Sunday, September 28, 2014

How the price of a Martini reveals the property value of a city

A Hendricks Gibson is basically a commodity (although the bartender does need to know what she is doing). But a good Gibson at the Starlight Lounge in LaCrosse, Wisconsin is $8; at the Roof Garden at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills is $16; at the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel in New York is $22. 
Let's say the cost of the cocktail, including labor, but exclusive of real estate, is $7. Then the implicit rent you are paying for sitting in a bar in LaCrosse is $1; in Beverly Hills on a rooftop is $9; and in NYC is $15. If one consults Zillow, one will find that this ratio of 1:9:15 for real estate in LaCrosse, BH and Manhattan is pretty close to the truth.
One key thing--all these drinks are served in competitive markets--there is true thickness in bars in these markets. And the people at the Roof Garden and the King Cole will let you sit a nurse your drink without hassling you about it.  So while having a drink in these lovely spots is very expensive, it is not a rip-off--one just has to pay the rent.
A drink at, say, Disney World, or FedEx field, doesn't count, because if you want to stay at the Park/Game and have a drink, you have to pay a monopoly price for a drink (in the case of the stadium of the Washington Football Team, you might even pay for a drink that is past its expiration date).
Needless to say, further research is necessary.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Piketty's care with language can improve economics

When I was a freshman in college, I read Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross.  I loathed the book, because it implicitly endorsed the idea that it is OK, "in the interested of science," to dehumanize those African-Americans that were placed in bondage by viewing them as capital (I loathed it for other reasons as well, but that is for another time.) It also contributed to the broad view currently within much of mainstream economics that it is (1) acceptable to treat human beings as objects, and (2) that it is embarrassing to embrace humanity.  I was embarrassed that the book helped Fogel ultimately won the Nobel Prize in economics.

I thought of Fogel and Engerman again when a recent review in the Economist of Edward Bishop's The Half Has Never Been Told complained that a book based on the perspective of slaves could not be objective.  (To the Economist's credit, it repudiated the review and apologized for allowing it to be printed, but also kept a link to it so that readers could see how misguided it was).  Again, an allegiance to "scientific detachment" led to a bizarre view of an evil institution.  A "detached" view of slavery helps legitimize its practice, and thus is not in any way objective.

And so we come to Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century.  I have some issues with the book, but I love the first third of it.  I particularly like his treatment of "human capital:"
There are many reasons to exclude human capital from our definition of capital.  The most obvious is that human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market.
The language of economics often treats people as commodities: the phrases "representative agent" and "human capital" are examples of this.   Sometimes these phrases are useful abstractions, but they also contribute to the sometimes pernicious indifference of mainstream economics to issues of justice.  Piketty's take on human capital might make us a little less indifferent.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Hannah Harris Green in The Guardian on Race, Crime and Television

She writes:

The First 48 is an A&E true crime reality show that documents real police investigations for the first 48 hours after a homicide report, including what happens inside interrogation rooms. If this sounds dangerous and ethically questionable, that's because it is. Police accidentally killed a child as A&E's cameras rolled, and a legally innocent man came to beknown as a murderer after of his appearance on the show. Catastrophes like these have led to lawsuits, and now many cities refuse to work with The First 48....

...This portrayal is not representative of American crime statistics. Although homicide arrests are disproportionately high among African Americans, about the same total number of white people are arrested in homicide cases as black people. The First 48's overemphasis on black crime is symptomatic of a larger disrespect for African American communities, which many Americans deem inherently suspicious.....

...Even release from jail isn't necessarily enough to erase the stigma that comes from appearing on the First 48. Tyson Mimms of Louisville, Kentucky sued A&E in 2011 for invasion of privacy and defamation. For over a year, the episode aired repeatedly with an onscreen message saying that Mimms was "awaiting trial", even though his charges were dismissed due of lack of evidence before the episode first aired.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow has issues with sifting and winnowing.

A geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Rachel Slocum, made the mildly controversial point in an email to her students that Republicans in the House of Representatives had brought about the partial closure of the US government, and had therefore brought about the closure of the US Census web site.  This closure prevented her students from completing their assignments.  She never used abusive or offensive language.

Her point raised howls among the conservative blogasphere and media; when confronted with this, her boss, UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow, publicly reprimanded her for expressing a factually based opinion to her class.  In my view, it was his job to back her--not to agree with her opinion, but rather to defend her right to express it.

The irony is that Wisconsin is the very state that in many ways laid the foundation for academic freedom in state supported universities.  When Richard Ely was attacked more than 100 years ago for advocating in his classes on behalf of labor unions, the Regents of the University of Wisconsin rose to defend him.  As the Wisconsin Historical Society writes:
In 1894 Ely was teaching economics at Madison, including the various socialist and communist economic theories gaining popularity at the time. When this was discovered by Oliver E. Wells, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ely was attacked in the press not just for teaching left-wing theories to Wisconsin's youth but also for supposedly advising radical activists who were organizing a strike in Madison. When his dismissal was demanded, the university regents investigated his activities. 
After a series of witnesses had testified, the regents found no cause to fire Ely. Instead, they issued a famous statement defending the importance of academic freedom in a democracy. "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere," they wrote, "we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." That statement has become one of the foundation stones of intellectual freedom in America, and a hallmark of the University of Wisconsin.     
One wonders what Chancellor Gow would have done with Ely.  

Full disclosure: this is personal for me.  I was on the faculty at Wisconsin for 12 years (after getting my Ph.D. there), and was always proud to teach there, in part because of the plaque on Bascom Hill that memorialized sifting and winnowing.  It just made me feel good to walk by it, because I believed that the place I worked believed it.

But even more important, my mother taught at Wisconsin-La Crosse for decades, serving as chair of the English Department there for many years.  She also began the Women's Studies program there--surely, a controversial thing to do at the time she did it.   I can't help but wonder whether Chancellor Gow would have had the vision and the fortitude to support her important work.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Windy City and The Foggy City

Hannah Green writes:

ERNEST HEMINGWAY famously wrote of Paris, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." For half a century, Hemingway’s nostalgic vision of the city of lights has made undiscovered literary geniuses wish that they could be unemployed in Paris in the 1920s instead of unemployed wherever they live, now. Last year, Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, offered a different kind of literary city. The main character, Julius, who resembles Cole, wanders the streets of New York, conversing with the city’s residents and falling into reveries about music, history, and literature. Most of the people he speaks with are immigrants, among them investment bankers and prisoners, shoe shiners and Columbia professors. Each conversation is evidence of the many layers of humanity that make New York the constantly fluctuating city it is. Cole’s New York is too much in motion to be moveable....

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hannah Green interviews Josh Oppenheim Asia Times Online :: Skeletons in Indonesia's closet

Asia Times Online :: Skeletons in Indonesia's closet

Skeletons in Indonesia's closet
By Hannah Green 

LOS ANGELES - Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is a transformative film. It presents a glimpse into one of the 20th century's lesser-known political mass killings: the extermination of suspected communists in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Unlike many other documentaries, however, The Act of Killing tells history through the eyes of the perpetrators. 

Oppenheimer said that when he first started working in Indonesia, he was shocked to hear former executioners boasting about their many killings. The paramilitary groups that helped perpetrate the genocide still had power, and society continued to uphold them as heroes. In order to understand their boasting, Oppenheimer and his crew asked Anwar Congo, a retired executioner, and other members of the paramilitary group Pancasila Youth, to tell their story by reenacting their killings on film. 

The result is as haunting as it is absurd. Anwar, the film's central figure, jumps from genre to genre as he struggles to capture his past. He casts himself first as a tough guy in a riff on American gangster films, then later as a bloodied corpse in a nightmare scenario where one of his victims seeks post-mortem revenge, and later as a victim of the same violence he perpetrated against others....