Saturday | 16 March 2013

history / economics

Neil Irwin | Wonkblog | The Washington Post

Neil Irwin: First things first. What would I have seen if I had been in Bretton Woods in July of 1944, and why should anyone today care what happened there?

Benn Steil: This was the most important international gathering since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. As early as 1936, Harry Dexter White, who was then a little-known official at the Treasury Department, was planning precisely this sort of conference, with the aim of establishing the dollar as the global unit of account of the entire world, and, very importantly, eliminating the pound sterling as a rival. You have memos in White’s archives which show almost an obsession with the relative position of the U.S. dollar and pound sterling at the time. He expresses enormous concern that there should be as few sterling countries as possible around the table, to maximize U.S. leverage.

White is already thinking about the conference in geopolitical terms, and what it means for the relative position of the United States and Great Britain, not just economically but politically. In the 1940s, after the war had started, the FDR administration is already thinking quite seriously about how Britain’s impending bankruptcy can redound to the geopolitical benefit of the United States. They were thinking about how if we manage our financial aid to Britain carefully and control it tightly, we can get Britain through the war, but also simultaneously limit its room for maneuver in the postwar world. It was a conscious effort to force liquidation of the British empire after the war.

agriculture / urban planning

Roman Haus | Atlantic Cites

After seeing Graber’s farm, I grew determined to get this vision out of the laboratory and into real cities, starting with mine.

Graber and I teamed up to launch the company UrbanFarmers in 2011, with the goal of developing large-scale, productive, commercial rooftop farms. Until then, urban aquaponics had been tried in small ventures, with mixed success. We believed it was time for the technique to grow up. This would require technological improvements to make aquaponics more robust and reliable, as well as a new business model for urban food systems selling directly to the consumer. Never mind that I was an MBA who had never grown anything bigger than some basil on my balcony for spaghetti sauce.

To test and prove my idea, I investigated urban-farm options and came across a French design for a 20-foot cargo ship container with a greenhouse module built on top. It looked like it could house an aquaponics system. The container was relatively small and portable — the size of two parking spaces — and could be easily toured in public places: in front of schools, supermarkets, or parking lots. All it required were electrical and water hookups. I liked the ruggedness of the cargo container combined with the leafy beauty of cultivation. The UrbanFarmers Box was born. Two containers arrived from Hamburg — old, rusty versions that had spent the last 11 years at sea, now ready to embark on a new life.

urban planning / architecture

Metropolis Magazine | Vimeo

Site Specific The Legacy of Regional Modernism from Metropolis magazine on Vimeo.

A look at the Sarasota School of Architecture and the city’s plan to demolish a school that was an important example of the local vernacular.


Stan Tsirulnikov | The Umlaut

Evegeny Morozov is the best example of this approach in action. The New Republic contributor and technology and society scholar accuses people like the best-selling public intellectual Clay Shirky of Internet-utopianism, an overly optimistic and uncritical promotion of the Internet as a necessary force for good. Morozov’s other recent targets include the writer Steven Johnson for the sin of Internet-centrism (“we need to reshape our political and social institutions in [the Internet’s] image”), former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for laziness and incuriosity (“he simply throws a Silicon Valley buzzword at a political issue and waits to see if it sticks”), and the entire TED franchise for “being an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books.” And his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Internet Solutionism, takes the argument one step further by attacking the popular idea that all of society’s ills can be solved by applying lessons from technology and the Internet.

Alexis Madrigal | The Atlantic

Morozov likes to build an argument from some anecdotes downward, starting with a seemingly preposterous idea drawn from our current reality, locating its intellectual foundations in a contemporary thinker’s work and then drilling down relentlessly from there, looping back to the original target as he goes. In his chapter on self-tracking and the quantified self movement, it is Gary Wolf whom he goes after, and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Kelly. No matter what you think about the critiques themselves, Wolf and Kelly are well-chosen targets as they have been thinking about and promoting the generation of data about oneself for years.

Morozov argues forcefully against first self-quantification, then quantification, then the “numeric imagination,” then measurement itself, and, finally, the objective fixity of facts. Do you see what happened there? We went from a debate about whether or not to wear a pedometer to a debate about whether numbers can adequately represent anything in the world. This movement happens with terrifying speed in Morozov’s work.


Matthew Yglesias | Slate

I’m glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation—memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt—to be the most annoying form.

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.

Josh Israel | ThinkProgress

Government is nothing like a business and cannot be run as one — its aim is to protect its citizens, not to turn a profit. Businesses and individuals often borrow in the short term to make investments for the long term — mortgages, lines of credits, and other sorts of loans are facts of life for millions of Americans and businesses of all sizes. Start-up businesses rarely break even for the first several years and few people can afford to buy their first home outright or pay for their kids to go to college out of pocket.

Still, many politicians who advocate for cuts to vital programs and a dangerous Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution use the argument that government needs to live with in its means because everyone else does — but have debt of their own. These hypocrites include:

  • House Budget Committee Member Tom Rice (R-SC): Wrote: “At a time when hardworking American families are living off of a budget, the federal government should be no different. My colleagues and I believe it is time for America to change course and get back on a path of prosperity. This begins with a balanced budget plan.” Reported five mortgages totaling over $4 million.
  • House Budget Committee Member Diane Black (R-TN): Wrote: “The state of Tennessee balances its budget, American families and businesses balance their budgets and so should the federal government,” and “Balancing the budget is not extreme; it is what American families across this country do on a regular basis.” Reported four mortgages on three properties, totaling more than $3 million.
  • House Budget Committee Member Roger Williams (R-TX): Said Wednesday: “We have to have a balanced budget. I have to balance my budget. Everybody in America has to balance their family’s budget or their business’ budget, not every ten years, not even every single year, but every single day.” Reported more than $2.5 million in business debts.
  • House Budget Committee Member Scott Rigell (R-VA): Boasted that he voted for a balanced budget amendment because: “I know that American families do what they have to do to live within their means; and so too should the government.” Reported $1.5 million in lines of credit, a $500,000-plus mortgage, and over $10,000 in credit card debt.

    Paul Krugman | The Conscience of a Liberal | The New York Times

    I see that some commenters on my traffic externalities post are speculating what Republicans would say about sewers if they didn’t already exist. Well, we don’t know about Republicans, but we do know what The Economist said, in 1848, about proposals for a London sewer system:

    Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient efforts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.

    Sewers are socialism!

    It wasn’t until the Great Stink made the Houses of Parliament uninhabitable that the sewer system was created.

    policy / urban planning / wonkville

    Reihan Salam | The Agenda | The National Review

    1. We should be skeptical of place-based policies designed to mitigate regional disparities while we should embrace place-based policies designed to reduce the barriers to growth in the most productive regions, as Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottlieb have argued. (This, incidentally, tends to reinforce the case for competitive federalism as opposed to cooperative or cartel federalism.)

    2. Strengthening the largest U.S. cities — which will require resisting the tendency of such cities to use local land use regulation to restrict growth, perhaps via something like Josh Barro’s “Race to the Top” for housing — is important for national economic growth.

    3. Yet improving the connectivity, via roads, rail, and broadband, of middleweight cities might represent low-hanging fruit.

    So what does this imply for national policymakers? Barro, Glaeser, and Gottlieb all converge around the idea of offering incentives to high-cost areas to build.

    public health

    Phil Plait | Bad Astronomy | Slate

    So I was properly disgusted when I heard they were putting up ads on billboards in four different states (Arizona, Illinois, Texas, and Oregon) using very misleading wording: The billboard says, “Vaccinations? Know the risks and failures.”

    Why is this misleading? Because, as Todd W. from Harpocrates Speaks points out, they don’t mention the benefits. Everything in medicine is tradeoff between risks and benefits. In the case of vaccines, though, the benefits hugely, overwhelmingly outweigh the risks. If you live in the U.S., try to find someone who has polio. Or go anywhere in the world and see how many folks suffering from smallpox you can find. You won’t find any: after killing hundreds of millions of people, smallpox was eradicated in the wild in 1977. Guess how.


    Ezra Winton | Art Threat

    What: Les dormeurs / The Sleepers
    Seen where: Montreal, Quebec, as part of Art SouTerrain (a literally underground city festival of art)
    Artist: Sergio Clavijo
    Seen when: Friday, March 1, 2013
    Art Description or Artist Statement / Démarche artistique: The implications of this installation are more than artistic. The Sleepers is a disruption in a process of exhange. To create this piece, Clavijo traded new clothes for used ones belonging to homeless people. The new serve as a reimbursement for the old, while the old are a testimony of the journeys of homeless people in the city. This process of exchange acts as an evolving portrait of our lives in society and creates an atmosphere of doubt through the unsettling uncertainty of presence that disturbs power.



    Rhetta Akamatsu | Seattle Post Intelligencer

    Otis Taylor calls himself a “trance blues” musician. There is a trance-like quality in My World Is Gone, with its strong and steady percussion and the melancholy sound of much of the vocals. The CD is important both musically and as a political and social statement about the plight of Native Americans, not just historically but today as well, as they struggle to adjust to the loss of their cultural heritage.

    The CD was inspired by Taylor’s friend, Manto Nanji, a member of the Nakota Nation and singer/guitarist for the band Indigenous. According to an interview Taylor aand Nanji gave on NPR earlier this month, Nanji was visiting Taylor backstage at a Hendrix tribute and, while discussing Native American life, simply stated, “My world is gone.” These words affected Taylor so strongly that he was inspired to write the songs for this CD.


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