Don’t take water for granted

In his 1987 hit, “Diamonds on the soul of her shoes“, Paul Simon sings:

She said, “You’ve taken me for granted
Because I please you
Wearing these diamonds”

This lyric, although a bit paradoxical, has always resonated with me, and I’ve applied it in many “taking-for-granted” situations.

One of them concerns clean water, which most of us have certainly taken for granted, and in a way that is naive (to people who do not have access to affordable, clean water) as well as dangerous (the value of water in our lives is so high — relative to its price — that we do not think of the disastrous consequences of losing access to that water).

Well, it’s worth thinking about, as the end of abundance starts to bite into our water consuming habits.

We have less and less clean water because our actions — direct in terms of mining ground water or polluting surface water and indirect in terms of climate change and water embedded in animal products — are making it so.

And those actions rarely consider what would happen if we had no clean water — let alone no water at all.

“You’ve taken me for granted because I please you, flowing this water”

My one-handed conclusion is that a lot of people are going to be surprised and upset as “their” water disappears in volume, decays in quality and increases in cost, until we no longer take it for granted. Beware.

Climate loss, grief and migration

The climate we grew up with is leaving. International action to slow climate chaos is not really working. National action and market innovations are having some useful impacts, but they are far too few on the mitigation side and far too weak on the adaptation side. We are going to face consequences with weak defenses.

When I moved to Amsterdam in 2010, I joked that it was going to get “California weather” due to climate change. 

For me, these climate-change impacts are somewhat mitigated by my history of living in different places (in California, traveling, in the Netherlands), but I bet you homebodies have noticed that the climate of your youth is changing:

  • The flowers and trees are responding differently.
  • The rain and cold are coming in stronger or weaker.
  • The heat is more intense, for longer.
  • New animals are arriving while old ones disappear.

These changes are affecting holidays, foods, work, play and even chores.

Do you notice these changes? Which are good? bad?

My one-handed conclusion is that all of us will need to give up on some of our values and expectations, while some of us will need to move, either for comfort or survival.

Is this the first step in our return to a nomadic life?

Environmental justice

Back in the 19th century, economists were condemned as “dismal scientists” due to their support of equality (or freedom) for slaves. The economists argued not from justice (sorry!) but efficiency, i.e., that slavery was inefficient because it subjugated people to the will of others rather than to their own free will — and productivity.

This story is not romantic, but it illustrates how economists might “think different” on some issues, even as they come to similar conclusions.

No risk here, neighbors. Carry on!

When it comes to environmental justice (EJ), the questions are (a) “how to define EJ?” and (b) “how to deliver it?”

On (a), I would say that citizens to a particular political jurisdiction receive EJ if they are treated (or face risks) equal to others, i.e., equal risks from air, water and land pollution.

Consider a few examples to flesh out this definition:

  • Does EJ mean they are protected from harming themselves? No — assuming that they do not need special knowledge or technology to understand risks.
  • Does EJ mean that people who buy a house near an airport, pig farm or fracking operation should be protected from risks due to those activities? No, since those risks pre-exist their purchase.
  • Does EJ mean they should be protected from new risks from new or expanded operations? Yes, absolutely.
  • Does EJ mean that citizens in a different political jurisdiction have the same rights or protections? No (for good reasons) due to the realities of nation-states. No (for bad reasons) because rich states may prioritize differently than poor states or (more likely) because rich states can afford more protections.

In terms of (b), the main idea is “internalizing externalities,” i.e., using prices or regulations to reduce or prevent pollution (the threat to EJ). For economists since Pigou (1920), this prescription has been commonsense. But it’s also commonsense to pretty much anyone familiar with “don’t shit where you sleep,” which is why the problem is usually people shitting where other people sleep.

And that brings us to rights.

EJ is basically about rights — the right to not be forced to deal with air, land, light, sound, water, or other pollutions.

We have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding a weapon, as that causes bodily harm. We do not have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding words, as there is no agreed way to assess mental or physical harm.

My one-handed conclusion is that EJ requires the definition and enforcement of our right to be free from the pollution of others.

The long shadow of apartheid

Apartheid in Dutch/Afrikaans means “apartness,” and it was the (un)official  policy of the Whites ruling South Africa for most of the 20th century.

They were not alone in seeking to separate people by race or color.

Race is  a superficial concept [it’s melatonin melanin, subject to fads] that was invented to facilitate slave trade. The Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was a slave trader, and he paid an academic to justify his natural and moral right to ignore the differences among hundreds of African tribes, and group all these peoples into a “Black” race that deserved exploitation as a different species. (That’s “science” in the 15th century!) Listen to the “Seeing White podcast series” to learn more.

As you may know, Nazi Germany borrowed many ideas on racism, segregation and concentration camps from White Americans eager to take advantage of Non-Whites. The White rulers of South Africa also borrowed those ideas, but their British and Dutch ancestors were “inspiring” (in all the wrong ways) to Americans and Afrikaners, respectively. (Here’s a paper on the history of racism in S Africa.)

The meaning of “Africaner” has changed many times, but there’s a heavy overlap between racist rulers and people calling themselves “Africaners.”

So, that’s quite an introduction of a extremely complex topic, but what about Apartheid?

The short answer is that it was a legal system of separating “races” in terms of living, working, socializing, and other elements of normal life. People from different races were not allowed to date (let alone marry!), work as equals, go to the same schools, and so on. From what I understand, it was similar in the Jim Crow south, but reached deeper into people’s lives (southerners could move away; South Africans could not) for longer (apartheid ended in the early 1990s).

That long, cruel history matters today.

We visited Capetown and Johannesburg. In both places, people are no longer legally separated by race, but socio-economically separated by past definitions of race. You cannot just move house to a safer neighborhood to get a better job and send your kids to a better school if your parents were poor and uneducated. And you cannot get much help from the state to reduce these challenges when the state is run by a corrupt and incompetent African National Congress, and the rich are unwilling to contribute to a broken system that they are fighting to insulate themselves from. As a result, there is massive poverty and multiple development failures with respect to water, electricity, schools, health, safety, housing — pretty much anything you can imagine necessary to a good life.

A comment that sticks with me came from a White doctor: “You will enjoy the highest quality of life in the world, living in Cape Town — until you get beaten in front of your house.”

So it’s hard for many many people, and it will take decades to overthrow the ANC and build sound institutions. (The Comrades race shows that progress is possible.)

What I find interesting, given history, is how Namibians, which was colonized by S Africa for decades and also has a rich-White, poor-Black demographic reality, seem to get along better. I attribute that to their multi-decade struggle to free themselves from S. African rule. In an “us against them” contest, people on one side tend to forget their differences when facing a common enemy. (I have a paper on this dynamic!)

That was not the case in S Africa, where enemies (Whites favoring apartheid) not only live among them, but still control significant economic power. The ANC, by presenting themselves as liberators of non-Whites, have won consistent majorities in elections without showing any competence or hesitation in looting the state.

My one-handed conclusion is that apartheid left deep scars that will take decades of effort to convert into saamhorigheid (togetherness).

To get some US-centric views on S Africa, watch Trevor Noah here, here and here.

Amsterdam’s new bike parking garage

Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure is again in the news, this time for the €60 million underwater bike parking garage.

Underwater sounds really cool, in the tradition of James Bond and Dutch canals, but let’s look a bit deeper into the why and how much, with foci on public spaces and opportunity costs, respectively.

The garage is next to the city’s Station Centraal, which has had an excess of parked bikes for decades. The mess is because parking is free and lightly regulated. Indeed, it’s a classic case of a tragedy of the commons, i.e., too many bikes for too few spaces. The city has added racks, double deckers, floating parking, etc., but “more (free) supply” does not reduce demand from wrecks, stored bikes — and many many commuters.

NB: Paid (€1/ day) parking under the tracks is available with no wait.

So the issue is not a lack of parking places, but parking places that are too cheap.

The new garage promises might change this situation by providing converting the parking commons into a club good.*

So, a club good because riders need to “check in” when they use the new garage. This means that people can be excluded “from the club.” This system will probably also be popular because the first 24 hours are free; additional time will cost something per day.

Some people are complaining about “privatizing the commons” with this garage, and they’re right, but it’s not like anything else has worked in the past 70 years!

Besides that change, it seems possible* that there will be fewer bikes stored around centraal, which will free a lot of space for other uses. Are there 200 stored bikes? 2,000? We’ll find out.

Now, to opportunity cost. I am sure that the engineers had a great time building another underwater garage, but how much does that €60 million represent?

Well, it’s €3 per Dutch citizen or €8600 per parking place. That’s cheap compared to the €50-100,000 per parking place for the two underwater car garages that I described in my paper on (car) parking in Amsterdam, but that’s faint praise — to be cheaper than a boondoggle subsidizing those rich enough to have a car in Amsterdam.

What else could you do with €60 million? Given that around half of Dutch students do not ride bicycles to school — either because they do not have them or are driven or lack training — it would make sense to subsidize lessons (even more) and bikes for kids. That would work out to around €300 per child in Amsterdam, or enough for a  bike (and lock!) and training.

And then there are the car parking garages near Centraal. Oosterdok, for example, has 1,700 spaces. Assuming 6 bikes per car space and then allowing for double decking, that’s enough space for over 20,000 bikes! But let’s be reasonable and only convert 600 car spaces to fit 7,000 bikes. Will the cars be able to fit into 1,100 remaining spaces. Probably, given that the garage advertises €10 per day parking!

My one-handed conclusion is that the city built an expensive club good rather than fix its commons. That was easier for the bureaucrats, but it left a bunch of kids without wheels and an excess of cheap car parking that ruins the city for pedestrians and cyclists.

* I say “might” because it’s not yet clear that the city will remove 7,000 street spaces and push bikes to the underwater garage, but that would make a lot of sense.

Addendum (19Feb): Subsidies for e-bikes get more riders… and a push for safer streets (Denver, USA)

The iceberg of identity

How do you describe yourself to others?


I am a white American 53-year old male, of average height and weight, mostly white hair (a touch of pepper), green-blue eyes, and a decent tan.

That description is perhaps 90 percent of my outside appearance, but 10 percent of my interior spirit, mind and soul.

I’ve eaten out of dumpsters (for 2 years), gone from fundamentalist Christian to agnostic, spoken bits and pieces of six languages, traveled in many places, dated many women (and married one), gone from wanting five kids to zero, gone from anorexic (114 pounds/52 kg) to normal weight as a vegan, gone from vintage British convertibles to two bikes and two boats, earned a PhD but failed to play any musical instruments.

So do you know me now?


We — all of us — contain multitudes. Don’t judge or assume from the surface. Explore and appreciate what’s underneath.

Frederick Douglass (1867) on race and integration in the US

I had heard of Douglass, but man oh man, I had no idea of his brilliance.

His “Composite Nation” speech is full of wisdom and hope, offering a path to that “shining city on a hill” that Americans have had such a hard time reaching — mostly due to a desire to preserve “tradition” over “progress.”

(Listen to this Malcolm Gladwell episode on a segregationist in the 1970s — a man who has many imitators, led by T***p, in today’s America.)

Here are some excerpts that deserve your attention:

  • “We have for along time hesitated to adopt and may yet refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality. We are a country of all extremes—, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications. In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name a number. In regard to creeds and faiths, the condition is no better, and no worse. Differences both as to race and to religion are evidently more likely to increase than to diminish”

NB: Most racists insist that Whites are biologically better than Blacks; some even asserted that Whites and Blacks evolved as separate species that could not mate! Listen to Scene on Radio’s “Being White” podcast series to understand the origin of racism (Portuguese slavers needed an excuse to justify their infernal trade).

Douglass goes on to address the “Yellow Peril” that was (infamously) battled with exclusionary laws that were enacted in 1862, strengthened in 1882 and not fully repealed until 1965:

  • “Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particularly race or nation”
  • “They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.”
  • “It is worthy of special remark, that precisely those parts of that proud Island [Britain] which have received the largest and most diverse populations, are today, the parts most distinguished for industry, enterprise, invention and general enlightenment. In Wales, and in the Highlands of Scotland, the boast is made of their pure blood and that they were never conquered, but no man can contemplate them without wishing they had been conquered. They are far in the rear of every other part of the English realm in all the comforts and conveniences of life, as well as in mental and physical development. Neither law nor learning descends to us from the mountains of Wales or from the Highlands of Scotland”
  • “But it is said that the Chinese is a heathen, and that he will introduce his heathen rights and superstitions here. This is the last objection which should come from those who profess the all conquering power of the Christian religion. If that religion cannot stand contact with the Chinese, religion or no religion, so much the worse for those who have adopted it. It is the Chinaman, not the Christian, who should be alarmed for his faith. He exposes that faith to great dangers by exposing it to the freer air of America. But shall we send missionaries to the heathen and yet deny the heathen the right to come to us? I think that a few honest believers in the teachings of Confucius would be well employed in expounding his doctrines among us.”
  • “To the minds of superficial men, the fusion of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forgot that our trouble was not ethnographical, but moral; that it was not a difference of complexion, but a difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a covetted [sic] article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.”

My one-handed conclusion is that all men (and women) were created equal, but they were not — and in many cases — are not treated equally in the US. That’s a pity for our country, a hypocrisy for our reputation, and a reality that needs far deeper discussion, soul-searching, and reflection.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?


Born (un)lucky?

I was born an American and gained British citizenship (through my father) in my 20s. These two passports have allowed me to travel, live and work (until Brexit) in 20+ countries — all of them in the richest quartile of countries in the world.

People in the other three-quarters of the world’s countries have had fewer options in travel, but — more importantly — individual flourishing and collective development.

Some Americans face more barriers than I did, as a middle-class “White” kid growing up in California — don’t get me wrong — but even they have advantages over the middle and upper classes in so many countries.

I’m not talking about travel and visas. I am talking about public safety, drinkable water, earning power in the labor market, entrepreneurial opportunities, levels of corruption, educational opportunities… The list goes on.

Imagine the 2023 version of that 1983 movie, Trading Places, but this time it’s not a poor Black American trading places with a rich White American, but a typical American trading places with a Brazilian, Egyptian, Indian, Thai, or South African.

The first difference would be entering an entirely different legal, political, economic and cultural sphere. Ignoring the obvious (language), the culture shock would be extreme. Americans understand more about their socio-economic ”diversity” than outsiders, just as Indians, Thai’s, et al. understand theirs. It’s not about “knowing YOUR place” but “knowing THE place”. It’s not an accident that so few people (3 percent, on average) migrate within the EU. Even in the US, the rate of internal migration has been falling since 1980. Moving from your family, friends, geography and climate is stressful, which is why it’s so rare.

The second difference would be the step-change of (statistically) moving from average income of, say, $30,000 to $3,000 or $300. Such orders-of-magnitude moves would force one (for better or worse) to recalibrate all manner of choices, habits and plans.

Third, and perhaps most daunting, would be the expectations of those around you — again, for better or worse. A White South African doctor told me “You can’t beat Cape Town for quality of life… but there’s always that risk that you or your family will be violently assaulted.” (He wasn’t the first to say something along those lines.) That’s quite a paradox to incorporate into “quality of life”

For non-White South Africans (race is a social construct everywhere, and I don’t really understand it in SA), the situation is not much different in terms of downside (rape, assault, theft and murder), but potential risks and upsides are not uniform.

Most people on the planet do not think if they are born (un)lucky, since most do not travel, and those who do can easily avoid thinking about these issues — if anything, social media means that most of them are exaggerated caricatures — but they exist.

My one-handed conclusion is that 90 percent of our success or failure depends not on our hard work or laziness, good luck or bad, but on where we’re born.

Usefulnomics — an example

I’m not shy about criticizing the weakest elements of economics (there are many), so it’s sometimes a good idea to remind myself (and you!) of the strengths of economics, i.e., those characteristics that make it useful.

Here’s an example based on a test-question I just asked:

You are a baker facing higher energy (natural gas) prices. Higher prices result from (choose one for each): (i) A change in demand or quantity demanded? (ii) A change in supply or quantity supplied? (iii) Which impact came first?

The start of the right answer lies in the question (“higher natural gas prices”), which result from Russia’s (recent) invasion of Ukraine, i.e., impacts from closing and damaged pipelines, embargos,  etc.).  So the answer to (iii) is that the supply shock came first.

Now what about quantity supplied vs supply of natural gas? The first refers (in economic jargon) to changes in price or quantity within a supply/demand figure “holding all else equal.” Since the figure only shows the price/quantity relationship, other changes do not move up/down the line; they shift the line entirely. What’s assumed is that the line represents “supply in the market” (a mix of technologies, firms, geographies) and how, typically, you can get more quantity by offering a higher price (thus, the rise from left to right). In the case of the war, a few things (firms, geographies) are NOT being held constant. Indeed, the supply curve shifted in due to a loss of some/all Russian NG supply. That’s called a “change in supply” from S0 (baseline, in black) to SW (war, in red)

What about demand? Its components (income, tastes, substitutes) were still “equal” when supply shifted in, so it doesn’t shift. Instead, prices rise (to PW) and quantity demanded falls (to QW, “climbing up the demand curve”) as supply shifts from S0 to SW. (Note that prices often lead to quantities, hence the arrows.)

This model separates causes and effects, which helps with planning, reactions, and so on. There are, of course, many responses that have affected (shifted) both supply and demand, but those came after the initial shock.

My one-handed conclusion is that it’s useful to have a logical means of understanding/explaining the everyday complexities of markets.