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Friday Forum

Should Cities Ban Invasive Plants?

Your property rights stop at the edge of my fence, but . . .

We're doing something a bit different for this week's Friday forum: a debate question.  It's inspired by my mother, who just bought a house next to a fellow who loves to grow bamboo.  It's about 10-12 feet high, maybe more, shading her windows and dropping leaves into her yard.  More problematically, it seems to be sending roots over to her yard.  Unfortunately, she didn't know when she bought the house that bamboo is a highly invasive plant that can wreak havoc with things like sidewalks and foundations.  Yeah, I know; this is what comes of living in Manhattan for forty years.

DC, alas, does not have an ordinance against such plants, though local laws against bamboo are apparently rising in popularity.  

But should it?  If you libertarians wonder why I say that not all questions can be solved by resort to first principles and property rights, this is why.  The plants are on his property, but they're invading hers.  On the other hand, there are limits to one's ability that the neighbors alter their landscape to suit your preferences: my neighbor has a bumper crop of dandelions going every spring, but I don't think that either an ordinance or a lawsuit are in order.  I weed and occasionally resort to Roundup, and don't feel too hard-used.  In return, he doesn't complain about the debris shed from . . . well, whatever the hell kind of tree it is that we have out back.  (Yeah, I know.  Like I said: decades in Manhattan.)

So I'll throw it out to my audience, libertarian-leaning and otherwise.  Should governments ban invasive plants that can wreak havoc with neighboring property, or at least require the owners to keep them under control?  And if so, how should such rules be framed so that you don't have neighbors suing each other over crabgrass?

Fiscal Fitness

The Coming Retirement Burden

The wave of baby boomer retirements is almost upon us. And yes, it's going to hurt.

Is the upcoming Social Security transition manageable?  Dean Baker argues that it is--and that people who say otherwise are ignoring the much larger transition we've already made, back in the 1960s:  

Baker is right that we've already made a substantial demographic transition.  But he is still wrong, because from the perspective of the worker, the worst transition is still ahead.  As the ratio of workers to beneficiaries has fallen from 42-to-1 in 1945, to 3.3-to-1 in 2007, here's what it has taken at various points to support one worker--and what it will take when the ratio falls to 2-to-1 sometime in the 1930s.

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Up at the top, in 1940, each of 42 workers is contributing just an infinitessimal portion of their income, so small you can barely see it.  By 1965 it's substantial.  By 2030, it's huge.

Who are you going to believe: me, or my own lyin' eyes?

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Point: 64 percent said they “prefer getting political news from sources that don’t have a particular point of view, compared with 26% who would rather get news from sources that share their political perspective. This is on par with opinions since 2006.”

Counterpoint: “Among individual cable news outlets,” the study notes, “CNN’s regular audience has declined since 2008. Four years ago, nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) said they regularly watched CNN; that has fallen to 16% in the new survey.”

Department of Awful Statistics

Don't Worry, Dads: Those Kids are Probably Yours

Reports of widespread cuckoldry may be greatly exaggerated

Ever heard that statistic that 10% of kids are not actually descended from the putative father?  Yeah, me too.  Razib Khan sets both of us straight:  

I often encounter this “fact” in a biological context, where someone with an advanced degree in biology will relate how it turns out that there is a great deal of delicacy in situations of transplant matching because of this fact. When pressed on the provenance of this fact most demur. The reason people demur is that the factual basis of this assertion is very thin. In particular, very high estimates of cuckoldry come from databases of disputed paternity, which are obviously going to be a biased sample. A more thorough survey suggests that there is a wide variation in misattributed paternity across populations.

In the interests of disabusing the public of this myth, I point to a paper from Germany, Estimating the Prevalence of Nonpaternity in Germany. The sample consists of the families of children who require bone marrow transplants. The authors note two important conditions: 1) the details of the results as they might relate to paternity are not divulged, 2) none of the parents refused to be typed. Since susceptibility to childhood cancers are evenly distributed across the population the biases introduced in other surveys presumably do not apply to this situation.

Why does any of this matter? Because models of paternity uncertainty are important priors in shaping our view of the course of human evolutionary history. Sexual jealousy and mate guarding loom large in evolutionary psychology. I don’t particularly know how high paternity certainty impacts these arguments, but it needs to be brought to the fore, rather than relying on an old chestnut of wisdom based on nothing.

Kitchen Corner

American Household Gadget Exceptionalism

The things we take for granted took decades to arrive elsewhere

The BBC has a fascinating little look at gadgets of yesteryear.  I found this picture particularly fascinating because of the description that comes with it:  

Colston Dishwasher

A woman demonstrates the Colston dishwasher on November 18, 1959. (Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society Picture Library)

"A new archive from website historypin.com, in collaboration with npower and Mirrorpix, is collecting pictures from the past. This 1960s dishwasher by Charles Colston Ltd cost 85 guineas. The first dishwasher was patented in 1886 by Josephine Cockrane, but was taken up only by businesses because of the amount of hot water required to run it. Home dishwashers became more common in the 1970s." says the BBC blurb.  The 1970s!  At least a decade behind US housewives.  

But I knew this was true.  Data on household appliance dispersion shows dramatic differences between the US and Britain in the penetration of household conveniences.  In most cases, new inventions show up at the same time in both places (or within a few year.  It took until 1938 for 50% of American households to install a refrigerator.  According to Bowden and Offer--though I confess that I find this hard to believe--Britain achieved that same feat 30 years later.  Then there is more qualitative research, such as contemporary fiction.  Here's an exchange from Neville Shute's The Far Country, published in 1952.  

The Political Pageant

Rubio to Give the State of the Union Response

It's a hard speech to give well. Can Rubio do it right?

So Marco Rubio is going to give the official Republican response to the State of the Union.  Jonathan Bernstein says, "Marco Rubio is going to give the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address this year. My only question: Why? Why would he want to do that?"  Kevin Drum adds "If I were a rising political star, I would run, not walk, if party leaders asked me to give the SOTU response. My kid has a piano recital that night. It's my anniversary. Anything. I think you'd have to be nuts to agree to do this."

I agree that the SOTU response is very hard to give well--I once described a responder, current HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as having looked and sounded like an early-model Cylon.  But I think there's a bigger mystery than why people agree to deliver the response, since the answer to that is obvious (politicians have huge optimism bias, or they'd never have started down this road in the first place).  The real question is why they give such terrible responses.  

The primary reason that SOTU responses are terrible: while the president is talking to a room full of people, the responder is talking to a camera.  And unless you are really extraordinarily talented, talking to a camera looks robotic.  

But there is an easy fix for this--two of them, in fact.  The first is to practice the hell out of your response.  And the second is to deliver it to a room full of people.  This is how the only two decent responses in living memory--Barack Obama's, and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's--managed to transcend the traditional, disastrous, voder-vocoder style of the form.  

Chart of the Day

Spending and the Great Recession

Which age group cut the most?

Who bore the brunt of deleveraging during the Great Recession?  The younger you are, the less you consumed:

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Source: Professor Amir Sufi (hat tip to @tylercowen)

America's Retail Implosion

Don't They Sell Books?

130206-barnes-nobles-store-tease

Spencer Platt/Getty

Don't they want to sell books?

You might have thought that with Borders shutting down, Barnes and Noble would be sitting in the catbird seat.  They're now practically the only place in America where you can go to get your hands on an actual physical book before you buy it.  Sadly, the reality is not so cheery: with Nook sales weak, Barnes and Noble is closing a bunch of stores, including a high profile local store, in DC's Union Station.

Alexandra Petri says it's time to stage an intervention

That is why we are staging this intervention. Whenever you see someone you love doing something that is hurting them and you, you feel bound to say something. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder, where books are concerned. Seldom seen and soon forgot seems to be more likely to be the model. Why would you assume that if there are fewer Barnes & Nobles, there will suddenly be more people dashing to BN.com?

And physical bookstores are — as even Klipper noted — not unprofitable. Is getting rid of them really such a good way to save money?

Think the middle class is disappearing? Look again.

"When I was growing up in Canada," says Jon Evans of Techcrunch, "I was taught that income distribution should and did look like a bell curve, with the middle class being the bulge in the middle. Oh, how naïve my teachers were. This is how income distribution looks in America today"  

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"That big bulge up above? It’s moving up and to the left. America is well on the way towards having a small, highly skilled and/or highly fortunate elite, with lucrative jobs; a vast underclass with casual, occasional, minimum-wage service work, if they’re lucky; and very little in between."

This seems to be the fear of the week.  Something--outsourcing, robots, immigration, or maybe just the greedy rich hoarding all the good jobs in their massive bank vaults--is stealing all the prosperity from the bottom of the income distribution.  Pretty soon, those people will be reduced to begging in the streets while the rich stride past them with their robot servants in tow.

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A History of Budget Projections

The CBO released its 2013 Budget and Economic Outlook today.  Here's your takeaway graph:

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Federal debt around 80% of GDP for the foreseeable future is a pretty disturbing number.  Here's how that number has evolved over the CBO projections from 2009 to now:

Debt and net interest, 2009 Projection

Source: CBO

The complexity of the federal government frequently protects it from scrutiny

Last week, when Matt Yglesias wrote that DC makes it far too hard to open up a business, a bunch of conservatives apparently had a field day.  "Even the liberal Matt Yglesias . . . " they said, without, apparently, being aware that Matt Yglesias has been criticizing local regulatory burdens for quite some time.  

Yesterday, Matt responded:  

This is something I think I actually understand very well. I voted for Republican Patrick Mara the last time he was on the ballot for a D.C. Council at-large seat, and I'll probably vote for him again. I voted for Mitt Romney for governor in 2002. I would have voted for Michael Bloomberg in the 2005 or 2009 New York City mayoral races, and in general I think the conservative critique of municipal government in the United States has a lot of merit. Republicans might be interested in why someone like me—someone who sympathizes with many of their economic policy views—still hesitates to vote for their candidates for national office. One reason is that I tend to think conservatives place much too little emphasis on the rights and interests of religious and ethnic minority groups, gay people, and the like. Another reason is that conservatives have much too much affection for state-sponsored violence. In terms of economic policy, Republicans tend to deride the hugely successful practice of taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. But even on the regulatory front, there are real shortcomings to the Republican approach.

The way I would put this is that the American economy is simultaneously overregulated and underregulated. It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I'm sure there are more problems than I'm even aware of.

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Rails Across America?

High speed rail from New York to LA isn't feasible. It isn't even desirable.

Unsurprisingly, given my demographic, this image is getting a lot of play in my Facebook feed.  And as the daughter and wife of train obsessives, I admit, my heart feels a little tug.  How cool would it be to take a high-speed train from New York to Los Angeles?  

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Cool. Very cool. But not cool enough to happen.  

The longest high speed rail line in the world runs from Guangzhou to Beijing, a distance of about 1300 miles which the train covers in 8 hours.  That's less than half the distance from New York to LA by the most efficient route, which will be even longer after it's done running through Cleveland, Omaha, Denver and so forth.  18 hours on a train is too long for anyone to take it, unless you put in sleeping cars, which would cut down on the carrying capacity of the train.  And the intermediate routes--Chicago to Omaha, say--are unlikely to support even the operating costs, much less the massive capital investment required to install the train tracks between those cities.  

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The Technocratic Dilemma

What experts don't know can kill a program

Washington is in the throes of a rekindled romance with technocracy: the idea that what is most needed to save the economy and the planet is a bunch of really smart people who have spent their lives studying complicated problems like health care finance or renewable energy.  The last time we had this many fresh-faced wonks geting feted for their deep thoughts was the New Deal.

The Technocratic Dilemma

Health care experts can call for better regulation and payment reform, but none that I know can describe how it happens, because they are all academics, not hospital administrators. (Martin Barraud, OJO Images/Getty; Reza Estakhrian, Stone/Getty)

And who could be against having very smart people studying problems?  What am I, in favor of having stupid, ignorant people run things?  

No, of course not.  But there's a danger in the technocratic class.  Funnelled through an ever-expanding system in which they are paid to sit around and think about things, observe things, and write things, but never actually do things, our information mandarins are frequently totally disconnected from the people and processes they are supposed to rule.  Their knowledge comes from sporadic meetings, usually with members of the regulated class who have been carefully selected as spokesmen.  The screening process by which these people are found selects heavily for personal contacts with the mandarin class, or an ability to speak to a specific agenda (single mother with cancer who wants to buy health insurance; small business owner who will go broke trying to provide it under Obamacare).  This creates problems, as Arnold Kling points out:  

Are the exchanges actually going to be ready to go on January 1st of next year?

Under the new healthcare law, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is supposed to certify whether states are prepared to run an independent exchange by January 1st, 2013.  Problem: more than half the states in the country didn't even apply to run their own exchanged.  So HHS moved the deadline from November 16th of last year to December 14th.  And then again, when states still declined to apply.  Now states have until February 15th to decide whether they want to run an exchange, or have the federal government step in and do it for them.  

This cannot possibly be a good sign for HHS.  For starters, even with an "out of the box" implementation, it takes time to get a large software project up and running from the minute the money men say "go".  With a hard deadline of January 1st, 2014 when everyone is supposed to be able to buy insurance on the exchanges, we're already well past the period where I would have expected to start the main build phase of a big job involving sensitive income and health data for millions of people.  Some companies I've worked with wouldn't roll out a new desktop package on this kind of schedule.

Of course, it's been a long time since I was in the IT consulting business, and perhaps build cycles have gotten a lot faster.  HHS insists that they are going to have all 50 exchanges up on time, and why would they make such a bold claim if it wasn't true?  Announcing that they're shifting back the exchange deadline now would be a minor news item about bureaucratic priorities; delaying it in October will be a front page bombshell.  

But they can't delay forever.  At some point--some point very soon, I think--it will simply no longer be possible to get a state-based federal exchange up and running in the required time.  It's not clear to me why HHS is running the risk of a major, catastrophically embarassing delay, rather than simply acknowledging that they're probably going to be running exchanges in at least half the states, and moving forward accordingly.  So far I have three possible theories, all of them unsatisfactory:

The best place to work or visit that no one knows about is . . .

A propos of an article about DC, wherein Cindy Adams discovers to her horror that there are poor, somewhat dirty neighborhoods in our nation's capital, Matt Yglesias tweets: "NYC journos’ constant DC-dissing is weirdly insecure; DC writers don’t feel the need to rag on random much-smaller cities."

I snarked back "You know what sucks?  Omaha!"  But this is a lie.  Omaha has very good steaks (though not, alas, as Warren Buffett's favorite steakhouse).  It has a charming, if limited, little downtown.  And it has my favorite whiskey bar in the United States.  I won't lie, Omaha: that habit y'all have of slowing down to let me merge made me very nervous until I realize that you weren't trying to carjack me.  But otherwise it's a charming place.  

In fact, there are very few cities I don't like.  There are places I wouldn't want to live, because my tastes incline more to Victorian row houses than spacious lawns and swimming pools.  But there is no city I actually want to rag on.  

So I was going to ask reader what their least favorite city was.  But then I thought, that's mean and negative, not at all the sort of thing with which I want to start off the new year.  

About the Author

Author headshot

Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle is a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering business, economics, and public policy. A former senior editor at The Atlantic and writer for The Economist, Megan has a diverse work history including three small startups and a disaster recovery firm at Ground Zero.

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