Links: The need to build, the need for leadership, book banning, and more!

* “The New Numbers on [New] Music Consumption Are Very Ugly.” Perhaps calling it “music consumption” is also ugly, relative to “listening to music?” Plus, music is not really “consumed:” it remains after it’s listened to.

* Argument that Twitter and social media aren’t the real problems bedeviling institutions. Not exactly my view—I’m closer to Haidt, I think—but interesting.

* Why can’t America build passenger trains? But, in good news, we may see NEPA reforms in the fall, which are likely necessary if we’re going to build the stuff we need.

* “College financial aid is a sham based on what colleges think families will pay.” Obvious, and yet not widely acknowledged as such. It does seem like more people that there is a lot of paying for the party and other kinds of problems going on in higher ed.

* On the global leadership deficit.

* “Corporate wokeness keeps falling short when it comes to China.”

* “Florida started penalizing bureaucratic delay. Housing permits spiked.” Some states are serious about human flourishing and livability; some aren’t. Rhetoric and reality often differ, too.

* An argument that the Russian economy is imploding.

* “Is It Worse to Ban a Book, or Never Publish It?” Which links notably to “The Many Faces of Literary Censorship: Censoriousness on the left increasingly joins moral panic on the right.” But, that said, I think the simple issue is that publishing books is being pushed aside by social media, a secular process that doesn’t seem to be slowing.

* Is everything—that is, everyone—getting old? Note:

There is one last possibility: that part of what we’re seeing is measurement error. If actors are getting older and the music we listen to is getting older, it may be because TikTok stars, Twitch streamers, and Roblox creators aren’t being counted among entertainers, even if they have a similar-sized audience. One thing that drags down the average age of Fortune 500 executives is when tech startups with young founders go public, but many of those startups don’t have the revenue to qualify for the Fortune 500, even if their market cap puts them in the S&P.

Some fields are rife with change and activity, while others are bureaucratic and sclerotic. I’m struck by how, for example, Robert Maynard Hutchins became the president of the University of Chicago at age 29 (don’t worry, this didn’t happen recently). Today, startups and tech seem to be the only places that judge on merit first and age later, if at all.

* Some peculiarities in a Dept. of Energy funding announcement, which is probably not of interest to most of you but may be to a few.

Links: News about the news, criticism about criticism, and more!

* “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” “The product,” mostly, although a lot of scientific and technical news is interesting. It’s possible to construct a mostly useful and interesting information universe, but it’s hard, and RSS feeds help. The most interesting stuff is rarely in the big publications, except Bloomberg and one or two others.

* We’re going to need a lot of solar panels.

* “How a Public School in Florida Built America’s Greatest Math Team.” Notice: “It turned out there was value in putting a bunch of smart kids in the same room: They feel empowered to make each other smarter.” Peer effects matter.

* “Criticism of criticism of criticism.” Read it carefully and think about it and it does make sense.

* The four quadrants of conformism.

* “Democrats in America are realising they must moderate or die: The prospect of defeat in the mid-terms and beyond is moving many away from their most radical ideas.” It seems obvious, and yet is somehow missed.

* Why we ignore thousands of daily car crashes.

* Things about peer review, and a history of it. Consistent at least with my comments about peer review run amok.

* “How we will fight climate change.” “Technology” is the only feasible answer.

* The Framework modular laptop appears to be good.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It — M. Nolan Gray

Arbitrary Lines is a very good book, and one whose subject shouldn’t discourage you; as the author admits: “At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate.” The boredom is part of the point, though: because it’s boring, most people don’t get fired up about change. The tedium is protective to the status quo, and the tedium means that “seemingly innocuous zoning rules” have come to control “virtually every facet of American life.” As a result, we’re “systematically moving from high productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built.” I’m a tiny part of this massive migration: I moved from New York City to Arizona because New York builds less new housing per capita than almost any other major city, outside of California. The per-square-foot cost of my place in Arizona, in an area that is what passes for urban, is under half that of New York. I’d have liked to stay in New York but not at the literal cost of staying there.


Gray points to the ’70s as a turning point—something I wondered about too: “As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half century.” Solutions like “move to the farthest exurbs” don’t work well because they increase car commuting and traffic congestion, with commuting being awful for quality-of-life. In many cities, there is effectively no more exurban fringe: New York and L.A. are out of space within practice reach of their centers. Nominal “environmentalists” who attempt to seal their neighborhoods from new housing units are particularly comedic: they say they’re worried about the environment, while supporting housing policies that are terrible for the environment and foment car commuting. All of us are hypocritical to some extent, but this is well beyond normal, everyday hypocrisy.

Gray goes through zoning’s history: starting in the 1910s and moving onwards. He notes that “Cities such as Providence, Cleveland, and Los Angles grew by a startling 50 percent or more between 1890 and 1920. This in turn triggered a boom in apartment construction, as demand for housing ballooned.” “Ballooned” is a funny word here, given that one can imagine the housing stock as cartoon balloons being inflated. But it’s also useful to conceive of what a dynamic society looks like: a dynamic allows the freedom for landowners to build new housing, without a huge number of veto players stopping them. Outside of the relatively unregulated tech industry—which is where the frontier has moved—we’re a complacent society, not a dynamic one, and housing is one of the places this is clearest (though drug development and the stranglehold imposed by the FDA is another).

In much discourse today, the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) contingent argues that things are changing “too fast,” whatever that may mean. NIMBYs who claim to be redressing historical racial grievances seem to miss that they’re willing to rapidly adopt new moral or social ideas, while being unwilling to countenance changes in the physical environment that really matter and might embody those moral or social ideas. They’re saying one thing, but not connecting those statements to each other. Much early zoning was about exclusion—Berkeley, California “introduced the first single-family zoning district in the United States,” and Gray reports that “Charles Henry Cheney, a key framer of Berkeley’s 1916 zoning ordinance” worried that “undesirable industries” would bring in “negroes and Orientals.” Today, Berkeley’s rhetoric favors racial harmony and integration, while Berkeley’s median housing price is $1.7 million. Almost no one seems to see the gap between the stated goals. The rationale for modern zoning is different from the original rationale, but the outcome is similar.

Gray worked, and maybe works, in urban planning, so he has stories about its absurdities. There’s a 30,000 foot view of how things work, and there’s an on-the-ground-view, and he’s done both. I appreciate the combination: having worked for decades in grant writing, I see things about the world of nonprofits and public agencies that most people don’t. Like zoning, few are interested in how many nonprofits and public agencies are funded and truly operate. The knowledge is out there, mostly ignored, except by the wonks who can find one another online.

The middle sections of Arbitrary Lines, about how restricting housing supply raises prices, will be familiar to regular readers, or to anyone familiar with basic economics (which excludes a large number of people who think other factors are somehow at play—though we see the supply-restriction story in the data). I’m tempted to quote extensively, but this is a solid “man does not bite dog” story: what one would expect to happen, has happened, helping to lower aggregate wealth and make life harder for millions of people. Gray also has a picture of yard signs, one saying “All are welcome” and another “opposing zoning liberalization in Austin.” There are fun study citations, like that “the typical resident of Vermont—renowned for its commitment to environmentalist causes—consumes three and a half times as much gasoline per year as the typical resident of New York City.” Most people follow their feelings, not data, and so we get the results we get. Still, the affordability crisis has gotten bad enough that we’re starting to see policy responses, and books like Arbitrary Lines should help inform the kinds of staffers who write and encourage legislation.

What can be done? I approve of efforts to enforce change at the state level and hope they succeed, though I wonder if it’s going to take technological innovation to see substantial improvements. Self-driving cars will lower the cost of current zoning, because true self-driving cars would allow us to reallocate most of the vast amount of urban, developed space reserved for parking into something else. The car allowed the exclusionary suburbs of the post-war era to bloom, and the self-driving car may remove the mania for mandating the over-provision of parking spaces. The High Cost of Free Parking is a great, surprising book about a subject that seems as boring as zoning, and yet one that also affects almost every aspect of how we live—including our health.

If this essay seems like too much a summary of the book, that’s because the book is thorough and comprehensive, and apart from some anecdotes I have too little to add. “Zoning” may be invisible, but its results are visible all around us. We pay supernormal amounts to live in areas built before zoning strangled our ability to create functional cities. Human flourishing would increase if Gray’s ideas became widely adopted. Inertia and complacency stand in the way. We can live better, if we choose to.

Links: Geothermal energy, the fate of legacy publishing, and more!

* Geothermal energy update. I’ve worked on geothermal projects; they’re fun. Apparently, many fracking techniques are being productively applied to geothermal projects.

* If you, like me, have wondered why legacy publishing seems to be dying, and why fiction seems to be so anemic right now, this article, if true, shows why. Everything about it, from its implicit (or maybe explicit?) racism to its smarmy, dismissive assertions, demonstrates what I wrote about in “The death of literary culture.”

* “Professors Need the Power to Fire Diversity Bureaucrats: Scholars should drive out overzealous administrators, not vice versa.” Good luck. College accreditors also inhibit the entry of new competitors, which may explain some of the challenges seen in higher education. In many sclerotic parts of the economy, regulators are at work, maintaining sclerosis.

* “A Berkeley professor’s Senate testimony didn’t go how the left thinks it did.”

* “‘A Real Chilling Effect’: A Lefty Scholar is Dumping the Center for American Progress (CAP).” On Ruy Teixeira, and the author says:

Teixeira’s bill of complaints will be a familiar one for many who have followed the internal battles of the left over the past half-decade, or spent an afternoon on left-wing Twitter. Politically, as a strategist, he thinks the Democrats need to win culturally moderate voters if they’re going to ever create the kind of coalition that can get their policies enacted. And personally, as an employee, he’s none too fond of the institutional dynamics that he says are driven by younger staff but embraced by higher-ups afraid of a public blow-up.

* Will Russian logistics stall completely?

* “Build a Charter School, Get Sued by the Teachers Union: Vertex Academies is set to open next month on the old Blessed Sacrament campus in the Bronx. Its founders, Ian Rowe and Joyanet Mangual, are confident they’ll beat back the legal challenge.” Maybe.

Links: The need for universal COVID vaccines, the polarization spiral, and more!

* “We could have universal COVID vaccines very soon — if we urgently reform the process.” Extremely important and urgent, and yet very little discussed.

* “The Polarization Spiral: How the right’s monomania and the left’s Great Awokening feed each other.” It’s possible to not succumb to either. “I choose not to” is underrated.

* “American Factories Are Making Stuff Again as CEOs Take Production Out of China.”

* “June Huh, High School Dropout, Wins the Fields Medal.” Beautiful and charming.

* “Make Birth Free.” Things are different when your side wins, than when your side is merely delivering “criticism.”

* “The Outlier:” a surprisingly interesting review-essay on Jimmy Carter and his presidency; the most arresting part may be the counterfactual around the ’76 election:

Reading this book, I kept imagining the alternate history in which Reagan succeeds in his 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford, which he lost narrowly in real life. Since Reagan is a much more talented politician than Ford, and isn’t tainted by Ford’s association with Nixon, he almost certainly picks up a couple points of the vote and beats Carter. Then he ends up presiding over stagflation and takes the blame for the poor economy. He loses in 1980 to Ted Kennedy, who ushers in a decade of liberal dominance until his presidency implodes in scandal amidst the revelation of his many drunken affairs.

I’m reminded of the 2004 election: although Democrats considered losing it to be bad at the time—few partisans like losing elections—the lead-up to the 2008 election included near-economic collapse. And 2004-8 wasn’t a high mark of American foreign policy, either, with Iraq a fiasco and Afghanistan worse in some ways. Republicans got to eat all of that and lose in 2008. Oddly, to my eye, everyone seems to have forgotten about the 2002-2008 period, when Iraq and other aspects of foreign policy dominated much of political discourse. Yet that period is notable in “‘The Internationalists’ and making war illegal,” a recent essay I wrote.

* “The American Political Science Review Goes Woke.” Maybe.

* “Stunned by UFOs, ‘exasperated’ fighter pilots get little help from Pentagon.” I see two major possibilities: we’re either seeing evidence of aliens (defined broadly), or we’re seeing some kind of information battle playing out, perhaps through some kind of projection that shows up on radar and visually.

* “Labor Unions Reduce Product Quality,” it seems.

* We need regulatory speed-ups and reform, not only R&D, if we’re going to move to cleaner energy.

* “The New Founders America Needs: What I told the first students at The University of Austin.” On the commitment to free speech and thought.

* “The Rise of Bad Art and the Decline of Political Candor.” Not quite my views, but entertaining.

Links: Pre- and post-social-media culture, powering the mind, powering the grid, and more!

* “Homelessness is a Housing Problem”: When cities build more housing, homelessness goes down. Essential reading given the quantity of incorrect statements about this issue one sees online.

* “Nuclear power can help the democratic world achieve energy independence.” Pretty obvious, but here we are. What’s Germany doing, besides restarting dirty coal plants? Relatedly, some encouragement to “Stop Being Surprised by Germany,” which covers the country’s poor showing around Ukraine, and its penchant for funding Russian militarism. I’m not sure how much its recent behavior can be blamed on World War II and its aftermath, though.

* Johann Hari’s experiment with smart drugs, and in particular modafinil (which is the common name for “Provigil”). Modafinil can be bought online from Indian sources.

* The growth of silicon carbide electronics.

* The FDA is still bad and wasteful. It’s still unable to do basic cost-benefit analysis, or implement that analysis if it does conduct it.

* “The Vanishing Moderate Democrat:” which is in-depth and not the usual. Relatedly: “Democrats Are Having a Purity-Test Problem at Exactly the Wrong Time.” It’s admittedly funny to read these pieces in a venue that has discouraged moderation and encouraged purity tests for the last five or more years, and is now reaping the fruits of those labors.

* “Energy Superabundance: How Cheap, Abundant Energy Will Shape Our Future.” “Will” seems a bit too definitive.

* A good Marc Andreessen interview.

* On the secrets of “covid fog.” Knowing what causes it is, obviously, key to being able to treat it.

* “Why go to space?” Yes, the pragmatic reasons are valid, but the fundamental reason is because it’s the final frontier. “Why defeat complacency?” might be another title.

* Actors are getting older. I theorize that there’s a fundamental break between the pre-social-media world and the post-social-media world; the latter can include video streaming, YouTube, and other things that may not in a strict sense be “social media.” The cultural world of the latter is eating the cultural world of the former in ways that we’re only beginning to appreciate. I don’t hear students talk about favorite actors any more; I hear them talk about favorite YouTubers. Also, a lot of famous pre-social-media cultural products aren’t actually very good: a few months ago, for example, I tried watching Interview With a Vampire: to put it lightly, it doesn’t hold up. We’re adjusting from a world of relative cultural scarcity to a world of total cultural abundance.

“The Internationalists” and making war illegal

At Astral Codex Ten, there’s a great review essay on The Internationalists, a book about “the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact” (I hadn’t heard of it either), which sought to “declare war illegal.” There are some obvious ways in which war has continued, but the thrust of The Internationalists and the essay seems to be that things have overall been moving in the right direction. Even authoritarian countries like Russia work to play down their warfare and conquest aims, particularly to their own populations. Part of the reason countries appear to have historically gone to war is to get rich by stealing things from other people, and to get more “land” for one’s people. These reasons haven’t made sense for many decades, if they ever did; today, the largest companies in the world are tech companies, and you can’t steal Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Amazon through invasion. Even if these companies were in Ukraine, attempting to “steal” them through invasion wouldn’t work because the vast majority of their value is in their people and systems, who would flee (in the case of people) and which would disintegrate (in the case of systems) in the event of invasion.

China has gotten rich in the last few decades by making stuff people want, not by attempting to forcibly steal things through invasion. China might change this strategy through invading Taiwan, and in the process destroy companies like TSMC, but it’s almost certainly not going to get richer in the process, and will likely achieve the opposite. In many countries, including the United States, we could immediately become vastly richer by changing some of our laws, rather than invading other countries: Hsieh and Moretti, for example, “quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009.”

36 percent! That’s a huge amount of growth—imagine making 36% more per year than you are right now. Like a lot of countries (though not Japan), we can dramatically increase aggregate wealth by liberalizing land-use laws. Essentially all countries have plenty of “space” for people—if we choose to let land owners do what they want to with their land. We’ve decided to be collectively poorer by not doing so, which seems unwise to me, but I’m one guy.

In most countries, too, birthrates are now at or below replacement levels. We’re not collectively able to reproduce ourselves, let alone need to somehow go find more “space” for others. Polling consistently shows American women want two or three kids, but most are having one or two, perhaps because they feel they can’t afford to have more. Maybe we should try to make the cost of living lower, so that more people can enjoy it—that is, the “living.” Instead, we’re perversely doing the opposite. “Perversity” may be the theme of this essay.

The anonymous reviewer says that “The US keeps starting or engaging in wars, like in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq,” but he or she doesn’t go further: There’s an interesting counterfactual history of the United States in which we don’t invade Iraq, spending around $2 trillion (“trillion” with a “t”). Let’s say we spend 10% of that, or $200 billion, on other things, such as true energy independence. Although Iraq wasn’t really about “stealing” Iraqi oil, Iraq—like Russia and Iran—wouldn’t have the money to create globally significant mischief without selling oil. What could we have done instead of invading Iraq? We could have invested substantially in battery technology and manufacturing, thus driving the cost of batteries for car applications, five to ten years earlier than actually happened—and we could’ve cut gas and oil usage far faster than we did. We’d get environmental benefits, too, on top of the geopolitical ones.

There are arguments like this around nuclear fusion power plants:

“Fusion is 30 years away and always will be.”

What happened? Why has fusion failed to deliver on its promise in the past?

By the 1970s, it was apparent that making fusion power work is possible, but very hard. Fusion would require Big Science with Significant Support. The total cost would be less than the Apollo Program, similar to the International Space Station, and more than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The Department of Energy put together a request for funding. They proposed several different plans. Depending on how much funding was available, we could get fusion in 15-30 years.

How did that work out?


Along with the plans for fusion in 15-30 years, there was also a reference: ‘fusion never’. This plan would maintain America’s plasma physics facilities, but not try to build anything new.

Actual funding for fusion in the US has been less than the ‘fusion never’ plan.

The reason we don’t have fusion already is because we, as a civilization, never decided that it was a priority. Fusion funding is literally peanuts: In 2016, the US spent twice as much on peanut subsidies as on fusion research.

We’ve been consistently spending less on fusion than we did in the ’70s. The largest fusion project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is now going to cost around $21 billion—or about half of the $40 billion in weapons we’re shipping to Ukraine (Russia is a petro state and, without income from oil and gas sales, it would be unlikely to be able to fund a true war effort). $21 billion is also about 1% of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war. Maybe we’d not have working, commercially viable nuclear fusion here in 2022, but we’d be far closer than we are. Instead of investing in true energy independence, we’ve been investing in warfare, which seems like a bad trade-off. MRNA vaccines have made the world billions if not trillions of dollars richer, apart from saving a million lives in the United States alone. Maybe we should do more of that (I’m using the word “maybe” with some archness).

There’s a world in which we take the long view in an attempt to stop funding authoritarian regimes and stop invading them, and we instead focus on trying to get to the future faster. Most of the wars involving the United States in the last 30 years have been at least partially traceable to oil and gas (Saudi Arabia being the home of 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers, and being a putative ally of the U.S. but not exactly the good guys). Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe we ought to think about this relationship between warfare and gas,” we’ve decided to keep fighting random wars piecemeal. As of this writing, we’re not fighting Russia directly, but we’re not not fighting Russia. Simultaneously, had Germany invested heavily in conventional nuclear fission plants, it would’ve imported billions less in gas from Russia, and it would be poised to switch to electric vehicles. Russia’s warfare capabilities would likely be far worse than they are. Germany’s emissions could be far lower than they are. (France, to its credit, gets most of its electricity from nuclear sources: contrary to stereotype, the country isn’t composed entirely of Houellebecqian bureaucrats, sex workers, and waiters.)

Making war illegal is good, but making it uneconomical is also good, and the latter may help encourage the former. War is dumb and people get richer without it—one hopes the Chinese Community Party (CCP) sees this, as we did not during 2001 – 2003. Making war even more uneconomical than it is now requires a civilization that thinks further than a few months into the future. Maybe we should get on that. Things that are illegal and dumb aren’t very enticing.

%d bloggers like this: