at least in theory, the amounts designated for infrastructure in the stimulus bill are not going to be wasted, since the needs are so great. If anything, many panelists argued the bill errs in not being enough money (although that's a structural, ongoing issue, not necessarily the focus of a one-time spending bill) and not requiring the money to be spent quickly enough if in fact it is about stimulus (although safeguards against wasteful spending are a good thing, so I can live with that).

Everyone's going to focus on the grades and the numbers, but take the time to read the ASCE's five key solutions. Notably, they urge Washington to take a leadership role in infrastructure investment; absent a national vision, funding decisions get made in silos, that is to say ineffective and uncoordinated. They also call for life-cycle cost analysis; I'm not sure what that means, but I like it, because it seems to remind decision makers that the upfront investment is just the beginning of the commitment to a system. (Lest we end up with a bunch of stuff we asked for because someone else was paying for it, and then we let it go to rot because we were unwilling or didn't plan to pay for ongoing upkeep.)

On that note, here's hoping that from a policy setting standpoint, the stimulus bill catalyzes real conversation and tough choices concerning the ongoing investment in systems we all depend on to get around, eat and drink, and keep ourselves warm. Rather than representing "free" money we use to postpone those conversations and choices for later.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't at this point bang on that old drum of pricing energy more properly as a way to motivate better mobility and land use patterns, as well as to raise money we desperately need to pay for all of this. We piss away electricity and water because we pay so little for it, instead of treating it as the precious and scarce resource that it is.

And we guzzle gas oblivious of the geopolitical, environmental, and land use gymnastics required to safeguard the low prices we pay. Each one-cent increase in the federal gas tax would bring in about $2 billion. If we were to double the current 18.4 cent per gallon rate (which has been unchanged since 1993 in spite of inflation and higher MPGs), that would be $37 billion, or almost as much as the current Highway Trust Fund. A small "inconvenience" to pay for avoiding crumbling roads, an overheated planet, and unnecessary saber-rattling.

On Broadway


A nice post over at Discovering Urbanism about Mayor Bloomberg's plans to reclaim big chunks of Broadway for pedestrians. As I had noted earlier this month, this is a big "New York hello" to Albany, which quashed his plans to shift the car/pedestrian dynamic by enacting a London-style congestion fee for driving south of 60th Street: "Who needs your state-enabling legislation? I control the streets, and I'm giving more of them back to the pedestrians!" All hail King Bloomberg.

2.26.2009

Decision-Making in a Complex World


After years of banging on the topic of “triple bottom line,” as people have come to describe it, I am still flummoxed at how this gets implemented at the highest levels. Don’t get me wrong: it makes as much sense today as it always has to pursue activities that achieve multiple objectives as once: making a profit AND looking out for people AND preserving the planet.

The problem of going from paper to reality is that where you really want to do this right are exactly the places where it’s hardest to do: from the biggest and bulkiest of entities, all the way up the US government. The recent stimulus bill is just the grandest but by no means the only example of an initiative that wants to simultaneously achieve multiple goals at once.

On the one hand, this is noble and it is smart. It is noble because “triple bottom line” means nothing if we just apply it to the small stuff on the margins and don’t hack at the big hairy stuff. It is smart because sometimes multiple goals reinforce one another, in ways that are better than if we tried to divvy up single goals and pursue them all separately.

But easier said than done. I recently read a report by a government entity (not for public eyes, so I can’t divulge the source or the topic) that stated that they were looking to judge proposals based on the following criteria:

• Will it make money?
• Will it be done quickly?
• Will it create jobs?
• Will it improve health, safety, and quality of life?
• Will it have proper oversight?
• Will it adequately involve all of the parties that are affected?
• Will the concerns of business, labor, and civic groups all be addressed?
• Will it properly allocate risk?

Whew, that’s 8 angles from which to judge a proposal. And I don’t think that list of 8 even covers the important consideration of how something plays out over time: are we sacrificing short-term gain for long-term loss, have we set it up so that the right people are calling the shots in the future, how much flexibility do we have if something big changes and we want to turn on a dime in the future, etc.

Of course, that’s the beautiful madness of pursuing multiple objectives at once, especially in the public sector. In the purely for-profit world, how we determine whether something works or not is brutally clean: you make an X% return on your investment, you sell more widgets than they next guy or not, you stay in business or you don’t. In the more nuanced, “triple bottom line” world, our evaluation criteria, for better or worse, is less definitive; and despite efforts to make it more definitive, the precise answer will by definition be elusive.

So for as much as I’m going to push for more “triple bottom line” thinking, and as much as I’m going to push for more measurable ways to quantify and weigh success in all of these categories, I think we’re all just going to have to live with that uncertainty. After all, the key decisions we make in life do not easily boil down one number: where we go to college, who we marry, who we vote for president or governor or mayor. Rather, whether we know it or not, we delicately and instantaneously balance multiple decision criteria, qualitative and quantitative, head and heart.

To be sure, there are broader actions we can lobby for that help us all make better decisions, like pricing natural resources more correctly, or producing reports that shed light on previously murky areas like child labor or energy efficiency. But ultimately, we as individuals and business owners and government officials have to make choices with imperfect information and conflicting priorities. Let’s hope that when it’s up to us, we make good decisions; and when it’s up to others in ways that affect us, we hold those others accountable to make good decisions.

Judging Obama and Jindal


Both President Obama's State of the Nation address and Governor Jindal's response on behalf of the GOP were past my bedtime, so I was only able to read both the following day. Some pros and cons on both sides:

* I appreciated Obama's recognition that we are where we are because we have delayed the tough choices. The notion that the "day of reckoning has arrived" is something I had posted on previously. But easy for me to say; hard for an elected official, let alone the President of the United States, to make sure everyone understands we're all complicit in this.

* I also appreciated Obama's commitment to transparency and accountability. Having delved a little into the mechanics of the stimulus bill, I understand that there are unprecedented measures in place to ensure that decision-makers accept responsibility for where the money goes, an equally unprecedented measures in place to ensure that John Q. Public can follow where the money goes. This is very promising.

* Some of Obama's tough talk rang hollow for me. His railing on profligate CEOs comes barely a month after his own $150 million inauguration (more than the last three inaugurations combined!). And his recognition that other countries are innovating in renewable energies is spot-on, except that he also supports protectionist policies and panders to the very addiction to cheap energy that keeps domestic companies from having a sufficient local market to have a motive to produce these technologies.


* Jindal gets points for owning up to the Republican Party's recent betrayal of Republican values: limited government, fiscal discipline, personal responsibility. His own experience in Louisiana in these areas has been mixed, but not for lack of trying. I appreciate that.

* On the other hand, after 10 seconds of watching the video of his speech, I said, "Uh oh." Next to Obama, anyone is going to look bad as a speaker; but Jindal was painful to watch. Especially if you're a young up-and-comer, you have to be able to project authority authentically, and simultaneously seem trustworthy, competent, approachable, and dignified. Hard to do, I know, but Obama hits it out of the park every single time. Jindal struggled - he seemed young, preachy, out of his league. At 36, he has plenty of time; but he'll need some more seasoning and some more time in the oven. (Translation: maybe not ready for prime-time in 2012, but don't bet against him in 2016.)

"Dear Zachary" now on DVD



Just passing along more good news from my high school friend Kurt, whose "Dear Zachary" documentary is getting more and more positive buzz. Plus there's a blurb below on another, hilarious short he did a few years back called "Validation." Check 'em out!




---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Kurt Kuenne
Date: Wed, Feb 25, 2009 at 2:22 AM
Subject: "Dear Zachary" now on DVD
To: Kurt Kuenne


Hi Everyone,

Hope you've been having a wonderful start to 2009. Just wanted to let y'all know that "Dear Zachary" was officially released on DVD today in North America by Oscilloscope Laboratories (and in Canada by Mongrel Media). It can be ordered on the front page of www.dearzachary.com, on amazon.com, amazon.ca, rented on Netflix, Rogers Video Direct (Canada's Netflix), it should be in most Blockbuster Video stores and a host of other venues. Some folks have been writing saying that various websites list it as "temporarily out of stock", which is just because pre-orders in the U.S. were greater than anticipated, but Oscilloscope assures me the orders will be filled in the next few days and will ship by next week, so no worries. Either way, it's out there!

Since you last heard from me, I signed an agreement with an international sales agent who is going to begin making arrangements for distribution in territories the world over, so for those who have been waiting for it overseas, hopefully it won't be too much longer of a wait. Also since you last heard from me, "Dear Zachary" was nominated for Best Documentary by both the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, who also nominated me for Breakthrough Filmmaker of 2008. The International Film Music Critics also nominated my musical score for "Dear Zachary" for Best Documentary Score of 2008. The response to the TV broadcasts on MSNBC in December and January was very strong; MSNBC told me that it beat out their direct competitors (CNN, Fox, etc.) all but one of the 6 times it has aired thus far, and was seen by between 1-2 million people as best we know. I received well over a thousand emails from viewers (and did my best to respond to all of them :). All in all, the film had a very strong year-end reception.

I'm hosting a screening of the film in Ottawa, Ontario on Wednesday, March 11th to which all Canadian Senators and Members of Parliament are invited. I've been looking forward to this event for a long time, and anxious to see what happens.

Thanks again for all the support! For those interested in my other work, my short film "Validation" - which had a tremendously successful run on the film festival circuit over the last couple of years - has, to my great surprise, recently become a popular breakout hit on the internet. It recently shot up over 1,140,000 views and is currently the #8 top rated film of all time on YouTube (and the #1 top rated film of all time in the comedy category). For those who haven't seen it and are interested, it's here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbk980jV7Ao

For those of you who live in San Jose, my short film "Slow" will be playing the Cinequest Film Festival this week and next - Thursday, February 26th at 12 noon, and Saturday, March 7th at 11 AM - at the Camera 12 Cinemas at 201 S. Second Street in downtown San Jose. It'll be showing as part of Shorts Program 4, and I'll be at the Saturday, March 7th showing, so please come out if you're in the area; would be great to see you!

All the best and Happy February,

Kurt

www.dearzachary.com

Character Counts


In his 2004 book, “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a startling observation: for as driven as today’s college students are in terms of activities, ambitions, and aspirations, many have shockingly few moorings as it relates to character. Our youngsters can pack their schedules from 6 in the morning to well past midnight, traipse off to Nepal for service and/or recreation, and speak intelligibly about a range of subjects as if they were well into the 40’s – and yet, many haven’t the foggiest what character means, and they’re not getting much guidance from their universities.

Ironically, my four-year-old, who is light-years away from the college set in terms of intelligence and articulateness, may have more grounding on this subject, thanks in part to her devotion to a DVD by Primary Focus called “Character Counts.” It is a music-infused extravaganza of pretty teens prattling on about how character is “who you are deep inside,” and consists of responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, respect, and citizenship. In addition to this addictive musical, there are of course the lessons she receives in Sunday School, which are hopefully anchoring her on the timeless truths of the Bible.



Today’s future leaders, in contrast, tend to treat character and values a little more fluidly. The absolute nature of many faiths is seen as archaic and even dangerous. Excessive greed and showiness may be condemned, but it is taken as fact that of course you are going to do everything in your power to advance yourself and take care of your own, even if it means fudging a little and sacrificing the “we” for the “me.” Corruption in government, if seen as evil, is accepted as a somewhat necessary evil; even President Obama, who campaigned as an outsider intending to clean up DC, has largely been given leeway for having to back up on earlier promises, such as to not employ lobbyists.

Brooks says such a vigorous and unfettered pursuit of more and better is prototypically American, and he is correct. But he is also correct in saying that character is also a quintessentially American trait: think of the ways we hallow our Founding Fathers, or cast the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement as heroes.

As it has with previous American generations, time will judge this era’s young leaders. Will unprecedented material comfort and medical advancement cocoon them in comfort zones that dull us? Will the Bush years, financial scandals, and a harsh recession jade them from trusting in otherwise trustworthy institutions? Will they vigorously pursue more and better, or return to traditional values, or try to integrate both into their lives? What will be said about this generation as it relates to reforming long-festering internal wounds surrounding race and equity, fighting for relief and democracy in tattered places around the globe, and birthing the next great technological and scientific innovations?

Here’s hoping all that energy and ambition gets channeled into productive uses, and is infused not only with raw vigor but with a sober commitment to character and truth. And here’s hoping we oldsters can guide and instruct where we can, unafraid to be seen as square or obsolete in the eyes of a generation that is desperately seeking our wisdom and morals even as they speed past us on the path to fulfillment.

2.25.2009

Speaking for TOD


I was asked by a client of ours to provide testimony in support of transit-oriented development at a City Council hearing. Here are my written comments.

Members of the Rules Committee of City Council, thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of transit-oriented development, or TOD. My name is Lee Huang and I am a Director at Econsult Corporation. Our firm has produced a number of studies on the topic; and as a result, we consider ourselves vocal and informed advocates of TOD.

The recent financial and housing crises, our heightened environmental awareness, and the growing concerns of working families in our neighborhoods reinforce what we have believed all along, which is that transit-oriented locations merit priority when it comes to encouraging and coordinating development.

Importantly, given our challenged municipal budget, TOD can have a positive effect on real estate values, thus potentially increasing property tax revenues for the City. In fact, in a November 2008 report, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development cited numerous studies from across the country in which enhancements associated with orienting development to transit stops produced a significant premium effect on residential, commercial, and retail real estate values.

TOD represents for us a mechanism by which the City of Philadelphia can make a concerted effort to play to its strengths, strengths which will become all the more vital in the years and decades to come. Those strengths include an extensive transit infrastructure, a dense and walkable downtown, and neighborhoods that are diverse in income, ethnicity, and architecture.

It is important, then, to act decisively to build on these strengths, as well as to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime rewrite of the City’s zoning code. Importantly, as we have new leadership at the helm of the City and SEPTA, we also have an unusual moment for mutually beneficial collaboration.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that I live near the 46th and Market Market Frankford Line stop, and that I serve on the board of The Enterprise Center, which is planning an impressive TOD near that stop. I look forward to seeing those plans come to fruition, and to seeing many more neighborhoods benefit from TODs, in the form of greater access to employment and shopping venues, greater aesthetics which encourage non-automobile forms of travel and provide enhanced feelings of safety, and greater affordability as transit resources minimize transportation costs for working families. Thank you.

2.23.2009

My Wife and Kids


As much as I understand the importance of family, I often find myself wishing I didn't actually have to work on my marriage and my parenting so much. I suppose I have been seduced into thinking that there is such a thing as a no-maintenance family: husband and wife seamlessly zig-zagging between personal pursuits, shared responsibilities, and parental tasks; and kids naturally learning the difference between good and evil, being nice to their siblings, and excelling in school. Of course, such a thing doesn't exist; and yet I dream.

The reality is that marriage and parenting are hard work. Marriages are under assault, from societal pressures and spiritual attack. Romance looks different when bodies age, pet peeves irk, and kids and mortgages are added to the mix. Career and leisure ambitions have to adapt to the time and money investment that kids represent. And the kids themselves cause a bizarre mix of emotions, from fierce love to complete exasperation, as we simultaneously wish they would hurry up and grow up and yet wonder if it would be possible to stop time so we could enjoy them at this age just a little longer.

The interplay between marriage and parenting seems to get particularly interesting when you add a second child into the mix. Vicariously, I have seen this play out countless times in my friends' lives: the arrival of number two shakes up everything. Wife is now devoting all of her energy to the new baby, glorying in the intimacy but more tired than she ever imagined. Hubby is killing himself to do as much as possible around the house, give their first child the attention they need, and stay sharp at work. Neither fully appreciates what the other is doing for the sake of the family, or even if they could, they wouldn't be able to fully express that appreciation, harried as they are. Wife may feel guilty that she's too spent to do much with her first child or with her usual chores, and yet may at the same time not extend much grace to hubby for all he's doing to make it all work. Hubby remembers the few times when they just had one kid when wife was sick and he had to do everything, and laments that those grueling few days are now the new norm; he wants to do right by his wife but resents that she doesn't give him strokes for holding down the fort on so many fronts. (A friend of me slyly shared with me that the fact that a baby starts smiling at two months is completely evolutionary; for it's at that stage that the father is pretty much fed him with her for wrecking a pretty good marriage; and but for a cute smile, a lot of babies wouldn't survive the stress.)

Having adopted, our transition from one to two kids didn't have these same dynamics, but we have our own unique challenges. Our kids' special needs tax Amy in terms of chasing down insurance and instruction resources, an ordeal that I don't think I fully express my appreciation for enough. And Amy's health issues tax me in terms of having less down time to recharge and stay sane.

So we find ourselves in the same boat as most other parents: having to fight for our marriage and for our kids. Making tough choices to be there for our spouses when they need us, instead of holing up in our cave and feeding our hunger for veg time. Doing the logistical gymnastics required to organize a "date night." Pushing through the tiredness of two introverts desperate for silence and solitude, in order to be expressive and energetic and affirming for our two kids who struggle with speech delays. Reminding ourselves that if we do the harder task of disciplining and being firm instead of giving in and letting go, our kids will be better adjusted and our lives will be easier in the long run.

And you know what? It's all worth it. I love my wife and I love my kids. Is it really a sacrifice, all the ordeal and craziness and selflessness, if you are doing it to preserve something so precious? On one level, no. But on another level, I must admit that it is a sacrifice: it does not come easy, I often find myself wishing it did come easy, and there are far too many times I don't make the sacrifice at all because I temporarily value avoiding the pain over safeguarding the pleasure.

I don't think I ever thought marriage and parenting would be easy. But neither did I fathom that it would be so hard. And so I find myself easily asking those I trust for their prayers and support; and I find myself easily accepting the asks of those who trust me for prayers and support. My friends and I may have good wives and kids, but loving them is a high and hard calling. From here on out, it may or may not get easier; in fact, it quite possibly could get much more difficult. Much of the world is not rooting for us, and the enemy of our souls certainly isn't. But while we may have our moments when we wish it was all a least a little easier, we are aware of what we have to do, glad to have loved ones so worthy to fight for, and grateful for fraternal and divine support to keep on going.

2.20.2009

Race and America


I appreciated the comments made earlier this week by Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice's African American History Month program. Race is not the only lens by which we can understand American past and present, but it is an essential one. And the perspective of African Americans is a particularly relevant one to grasp, for through it we come to understand that we once marked an entire race to be bought and sold as property, that Americans of all skin colors were willing to march for equality at the risk of life and limb, and that even today we experience crushing disparities in health and economics.

The majority of us are neither out-and-out racists nor perfectly enlightened saints. We know racism is bad and diversity is good, but we are too lazy to make tough choices to "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes. Think of the racial composition of your last social gathering, or of the authors of the last ten books you've read, or of your friends on Facebook. I'm not talking about a social engineering that fulfills the letter of the sentiment but not the spirit; I'm talking about going about our daily routines and then looking back to see the extent to which we have made choices to understand those different from us.

For people of racial privilege, having to see life from someone else's perspective is a luxury we can choose to engage in or not; for people outside of racial privilege, it is a daily reality. If I may disagree with one thing Attorney General Holder said, it is his lament that we have to have an African American History Month at all. At least at this point in my life journey, it is helpful for me to be reminded one month a year about a perspective and story that I should take time and make choices to be more mindful of year round.

Green in the City, Brown in the Burbs


Here's a piece by economist Ed Glaeser that's worth a look: "Green Cities, Brown Suburbs." Not surprisingly, cities are greener than suburbs, in terms of CO2 emissions per household. Surprisingly, California metro areas are relatively low emitters: despite the stereotype of gridlocked traffic, aggressive regulations plus temperate climates mean California cities claim the lowest five per-household scores. (The highest five will come as no surprise: Houston, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Dallas, and Atlanta.)

Inter-region, the move to sun is a mixed blessing: some Sun Belt regions are energy efficient, while others guzzle lots of gas and air conditioning. Intra-region, Glaeser notes that environmental efforts to stem new construction are counter-productive, in that they move development from denser, less polluting places to more spread out locations (see chart above). Or, as Glaeser deliciously puts it: "Thoreau was wrong. Living in the country is not the right way to care for the Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers."

2.19.2009

Why the Facebook-Hating


I'm not sure I understand all the recent Facebook-hating. Here's a quote from a recent CNN article: "In response, Chris Walters wrote in the Consumerist post, 'Make sure you never upload anything you don't feel comfortable giving away forever, because it's Facebook's now.'"

Ummm . . . don't people realize that should always be the case? We have become so cavalier about posting pictures, comments, and sensitive information about ourselves, and allowing them to float around in cyberspace; and because Facebook says they're going to archive it for possible future use, we get up in arms?

Never mind that you posting it in the first place allows anyone, with far less transparency or self-interest to stay on the up and up, to grab that video, photo, or text, and use it against you. But no, as soon as big bad Facebook says it's not going to delete your content along with your account, now all of a sudden, we get all worked up about privacy?

Call me a hopeless square, but sometimes I just don't get this generation.

Krugman at Penn


Despite a recent meningitis scare, Penn students turned out in droves yesterday afternoon to hear from Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. Even though the event took place in the campus' biggest auditorium, there was need for not one but two overflow rooms. (I was in the second of two, and that one filled up to capacity, so there might have been even more.)

Krugman took questions only from students after his remarks, and they were all intelligent queries, on topics like income inequality and protectionism and public versus private debt. Who said today's college students were either apathetic or ignorant?

2.16.2009

Relationships in the Digital Era


An article in yesterday's Inky explores the extent to which Facebook and other social networking sites are an indicator of the growing narcissism and exhibitionism of our generation. If so, I must be twice as narcissistic and exhibitionist than most, seeing as how I was able to squeeze not one but two "25 Random Things" out in the past month.

I wonder, though, if this isn't just a misunderstanding of one generation about another generation's comfort level with the digital, as opposed to analog, life. Consider, for example, three characteristics of the digital era:

* Volume of information does not equate with a subject's importance. People's crankiness about how Wikipedia can't be legit because Britney Spears has a longer entry than St. Augustine belies an outdated measuring stick for prioritizing importance. If Britney's page goes on and on, that does not squeeze out space from covering St. Augustine, since digital "space" isn't constrained like a physical encyclopedia's.

* Real and virtual have become blurred. The virtual worlds of the past, like MMPORGs and MMUDs, were meant as escapes from the real world (unless I've badly mischaracterized this population and they actually do want to be orcs and faeries in real life). The virtual worlds of today are meant as complements of the real world (or is it the other way around, when I learn more about my friends through Facebook than through face-to-face conversations?).

* Everything is real-time. Who needs to wait for tomorrow's paper or next week's issue when everyone is tweeting, live-blogging, and pod-casting? We always wanted this sort of immediacy; the digital era has simply made it much more possible.

I would argue that, in most cases, Facebook doesn't cause isolation; rather, it is a response to it. Think about our parents' generation: one hometown, one extended family, one job. Who needed to manage countless circles of relationships and nuanced layers of conversations when everything was so analog? The splintering of our lives, by geography and roles and relationships, makes Facebook a very efficient way to maintain human contact and value human interaction.

Do people substitute Facebook for human contact? Undoubtedly. Do people use Facebook to cling to old glory days instead of forging new ones? I'm sure. But "poking," "friending," and even "25 Random Things" is no indicator of an unprecedented narcissism; it's merely a digital-era manifestation of the same characteristics we've always had: we need human contact, relationships are important, and it matters to us that people know important things about us.

Violence in the City


News of yet another cop killing wearies the entire city. It used to be that such violence could be swept to certain activities and parts of the city; as long as you stayed out of trouble, it wouldn't come spilling into your lap. But the last two years have seen an uncomfortable encroachment of murders into parts of the city we all frequent regularly: we've been to that parking lot, down that street, to that transit stop.

Worryingly, the notion of shooting at and killing a cop no longer registers any hesitation. And in nearby Coatesville, site of a rash or arsons, we are learning that even our own homes are no longer sacred.

Too much talk about who's at fault is about tsk-tsking and not getting to real solutions. The far right might vilify the perpetrators themselves, and shame the liberal left for excusing bad behavior; while the liberal left might blame a system that marginalizes too many, and shame the far right for not understanding this.

The Bible is clear that sin is both personal and systemic, and it moves past finger-pointing to mobilize God's people to be part of the solution. We are to be keepers of a code of ethics that is for our good to follow, and can be unashamed to offer that to a world that has seemed to have forgotten that it is not good when "people did whatever was right in their own eyes." We are also to be leavening agents, seeking for a kingdom to be characterized by mercy and justice and community, where we look out for one another and pay particular concern for those who are poor and hurting. Finally, we uphold the dignity and necessity of work and of money, seeing both as tools to bless and provide and being wary of situations in which we have too much or too little of either.

It may seem trite to offer, in a city ravaged with such brutal violence, that Christians can play a transformative role. Certainly, we need sound policing and job creation and social programs and a just justice system. But we also need places where people are affirmed, taught what's right and wrong, prayed over and kept accountable. And we need a Savior who is the Prince of Peace, who paid the ultimate price to deal with sin, our ultimate personal and societal problem.

Guilt by Dissociation


An interesting piece in yesterday's Inky on the new Showtime dramedy, "The United States of Tara," which is about a mother with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). The article notes that some are offended by the casual treatment of such a serious disorder, while others are glad the topic can be so mainstreamed.

Personally, I'm neither offended - nothing's sacred on TV anymore, what with our ability to make fun of, say, blacks, gays, and Italians - nor glad - the show may spotlight DID but it doesn't begin to get at how shattering a disorder it is. Some studies suggest as much as 0.5 percent of the population may suffer from DID. If the number of Facebook friends I have is an indicator of how many people I know, that means that I should expect to know two or three people with DID.

In fact, I know at least three, and at different points in my life have been let into the struggles of each of them. These were touching, sobering, heavy periods. I wish I could say I emerged more hopeful, having seen miracles and healing and triumph. If anything, it was the opposite: I emerged with a darker acceptance of the depravity of humankind, as countless atrocities that no child should ever have to go through were recounted to me.

That's the terrible thing about DID. For someone to carve out distinct personalities meant they endured unspeakable horrors, which they could not survive but for the remarkable ability of the human psyche to wall off the ordeal. Sort of like how you might "dissociate" away the pain in your legs as you sprint to the finish line; only, instead of the temporal pain of physical fatigue, it is the damaging wounds of unimaginable violence and violation and abasement at the hands of someone you ought to be able to trust. Indeed, even as I marveled at a little child's ability to survive, even that was a source of discouragement, for that very resiliency then impedes the future ability to recover, as past coping mechanisms are held onto far beyond when they are needed to survive.

Sadly, it is very likely DID will become a far more prevalent condition, as entire nations and people groups endure terrible violence and as mere children are bought and sold and abased and abused into the millions. And, war-torn parts of the world hold no monopoly over human depravity; in the cushiest of neighborhoods and the most proper of religious communities, too, little children are subject to unspeakable horrors which so shatter their beings that they are left with mere shards of personalities and go their whole lives in vain trying to put themselves back together.

The Inky article rightly notes that one unrealistic element of "The United States of Tara" is the easy manner in which the main character embraces her condition. In fact, someone with DID is often racked with guilt: the guilt of bad things happening to her, of wondering if they happened because she is bad, of wondering what others will think if they only knew that she is not a unified whole but rather a splintered assemblage of jagged parts.

I do not have cable so will not get a chance to watch "The United States of Tara," but will remember from here on out to hold up those I know, and countless others, who struggle with this terrible condition. Please consider, whether you watch the show or not, doing the same. For though the road to healing is long and seemingly endless, God does mend at the end, and comfort along the way. Perhaps we may have the privilege of joining Him in such a precious and delicate work.

2.15.2009

Nickeled and Pennied


The movement is growing to eliminate the penny, which actually costs 26 percent more to produce than it's worth. See, for example, Stephen Dubner's post over at Freakonomics.

I have no sentiment allegiance to the penny, so I'm fine with losing it. But what about some anti-love for the nickel, which costs a whopping 54 percent more to produce than it's worth!?!

When I can, I pay with plastic. Now, not everyone has that luxury, or wants to; but it would seem to me that not having access to nickels and pennies would be a small price to pay so that the US government doesn't lose money every time it makes them.

2.14.2009

Biting the Ear That is Lent to Us


This is pretty rich: the head of Philadelphia's white-collar union is accusing Mayor Nutter's budget forums of being "a public-relations ploy." The logic here is that if the general public is misled into believing that the City is really struggling financially, that lessens the union's leverage when negotiating its contracts later this year.

Never mind that the whole world is in recession. Or that, chastened by the virulent response to proposed library cuts that were seen as being decided on behind closed doors, the Nutter administration is bending over backwards to give average citizens a sense of the tough budget-related choices that need to be made: if we cut police by 10 percent, how many uniforms does that mean, and how much savings will we achieve, for example.

Also joining in on the outcry was a neighborhood advocate, who made this brazen statement: "We will not order off the menu that is handed to us by the mayor and the budget office. We are going to write the menu." To be sure, democracy means rule of the people, by the people, and for the people; and the forums are designed to actively seek citizen input.

But the dog whistle I hear in this sentiment is: "I deserve to get the mix I want; and I'm going to make a stink if I don't get it." Never mind that Philadelphia is a city of 1.4 million residents, tens of thousands of businesses, and just as many special interest groups. Democracy doesn't mean everyone gets what they want; in fact, it means the opposite, in that it means that we're all in this together, and therefore have to make nuanced compromises that serve the greater good.

We can disagree so much that we move out, and that happens all the time; and we can also voice our dissent on behalf of ourselves and/or others. But ultimately, there is no free lunch, and after the opinions are expressed and the trade-offs weighed, tough decisions will have to be made. For a mayor who learned his lesson from the library cuts and is ardently trying to do better this time around, he deserves some credit, even if we have every right to use these forums to chew his senior staff's ears off. But to mock these avenues for public participation as empty PR seems overly cynical.

Vincent Who


If you're on Facebook, you should be able to click through to this link: "Vincent Who? Screening, Panel Discussion and Reception." The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival is hosting a gathering at City Hall around a film about the brutal murder in 1982 of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American out celebrating his upcoming wedding, at the hands of two disgruntled Detroit auto workers who wanted to take out their anger on the Japanese. (Here's a post of mine with more info on the incident.) I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it, but hopefully you can.

Defending Capitalism


Here's a striking paragraph about Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in a recent issue of City Journal:

"The economic historian Joseph Schumpeter made this point back in the 1940s, warning of a fundamental contradiction in many thinkers’ opposition to capitalism. Because economic rationalism destroyed most of the underpinnings of civil society—village, clan, craft guild—and did not replace them with any similar organic enterprise, more and more people would eventually yearn for a kind of moral authority that capitalism could not provide, Schumpeter predicted. With little direct responsibility for practical affairs, intellectuals would be especially prone to this tendency; they could support vague moral or cultural ideas with few of the tradeoffs that ordinary people face. As a result, the bourgeoisie would underwrite its own gravediggers, subsidizing an intellectual class hostile to itself. Capitalism’s long-run benefits were very much worth fighting for, Schumpeter argued: for those outside the system, they provided a path in, and for everyone else, a constant improvement in living standards through innovation. But capitalism’s negative consequences—constant volatility and income disparity, to name two—would remain stark, and intelligent people would often fail to grasp its redeeming values. Defending capitalism, even in the best of times, would always be an uphill battle."

In other words, capitalism is a tide that raises all boats but causes very visible disruptions. (Hello, financial crisis of 2008!) Thus, it is easy to scapegoat it for specific losses (I lost my job, my town no longer makes widgets) and hard to attribute to it broader gains (we hold more songs in our pocket than the jukebox at our parents' hangout spot, we have 10,000 things to choose from at our neighborhood grocery store). Here's hoping that between those who seek to trash capitalism and those who seek to advance it amorally will hear from those of us in the middle who understand how powerful it can be and want to harness that power for good.

Balancing the City Budget


I haven’t yet attended any of Mayor Nutter’s budget forums, but the word on the street is that the overriding sentiment is to raise taxes rather than cut services. Even without my relatively insider information, you probably could’ve guessed that, given the visceral response to the proposed library closings late last year.

Maybe I’m looking too much through the lens of what’s going on at a national level, in terms of the tarring and feathering of bailed out bank execs who shouldn’t be allowed to make more than $500,000. But my guess is that John Q. Public wants to stick it to the businesses: if you’re going to force me to have to choose between less services and higher taxes, I’ll choose to keep the current level of services and hike taxes, especially the ones paid by businesses. At the very least, the obvious conclusion drawn by many residents seems to be that the long downward march of business tax rates (championed vigorously by Mayor Nutter when he was a councilperson, by the way) should be stemmed.

The irony, of course, is that it is businesses that predominantly create jobs, and to the extent that we chase them away and/or stifle their growth with cumbersome taxes, we shoot ourselves in the foot; for isn’t John Q. Public’s main concern really that there aren’t enough jobs to go around? The fact of the matter is that despite 15 consecutive years of tax rate reductions, Philly is usually at or near the top of the list of big cities, in terms of tax burden. And while there are other reasons businesses choose not to move to or expand here - not enough skilled workforce, high labor costs, regulatory burdens - taxes do matter, and 21st century economic activity is mobile enough to not want to locate itself where it'll be at a financial disadvantage. (As Wharton professor Robert Inman notes in a recent Forbes Magazine write-up on Mayor Nutter: ""There are no more blast furnaces. The jobs in warehouses and office buildings are incredibly mobile.")

By the way, an under-told story here is the very real third option to a fiscal crunch besides cutting services or raising taxes: dealing with pensions and health benefits for city employees. Between police, fire, blue collar, and white collar workers, that’s a lot of current and former bodies whose retirement funds and health care plans we have to pay into and pay out to. If in the near future you see some studies go public that compare the amounts city workers pay in or get out versus other public sector workers or private sector employees, pay attention; because if you can get city workers to agree to pay more in and/or get less out, you can take a really good hack at the budget hole.

If there’s anything I learned in Econ 101, it’s that there’s no free lunch. If you have a budget hole, you have to increase your revenues and/or decrease your expenditures, no matter how hard or painful it is. If you postpone fully funding your pension and health care obligations, you’re not just delaying the pain, you’re worsening it. And if you think you can just stick the bill with the businesses, you may find less of them around to provide the jobs and tax revenues that a city needs.

You should know that this post comes off the heels of a presentation I attended yesterday on Philadelphia’s fiscal crisis, and how to act in ways so as to not only advance short-term fixes but address long-term structural concerns. Here’s some remarkable information that was provided in this presentation on how other cities are faring in this recession:



Funny to find ourselves with Los Angeles as in relatively good shape, compared to other big cities. Meanwhile, Phoenix is just getting killed; its main revenue source is the sales tax, which is the most vulnerable to getting whipsawed in a downturn. And San Francisco won’t be able to look to the state for help since California is in even worse shape: a $40 billion deficit combined with 200 percent overcrowding in the prisons is leading to calls to release 40 percent of prisoners as soon as possible. Finally, note how much bigger New York City is, both in terms of its budget and its deficit; and with no end in sight to the pain in the financial markets, Mayor Bloomberg could be in for some very tough decisions soon.

Cities and states aren't often in a position to zig when their economies zag; that's why fiscal stimulus at a federal level is so compelling, even if it comes at the cost of borrowing from the future and having to make smart and fast decisions via the nation's largest bureaucracy. But crisis also represents opportunity, to fix what's structurally broken and be better off in the long term for it. Thinking that hiking taxes for businesses is a free lunch is certainly not the best use of that opportunity.

2.13.2009

Eds and Meds


A brief conversation with the City Paper's Bruce Schimmel after my talk at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project last week turned into me getting quoting in his column this week. The context of his note about "eds and meds" was my observation that the fact that even local universities and hospitals were initiating hiring freezes and outright layoffs underscored the severity of this recession for me; previously, I had assumed Philly would do alright, relatively speaking, because many of its main employers reside in these recession-resistant industries.

"Eds and meds" remain a great anchor around which to build a regional economy, since - this downturn notwithstanding - they do tend to be large and steady employers of people of all skill levels, and draw into their vortex a lot of really important activities that make a region vibrant, like research and brains and transients. Of course, from my own selfish perspective, it's been nice for my family to be able to walk down the street to get a Master's degree, access world-class health resources, and enjoy a variety of cultural and intellectual events. So notwithstanding the pain everyone, including "eds and meds," are feeling, I'll take my chances with Philadelphia and with University City.

25 More Random Things


Upon further review, my previous "25 Random Things" post wasn't really that random, but rather a pretty systematic description of various stages and aspects of my life. Not surprising, if you know me. Here's a list more worthy of the title.

1. The house I lived in from ages zero to three was so close to the University of Washington campus that it is currently owned by the University.

2. My mom tells me I remind her of her dad, who was also skinny with a big nose and into business. He died when I was young, and I increasingly wonder what it would have been like to talk with him as an adult.

3. My only memory of being 4 was wanting to be 5 because my cousin Evelyn was 5. She tells me that when we were that age, we said we wanted to marry each other, because we thought that's what you did when you loved someone. Thankfully, we ended up marrying other people.

4. I knew my times tables up to 10 when I was in kindergarten, which made me somewhat of a freak show at recess, as older friends of mine would take me to their friends and say, "OK, give him any two numbers, and he can multiply them!" In 5th grade, when we would have times tables exercises in class, I would make a special point to slam my pencil down when I was done, so as to let everyone know how quickly I had finished. (This is one of my least favorite stories about me and one of my wife’s most favorite.)

5. I broke my hand playing baseball when I was 10 and missed almost an entire season. In my last at-bat of the last day of the season, I needed one hit to reach .300, and we were playing the easiest team in the league. But the first two pitches sailed over my head. So did the third, but I clubbed it into center field anyway for the hit I needed.

6. I broke the same bone in my hand when I was 20, running into my friend Ceech while we were playing basketball. Ceech was so indestructible that he once slipped on his roller blades and hit a concrete bench at full speed, shins first, and yet walked away with not even a bruise.

7. I was legally blind until I was 14, finally getting glasses and even then only wearing them in the classroom because I was too embarrassed. It wasn't until I got contact lenses at 16 that I walked around with non-blurry vision.



8. When I was 18, I made a tape of rap songs under the name of "MC True." Just to give you a sense of how strange I was at that age, I had one song that was profanity-laced, and one that was all about Jesus.

9. During my freshman year in college, I decided I wanted to go on the "Love Boat," a Taiwanese study tour notorious for hook-ups. By the time my freshman year was over, though, my priorities had changed, and so I decided to pray for other Christians with whom I could stay on the straight and narrow and maybe even have a leavening influence on others. I met one on the plane ride over, he knew of a college classmate of his who was also coming, they ended up rooming with a third Christian, and by the end of the first day, we had become a group of six that ended up meeting each night to pray and encourage one another. It was one of the more memorable missions-oriented trips I have ever been on.

10. I'm very good at packing. One time, I was visiting friends at Cal Berkeley; Penn was done for the year, and Cal was finishing up. My friends were helping a friend of theirs pack her parents' car. As she surveyed the mass of her belongings we had assembled on the sidewalk, she lamented, "I'll never be able to fit everything in our car." My friends all looked at me, and I responded, "Step aside." Fifteen minutes later, we had everything in, with room to spare, and I could've run a four-minute mile right then and there, I was so juiced.

11. My favorite money-saver I learned from my dad growing up was to cut the toothpaste tube open at the very end; you can scrape toothpaste out for a good week before you run out.

12. The advanced Wharton program that I was in encouraged seniors to do a research paper. I had spoken with my advisor about my faith throughout my years at Penn, so when it came time to pick a research topic, he rejected all my ideas and encouraged me to write about the integration of faith in a setting like Wharton. It was the most enjoyable research paper I've ever written.



13. From 1995 to 1997, I would ride my bike to work and change into my business clothes there. When we moved our offices in 1997, the box containing all my ties was somehow misplaced. I had to borrow ties from my housemates for several months before I could get my own tie inventory back up to normal.

14. My first volunteer role at the church I currently attend was as a youth group leader. It was instructive for this sheltered, recent Ivy League grad to mix it up with urban teens. Our activities ran the gamut from Bible studies and youth retreats to football games and college visits. At one point, I accompanied our group to a citywide youth retreat, and slept in the same room with 20 teens; apparently, they practically had a party in our room while I dozed obliviously in my bed.

15. I was scheduled to fly out to Seattle for a conference on September 12, 2001. Needless to say, the flight and the conference got cancelled, which ended up being propitious, as our house was broken into on September 13.

16. In 2004, I attended a rally for George W. Bush in York, PA. There were easily 5000+ people in attendance, and I counted exactly nine other minorities.

17. I've had six internships and two full-time jobs in my life, and save for the first two internships, I have always been able to get to work by foot, bike, or transit.

18. I consider myself relatively smart and well-informed, but here is a partial list of topics I know almost nothing about: medicine, cars, pop music, the Middle East, computers, physics, fashion, and wine.

19. My closest call with one of our kids was when I lost Jada at the aquarium for a good two minutes, at a part of the aquarium that had like three hallways and countless doors. I finally caught up with her at one of the exhibits. A frightening, sobering experience.



20. My favorite "Date Night" thing to do with Amy is walk several miles downtown, eat at a greasy pizza joint, and take the bus home.

21. I make my own yogurt. My dad gives me this yogurt concoction that you just add milk to and let sit overnight. Once you run out, you spoon a few spoonfuls into a new container and start the process all over again. (By the way, it tastes nasty, but who cares when you can add granola, cranberries, blueberries, and raisins.)

22. I subscribe to 50+ magazines, and don't pay for any of them. Most are free trade magazines (Progressive Railroading or American City & County, anyone?), and the rest I use airline miles for.

23. My three things I need to do when I visit a new city are: 1) go for a run (favorites: up and down the hills of San Francisco, along the lakefront in Chicago), 2) ride transit (favorites: NYC, DC), and 3) sample the local food (favorites: 4-way chili in Cincinnati, Primanti Bros in Pittsburgh).

24. When I take my kids to Reading Terminal Market, we always get the same thing: the #1 from Sang Kee Peking Duck and a pink lassi from Nanee's Kitchen.




25. When it comes airlines, electronics, groceries - you name it - I have no brand loyalties. Instead, I go case by case, usually most strongly influenced by price. My one glaring exception is an almost unhealthy allegiance to Asics DS Trainer line of running shoes. I've been wearing them for 8+years now, and at a new pair every five or six months, that's about 20 pairs. Since I found out last month that the newest in the line (the DS Trainer 14's) were out, and that they had gotten good reviews, I've been trying to run more so as to burn through my current pair so I can buy the 14's.

2.12.2009

Are You Ready for Some (Life after) Football


I've written sympathetically of highly paid athletes in this space before, as well as of the health hazards of football in particular. So this piece by SI's Frank Deford caught my eye the other day: "This Offseason, NFL Needs to Do More for Its Retired Warriors." Football, in particular, is a violent sport that beats the longevity - in terms of career and lifetime - out of its participants. Deford points out that NFLers are not unlike workers who worked with asbestos until we found out asbestos was hazardous.

Now, there's a reason NFLers get paid well. They perform a service that the free markets - in the form of fans, advertisers, and media companies - value highly. Their shortened careers, and the sacrifices they make during those careers which then compromise their earning potential and lifespan afterwards, help justify their high salaries.

So it would seem to me that a couple of things need to happen. One is for players, with the help of the NFL, to carve out some of their current earnings to take care of themselves and each other during their retirement. Most of our employers provide, and even contribute to, savings plans so we can smooth 30 to 40 years of earning a salary over 60 to 80 years of life after school. To the extent that NFLers have particular health-related issues, post-career resources could be diverted to prepare for such contingencies. This capitalist would even be happy to see some pooling enacted, whereby some of an individual's savings go into a pool to provide for other peers whose circumstances require additional assistance.

Second is for the NFL and the players' union to reach some sort of argument, however symbolic or substantial, to get current players to help contribute to a fund that provides for former players who played before the era of higher salaries, who may genuinely be classified as in need of financial assistance. Current players owe a literal debt to their predecessors, who helped make the league but who have not yet directly reaped the benefit of its contemporary success. Not unlike alumni giving to the school that helped make them who they are, NFLers might be encouraged to strike a deal with the NFL to help take care of those who helped paved the way for them.

Surprisingly, for someone who enjoys sports and business, I know very little about sports business: contracts, salary caps, the mechanics of how teams and leagues make money. So on this particular sports and business issue, I may have it all wrong. But Deford is right: it's not good for beat-up football players to simply be "out of sight, out of mind," and to languish alone and in pain, not when their likely plight is known and we can do something about it today to prepare for tomorrow.

H-1B's Not Welcome


So now not only can't banks that get federal TARP money pay anyone more than $500K; they also can't hire any H-1B's. Those are special visas for high-skilled immigrants, and Americans seem to be going out of their way to say to them, "You're not welcome here."

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls this what it is: "S-T-U-P-I-D." Let's see: for the sake of global competitiveness, do we want the world's smartest people to be here or elsewhere?

As Friedman points out, wherever you stand on the merits of the stimulus bill, one thing we Americans are all pulling for is that when the worst is finally over, our economy is still the best at producing the most innovative companies, products, and processes. If we keep slamming the door on H-1B's and giving the fiery masses the protectionism they're clamoring for, tomorrow's Intel, Google, and Yahoo! - all companies started in the US by immigrants, by the way - will be birthed in some other part of the world. But hey, it doesn't matter if our pie dwindles, as long as we don't have to share it, right?

2.11.2009

No Free Lunch


At work, I am often asked to project the economic and fiscal effect of some public intervention on the local economy, to model whether the public intervention is worth doing. So usually, the logic goes something like this: a) if we do nothing, then we get status quo levels of activity, vs. b) if we invest in something, like some public infrastructure or a subsidy for a proposed development, then we have to account for upfront public outlays but they result in higher levels of economic impact which then translate into higher tax revenues. Given reasonable assumptions, you should be able to determine whether the upfront investment is "worth it," in terms of it resulting in a positive return over time. (I put "worth it" in quotes because sometimes you have reasons for doing something even if it doesn't result in a positive monetary return over time, if there are compelling public benefits that can be had as a result of the investment.)

Clearly, a goal of the proposed stimulus bill is not only to provide short-term relief but to invest in things that will result in a more productive economy and thus translate into higher tax revenues over time. If the money is spent well, taking on additional debt is not a bad move: you get short-term relief, and when all is said and done, you get higher tax revenues over time which allow you to pay off the debt and still be ahead. To use an analogy at a personal level, this would be not unlike a young person going deeply into debt to fund higher education, betting on the likely prospect that the degree she earns will allow her to make a high enough salary that she is better off taking on debt and paying it off over time, than she is if she were to get a job and not go to college.

As linked to by Greg Mankiw's blog, models produced by Yale economist Ray Fair suggest that the stimulus package would indeed provide short-term relief, but it doesn't get us the long-term bump-up to avoid having to raise taxes in the future to pay off the debt we incur today. Sometimes, as with the college example above, there is such a thing as a free lunch: instead of carrying on with our current earning prospects, we take out debt, go to school, and emerge with a job whose salary is high enough above what we would've been able to get without the degree that we can pay off the student loans and be ahead financially over time. According to Fair's models, the stimulus package is not a free lunch: it may provide short-term relief, but it is insufficiently stimulative in the long-term to avoid having to raise taxes in the future to pay for it.

2.10.2009

Shovel Ready or Not


Here's a twofold thought that's been circulating around the lunch table at work: "shovel ready" projects have been touted as simultaneously accomplishing long-range structural goals and creating immediate jobs, but may not do either well. Or so says Popular Mechanics [link courtesy of Greg Mankiw's blog]:

"The programs that would meet the bill’s 90-day restriction are, for the most part, an unappealing mix of projects that were either shelved after being fully designed and engineered, and have since become outmoded or irrelevant, or projects with limited scope and ambition. No one’s building a smart electric grid or revamping a water system on 90 days notice. The best example of a shovel-ready project, and what engineers believe could become the biggest recipient of the transportation-related portion of the bill’s funding, is road resurfacing—important maintenance work, but not a meaningful way to rein in a national infrastructure crisis. 'In developing countries, there are roads that are so bad, they create congestion, because drivers are constantly forced to slow down,' says David Levinson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department. 'That’s not the case here. If the road’s a little bit rougher, drivers will feel it, but that’s not going to cause you to go any slower. So the economic benefit of those projects is pretty low.'

That might be acceptable to people focused purely on fostering rapid job growth‹but, ironically, such stimulus spending could fall short on that measure, as well. 'In the 1930s, when you were literally building with shovels, that might have made sense. That was largely unskilled labor. Today, it’s blue collar, but it’s not unskilled,' Levinson says. 'The guy brushing the asphalt back and forth is unskilled, but the guy operating the steamroller isn’t. And there’s an assumption out there that construction workers are interchangeable between residential and highway projects. But a carpenter isn’t a whole lot of help in building a road.'"


So I guess if you want to fix yesterday's problems and give lots of work to really highly-paid workers, "shovel ready" is the way to go. But not if you want to move the nation towards future competitiveness and give jobs to people who have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Go to www.stimuluswatch.org and you tell me how good you feel about the projects proposed in your area.

2.09.2009

Driving Numbers


Thanks for the heads-up from Marginal Revolution on GM's fuel calculator. So in addition to knowing that our 2006 Chevy Aveo gets 26 miles per gallon (23 city / 32 highway), I can also know that it uses 13 barrels of fuel, emits 2.7 metric tons of CO2, and costs about $561 to gas up every year. Hopefully, it's these other numbers that will get people to make rational choices about what they choose to buy and how they choose to drive.

Human Contact in the City


Being an introverted in a big city actually works for me. For big cities lend themselves to lots of weak relationship ties; smaller settings would simultaneously mean more isolation and more depth in the relationships you did have. But there is something to be said for "the power of weak ties," a phrase Malcolm Gladwell uses in his book, "The Tipping Point." This article from Freakonomics explores the concept of relationship avoidance (people preferring ATMs to tellers or Amazon.com to Borders) and concludes that human contact is a good thing.

And I agree, and enjoy the many such interactions life in a big city offers: offering pleasantries to the SEPTA bus driver, cracking jokes with the day care receptionist, exchanging non-verbal cues with the people you hold a door open for, and so on and so on. Now, if I lived in a small town, all of these people would know my business, and I'm not sure I'd like that.

Yet another advantage, at least for me and my preferences, for life in a big city. Lots of weak ties, rather than either a deficit of human contact or a little too little breathing room. And lots of opportunities to turn a mundane intersection - at the bus stop, at day care, at the door - into a genuine human interaction.

2.08.2009

Say it Ain't So, Joe (and Alex and Barry and Mark and Sammy and . . . )


I've written about baseball and steroids before, but yesterday's announcement that none other than Alex Rodriguez tested positive in 2003 re-opens this wound for me. Shame on all these players for cheating; although you can certainly see why they'd do it, since a) everyone else was, b) their livelihoods depended on it, and c) Major League Baseball's policy was so toothless. And shame on MLB for turning a blind eye for so long; although you can certainly see why they'd do it, since a) players were their meal ticket, b) they were losing popularity to professional football, and c) "chicks dig the long ball."

As I wrote over a year ago, so I write today: a little bit more of my childhood innocence has been lost. Baseball is a game for kids and kings; I played it as a kid and worshipped as kings those who played it for a living. It is the scene of countless goosebump-inducing moments, the quintessential national pastime, a prism without which one cannot understand America or Americans.

And now the last decade or so is a mirage. Even last year's magical run by the Phillies can't escape the taint: key middle reliever J.C. Romero has been suspended for 50 games for use of an illegal substance.

As someone who read hundreds of baseball books as a kid, the wonderful thing about the game is the conjecture involved in comparing players across eras. Who was better, Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan? Willie Mays or Ty Cobb? Was Babe Ruth the best of them all? (Or, deliciously, was it Negro Leagues stars Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, or Josh Gibson?) Such comparisons involved normalizing stats to account for differences over time: the "dead ball" era, racial integration, the emergence of specialized relievers.

And now we will somehow have to account for the presence of steroids in the game. And somehow I'm certain that that adjustment will be more difficult and more depressing to make.