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A Wall Street Journal article derisively titled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” has been making rounds of the blogosphere lately, with its premise that, based on a 2008 survey of economic knowledge, the left wing would flunk Economics 101. Supposedly, the left fumbles the most basic economic concepts.

Well, I am a Chomsky-reading, bleeding-heart leftist, and an economics major. I’ve never received a grade lower than an A in any economics course. So I feel I’m in a unique position to offer criticism from the left.

Firstly–and this is a criticism I have for economics in general–I disagree with the notion of breaking complex political issues down to simple cost-benefit calculations. Any policy assessment should be considered in the context of our values as a society. For example: it’s true that taxation is distortionary and may create disincentives toward work. For Chicago school economists, this in itself is a crime. However, in a broader social context, our society has chosen to value a more even wealth distribution and greater social services. We have made a trade-off, valuing social equality slightly more than economic efficiency.

So, it upsets me when survey respondents are deemed “unenlightened” for not playing along with the cost-benefit analysis of complex issues presented in a single sentence. The answer format of “strongly agree/agree/unsure/disagree/strongly disagree” is extremely shallow for those that see a more human element in those issues, who would prefer to answer, “Yes, but…” In other words, the bleeding-heart liberals.

Daniel Klein kindly supplies all eight of the questions that were asked in his survey and his idea of what constitutes an “unenlightened” answer; all the better to provide all the “Yes, but…” responses that I, if I had been a participant, would have liked to respond with.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

It’s true. If urban areas aren’t allowed to sprawl forever, housing will be more scarce and thus more expensive. This concept is extremely well understood in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where height and sprawl limits have made Vancouver the most “severely unaffordable” housing market in Anglophone countries, according to a recent study by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg.

However, Vancouver is also a darling of international urban design circles for its sustainable and varied infrastructure. It is consistently ranked among the top five most liveable cities in the world, partly for its preservation of green spaces in the city at the expense of housing development. The survey statement is a very loaded question. The answer is yes, restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable, but I feel that it’s unfair to leave it at that.

Yes, but, restrictions on housing development have consequences beyond housing prices, like the nurturing of a more pleasant and sustainable urban infrastructure and a greater quality of life for a city’s residents. To end simply with the assertion that it makes housing less affordable is to leave out the real story.

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes, it does. But it also increases the quality and reliability of professional services, and any good economist should know that a good and reliable service is more valuable than a mediocre or uncertain level of service. One can receive a lower quality service at a lower price, or a higher quality service at a higher price; they move together. Furthermore, it is well-established in economics that consumers prefer certainty over uncertainty, and that customers will pay a premium to make an uncertain situation less risky; this is the basis for the insurance industry. By forcing professionals to obtain licenses, it reduces the risk to consumers of hiring someone substandard.

This question is misleading and poorly phrased from an economic point of view. Consumers are not paying higher prices for the same services; consumers are paying higher prices for higher-quality services with an increased assurance of hiring someone competent. It is not the same product.

3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

This one I will give to the authors; in general, standards of living around the world have risen in the last 30 years. There are a few arguments to the contrary with some countries (Chad, Sudan, etc) facing deep civil war and others that have been particularly exploited, but overall it’s hard to deny that living standards have risen.

4. Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree).

Yes. Every economics textbook and its mother points to rent control in New York City to demonstrate the effects of a price ceiling on supply. The argument is that at a lower-than-market price, more units of housing will be demanded than supplied, mutually-beneficial transactions will be prevented, and there will be a housing shortage. People who want housing will not be able to find it.

While the above is true, I think that it understates the alternative: the equilibrium rental rate pricing many potential consumers out of the market entirely. This is another serious problem facing my local housing market here in Vancouver, where the market price leaves many on the streets. Rent control or not, many people will find themselves outside the housing market. The question is whether we would prefer to cheap but high-in-demand housing, inefficient by economic standards, or expensive and efficient housing. Either way, some potential consumers are left out.

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly. (unenlightened answer: agree)

This question is very fuzzy in terms of its accuracy; either answer has legitimate justifications. A monopoly is usually thought of as a firm that occupies an entire market–in other words, they are the only producer supplying a particular good. The strictest economic definition characterizes it as such. In practice, what we refer to as “monopolies” in the real world are very rarely absolute. More liberal (pun intended) and just as legitimate definitions within economics characterize a monopoly market as a market in which one particular firm holds significant market power to set higher prices, arising in markets with little substantial competition. In economic theory, only a company that is the sole supplier of a good can be a monopoly; in practice, one particular firm with substantial market power can form an effective monopoly.

6. Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (unenlightened answer: agree)

I’m not sure what definition of “exploited” the survey authors are using, but I find this assertion just shocking in its lack of empathy. Supporters of sweatshops argue that child labour is unavoidable in countries with populations so poor that children must work or their families will starve; that they are popular in poor communities because they offer higher wages than other options; that we can’t expect the labour standards of industrialized countries to apply to poorer countries quite yet.

I have many concerns about the ethics of paying a child $0.15 cents an hour to produce t-shirts that sell for $30 in developed countries. Surely there is room for a higher wage in that mark-up, at least enough to reduce a working day from 12 to 6 or 8 hours, or for investment in humanitarian aid and social programs that help families avoid depending on their childrens’ wages.

How is it not exploitation to not only expect long hours at low pay, but without the freedom to form unions, in ill-ventilated factories, and without access to clean water at work? Or with chained fire exits that have already led to several deaths? Or workers that are physically abused by their superiors? Or being forced to work mandatory 19-hour shifts?

Anyone who seriously argues that overseas workers for American factories are not being exploited is either ignorant or in denial, or has a serious flaw in their definition of exploitation.

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (unenlightened answer: agree)

Economists will argue to death that free trade will lead to the loss of jobs that weren’t efficient anyway and will be more than redeemed by the creation of newer, better (more efficient) jobs in other industries. I am extremely skeptical.

NAFTA, for instance, has been devastating for poor Mexican farmers, who find their products priced out of the market by a flood of cheap imports from the heavily subsidized agricultural industry in the United States. Furthermore, many of the jobs in heavy industry created to balance the loss in agriculture have since been lost to China, where wages and production costs are even lower. Furthermore, some evidence points to a lowering of real wages and greater income inequality in Mexico since NAFTA. Overall, job creation estimates were exaggerated and job loss estimates were understated.

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes. In contrast to the issue of rent control, which forms a price ceiling, economists argue that the minimum wage forms a price floor, at which there will be a surplus of labour. More people will want to work at minimum wage than employers are willing to hire, and as the cost of hiring a worker increases (minimum wage goes up), employers will hire even less. It sounds very reasonable in theory.

Real-world measurements of this effect are split. Some studies show a minor effect of a decrease in employment with an increase in the minimum wage. Others argue that the overall effect of a substantial increase in the minimum wage forms a net force that is overwhelmingly positive. Recently, there has been strong consensus by many economists that a higher minimum wage does more good than harm for lower-income workers.

If I had been given this survey, I don’t know what I would have scored. I am familiar with the economic concepts behind all of these questions and how they work; working from what is technically correct at the conceptual level, I suspect that I would have correctly answered every question except numbers six and seven, on which I refuse to relent.

Yes, it’s true, most of the answers that the author gives to those questions are “correct” in the economic sense. But I, like many on the left, have difficulty circling “Agree” to an assertion that housing restrictions raise prices and leaving it at that. We are too busy thinking about everything else: “I agree that the statement is technically accurate, but I feel that it misrepresents the issue by reducing it to efficiency and there is so much more to the case at hand.” As an economics major and a leftist, I understand these concepts and how they work, and I have made a value judgement, a trade-off–that social equality means more to me than efficiency.

Is that unenlightened?

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Before the CUPE strike closed the Vancouver libraries, I managed to get in one last visit to the Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch – seven floors of literary fun housed inside a building with some sort of anachronic identity disorder. You see, the library seems to think it’s a coliseum. The full impact of the architecture can’t be done justice in the photo to the right – you really have to stand next to this behemoth of a building to really appreciate it in its enormity and anachronism.

But enough about the beauty of the Central VPL. That’s not my rant.

Near the entrance of the main (fiction) floor is the “Fast-Read” shelf. The Fast-Read shelf is a special selection of books on the current bestseller list and other extremely recent or popular books, like The Da Vinci Code. These books are only available to borrow for a week at a time with heavier than normal overdue fees, the point being to circulate them very quickly to meet the huge demand.

I’m not a fan of pulp fiction at all, but my father adores paperback mystery novels, and he asked me to look for anything he would like. So I was scanning the Fast-Read shelf for something suspense-y when what do I see, but Anna Karenina in all its 900-page glory.

Anna Karenina is a fast read?

What kind of reading-maniac could finish and comprehend the full text of Anna Karenina in a week? What kind of self-respecting lover of literature would want to? It’s not easy to skim a Tolstoy novel in a week anyways, but the only people really keen on reading Russian literature in the first place aren’t usually the type to rush through a great literary work. That’s not the point of reading these books.

Strangely, I had no problem finding several older copies of Anna Karenina available for three week loan periods with two renewal options one floor above in the literature section. It’s only the new copies down on the Fast-Read shelf that are in high demand; the older ones are one floor away and covered in dust.

I blame Oprah and her book club for getting Anna Karenina on the Fast-Read shelf. Since she endorsed it in 2004, its popularity has skyrocketed. Many people who wouldn’t otherwise consider reading Tolstoy have clearly been trying to get ahold of it at the library, so the loan period was limited to one week per patron, no renewals. It’s all good and fine that more people are reading great literature, but it’s just cruel and unusual to expect them to do it in one week. That’s just silly.

And while I’m on the topic of ranting about the library, what’s wrong with those people that underline things in non-fiction library books in pen? It’s a public library book, not something from a private collection. At least notes in pencil can be erased, even if it’s a lengthy book and the previous borrower underlined everything. What are those people thinking?

Also, would CUPE 391 (the library workers’ union) and the government please kiss and make up soon? The library has been closed since July 26, and I miss it.

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Since my cousin moved back to Vancouver from Manhattan, I’ve noticed that she has a strange, urban serendipity about her: every time she walks to a street corner, the light instantly changes in her favor. I’m not kidding about this; every time I walk with her downtown, she never has to wait for the ‘Walk’ signal. It comes on the second she approaches the curb, and with no conscious effort whatsoever on her part. And, since I first noted this in my cousin, I’ve been seeing the same crazy luck in both my aunt and her boyfriend – who, like my cousin, are self-proclaimed urbanites living in a very trendy part of downtown.

It was all a strange coincidence – until it started to happen to me, too. Whenever I approach a street corner downtown (this does not work in the suburbs), the light just seems to change in my favor, regardless of my intent to catch it. I used to have the worst luck with my timing downtown, always just missing the light I wanted. Now… well, I don’t think I’ve had to wait for a light to change in weeks. Even my friends are pointing out to me that I have the greatest luck with these things.

I have a theory about this urban serendipity. Cities really do have a pulse. That pulse becomes the pace of the whole city… and that pace is the speed at which each traffic light turns after the other. I think that people who spend a lot of time in the city, like my urbanite family members and now myself, start to fall “in tune” with the pace of the city. Over time, we just develop the perfect pace of walking that gets us between streets right as the lights turn, because it’s such a consistent rhythm.

(This kind of pulse isn’t something I see much of in the suburbs, but I think that it has to do with the lack of traffic and the length of suburban blocks. Suburban streets are more likely to be empty, so we tend to jaywalk more often. And, at least in my neighborhood, the blocks are much larger than those in the city, so it takes a long time to walk from one street to the other – long enough to distract someone from developing the rhythm a city would have.)

With or without the logical explanation for it, the idea of being “in tune” with a city – belonging to a city – is so romantic to me. There’s comfort in knowing and loving a city inside out so much that everything between the limits feels like home. My favorite expression of belonging and comfort in a city are the opening lyrics of “Under the Bridge” (1991), the most successful and best-known song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in, the City of Angel
Lonely as I am, together we cry

“I drive on her streets ’cause she’s my companion
I walk through her hills ’cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds and she kisses me windy
I never worry, now that is a lie”

Then, later on in the song, is my favorite verse of music:

“It’s hard to believe that there’s nobody out there
It’s hard to believe that I’m all alone
At least I have her love, the city, she loves me
Lonely as I am, together we cry”

Lead singer and frontman of the Chili Peppers, Anthony Kiedis, actually wrote the song about his former heroin addiction – and the full lyrics strongly hint but not explicitly confirm this (though Kiedis himself has). This song once almost lost the potential to become the hit it did because Kiedis had hid the lyrics due to their personal nature. I thought this was odd because Kiedis has sung some pretty wicked-crazy stuff over the years. And those are just the lyrics I don’t feel guilty linking to; some are so explicit I wouldn’t even dare – and some of the above are still pretty graphic. Point is, this is not a guy who’s afraid to put it out there. (Much too literally sometimes.)

Many other musical artists and writers have similarly paid tribute in some way to the cities they love. The cities that seem to get the most love are New York City and pretty much anything in California. Wikipedia has lists (linked in the previous sentence) of hundreds of songs dedicated to NYC, the state of California, cities in California, and even individual streets in California. New Yorkers and Californians really love their homes.

Yet there are hardly any songs (I found two, neither are known widely enough to have lyrics posted anywhere online) dedicated to my city of Vancouver, even though we’re ranked third internationally for quality of life. Canadian cities just don’t get the love they deserve.

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Recently, in Vancouver, we’ve had quite a bit of trouble with our water supply: the three reservoirs serving the region were all heavily contaminated after a week-long storm. Thankfully, the reservoir serving my suburban neighbourhood was cleared within a day, but the main city was under a “boiled or bottled” advisory for two weeks (Vancouver’s tap water during this period was brown). Due to government and company caps, the price of bottled water was not allowed to increase according to its new supply and demand during this period. It was the perfect opportunity to study economic price theory in in action. As author Thomas Sowell puts it in my current reading material, Basic Economics: “Nothing shows the role of price fluctuations… like the absence of such price fluctuations.”

The situation in Vancouver sounded like an example right out of the book itself. The local reservoirs had been contaminated with dangerous levels of clay, residents were told to drink boiled or bottled water, and no one knew exactly how long the warning would last. This last part was key. The night the advisory was announced, shoppers began lining up at about two in the morning outside Costco for its ten o’clock opening. The pandemonium that followed the store’s opening was so tremendous it got a mention on the front page of The Vancouver Sun. In less than five minutes, Costco’s entire stock of bottled water was gone, and there were fights breaking out everywhere.

I didn’t think to save the article, so this isn’t confirmed, but I seem to recall that the major problem at the time was that whoever reached the bottled water first grabbed as much as they could carry, since they were so cheap and no one knew how long the advisory would be in effect. This is where price theory comes in. According to basic economic principles, the price of bottled water at Costco should have skyrocketed due to the sudden demand–but it didn’t, due to company restrictions (acting in reasonable social interests–if water was suddenly $10 a bottle, people would freak out), and therein lies the problem.

Consider this: what if the price of bottled water at Costco had skyrocketed to some wild price, like $10 a bottle? Would people have gone and grabbed three dozen bottles then? The official advisory, put out by the radio and newspapers, urged residents to drink their water “boiled or bottled.” If the price had skyrocketed, it’s likely that more people would have opted to boil their tap water instead of buy the obscenely-priced bottled water. Even if they had chosen to buy, they wouldn’t have done it in as large quantities as they would have at the cheaper prices. Whereas an individual may have bought three dozen bottles at $.50 or $1 each, they may only buy one dozen at $5 or $10 each, leaving more water for other people to claim. Escalating prices in a crisis aren’t intended to rob people blind; whether the customers realize it or not, the rising prices force them to share resources when there isn’t enough to go around. It keeps the balance, so no one leaves the store with three dozen bottles while someone else leaves with nothing.

By the way, as noted by Sowell, the high prices of hotel rooms after a crisis like a hurricane or earthquake are also an example of this forced generosity. By raising the prices of a hotel room to meet the sudden demand, the hotel forces many people to find roommates and families to rent single rooms to save money–effectively distributing their resource, shelter, among people who might have taken an entire room to themselves at normal prices. Privacy and space are sacrificed, but more people have a roof over their heads because of the higher cost of the rooms.

Anyone reading this with a background in economics would roll their eyes at these most basic ideas, I’m sure, but as a newbie to the field, I find it exciting to see the theories I read about in a book come to life in the “real world.” Of course, this is economics, so every principle acts in the real world, but seeing a theory I’ve been reading about take action around me is still very cool.

Price theory: forcing generosity, whenever you want it, and then some.

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The Vancouver Sun printed this increasingly disturbing story in the morning news.

The gist of it is this: two teenage boys (13 and 15) beat two elderly men (76 and 82) to death in a park washroom for their wallets. Instead of convicting them on charges of second-degree murder, the judge convicted them on charges of manslaughter. They may get out, without serious repercussions, on bail.

This would not be a particularly tragic article if not for the judge’s statement in his ruling: “Here it cannot be forgotten that the accused were 13 and 15 years of age at the time of the offence. The lack of life experience and the relative inability to see serious consequences accompanying an act are hallmarks of youth. On balance I have a reasonable doubt that the two accused meant to cause Mr. Thandi bodily harm knowing it was likely to cause his death.”

Feel free to actively disagree, but I believe that the judge’s statement can be summarized as such: thirteen- and fifteen-year-olds cannot understand that repeatedly beating an elderly man in the head with a baseball bat may kill them.

I hope that this comes across as absurd to my readers as it did to me. If the Canadian justice system thinks that a fifteen-year-old cannot understand that baseball bat + elderly man’s head = possible death, then I have no hope of ever being taken seriously in this country. After all, I will be fifteen next month. It’s depressing to think that if I were to beat someone to death with a baseball bat, the courts would think me too young to understand what I had done. All teenagers, in fact, know that taking a bat to someone’s head might kill them; the majority of us go a step further and understand that this is also a very bad idea.

If all a fifteen-year-old can get for beating two old men to death is a slap on the wrist, what sort of a message is this sending to teenagers? Go ahead and kill someone for pocket money; we think you’re too stupid to realize what you’re doing so there won’t be any consequences. Does the justice system really think that giving a teenager a slap on the wrist for murder at fifteen will make him an angel at twenty? God forbid; if this teen hadn’t killed someone, he would have been driving in a year. Isn’t that a scary thought?

You would think that a teenager mentally disturbed enough to beat an old man to death for pocket money would be in enough trouble even if the victim didn’t die, but apparently not in the Canadian justice system.

And they wonder why youth violence is on the rise. Here’s an idea, folks: maybe teens that murder old men should be held accountable for their actions. If they were actually punished for murdering someone, maybe less teens would consider it, hm?

Needless to say, I sent the Sun this letter in response.

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Urbanphobia

Is there a -phobia word for ‘fear of cities’ or ‘fear of urban environment’? I would find it hard to believe that we have a word for ‘fear of flutes’ (aulophobia) and ‘fear of objects to the right of the body’ (dextrophobia) but nothing for large cities. There’s even a phobia for ‘fear of teenagers’ (ephebiphobia–totally understandable, I admit) and different phobias for fears of flying, falling, gravity, and heights. I’m currently scanning a phobia list on the internet, and if I don’t find any kind of urbanphobia, I totally claim the rights to create such a term because I’m certain that the condition exists.

I live in the suburbs. A sad, sad fact of life. However, I live less than an hour from Vancouver by transit, so I spend my all my weekends and free days roaming the city streets. To be entirely honest, nothing happens in the suburbs. Really. It’s much more interesting to be in Vancouver, where everything is happening all at once, than in the suburbs, where the headline of the local newspaper is about a coyote attacking someone’s pet cat. Until about last April, I was content to live in the slow-paced, suburban life, and saw nothing particularly strange about my fellow suburbanites. And until about the same time, I never realized that myself and the other suburbanites all suffer from what I like to call (for lack of an official term) ‘urbanphobia’.

Urbanphobia is a strange thing. When I tell someone–anyone–in the suburbs that I spend every weekend and every day of the summer wandering the streets of downtown, they are, without exception, absolutely appalled. A fourteen year old girl wandering the streets nine-to-nine alone, without companion or cellphone? They would never dream of doing it themselves. How many times have I been mugged, have I ever been attacked or raped? What kind of awful, neglectful parents would allow their daughter to roam the city unprotected? What am I doing so far from home for so long each day? It never fails.

Last week, my English teacher remarked on the ‘scary’ panhandlers of downtown, how she would never walk the streets alone because people will hassle you for change. On a school trip to the Orpheum theatre downtown to see the dalai lama, we happened to drive down East Hastings, the worst street in Vancouver. All of the downtown east side is essentially forbidden territory for most Vancouverites, never mind suburbanites. And all the while we drove down this street, girls in the back of the bus whimpered about ‘scary downtown’ and how disgusting Vancouver was. I took great pleasure in telling them what I do with my spare time. Priceless.

What I pointed out to both my English teacher and the girls cowering in the back of the bus (and to anyone who expresses grief over my urban wanderings) is that, no, Vancouver is not a scary, dangerous place. Downtown east side, perhaps (my friend’s father drove down E Hastings with his two young daughters clearly visible in the back seat–nevertheless, two women asked him on seperate occasions at the intersection if he was looking for a ‘good time’), but only the truely foolish would walk through that part of town. The misconception that most suburbanites seem to share is that the entire city is one big East Hastings, and that the panhandlers are all muscular, drug-crazed men that will stab you if you don’t drop your wallet in their tin.

I always use my own case in my argument, because it tends to surprise a lot of suburbanites: that I, fourteen year old girl, wander downtown completely unattended from dawn to dusk, and have not even once been so much as approached by a panhandler. The depth of my encounters with them is this: they sit by the sidewalk, tin in front, maybe asking, “Spare change?”, but nothing more. After months of wandering the streets nine-to-nine as a lone teenage girl, that is the absolute extent of panhandling I have had to endure.

Just a thought, really, but also a note to all the urbanphobic suburbanites out there: cities aren’t the scary underworlds people like to think they are.

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