Jane Jacobs and Food Trucks

In this article about food trucks, Ed Glaeser doesn’t mention their educational value: They allow people with a new idea to test it relatively cheaply. If it works they can expand. I saw this happen in Berkeley. A food truck that sold stuffed potatoes eventually became a store that sold the same thing. Food trucks don’t merely create jobs, they can create the best kind of jobs: Those that provide new goods and services. Unlike jobs created by building dams or highways.

Any advanced economy needs a constant stream of new goods and services to replace the ones that are inevitably lost. It goes against the survival instincts of people in power (government officials) to help those at the bottom (e.g., potential food truck owners) because they seem so much less powerful than those at the top (e.g., restaurant owners) who are threatened by those at the bottom.

All this should be utterly obvious — as it is to anyone who has read Jane Jacobs on economics. But it isn’t. In science, too, every field needs a constant stream of new empirical effects (in experimental psychology, new cause-effect relationships) to replace the ones that have been studied to death. So every field needs a cheap way of searching for those effects, but no field, as far as I know, has such a way. In science, editors and reviewers are like government officials. They can discourage new ideas (food trucks) by enforcing “high standards” (regulations) whose costs they fail to understand.

Via Marginal Revolution. “[David] Westin’s biggest weakness [as head of ABC News] was that he lacked the entrepreneurial spirit to launch innovative and creative ventures.”

Jane Jacobs and Traffic

This excellent post by Alex Tabarrok about the effect of removing traffic lights — traffic improves — reminds me of how I discovered the work of Jane Jacobs. Browsing in the Transportation Library at UC Berkeley, I came across The Economy of Cities.

That order arising from below (from individual drivers and pedestrians) can be much better than order imposed from above (by traffic engineers) was a point Jacobs made often. The details in Alex’s post and the video he embeds don’t just suggest that traffic lights in thousands of places could be profitably removed, they also support more radical thinking:

  • Traffic engineers were completely wrong in all these cases. Trying to improve something, they made it worse. How did we get to a world where this is possible? Surely it isn’t just traffic engineers.
  • What would happen if students were given more power to control their own education? Perhaps we would need far few professors. I gave my students much more control and found (a) my job got easier and (b) my students learned much more.
  • What would happen if all of us were given more power to control our own health, rather than rely on gatekeepers, such as doctors? Perhaps we would need far fewer doctors.

The essence of my self-experimentation is that I took control of my health. Rather than seeing a doctor about my early awakening, or waiting for sleep researchers to find a solution, I found a solution.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Steve Hansen and Gary Wolf.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss, Tom George, and JR Minkel

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, a collection of essays, has just been published by New Village Press (who sent me a copy). Several of the essays are very good, such as those by Pierre Desrochers, Janette Sadik-Khan (in charge of improving New York City’s streets), Daniel Kemmis, Robert Sirman, and Mary Rowe, but my favorite was the one by Janine Benyus. Benyus came in contact with Jacobs when Jacobs phoned her to ask her to speak at the 1997 Toronto conference Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter. Benyus was thrilled to be speaking to the person whose writing she’d studied to learn how to write. Benyus wrote about increasing appreciation of the value of biomimicry, learning how nature has solved this or that problem to help us solve the same problem.

[On the Galapagos Islands] I watched a quiet engineer named Paul stand motionless before a mangrove as if in deep conversation. He finally called me over and pointed: “This mangrove needs fresh water but its roots are in saltwater, which means it somehow desalinates using only the sun’s energy. No fossil fuels, no pumps. Do you know how we do it? We force water through a membrane at 900 pounds of pressure per square inch, trapping salt on one side. When it clogs, we apply more pressure, more energy.”

Then Paul asked the question I’ve been working to solve ever since: “How is it that I, as a desalination engineer with a five-year degree and twenty-year experience, never once learned how nature strips salt from water?”

Jane Jacobs on Bad Behavior (continued)

I was pleased that Matt Ridley quoted me in his blog about the Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy and out of curiosity I read his previous post (“Chiefs, priests and thieves“). Strangely enough it’s closely related to the post of mine that followed The Emperor’s New Clothes Trilogy: about Jane Jacobs’s view of two moral systems, guardian and commercial.

In “Chiefs, priests and thieves”, Ridley wrote about what he’d learned from what sounds like a truly fascinating book: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley.

As always, ordinary people wanted to carry on with commerce, but chiefs, priests and thieves — sultans, emperors, popes, pashas, holy knights and corsairs — just kept plundering the fruits of that commerce for their own enrichment and their own glory. Little wonder that, as the historian Meir Kohn concludes, preindustrial government was predominantly predatory in nature. Not that it is entirely free of that suspicion today.

This is exactly what Jacobs was talking about — the close connection between government and predation, in contrast to trading (commerce). And it’s what Russ Roberts is talking about in his terrific essay about the cause of the financial crisis. When large financial firms become close to government (“In the week before the AIG bailout that put $14.9 billion into the coffers of Goldman Sachs, Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson called Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at least 24 times“), they become predatory rather than commercial. Was Goldman Sachs providing useful innovation when it provided and sold the bonds that the SEC is now complaining about? No, it was basically predatory, under the guise of being commercial.

I think the rest of us let this sort of predation happen because of apocalyptic stories spun (always in future tense) by leaders: The infidels will . . . The terrorists will . . . The financial system will . . . Under cover of these stories, leaders do stuff that strengthens them and weakens the rest of us. But recently a countervailing story has gathered strength:  Guardians as idiots. These stories are past tense: Harry Markopolos went to the SEC five times with incredibly persuasive evidence of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the SEC did nothing. I think the hearings about this were incredibly embarrassing to SEC officials and a big reason they’re now doing something about Goldman. Another example of the genre is …First Do No Harm, wherein doctors nearly prevented an epileptic child from getting life-saving therapy. And, of course, Al Gore is looking more and more foolish as it becomes clear he trusted research (that hockey-stick graph) he had no clue about.

More More future tense: “To the Indios they said, “If you don’t work, this God will kill you.”

Jane Jacobs on Several Types of Bad Behavior

What do the following have in common?

  1. Doctors who view patients as “profit centers”.
  2. Chinese universities that open art departments because art students pay much higher tuition than other students. The classes in these departments have high student/teacher ratios and are taught by inexperienced teachers.
  3. Corrupt government officials.
  4. Katherine Weymouth, publisher of the Washington Post, organizing salons where, for a hefty price, important people would meet Post reporters.

All can be seen as cases where guardians abuse the trust they’ve been given by trying to profit from it. Jane Jacobs wrote about guardian/commercial ethical differences in Systems of Survival. Jacobs’s answer to why two ethical systems? why not twenty? was that there are two different ways to make a living: taking and trading.

Jacobs wasn’t trying to tell people how to act. She was trying to describe and explain differences in behavior she’d seen. As a one-pass view of how people make a living, taking and trading is a good division. Looked at more closely, teaching (education) and learning (science) are also central. They underlie both taking and trading. Following Jacobs’s logic, maybe they need different ethical codes to function well. Yesterday I spoke to a Tsinghua professor who complained that other Tsinghua professors simply taught what they wanted to teach, as opposed to what would help their students. I said, yeah, I’d blogged about it (“For whom do colleges exist?“, “For whom do law schools exist?“).

City Air Makes Free

“City air makes free” is a medieval saying quoted by Jane Jacobs. I thought of it a few months ago when I visited an experimental private school near Shanghai. The founder of the school wanted to encourage creativity among students, in contrast to the main Chinese educational system with its overwhelming emphasis on memorization. His school was itself an example of city air makes free. There are many factories around Shanghai, filled with migrants from rural areas. These workers moved without official permission, which made their children ineligible for public school. This created a market for private schools, such as the one I visited. The school’s founder was previously a school teacher. The rural-urban migration had made him free to start his own school.

By growing up in a city instead of a village, regardless of what school she attends, regardless of overall economic growth, a Chinese student will have more access to the Internet, much bigger libraries, better teachers, far more students of different backgrounds, far more occupations in action, and a much wider range of culture. Her parents’ increased income may allow her to have a computer. Her family will suffer less from corrupt government officials. The increase in freedom — in opportunity — is profound. Her creativity and productivity will increase because she will better match her talents and her job. This is why Chinese creativity will increase enormously in the coming years whether the education system changes or not.

That such thinkers as Bill McKibben (who doesn’t understand the importance of cities for saving energy) and Jeffrey Sachs (who doesn’t understand the importance of cities for economic development) fail to understand this point shows how non-obvious it is. One more reason Jane Jacobs was a great economist.

She and other Chinese I met on my trip had a much broader sense of what was possible, or what they were missing out on, than previous generations.”

A Chinese Farmer Fights Back

This is from China Daily:

Every day before sunrise, Zhang Zhengxiang leaves home to walk along Dianchi Lake, one of the major attractions in Yunnan province.

The 62-year-old retired farmer carries a camera, tripod and telescope to record the pollution encroaching on the country’s sixth-largest freshwater lake.

During weekends, Zhang collates his observations and sends letters to the local government, informing them of the growing pollution.

He has been doing this for 30 years.

Sounds good to me. Like my self-experimentation, he is (a) trying to change something he cares a lot about and knows a lot about and (b) slowly collecting data. In contrast to a great deal of American good works, such as Jeffrey Sachs’s.

In this case, unlike a lot of philanthropy, we know how the story ends:

His efforts slowly began to pay off.

In 1998, the local government shut down six mines near Dianchi because of his warnings.

In 2003, 56 large and medium-sized mines, chemical factories, and fertilizer and lime plants were closed.

Since 2008, the local government has invested about 12 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) to clean up the lake. . . .

[In 2005], Zhang was selected as one of 10 outstanding grassroots environmental activists. In 2007, he became a member of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.

Last year, he was selected as one of the 20 people who have warmed Chinese hearts.

This supports what Jane Jacobs told an interviewer: “It’s a funny thing. You can only change something if you love it.”

Millennium Village Evaluation

When I started college, I started reading harder books. I noticed something no one had told me about: Only some of them made sense. In some cases (e.g., Theory of the Leisure Class), there was a general statement I could understand and examples that clearly supported it. In other cases (e.g., Freud), I had difficulty understanding what was being said. I stopped reading the puzzling stuff.

I thought of this experience when, thanks to Marginal Revolution, I read Michael Clemens’s comments on how the Millennium Village project should be evaluated. This makes sense, I thought. His points are clear and he has evidence for them. (I wish he hadn’t used the words scientific and scientifically, which confuse me, but that’s minor.)  In contrast, when Jeffrey Sachs explains the absence of comparison villages like this:

he [Sachs] does not like the idea of going into a village, subjecting poor people to a battery of questions and then leaving them empty-handed.

I’m confused. In grad school I learned that a good way to test for causality in an experiment is to test different dosages of the treatment; if the treatment has an effect, different dosages should have different effects. (And the two groups will be more alike than a treated group and an untreated group.) Other villages could have been given small amounts of aid in return for cooperation.

The whole Millennium Village Project reminds me of a 7th-grade science-class demonstration I mentioned earlier. Our teacher, Mr. Tanguay, put a bunch of ingredients (water, sodium, calcium, etc.) mimicking the composition of the human body into a big graduated cylinder. This is what the human body is made of, he said. When we put them all together let’s see if we get life. The final ingredient he added caused the whole thing to swirl around for a little while but needless to say there was no life.

The easy way to create life is to connect new ingredients with existing life. (As I do when I make kombucha and kefir.) Likewise, the easy way to create new economic life is to connect dead economies with existing economic life. It can be as simple as people in poor villages moving to cities, as is happening in China. No one is paying them to move. To pump money into this or that poor Chinese village could easily delay the migration — which is why the long-term effects of the Millennium Village Project could easily be negative.

Green Metropolis by David Owen

I liked David Owen’s new book, Green Metropolis (free copy from publisher), as much as I thought I would. Owen critidizes a large fraction of the environmental movement for missing the point that big cities like New York are the greenest communities in America. To make a community green you need two things: high density and great public transportation. They go together: high density makes great public transportation possible. In large chunks of New York, unlike most big American cities, it’s easy to not have a car.

The book has plenty of villains. Bill McKibben has written many books: one about global warming, one about cutting back on consumerism, one about having only one child (to save the earth from overpopulation), one called Hope, Human and Wild about environmentalism — yet he lives in a small town in upstate New York, which requires him to use a lot of energy for heating and travel that he wouldn’t have to use if he lived in New York City. (McKibben is my example, not Owen’s.) A great many environmentalists, Owen says, have causes or goals that have little to do with reducing energy use. They tend to see themselves as preserving the past rather than shaping the future — an excellent point. That’s something Jane Jacobs might have said and if the book has a hero, it’s her. “Jacobs’s focus was on the vibrancy of city life but the same urban qualities she identified as enhancing human interaction also greatly reduce energy consumption and waste,” Owen writes.

Owen sees himself almost as deluded as the average environmentalist. He and his family moved from Manhattan to rural New England when their daughter was one year old. How she will love the country, thought Owen. She didn’t. Walking through the country bored her far more than walking through the city. “And it [a country walk] usually has the same effect on me, although I hate to admit it,” he writes.

Why did my self-experimentation discover a lot? Because a lot remained to be discovered. The discoveries I made weren’t made by the experts who should have made them (e.g., sleep experts)  because they were too busy doing research whose main goal was to impress other people. Rather than do science that worked, they did science that looked good. It’s the same with environmentalists. Rather than do projects that work (save energy), they do projects that feel good. “Sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves,” says Owen, neatly summing up the problem.

What I’ve Learned From Climategate (So Far)

Google “Climategate” you get 31 million hits. “Obama” returns 40 million. Yet mainstream media, such as the New York Times, have said little about it. The New Yorker has said nothing about it. Given so much interest, that will change.

Some of my prior beliefs — that empirical support for the view that man has caused global warming is weaker than we’re told, that bloggers are a powerful force for truth — are stronger. But here are a few things I didn’t think of until now:

1. The truth leaks out before it gushes out. Laurie David’s children’s book — its egregious mistake, her blithe dismissal of that mistake — is an example of the truth leaking out. In the Ranjit Chandra case, little facts implied he was a fraud long before this became utterly clear. An example is the claim in one of his papers (published in The Lancet!) that everyone asked agreed to be in his experiment.

2. Teaching is even better done via scandals than via stories. The number of hits for Climategate is an indication of how much people are learning from it. As I blogged earlier, they’re learning a lot about science. A mere story about science would never attract so much attention. I should think more about how to use scandals to teach stuff. When Nassim Taleb is scathing about this or that, he has the right idea. Spy was the perfect example. It taught me a lot about New York City.

3. Jane Jacobs was wrong. Or at least missed something very important. In Dark Age Ahead, her last book, she pointed to a number of disturbing signs. One was the rise of crappy science. She was quite right about that  — as scientists have become more professional they have become more status-oriented and less truth-oriented. She didn’t foresee that the Internet would be an enormously powerful corrective force, as is happening now. Climategate is a (relatively) small example of even bigger force: the rise of the power of sophisticated amateurs/hobbyists. Who, unlike professionals, with jobs and status to protect, have complete freedom. The first big example was printed non-fiction books, as I blogged earlier (which are written with great freedom, usually); but now the Internet provides another great outlet, much faster, cheaper, and more accessible than books, for independent thought.

Pfizer, After Having Its Way with the Good Citizens of New London …

Apparently Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, the biggest drug company in the world, needs all the bad publicity it can get. One of the last things Jane Jacobs wrote was a friend-of-the-court letter in the Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London where eminent domain was used to take property from private landowners and give it to a private corporation (Pfizer). It was just as outrageous as that sounds. And Pfizer got away with it. Now Pfizer is abandoning the site. Leaving a large empty lot where houses used to be. The CEO of Pfizer is Jeff Kindler.

How to Eliminate/Prevent a Skin Infection and What It Means

Several years ago, during a routine checkup, my primary-care doctor pointed to some white lines on my right foot. (Curiously only one foot had them.) Fungus, he said. I had a fungus infection. What should I do? I asked. He suggested over-the-counter anti-foot-fungus medications, sold in every drugstore.

I tried a few of them. They didn’t work. The problem persisted.

A month ago I noticed the problem had gotten much worse. Yikes. What had gone wrong? I realized that in the previous few weeks I had changed two things:

  • Instead of putting my wash through an extra wash cycle without soap (to rinse it better), I had started doing my wash the way the rest of the world does it. I had stopped doing the extra cycle because I was no longer worried about becoming allergic to the soap.
  • I had bought 5 new pairs of socks and had been cycling though 4 of the new pairs again and again (washing them between wearings, of course), ignoring the rest of my socks.

This suggested a theory: My skin infection was due to my socks. The infectious agents get on my socks and are not completely removed by the washing machine. They survive a few days on the shelf. To wear socks with the infectious agent already present gives the infection a boost. Maybe my new socks supported the infectious agent better than the socks they replaced.

Based on this theory, I did three things:

  • Resumed putting my wash through an extra cycle without soap.
  • Took off my socks earlier in the evening.
  • Bought 12 new pairs of socks and made sure every sock went a long time (e.g., 3 weeks) between wearings.

I saw improvement right away. (The morning after I wore new socks.) A month later, the infection, present for at least several years, is entirely gone. It took about a month for it to clear up completely.

The essence of my discovery is that the infectious agent could survive my socks being washed conventionally (in a washing machine) and live for a few days without contact with my feet. Whereas a few weeks away from my skin killed it. I have been unable to find this info anywhere else. A very minor discovery, but unlike the work that won the most recent Nobel Prize in Medicine, useful right now. Cost: zero. I would have had to buy new socks anyway.

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs tells about a reporter interviewing someone in an oil-rich Middle East country (Iran?). During the interview the interviewee tries to cut an apple with a knife. The knife breaks. We can’t even make knives, the interviewee says. That’s how backward our economy is. To develop economically, MIT professors had advised his country’s government to build a dam, at great expense. The MIT advisors thought that building a dam would be good for economic development. They were wrong, it turned out. Jacobs thought it was telling that after all that money invested, the local economy still couldn’t make something as basic as a good knife. Many industrial processes require cutting tools.

This is the same thing. Preventing and eliminating infection is at the core of medicine, just as cutting is at the core of manufacturing. My discovery reveals that my doctor — and by implication, the whole health care establishment — failed to know something basic and simple about this. If they understood what I figured out, there would be no need for anti-foot-fungus medicine. A gazillion dollars a year is spent on medical research, medical schools and research institutes around the world are full of faculty doing research — and they haven’t figured out something as basic and simple as this.
Gatekeeper Drugs. How to Avoid Infection: Something I Didn’t Know.

Health Care: Why Problems Have Piled Up Unsolved

In an amusing comment on health care, Jonathan Rauch (via Marginal Revolution) imagines an airline system as archaic and inefficient as our health care system.

“Cynthia, I have filled out my travel history half a dozen times already this year. I’ve told six different airlines that I flew to Detroit twice and Houston once. Every time I fly, I answer the same battery of questions. At least a dozen airlines have my travel history. Why don’t you get it from them?”

“We have no way we could do that. We do not have access to other companies’ records, and our personnel have our own system for collecting travel history.”

The health care system, in other words, is full of problems that have built up unsolved. Solutions exist — the problems are not impossible — but haven’t been implemented. Jane Jacobs’s great point, in The Economy of Cities, is that this is what happens when those who benefit from the status quo have too much power relative to those who benefit from change. The stagnation in American health care is profound. It isn’t solved by universal health insurance. There would remain the horrible dependence on expensive dangerous drugs that don’t work very well (e.g., antidepressants, Accutane) and the complete lack of interest in prevention. The underlying problem, the source of many visible problems, is too little innovation.

Are We Running Out of Omega-3?

Apparently. The obvious source is fish but we are running out of fish:

In 2006, aquaculture production was 51.7 million metric tons, and about 20 million metric tons of wild fish were harvested for the production of fishmeal. “It can take up to 5 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of salmon, and we eat a lot of salmon,” said Naylor, the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. [via Future Pundit]

This is why Jared Diamond’s Collapse is so unfortunate. Diamond is a good writer and the question he tried to answer in that book is extremely important. But he whiffed. Suppose I write a book about obesity. I give a list of ten reasons people are fat: 1. Too much Food X. 2. Too much Food Y. And so on. (Just as Diamond gave a list of eight-odd reasons societies collapse.) Such a book would be far less helpful than a book with a correct theory about obesity, a theory that explains why Foods X, Y, etc. cause obesity. The theory could be used to find new, better, flexible ways of avoiding obesity. The list of foods to avoid cannot. In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs (whom Diamond doesn’t mention) said that collapse happens for one overarching reason: The society is too resistant to new ways of doing things. The crucial struggle in any society, said Jacobs, isn’t between the rich and the poor or between owners and labor; it’s between those who benefit from the status quo and those who benefit from change.

Thanks to Peter Spero.