Welcome back to mid-week reading. With luck, there are only going to be a few more of these until I’m back on a more regular posting schedule.
First piece of the week is from Kim-Mai Cutler, a tech journalist from San Francisco who’s produced some invaluable reporting on their (our) housing crisis. The Bay Area is really where the forces of the age are colliding – a disruptive (and very productive) tech ecosystem butting up against a set of inflexible land use policies.
Cutler’s put together a fascinating and wide-ranging set of slides describing “the San Francisco Bay Area in the Second Gilded Age“. It’s really invaluable reading for anyone seeking to understand the issue.
Thus far, it’s been housing affordability. Poverty rates have been rising and home ownership falling throughout the Bay Area, in spite of rising incomes. Notice those figures for home ownership rates in San Francisco – only 36.6% of dwellings are owner-occupied, and the city’s politics are still in the grips of reflexive NIMBY opposition to development.
In the process, Cutler covers transport and social mobility – the reason why it’s important to build more housing in the places where people want to be. It has been possible to build quite a lot of housing in far-away places like Stockton, but that hasn’t really fixed the problem.
Here’s a more light-hearted comment on the phenomenon:
— Fred Benenson (@fredbenenson) April 16, 2016
On a completely different note, Alison Ballance at Radio New Zealand has put together a really interesting piece on how maps are made: “Points, lines, and polygons – the art of making maps“. It goes into the nitty-gritty of putting together topographic maps, talking to the people at Land Information New Zealand who are responsible for the process:
Maps tell the story of our ever-changing Earth.
The length and breadth of New Zealand is charted, at a scale of 1:50,000, across 451 topographic maps produced with technical skill, art and patience by a team of map makers at Land Information New Zealand.
The map makers are witness to several stories unfolding in the country.
The most dramatic is the impact of Christchurch earthquakes. The strong black block that was the city’s CBD has been shattered into a mosaic, while the red zone is a ghostly snake of deserted roads that echo the shape of the Avon River.
Meanwhile, in the countryside humans are changing the landscape as farming evolves with market demands and new practices.
This is a good point to drop in a reference to my favourite song named after map coordinates: Wire’s “Map Ref 41°N 93°W”. For the curious, the title refers to a field in Iowa.
On a much less cheerful note (worse than housing affordability!), I ran across this interesting map of the progress of the Black Death across Europe in the mid-1300s (via Zach Beauchamp at Vox):
The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the mid-14th century, killing an estimated 60 percent of Europe’s entire population. And it spread scarily quickly just over the course of six years — as this stunning GIF demonstrates:
The plague originated in China in 1334 and then spread west along trading routes through the Middle East. But Europe was particularly vulnerable to a devastating outbreak. According to University of Oslo historian Ole Benedictow, European society at the time had created the conditions for “the golden age of bacteria.” Population density and trade/travel had grown dramatically, but European leaders still had almost no knowledge about how to contain outbreaks.
The forces that allow diseases to evolve and disseminate are stronger than ever. We live in a more connected world. But the last point in the above paragraph – knowledge – is crucial to how we respond to potential pandemics… and also to more mundane causes of death.
I was thinking about this issue after reading a review of Angus Deaton’s 2013 book Great Escape, which discusses the transformative increase in living standards over the last several centuries. Deaton, who won last year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, makes a really valuable point: living standards have risen faster than incomes in many countries, as knowledge has been freely shared around the world:
Knowledge — which is to say education — is humanity’s most important engine of improvement. Deaton concludes, based on the data, that rising education is the most powerful cause of the recent longevity boom in most poor countries, even more powerful than high incomes. A typical resident of India is only as rich as a typical Briton in 1860, for example, but has a life expectancy more typical of a European in the mid-20th century. The spread of knowledge, about public health, medicine and diet, explains the difference.
Unfortunately, knowledge and facts are often on the defensive today. Fundamentalists of various stripes keep many countries from completing their own great escape. In the West, science still sometimes yields to dogma, on climate change, on evolution and on economic policy. Elites on both the right and left question the value of education for the masses and oppose attempts to improve schools even as they spend countless hours and dollars pursuing the finest possible education for their own children.
It is true that many of today’s biggest problems, including economic growth, education and climate, defy easy solutions. But the same was true, and much more so, about escaping centuries of poverty and early death. It was hard, and it involved a lot of failure along the way. The story Deaton tells — the most inspiring human story of all — should give all of us reason for optimism, so long as we are willing to listen to its moral.
I like this story. As an economist, much of what I do is basically about trying to improve allocation decisions in the context of scarcity. Do we devote road space to this use, or that one? Do we require people to do X (when there may be reasons to believe they’d prefer Y instead)? This is probably useful work, but it’s still a bit depressing to be constantly working within the context of fundamental trade-offs.
However, knowledge (and information in general) isn’t like that. If I know something, it doesn’t mean that you can’t know it. If you communicate something to me, it doesn’t mean you have to give it up in the process. Knowledge can be shared, and one person’s attempt to learn more will probably increase the stock of knowledge available to all humanity. It’s a public good. It’s a positive-sum game. It is, as Deaton points out, the best thing we’ve got going for us.