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.

cutler-housing-slide-18

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.

cutler-housing-slide-31

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.

cutler-housing-slide-36

Here’s a more light-hearted comment on the phenomenon:

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.

In the pre- earthquake map the central business district is a large black shaded area. In the post- earthquake there is only scattered black in the CBD and the ghostly remains of houses and roads in the red zone along the Avon River

Christchurch city before the earthquakes (left) and five years afterwards (right). Photo: Land Information New Zealand

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:

vox black death map

 (Andrei Nacu)

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.

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17 comments

    1. Wouldn’t count on it. Dumb luck would be my guess. Or possibly other plagues had already thinned the population.

    2. I can’t quite recall… I suspect it was in fact after one of the later outbreaks (there were lots)… but interestingly enough, it has been suggested that the Plague helped to foster the expansion of universities in Europe. This is what thought the reference to knowledge would be. (It is also worth pointing out that the successive Plagues were never quite as bad, and there is evidence that even within the first outbreak… the one that gets all the attention… awareness was increasing through it: for instance, contemporary commentators were of the opinion that the Plague wasn’t quite the same as it had been further East.)

      It is also not particularly clear why Milan “got away” with it… autocracy is a common suggestion. Cats? Well, in all honesty, people /aren’t/ convinced that rats were the main way things spread. Depending how you look at it, the subject is either surprisingly or unsurprisingly disputed.

      However, what one must bear in mind is that “Medieval” society was in some ways better adapted to handle such a devastating loss of population than our society would be. After all, the majority of people were able to access land to feed themselves and capable of cultivating that land. If something similar happened here in now, we’d be reliant on moving food in from other places… but keeping such flows open naturally poses a massive risk in terms of disease spread. I am not sure how that’d play out. Maybe, especially post Green Revolution and with automation of farms at the extent they are (and the isolation of many farms), the surplus that cities rely on would be minimally affected… and just the financial consequences (on top of the medical crisis represented in the scale of the illness/death) would cause problems.

    3. Milan wasn’t spared, but it suffered less. They implemented surprisingly modern and effective (and brutal) quarantine provisions while everyone else was wearing garlands of onions or flagellating themselves with a crucifix.

      The closed the city gates and prevented anyone from entering the city, and immediately bricked up any house where plague was discovered and sealed all the occupants inside, sick and well alike.

  1. That plague map is why I laugh when people say things like TODAY’S WORLD IS THE MOST DISRUPTED EVER

    Here’s a list of disruptive events in reverse chronological order
    1. the end of the cold war
    2. world war two
    3. world war one / influenze epidemic
    4. birth of railways / rise of steamships
    5. napoleon etc.
    6. treaty of westphalia
    7. black death
    8. battle of ain jalut

    (I’ll stop here)

  2. I’m glad I wasnt the only one to spot Poland missing out on the Black Death. I had to consult Wikipedia because it didn’t make sense. Apparently Poland lost ONLY 25% of their population unlike 60% in other places, so they were “spared” the Black Death. Effective quarantine and not killing off cats helped quite a bit I guess.

    History is a loop. We never really learn. With regards to knowledge, knowledge for knowledge sake is quite useless. I have a contention about the use of the word. You can still be a highly educated idiot. You can know all the facts (just ignore them like NZTA) but you can still lack understanding of what the facts mean (maybe we don’t need more roads) and completely lack any wisdom on taking the most appropriate action (stop building roads).

    Financial crashes happen every few decades, but we never learn. They always repeat them with the same consequences. We always think we are smarter with more knowledge than any point in history, but we are just as stupid as we have always been. More knowledge than ever, but always lacking in understanding and wisdom.

    1. Finally, someone who’s focusing on the important issues, rather than just jabbering on about the Black Plague!

  3. It seems like you’re implying even though SF people’s incomes are growing, the NIMBY politics of SF are causing housing affordability problems for them. But that’s not the whole picture. Kim-Mai Cutler shows that the “rising income” (as you’ve stated) is actually a mirage of growing income inequality, as you can see in slides 32 – 33. There’s only increase in number of jobs with high pay or low pay, and nothing in between. There are far more low-paying jobs ($0 – $50k/year) than others. New wealth is increasingly being stashed away by the wealthy. The stagnant wages of service workers and public servants make it increasingly difficult to afford rent, let alone buy. This would be true even if the NIMBY politics went away.

    She also identifies wealth inequality and in-flows of external and overseas captial as possible causes or contributing factors of unaffordable housing (slide 82).

    So I think this post could have introduced those other factors she talked about in the summary.

    More generally, I suspect a similar picture can be drawn of NZ. Deregulating zoning laws won’t nearly be enough to make housing affordable to everyone. It seems like this blog avoids talking about wealth and income inequality, and capital, as factors of housing affordability. Please do.

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