Revenue trumps environment

 Tory writes*

High-Occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes have been constructed on many U.S. highways throughout recent decades. These lanes were originally open to public transport and vehicles with two or more passengers. The intention was to provide these vehicles a less congested lane to travel in and thus, reduce travel time in comparison to the ‘non-HOV’ lanes. Additionally, researchers have pointed towards alternative aims of these lanes with broader implications. Schijns and Eng (2006) [pdf] proposed that HOV initiatives, by promoting carpooling, are “increasing the person-carrying capacity of the roadway, reducing per-capita emissions and energy consumption, and promoting a more sustainable urban transport situation”. The intentions of HOV lanes described above highlights the all-encompassing nature of this policy initiative. These lanes are attempting to tackle congestion and travel time issues, while also trying to drive behavior change in an ‘environmentally friendly’ direction. On the outside, approaching policies with multiple aims seems like it could be beneficial across a wide variety of issues. However, in attempting to ‘do it all’ this policy initiative has, in many instances, failed in meeting any of the aims it set out to achieve.

Take, for example, the HOV lanes in California. This state-led initiative was two-pronged in that it aimed to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. However, as studies using census data have shown, carpooling continues to decrease in popularity. Moreover, as Schijns and Eng (2006) concluded in their study, there has been no HOV implementation whereby a transformation of single-occupant drivers into carpoolers has made a significant impact on congestion issues. In response to this policy failure, the State of California has allowed single-occupant drivers to use these lanes, for a price. This simple change in policy undermines the environmental intentions of the original designing of the HOV lanes. The ‘pay-for-access’ adjustment also signifies the social value of HOV lanes. Faster travel time, even if one must pay for it, is more attractive than altering one’s transport to be more ‘sustainable’. Moreover, this seemingly minor adjustment only addresses one of the aims it set out to achieve, namely reducing travel time. However, this was exclusionary in nature as only those who could afford the fee were able to take advantage of the lanes. If the aim of reducing emissions was of focus, the State would need to address deeper issues rooted in a lack of infrastructure for public transportation and changing the norms of behavior surrounding what transportation looks like. In this instance, reducing emissions seemed to take a back-seat to reducing travel time for some individuals.

So, has the State of California addressed this seemingly forgotten environmental aspect of this initiative? Why would they? In 2017, San Francisco Bay Area governments collected over 9 million dollars from HOV lanes. It would be difficult to imagine the State having any incentive to change a policy that is providing a source of revenue. From this perspective, the pay-for-access drivers and the government are benefitting off a policy at the expense of environmental action.

Bottom Line: HOV lanes were implemented with the aims of decreasing congestion and reducing emissions. However, the ‘pay-for-access’ adjustment to the policy undermined the environmental aspect of this initiative. This has resulted in revenue for the government at the expense of the planet.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

A flower market without flowers

Willem writes*

Founded in 1862 along the historic Singel canal, the Bloemenmarkt in Amsterdam was the world’s only floating flower market and a landmark of the city of Amsterdam. Some tourism blogs call it a must-see, but on TripAdivsor the market only receives 3.5 out of 5 stars, most recent reviews being bad. TripAdvisor user 678mvi calls the market a “terrible disappointment”, mostly selling “cheap merchandise for tourists”.

Tourists take photos of flowers at the stall of the Bloemenmarkt’s last florist (Source).

On the 16th of April 2019, Dutch newspapers reported that the last florist of the Bloemenmarkt had closed down. “The tourists have ruined my business”, he told a reporter. According to municipal policy, only 25 percent of the products sold at Bloemenmarkt flower stalls are allowed to be ‘related products’, but this policy is not enforced. In reality, most stalls focus on selling souvenirs which tourists can easily take home, such as plastic tulips, tulip bulbs, or marihuana seeds.

The Bloemenmarkt is illustrative of the effects of an unsustainable form of tourism which many popular destinations face. According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism is tourism which meets “the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future”. Both tourists and residents are attracted to the Bloemenmarkt because of its cultural value, but because the market attracts so many tourists who photograph but don’t buy fresh flowers, the unique floating flower market transforms into a bunch of floating souvenir shops. As a result of this, Amsterdam’s cultural environment is damaged, needs of tourists and residents cannot be met (the TripAdvisor reviews are testimony to this) and future opportunity to visit this cultural heritage is lost.

With regard to the negative externalities of tourism, the Bloemenmarkt is only the tip of the iceberg. In other parts of Amsterdam, tourism causes congestion and pollution, and pushes up house pricescausinggentrification and transforming the character and ‘livability’ of many neighborhoods. With the number of visitors expected increase even more rapidly in the future, the pressure on the municipality of Amsterdam to design policies to put a stop to this unsustainable form of tourism is rising. Whether any of these policies will lure the florists back to the Bloemenmarkt, however, remains to be seen.

Bottom line: Tourism to Amsterdam in its current form threatens the livability of the city and the opportunities of future generations of tourists and local reisdents to enjoy the city’s cultural heritage.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Stuff to read

  1. The U.S. government puts social housing in flood zones #mixedmessages
  2. From Gentrification to Decline: How Neighborhoods Really Change
  3. How businesses are undermining our privacy
  4. Far-right European parties are adopting Republican strategies to label attempts to slow climate change as leftist conspiracies against the working classes. Sad that those same working classes are going to suffer the most.
  5. Will profit seekers help reduce the rate of climate change? Maybe.
  6. Listen to this discussion of America’s history, people and divisions
  7. Notes on being tall
  8. Greed, deception and Leonardo
  9. Are dentists working for or against us? (I see some troubling parallels to my own experiences here.)
  10. So maybe there are some good reasons to avoid Huawei and 5G

Review: Free to Choose

This 1980 book by Milton and Rose Friedman (subtitle: “A personal statement”) is well-known for its role in promoting free markets and deregulation. It sold millions of copies and motivated not one, but two television series devoted to its contents. The book now often serves as a totem for those who rant against “big government,” often (in the case of Fox news et al.) without the covers being opened. (I got my unread copy from my dad, who supports  lots of these “causes.”)

I wanted to read the book to learn how the Friedmans analyzed policies and suggested reforms for the general public. I also wanted to know how many of their ideas stand up to scrutiny from someone (me) who appreciates markets but has some reservations related to the ways that markets interfere with the commons (via, e.g., negative externalities) as well as the importance of non-market public and common-pooled goods.

(Many anti-market types treat Milton Friedman as a corporate hack who supports dictators over babies, but they are often painfully ideological and misinformed.)

It turns out that most of the book is excellent, except where the Friedmans (Rose was perhaps a perfect example of the “woman behind the man” in the way she contributed to work that often bore his name) brushed over collective goods, in what looks to be a spectacular example of over-confident misunderstanding.

In this review, I will follow their ten chapter titles:

In Chapter 1 (The Power of the Market), the Friedmans discuss how prices signal information, provide incentives, and distribute wealth and income. They acknowledge the role of government in distribution and regulation of bads (negative externalities) but caution against trusting governments to choose on behalf of the majority when politicians might choose for themselves. They quote Adam Smith on the role(s) of government:

First, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society. [OMG. I tried to get a page reference for this actual quotation. but it seems like there are no searchable editions of Smith on the internet (econlib is dysfunctional). What an ironic failure in the provision of public goods!]

It is in this third role — the provision of public goods — that the government’s place is essential — and contested, by liberals in the American (don’t trust markets) and European (do trust markets) traditions. Sadly, the Friedmans dismiss this role via a sophistic slight-of hand that still surprises me. Here is their text (pp 30-32) with [my comments in brackets]:

Adam Smith’s third duty raises the most troublesome issues. He himself regarded it as having a narrow application. It has since been used to justify an extremely wide range of government activities. In our view it describes a valid duty of a government directed to preserving and strengthening a free society; but it can also be interpreted to justify unlimited extensions of government power.

The valid element arises because of the cost of producing some goods or services through strictly voluntary exchanges. To take one simple example suggested directly by Smith’s description of the third duty: city streets and general-access highways could be provided by private voluntary exchange, the costs being paid for by charging tolls. But the costs of collecting the tolls would often be very large compared to the cost of building and maintaining the streets or highways. This is a “public work” that it might not “be for the interest of any individual to erect and maintain though it” might be worthwhile for “a great society.” [This example describes a collective action problem in providing a public good that government “solves” via collecting taxes to pay for the roads. The Friedmans do not address the problem of congestion that plagues such collective goods but not toll roads that use prices to limit demand.]

A more subtle example involves effects on “third parties,” people who are not parties to the particular exchange — the classic “smoke nuisance” case. Your furnace pours forth sooty smoke that dirties a third party’s shirt collar. You have unintentionally imposed costs on a third party. He would be willing to let you dirty his collar for a price — but it is simply not feasible for you to identify all of the people whom you affect or for them to discover who has dirtied their collars and to require you to indemnify them individually or reach individual agreements with them.


To lapse into technical jargon, there is a “market failure” because of “external” or “neighborhood” effects for which it is not feasible (i.e., would cost too much) to compensate or charge the people affected; third parties have had involuntary exchanges imposed on them.

Almost everything we do has some third-party effects, however small and however remote. In consequence, Adam Smith’s third duty may at first blush appear to justify almost any proposed government measure. But there is a fallacy. Government measures also have third-party effects. “Government failure” no less than “market failure” arises from “external” or “neighborhood” effects. [Here the Friedmans seem to imply that market failures will automatically lead to government failure] And if such effects are important for a market transaction, they are likely also to be important for government measures intended to correct the “market failure.” The primary source of significant third-party effects of private actions is the difficulty of identifying the external costs or benefits. When it is easy to identify who is hurt or who is benefited, and by how much, it is fairly straight-forward to replace involuntary by voluntary exchange, or at least to require individual compensation. If your car hits someone else’s because of your negligence, you can be made to pay him for damages even though the exchange was involuntary. If it were easy to know whose collars were going to be dirtied, it would be possible for you to compensate the people affected, or alternatively, for them to pay you to pour out less smoke. [This is a clear application of the “Coase Theorem” that was proposed in 1960; it depends on “low transaction costs” in measuring harm and finding those harmed.]

If it is difficult for private parties to identify who imposes costs or benefits on whom, it is difficult for government to do so. As a result a government attempt to rectify the situation may very well end up making matters worse rather than better — imposing costs on innocent third parties or conferring benefits on lucky bystanders.  To finance its activities it must collect taxes, which themselves affect what the taxpayers do — still another third-party effect. In addition, every accretion of government power for whatever purpose increases the danger that government, instead of serving the great majority of its citizens, will become a means whereby some of its citizens can take advantage of others. Every government measure bears, as it were, a smokestack on its back. [Here I think they lose the plot, by implying that the lack of a specific victim — of climate change, say — undermines government action that would also be unjustified due to its funding via distortionary taxes, which have nothing to do with the problems of externalities (the fallacy of an irrelevant appeal). Then they go on to make quite the leap…]

Voluntary arrangements can allow for third-party effects to a much greater extent than may at first appear. To take a trivial example, tipping at restaurants is a social custom that leads you to assure better service for people you may not know or ever meet and, in return, be assured better service by the actions of still another group of anonymous third parties. [Are they implying that pollution problems can be resolved via a system of tipping?  This trivialization signifies a failure of comprehension to me, as environmental damages — and government actions to reduce them — were well known in the 1970s.] Nonetheless, third-party effects of private actions do occur that are sufficiently important to justify government action. The lesson to be drawn from the misuse of Smith’s third duty is not that government intervention is never justified, but rather that the burden of proof should be on its proponents. We should develop the practice of examining both the benefits and the costs of proposed government interventions and require a very clear balance of benefits over costs before adopting them. This course of action is recommended not only by the difficulty of assessing the hidden costs of government intervention but also by another consideration. Experience shows that once government undertakes an activity, it is seldom terminated. The activity may not live up to expectation but that is more likely to lead to its expansion, to its being granted a larger budget, than to its curtailment or abolition.

So I agree that benefits must exceed costs, but the Friedmans appear to take this exposition as the end of the conversation, i.e., that governments should not, by default, be trusted to regulate negative externalities because such regulations create burdens on the market and require the services of bureaucrats who are paid via taxes. This discussion is oversimplified to the point of uselessness. Only someone as stupid as Donald Trump would read this and conclude that all regulations should be ditched, because it’s too hard to identify winners and losers, and that taxes are theft, but it’s exactly because of idiots like Trump that the Friedmans’ conclusion that regulations are unjustified unless they pass a strict benefits/costs test gets boiled down to “regulations are bad.” That’s a real missed opportunity.

That said, I must note that the discourse around non-excludable (public and common-pooled goods) was underdeveloped in the 1970s, so perhaps the Friedmans were working with the tools of the times. OTOH, they could have thought a little more about what even Adam Smith noticed in the 18th century. (The index has nothing on commons, public goods or collective action — perhaps because it has too many entries on “communism”? 😉 )

In Chapter 2 (The Tyranny of Controls), the Friedmans make a good case for freedom in trade and choice of occupation. They would have dismissed Trump as a short-sighted mercantilist whose policies would harm the country as a whole as they aided the special interests who got his attention. I agree with all this, with the only caveat that I would regulate industries (oil, finance, medicine) that create negative externalities (pollution; financial crises) and/or possess market power (asymmetric information) over consumers.

In Chapter 3 (The Anatomy of a Crisis), they go over the role of government in worsening the Great Depression, mostly by messing up the money supply (the topic that won Friedman his Nobel Prize) and interfering with trade. All I can say about this chapter is that its lessons were not heeded in the late 80s, as a too-big-to-fail financial system attracted government bailouts, and thus even larger risk-taking by those who would privatize profits and socialize losses. (The Friedmans were not fans of business per se.)

In Chapter 4 (Cradle to Grave), the Friendmans argue against social security (setting the foundation for “privatize social security”) as a bureaucratic, unsustainable gift to the rich. They suggest a “negative income tax” (i.e., wage subsidy) as a better way to help poor people. This proposal has been adopted in the U.S., although its recipients are vilified by the Right (and thus attacked by IRS agents asking for masses of paperwork), and the system is also far too bureaucratic in comparison to a universal basic income — an idea that I support and the Friedmans would not due to its potential to tax the productive to reward the lazy. The rest of the chapter complains that government transfer programs are wasteful (due to paperwork and bureaucratic salaries), which may be true to some degree for some programs (regulations written by industry to mess up health care, to give one example) but not for all programs (the IRS and Social Security Administration have tiny budgets relative to the funds they handle). In the end, I think that the Friedmans would regret the extent to which their ideas have been used as dogma by Republicans who cut taxes for the rich while leaving the poor to “bootstrap themselves off the floor, climbing via crumbs scattered by 1 percenters.” 

(In the US, “1 percenters” make more than $420k per year. Worldwide, 1 percenters make more than $32k and/or has a net worth of more than $770k. Scope matters. These figures are also dramatically larger than they were in the 1970s, when the rich paid more tax.)

Chapter 5 (Created Equal) argues for equality of opportunity rather than outcome. In the process, it rails against wealth and income taxes as unfair and harmful to voluntary efforts of the rich to help the poor. Although this perspective is (again) attractive in a world of rights, obligation and community, it’s a recipe for disaster in the present world of “I’ve got mine, fuck you.” It’s for this reason that I favor wealth (property) taxes devoted to funding goods available to all citizens, i.e., education, healthcare and/or basic income. It’s only when you have the basic opportunity to get an education or be healthy that you can thrive.

In Chapter 6 (What’s Wrong with Our Schools?), the Friedmans document the shift from choices among private providers to monopolization of “free” education by the State, which not only pursues its own goals (e.g., obedient citizens) but also spends far more on administrators than on students. They suggest giving educational vouchers to parents who can choose where to send their children (I recently learned this system is used successfully in the Netherlands and Chile; it’s also used, not without controversy, in the US). When it comes to higher education, the Friedmans are against subsidies, since most of the gains go to middle and upper-class students. They suggest that poorer students can afford school by “selling equity” in their future rather than taking (if they can get them) unaffordable loans. This podcast reviews a recent implementation of this system. As someone in “education,” I agree with their critiques and their solutions. I also agree that systems of “grading teachers” are probably worse than systems of parental choice.

In Chapter 7 (Who Protects the Consumer?) the Friedmans complain that government regulations result in lower economic growth and excess spending on bureaucracies that serve themselves or special interests. They then make the error of assuming that governments that make shoddy products (“private goods”) will also make shoddy regulations (“public goods”), which betrays an (intentional?) misunderstanding of the different natures of those goods. Later in the chapter, they are more open to “regulation via prices” (i.e., polluters pay carbon or effluent taxes) but still betray a bias or myopia (Page 215: “One source of atmospheric pollution is the carbon dioxide we all exhale. We could stop that very simply. But the cost would clearly exceed the gain.”) that supports my worry that they have missed an important element of “freedom to choose,” i.e., the freedom from polluted air, water or land that endanger our health or lifestyle. Whereas I agree 100 percent with many of their concerns on government overreach, I think their dismissal of regulations has given too much ammunition to ideologues (Trump, Julian Simon, Walter Block et al.) who think markets can supply public goods or protect common-pooled goods. They cannot.

In Chapter 8 (Who Protects the Worker?), the Friedmans argue against minimum wages, unions, etc., calling instead for more competition between employers. These positions made sense (they came at the end of what is now seen as the high-point in worker wages), but not in a world where industry concentration (thus market power to push down wages) are high and the 1 percenters suck money out of everyone’s pocket via corrupt legislation. I’m sure that the Friedmans would oppose this situation, but they seem to overlook its potential.

In Chapter 9 (The Cure for Inflation), the Friedmans revisit the topics of Chapter 3 and make the observation that governments cause inflation by creating too much money to spend and then benefit when the spending reduces the (book) value of the resulting debts. I wholeheartedly agree, which is one reason why I think that Bitcoin (for all its “interesting” market dynamics) has made the case for an asset with a known, steady and slow issue of new supply. A swap of central banks for “automatic money printing” algorithms might leave fewer tools for “managing” the economy, but fewer tools means that the consequences of their use will be easier to observe and thus their use more careful.

The book ends with Chapter 10 (The Tide is Turning), which accurately reflects the momentum of the late 1970s, when the book was written. In this chapter, they collect thoughts on government over-reach and capture by special interests, highlight attempts to bring more innovation and competition to markets affecting our lives, and even provide pro-forma constitutional amendments on free trade, sound money, and so on. The chapter is inspiring, and definitely had an impact on policy debates in the US and other countries. 

Sadly, the Friendmans, in their opposition to government incompetence, gave too many reasons to oppose government per se. Although I hate the expression “smart government,” I do think there’s a need for the right kind of government and governance at the appropriate level. If I was writing a epilogue for this book (hopefully shorter than this review!), I’d mention that government programs should focus on protecting the collective goods we share and providing the public goods that benefit all of us. My metric would thus focus on subsidies that go to everyone (e.g., children, the sick and the old) rather than special interests (farmers, bankers, the 1 percent) that suck the wealth of the majority. Besides that, I agree on their emphasis on markets, competition and choice over regulation and bureaucracy, but I’d be more cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (Listen to this recent VOX podcast for a discussion on balancing the roles of the State and Market in making a just but productive society.)

Overall, I recommend this book, one-handedly, to anyone who wants to think about the role of government, the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and how ideology can open our eyes — and sometimes blind us.

Here are all my reviews.

Stuff to read

  1. More bad news on climate change triggered this excellent rant on America’s failure to do anything substantial to block a catastrophe for humanity. (Oh, and for Americans as well, for all those #MAGA people out there…)
  2. The origins of kindergarten… before it was turned into a toy store
  3. More information on America’s broken medical system: Overpriced drugs
  4. An ex-libertarian’s quest to rebuild the center right (I’m in this group)
  5. A white basketball player reflects on fan racism and the NBA
  6. Why are we so bad at planning cities?
  7.  Is there any hope for humanity??

    SCIENTISTS: “We’ve produced the first-ever image of a supermassive Black Hole, 55-million light years away”
    RESPONSE: “Oooh!”

    SCIENTISTS: “We’ve concluded that humans are catastrophically warming Earth”
    RESPONSE: “That conflicts with what I want to be true, so it must be false”

    — Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) April 10, 2019

  8. A Dutch artist made a book of all the addresses of “mailbox companies” that register in the Netherlands to avoid taxes. Here’s her TEDx talk.
  9. Here’s the Flying Money 2018 Reader [pdf] of how Amsterdam is part of (as victim and conspirator) international money laundering.
  10. The “Chicago boys” who built Chile’s free market economy

Review: Dredge Drain Reclaim

Johan van Veen began this book [free download] — subtitled “The Art of a Nation” — during World War II. He “found the time” because the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands had forbidden most Dutch from maintaining the dikes and water works that kept the nation from sinking underwater. It was thus lucky for the Dutch that the Germans lost the war, otherwise they might have had to retreat from rising water that would have taken about half their land, their most important cities, and a majority of their civilization!

In the postwar years, Veen was able to finish the book and add more information, so I read the fifth edition of 1962, which was published after Veen’s 1959 death.

I found this to be a fascinating read due to its historical detail and wealth of data but also due to Veen’s obvious passion for engineering and water management. This passion was also backed by decades of experience, as Veen was the chief engineer of Rijkswaterstaat (the Dutch government’s body in charge of national water management) and — due to his prescient and insistent warnings about weak and under-maintained dikes — the chief designer of the Delta Works project that began in 1954, right after the tragic storm of 1 Feb 1953 that broke dikes, flooded 1,300km of land and killed over 1,800 Dutch. Veen had warned of such a risk in an earlier version of this book, and he set out immediately to recover, repair and build out defenses that would prevent the same tragedy from happening again. (No such floods have come to pass, but climate change will bring new and unusual challenges.)

The book is divided into four chapters. In the first, Veen sets the scene by reviewing the fascinating culture and history of the “free people” who chose to live at the mercy of the sea rather than pay taxes to live on the lord’s land. I recognized quite some dimensions of Dutch character, as well as learning more about the history that distinguished its regions (in Friesland they began by piling up mud above high tide; in Brabant they dared to block rivers, died by the tens of thousands when dikes broke, and then went out in the world to share sell their dike-building expertise). This chapter (called “Spade work” but more properly drain)  explains why the Dutch take maintenance so seriously (to my great joy) — they have centuries of experience in those everyday tasks and numerous examples of what happens to those who do not keep their dikes strong and drains clear. (Veen confirms that the Dutch did indeed kill those unwilling to do the work needed to protect the community. My favorite (!) punishment was when the resister was skewered with a post and then buried, alive, in the dike that he failed to maintain.) In these early days, the Dutch needed to work with water that was too powerful for mere men. This necessity created men of art, skill and patience enough to build up an area over decades. I was surprised (and then not) to read of the many Dutch working abroad: The Erie canal was financed by the Dutch; its locks were built by Dutch engineers. This section finishes with descriptions of the great leaders who led the Dutch to claim so much of their land from the sea, and plea to ignore short-term profit and loss in favor of the long-term returns to the nation of new land. (Veen’s “think of the children” perspective is easier to understand as claim that a government with a low discount rate can build mega projects. That’s true, but it can also result in white elephants.)

Chapter 2 describes the surprising appeal of dredging, which never struck me as either fun or exciting. To make a long (hundreds of years!) story short, let me assure you that dredges are very exciting for the Dutch, as they — first in horse-driven and then in steam-driven form — made the difference between Amsterdam being a port at the center of an empire and a muddy estuary. Dredging was even more important to Rotterdam, as it allowed the Dutch to build canals and clear rivers to create the capacity that resulted in the largest and busiest port in the world (until Asian ports took over in 2004).

Chapter 3 “Master of the floods” is actually about land reclamation, which has produced a sizable share of the Netherlands. Here, Veen is in his most excited state, describing the great reclamation of the Zuiderzee. The fact that event did not pass (only one-quarter of the area was reclaimed, most obviously in Almere) makes this chapter interesting, as it reflects both the optimism of an engineer-unchained as well as capturing the boldness of “future” that characterised the post-War generation. The chapter is full of details on the science of land/water interactions, and histories of the efforts to persuade citizens to “invest in the future.” The engineering required to dredge new land into existence was extreme, risky and world-famous. The Dutch are still leaders in explaining how to master (or fight) nature.

The final chapter is Veen’s argument in favor of the Delta Works, which would cost a fortune but reduce the risk of floods such as that of 1953 by reducing the Netherlands’ linear risk via massive sluices and dams designed to keep the North Sea under control. In this chapter Veen, posing as the guest author “Dr. Cassandra,” argues for the Delta Works. To justify “invest in the future,” we are reminded of the old proverb “economy is   good, except for making dams and dikes.” This is Veen’s argument for ignoring benefit-cost analysis and just building the Delta Works. Luckily for us, he was right, if only in underestimating the value of saving his country from drowning.

I recommend this book on one-hand for its fascinating history and insights into the nation’s character, accomplishments, and power in managing water.

Thanks to PH for sending me this book!

Addendum (Dec 2022): How the Dutch make the “fascine” mattresses that hold mud and sand in place underwater.

Here are all my reviews.

Stuff to read

  1. What’s the value of your time? Why do Americans work so much?
  2. Do you take too long to reply to email?
  3. I guess the Dutch are right to be skeptical of over-medication
  4. Amsterdam was bike heaven in the 1950s (and again, in Dutch)
  5. Why rent control doesn’t work (“and then what happens?”)
  6. I agree: The Trump administration sacrifices American political authority for American power
  7. Canada’s community-sourced anti-poverty works work better.
  8. Social media platforms destroy your value to make themselves profits (best analysis I’ve heard in years).
  9. I’ve switched to DuckDuckGo for search. It works, and it’s private
  10. Amsterdam is eliminating parking to leave more space for people. Does your city care more about people or cars?

More Jive Talking!

I’m really enjoying the conversations I am having with academics, LUC alumni and professionals. I’ve published 18 episodes of Jive Talking so far and have plans for many more. 

Here are some recent ones:

And here are some LUC #alumnistories:

You can subscribe to this podcast via iTunes, Google Play or many other platforms. More information here.

Stuff to read

  1. Apples are actually quite similar to oranges!
  2. Sorting useful from useless information 
  3. The background story of the founder of DeepMind (one of the most cutting-edge AI companies) . Related XKCD
  4. Our evolution as cooperative animals (humans are to chimps as dogs are to wolves)
  5. Airbnb claims it has no obligations to help guests filmed by hidden cameras. Shame.
  6. Environmentalists are facing prosecution in totalitarian/populist countries as the results of corruption and incompetence are revealed in collapsing ecosystems and species disappearance. Climate change will only make this worse.
  7. Female politicians are doing a good job displacing men
  8. Wireless phone companies in the US are selling customer location data to anyone with a few hundred $. The FCC doesn’t care.
  9. A look into planned (and psychological) obsolescence.
  10. April fools! Icebergs to save California and Brexit means no weed for British tourists in Amsterdam 

H/T to AM


Water in Venice

I just spent a few delightful days in Venice. It was my third (or fifth?) time in the city, but this was the first time I paid attention to water management. Here’s an overview of what I learned. (Please add to or correct my information!)


Venice was founded by “mainlanders” seeking refuge from attacks. They settled on “islands” in the saltwater lagoon that were basically mud and grass (much like the Dutch did, but without the tidal and storm violence). Over time, these islands became around 120 “campi” (fields), each with its separate church, common areas, and local governance (via collective action). The islands were stabilized by driving trees into the mud (as in Amsterdam) and topped by Istrian stone that looks like marble but is actually a very strong and water-resistant limestone that formed a transition layer between the trees and brick buildings built on top. The campi are now joined by over 450 bridges. (Buildings and bridges were originally wood, but they burned so often that they were gradually replaced by stone and brick, but there’s still some fire risk.)

The Republic of Venice was rich, powerful and imperialist for centuries, so there was a lot of investment in churches, palaces and other public spaces. Decline began in the 1400s, as trade routes shifted from the Byzantine Empire, Silk Road and Middle East to routes around Africa (removing profits from spices, silks and other eastern goods) and across the Atlantic (bringing far greater colonial wealth). Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, signaling an end to autonomy and beginning of rule (or neglect) from afar.

Most people think of Venice as a group of islands in the lagoon, but the area also includes the mainland, where more people now live. The population of the islands has dropped from a high of 175,000 in the 1920s (mostly due to Murano’s glass industry) to around 60,000 today. (The population was over 100,000 for centuries and only dropped under that level in the 1960s as the mainland industrialized and families moved to cheaper housing there.) It’s important to note that 70% of voters live on the mainland, so they may not favor policies or spending to maintain a place they no longer consider home.

Drinking water

For centuries, drinking water was collected in cisterns (pozzi) underneath each campo. These cisterns were topped by well heads with locking covers that were opened twice per day so that residents could collect their drinking water. The keys were kept by the priest from the local church. My impression is that this system was robust to free-riding due to the small number of users (each household had a designated water collector) and intense social relations. I’m also guessing that anyone subject to community punishment might have been forced to leave the campo, since it’s hard to live without water.

The pozzi are no longer in use, and drinking water comes from the mainland, via the causeway that brings cars, trains, gas and electricity to the islands. We drank the water from taps and public taps without problems. I didn’t look into the cost of drinking water or state (e.g., leaks) of the water network.

Wastewater and waste

For centuries, garbage and wastewater ended up in canals, to be carried away by tides. A system of drains also emptied into canals. In the 1500s, this system was relatively advanced compared to the standard of Europe, but it has not been upgraded to modern standards. At the moment, there’s a mix of septic tanks, sewerage that gets collected, and untreated discharge (30%) that flows into canals. As you can imagine, there’s a smell. It was worst for us on the island of Burano but not so bad on Murano or the main (tourist) islands. We were told that Venice stinks in the August heat and crowding. Don’t go then.

Garbage used to be piled next to canals for collection, but the rat problem got so bad that they instituted a system where households had to bring their waste directly to boats that passed a few times per week. (Businesses use large dumpsters.) This system means that costs are much higher, but problems with smells, mess and rats have fallen. In touristed areas, there were many overflowing garbage cans so I guess the problem is much greater in the high season.

We rented a room in an Airbnb from some young people who were trying to cover their rent (four shared rent of €1,400/month). One told me that garbage fees rise “exponentially” with the number of apartments owned, which was a problem for them, since their landlord owned 7 places and their lease says they pay the cost. This system — like systems of punative water tariffs — is silly. If you want to”soak the rich,” then tax their wealth (property).

Flood waters

Venice is sinking due to natural and artificial subsidence and sea levels are rising due to climate change. Cruise ships in the lagoon area make matters worse by creating waves that undermine foundations.

We visited the “public information point” for the MOSE project that’s supposed to protect the islands by closing three entrances to the lagoon during high tides. The project cost is €billions over budget and politicians have gone to jail for stealing  few billion euros, but it seems that the gates might actually work (or might slowly — or suddenly — fail). They are in final stages of testing and plan the “hand over” in 2022, about 4-5 years late. I just re-visited the Maeslantkering that the Dutch built in 1997 to protect Rotterdam’s ports, and I am not confident that the Italians — who claim to have “learned a lot in the process” — will be successful.

My one-handed conclusion is that Venice is a lovely city that is suffering from decades of underinvestment and a lack of political will to make hard decisions (e.g., banning cruise ships). In the decades to come, I guess that there will be more problems with pollution, mosquito-borne disease,* and crumbling foundations than there will be with sudden floods.

* I was saddened, but not shocked, to see that Italian populists in the government have proposed to allow unvaccinated children into public child care centers. It looks as if the country will be seeing an increase in preventable deaths and diseases due to anti-vax lies and propaganda. I bambini poveri 🙁