Saving the Chattanooga pedestrian bridge

If you aren’t from the Southeast, you might not know that Chattanooga is a fun city. I recommend it as a place to spend a day, with or without kids. The aquarium and Lookout Mountain attractions are fun.

The riverfront downtown area is booming (in a low height building restriction kind of way). Developers are building fancy new townhomes near the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. The middle of the bridge offers lovely views of the river and mountains.

I noticed a sign saying that residents had “fought” to save the bridge from being demolished. Sometimes, it seems like a bad idea for residents to fight to save a historic structure. Insisting that a house built in 1890 must remain as it looked in 1890 can stifle the growth of a city. This instance seems different to me. The story of this beautiful bridge is an example of having a vision, clever city planning, and providing public goods through a mix of private and government funds.

The bridge was closed to motor vehicles in 1978. It’s not hard to imagine why a bridge built before automobiles could become unsafe for modern traffic by 1980.

I’ll quote the American Planning Association for the rest of the story:

The Tennessee Department of Transportation recommended demolishing the bridge, but Chattanooga’s then-Mayor Pat Rose suggested another idea: use it for pedestrians only. Rose and Ron Littlefield, AICP, the city’s Public Works Commissioner, kept the idea alive by hiring local architects … to develop a study for restoring the bridge.

Under the auspices of the not-for-profit organization Chattanooga Venture, a committee was formed to determine whether the bridge could and should be restored. Once it was determined a rehabilitated bridge could support pedestrian traffic, the local community rallied behind saving the bridge. Helping transfer the $2.5 million in federal funds originally designated for demolition to rehabilitation were former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts, former U.S. Representative Marilyn Lloyd and former Sen. Al Gore. Local fundraising efforts secured the additional $2 million needed to restore the bridge.

The ice cream and coffee shop at the beginning of the bridge has a menu in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. That’s pretty cosmopolitan for the American South. The lovely historic bridge really draws a crowd.

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Should I Be Cooking More Soup?

On Thanksgiving, we cook a bird. We eat meat. Then I make turkey soup by boiling the carcass and such. After making turkey soup, I have nagging thoughts, ‘That seemed quite economical. I have so much food now. I should make soup from scratch again soon.’

In fact, I will not make soup from scratch again until next Thanksgiving.*

Part of the reason for starting this blog is to explore my own cognitive dissonance. Is making soup from scratch economical and should I be doing it more? Right now I’m trying to work full-time and also produce food for a family 2 or 3 times every day. I want to minimize the time I spend cooking.

To start, naturally, I Googled “is soup the most economical food”.

Peasants and poor folk could get nutrients out of bones and root vegetables by making soup. Soup is economical in that sense, but I’m not talking about making broth.**

The Seattle Times has an article about chicken soup from scratch. In their introduction, they gave themselves away:

During America’s inexorable march toward processed food, chicken soup became something to buy, not something to make … and many cooks simply don’t know how satisfying a project it is.

So, they are admitting that it’s a lot of work. I do not want a “satisfying project”. I want food that is healthy and appealing; and I also want to avoid buying food from restaurants constantly.

Another article I arrived at was by Prudent Penny Pincher. The title is “60 CHEAP AND EASY FALL SOUPS”. Never trust all-caps. According to this site:

Name brand soups are about $2 per serving. Many soups can be made at home for under $1 per serving with less 30 minutes of prep/cook time.

The Prudent Penny Pincher page is little more than a list of links to other recipe sites. They wash their hands of the responsibility of telling you how to actually make soup. For research, I clicked their link for chicken soup.

What do you need to have on hand to make chicken soup in a mere 30 minute? Canned broth, for one. Making your own broth is not ‘quick and easy.’ You also need to have cooked chopped chicken and chopped vegetables.

If I have cooked chopped chicken and chopped vegetables, then I could just eat that! That’s a meal nearly finished. My guilt over not making soup from scratch regularly was completely resolved when I read that.

I had a similar revelation after I tried juicing for a week. Not counting the cost of a juicing machine, should you be juicing? If you have never once felt a pang of guilt for not juicing, then maybe you are male.

I borrowed a juicer once and I bought lots of fresh produce. I chopped fruits and veggies into chunks and juiced them. One cup of juice came out, which I drank while spending 20 minutes cleaning the yucky machine covered in pulp.

I realized that I should stop at the step where I have chopped fruits and veggies and just eat them. Fortunately, I hadn’t bought the juicer. Pity the women who juice regularly because of sunk cost bias after they bought the machine. Anyway, I concluded that juicing was expensive in terms of ingredients and time.

Through writing this, I realized that I make soup from scratch at Thanksgiving because it’s a holiday and I’m on vacation. It’s fun when you have free time.

Anyone who disagrees is welcome to comment. Am I discounting the future too much? Should I put work into making soup so that we can eat soup for days?

*There is an exception. I make delicious scallop corn chowder once a year when I am on vacation with extended family in the summer. So, that’s also when I’m not doing my professional work and an extended family member is taking care of my children.

**I do not participate in trendy “bone broth”. Do you think my son would be happy if I put bone broth on the table for dinner?

Happy Thanksgiving 2020

We wish you all a happy Thanksgiving day. I wondered if the academic literature could provide any insights to use on this day. If Google is a good guide, the formal economics literature has ignored the phenomenon of the Thanksgiving tradition.

“We Gather Together” from the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991 does, at the very least, exist. The first line of the abstract made me smile.

Thanksgiving Day is a collective ritual that celebrates material abundance enacted through feasting.

The third line of the abstract made me think.

So certain is material plenty for most U.S. citizens that this annual celebration is taken for granted by participants. 

Here is the official guidance from the CDC about 2020 holiday gatherings. They recommend against large gatherings and also provide tips for visiting people more safely: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html

Data Heroes

How often do we hear about “data heroes”? As a data analytics teacher, this just thrills me. Bloomberg reported on the Data Heroes of Covid this week.

One of the terrible things about Covid-19 from the perspective of March 2020 was how little we knew. The disease could kill people. We knew the 34-year-old whistleblower doctor in China had died of it. We knew the disease had caused significant disruption in China and Italy. There were so many horror scenarios that seemed possible and so little data with which to make rational decisions.

The United States has government agencies tasked with collecting and sharing data on diseases. The CDC did not make a strong showing here (would they argue they need more funding?). I don’t know if “fortunately” is the right word here, but fortunately private citizens rose to the task.

The Covid Tracking Project gathers and releases data on what is actually happening with Covid and health outcomes. They clearly present the known facts and update everything as fast as possible. The scientific community and even the government relies on this data source.

Healthcare workers have correctly been saluted as heroes throughout the pandemic. The data heroes volunteering their time deserve credit, too. Lastly, I’d like to give credit to Tyler Cowen for working so hard to sift through research and deliver relevant data to the public.

New Research on Stress

This weekend I am participating (virtually, remotely) in the Southern Economics Association annual meeting where economists talk about research in progress. I saw Laura Razzolini present a new project yesterday.

She and coauthors surveyed people in the city of Birmingham, AL before and after a major disruption to commuter traffic. One thing they find is that people who have a longer commute due to a road closure are more stressed.

AS IT HAPPENED, Covid came along and started stressing people soon after. So they did another round of surveys and have great baseline data to compare Covid-stressed people with. I will not discuss her results on how stress affects decision making here. She has got some really neat results. The paper will be called something like “Uncovering the Effects of Covid-19 on Stress, Well-Being, and Economic Decision-Making”.

The magnitude of the increase in stress from a longer commute was something like 2.5 on a scale of 1-10. (Do not quote me – I do not have her paper to reference – this is from memory)

A comment from the audience was that it looked like the magnitude of the increase of stress from a longer commute and from Covid were similar. How could that be? Isn’t a deadly disease worse than traffic?

To explain this, I return to my favorite xkcd comic. When you hover your mouse over the comic, it says “Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.” (Apropos of nothing, the fact that the comic artist picked Joe Biden as an example of someone who isn’t very important in 2011 seems pretty strange now.)

So, when traffic got worse people could only express “my life got worse”. And when Covid-19 caused shutdowns in the Spring of 2020, people again said “my life got worse”.

We only have one scale, and we resize our experience to fit. Thanksgiving is coming up. I would hope that we could take a day off from the 2020 year-of-doom talk and find something to be grateful for, because things actually can get worse. I also send out sincere condolences to all those who will be spending The Holidays apart from loved ones because of Covid-19.

Locals react to new condos

My local Facebook community group is a treasure trove of unfiltered NIMBY and YIMBY sentiments. I’m creating a “nimby” tag for blogs I write about them.

This FB post went up last week about some proposed townhouses that would be build on what is currently an ugly empty paved area of land on the side of a highway.

There were 40 “likes” and only 5 angry face reactions. Given some of the vitriol I have seen against building previously, I was surprised at how many people reacted positively. This can’t be treated as a scientific poll, but the fact that so many people bothered to say they approve was interesting to me.

Most of the land in our city is zoned for single-family detached houses, meaning most of it looks more like what people call suburbs.

Here’s what people said in the comments:

“I like the look. I also like Chaise’s term ‘vibrancy’.”

“ I wish they weren’t going to be so tall.” (Note that they are not tall. Most of this town used to be one-story 1-bathroom ranch houses, and there is a lot of nostalgia for those tiny houses.)

“Why are we junking up our downtown with condos.” (That one got 8 likes, and someone replied “because they sell.” Isn’t it astounding that someone would call this “junking”?)

“Almost Anything built in that location is a step in the right direction.” (8 likes)

Some people complained that this is not adding “affordable housing” to our city because these units are expensive. I might post more explicit debates over affordable housing in the future.  

Apparently, currently, there isn’t much opposition to developing an empty lot on the side of the highway with a few expensive units. There has been a WAR for the past year after a proposal to increase the density of housing closer to downtown. Anti-development types are angry that the city council is not doing more to block new building.

The prospective developer for this empty weed lot needs approval from the city council. Our city elections last month became rather contentious. It was, in part, a struggle between people who want to preserve curbs and doors just as they were in 1970 versus newer younger residents who are more pro-development.

Complacency and American Girl Dolls

Two recent books warn Americans that our society stagnated after the moon landing: The Decadent Society and The Complacent Class. Both imply that the 2000’s are running on the fumes of the Saturn V rocket. We have barely altered our physical world in decades, improvements in cell phones notwithstanding.

This has launched an interesting debate (you could even call it a game) where people look for counterexamples. Here’s the most recent one I’ve seen

This week I saw a reinforcing example of stagnation.

In the 1990’s I used to read the American Girl doll catalogue from cover to cover every year. Everything is terribly expensive but also delightful to look at. I had the Molly doll and I read a few AG books about how she was inconvenienced on the homefront during World War II. She complained about having to eat turnips from a Victory garden, but she was encouraged to be patriotic and support a cause greater than herself. Her father is away with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

I was a little dismayed when I saw that you can now buy a mini Molly doll for your 80’s doll. My life is now “historical”, so I am officially old. Great.

It’s not lost on me that American Girl is playing on nostalgia to sell more product. Millennials like myself might buy this mini Molly doll so we can re-live memories of childhood vicariously. However, I’m going to use this to illustrate “the great stagnation”.

You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. The WWII war effort was a time when America was dynamic and focused on achieving great things.

“Courtney” the 80’s doll is pictured next to a Pac-Man arcade machine. Her goal is to keep herself sufficiently entertained. She can listen to her Walkman if Pac-Man gets boring.

Today, 40 years later, people are still starting at screens just like Courtney the 80’s doll. The reason we are buying a mini 1940’s doll to gift to a 1980’s doll is because so little has happened since 1980.

You can make jokes about an infinite recursion of American Girl dolls. It’s funny because it won’t happen. You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. Molly’s America is outwardly focused, and that makes her exciting.

I don’t think anyone is going to give a 2050 doll a mini Courtney 80’s doll. I’m even more certain that no 2050 doll is going to get a mini 2010 doll complete with tiny 2010 iPhone.

Maybe by 2040, there will be something new to ignite the imagination.

Incidentally, LEGO seems to think humans will be on Mars soon.

Twitter flags versus censorship

Throughout this semester, I have asked some students in my data analytics class to think about how data is relevant to current events. Undergraduate Jack Brittle wrote this article about data and election news.

Sometimes public attention moves on quickly after an election is over. Today, on November 15th, voting and messaging is still being debated. It was a month ago on October 14th that Twitter locked up the digital platform of the New York Post, a right-leaning newspaper.

This was an important development in the debate about whether tech companies have the authority to censor posts written by users.

Twitter initially said that linking to the Post stories violated the social-media company’s policies against posting material that contains personal information and is obtained via hacking. As the story broke, Twitter began preventing users from tweeting the stories. Twitter locked the Post’s account, saying it would be unlocked only after it deleted earlier tweets that linked to the stories.” (Wall Street Journal). Twitter suspended a major American newspaper. This move is viewed by some as a direct threat to the freedom of the press. Twitter and other major tech companies came under fire for their ability to manipulate and control media. After major pressure and backlash, Twitter released the account back to the New York Post. “Twitter on Friday unlocked the New York Post’s Twitter account, ending a stalemate between the social-media company and the newspaper stemming from the latter’s publication of stories it said were based on documents obtained from the laptop of Hunter Biden. “We’re baaaaaaack,” the Post’s Twitter account tweeted on a Friday afternoon, just minutes after Twitter said that it was reversing its policies in a way that would allow the Post to be reinstated.” (Wall Street Journal).

It seems that Twitter backed down in that instance. The fundamental question has not been resolved. Should Big Tech censor material on their platforms?

First, there is a school of thought that believes Twitter has the right to control the flow of information on its platforms. Companies like Twitter are not breaking any laws by doing this. Do they not have the right to support and defend certain social causes? By only allowing users to see certain opinions and facts, Twitter can choose to support different policies. It’s not laws but our expectation of media that leads to controversy. Twitter should allow a free flow of information in order to create an open marketplace of ideas.

However, a new difficulty arises because of “fake news”. Now more than ever, media can be manipulated to create certain storylines by nefarious users. According to studies, “fake news” spreads nearly six times faster across digital platforms that real news stories. This leaves Twitter between a rock and a hard place. Do they control information spreading on their site and risk censoring the wrong material, like some consider to be the case of the New York Post article? Or do they take a hands-off approach, allowing all stories to have a place in the arena?

These giant tech firms have unprecedented power. Not only are they gaining massive amounts of data about people and firms, they also have the unique ability to shape their users’ outlook on a variety of ideas and events. These data giants are struggling with how to manage these capabilities and will no doubt continue to update and reform policy.

A example of evolving policies is the treatment of President Trump since November 3rd. Since election day, Donald Trump, has tweeted challenges to official vote counts. Trump has not only claimed voter fraud but also claimed he has won states where vote counts favor Joe Biden. Twitter has since developed a flagging system that adds a note on any tweet that Twitter deems misleading. Instead of censoring the president by locking the entire account, there are flags warning about disinformation. This system seems to be an improvement over previous ways Twitter has handled misleading information. It allows users to see all information but also be warned about potentially questionable information. I expect these policies to continue to evolve as tech companies grapple with the difficult task of managing the flow of information.

The Joad Family in 2020

The following is by Hannah Florence.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath details the impoverished circumstances of the fictional Joad family during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Initially, the Joads are tenant farmers in Oklahoma, but due to the consolidation and mechanization of agriculture during the 1920s, they are displaced from their farm and without many options. After receiving a leaflet that promises abundant jobs and housing, the family follows in the path of many of their neighbors that have already left for California in search of more opportunity. Yet the hardships continue for the Joads. The grandfather dies on the arduous trip and find that they have been misled about the availability of jobs and the conditions of the squalid camps.  

According to Steinbeck, the introduction of the tractor and the power of the bank are responsible for their initial misfortunes. The tractor makes farming easier and more efficient, but leaves families without work including the Joads. In an encounter with a tractor driver, a tenant farmer without work asks, “what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?” (pg. 25). The tractor driver is seen as treasonous because he improves his own standing while a hundred other people—his people— are left without a means to provide for their own families. But the tractor driver doesn’t revel in his improved circumstances, instead he is blunt about all of their predicaments, “crop land isn’t for little guys like us anymore” (pg.25). This assessment indicates that despite their divergent trajectories, neither the tractor driver nor the tenant farmers have any influence, but they are both pawns of a larger power. Steinbeck insinuates that both individuals—the tenant farmer and the tractor driver– is largely expendable. If the driver leaves another tractor driver would gladly accept the job; if that one left, still another one would come along. The greater enemy is the big-wigs in ‘the East’ who give orders to ‘the bank,’ who are ultimately responsible for displacing the farmers.

The increasing efficiency of agriculture and its effect on the fictional Joad family illustrates what many families have faced due to the increasing efficiency of manufacturing. For the Joads, there is a strong sense of alienation. Their family home is damaged by a tractor, the neighbors are leaving, and there is no work available. Similarly, as factories and plants that were economic drivers have shuttered in rust belt towns, other main street staples such as the barber shop, the diner, and the hardware store can’t afford to stay open. As a result, formerly vibrant communities are emptied. Individuals are faced with the reality that the relatively straight-forward path to the middle class afforded to their parents will not be the same for them as options diminish for blue-collar work. The next steps for people, specifically without a college education, may not seem clear or within reach.

The monsters outlined in the first section of The Grapes of Wrath— the bank and the tractor—could be subbed in for the current monsters in our current political and economic discourse—automation and trade. The novel picks up on some of our current anti-establishment rhetoric as individuals in ‘the East’ that run the bank profit handsomely while families such as the Joads have their lives uprooted. The bank and the people in the East create a new class of winners and losers as well. The winners in this case are the tractor drivers who can now afford to give their kids shoes for the first time; the losers are the tenant farmers who have no income for food. The income inequality between the tractor driver and the tenant farmers is a microcosm of increasing income inequality in the U.S. as a result of rapidly increasing productively for a small sector of the labor force. In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen illustrates how low-skilled laborers face a similar scenario to the tenant farmer of the 1920s: individuals who are a complement to innovative technology are richly rewarded, but unskilled labor that can be replaced by it will struggle to find work in the knowledge economy.

The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates how creative destruction brought about by innovation and technology is an enduring phenomenon. Yet the characterization of this trend in The Grapes of Wrath seems prescient given the sentiments of many Americans that computers, automation, and globalization are richly benefitting a small portion of Americans that can harness these technologies at the drastic expense of many Americans that have been automated or outsourced out of their jobs.

  • Hannah Florence is a student at Samford University, where she studies economics, political science, and data analytics. She is currently a Young Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. After graduation, she hopes to continue her public policy research as she begins a career in Washington, D.C.

When will computers accurately predict elections?

Why can computers beat humans at chess but not predict election outcomes with great precision? Experts in 2020 mostly forecasted that Biden would win by a large enough margin to avoid the kind of quibbling and recounts we are now seeing. I don’t write this as a criticism of the high-profile clever Nate Silver, or any other forecaster. I’m thinking through it as a data scientist.

First, consider a successful application of modern data mining. How did AlphaZero “learn” to play chess? It generated millions of hypothetical games and decided to use the strategies that looked successful ex-post. AlphaZero has excellent data and lots of it.

If we think about actual election outcomes, there aren’t enough observations to expect accurate forecasts. If each presidential election is one observation, then there have only been about 50 since the founding hundreds of years ago. No data scientist would want to work with 50 data points.

You can’t say “in the years when ‘defund the police!’ was associated with Democrats, the GOP presidential candidate gained among married women”. There has only ever been one presidential election when that occurred. Judging by what I have been observing of the DNC post-mortem on Twitter in the past week, that might not happen again. See this tweet for example:

I know very little about political analysis. Only from what I know about data science, I would imagine that computers will get better at predicting the outcomes of races for the House of Representatives.

House representatives serve 2-year terms. There are over 400 House elections every 2 years.

Think about this over one decade of American history. There are actually more than 400 representatives in the house, but let’s imagine a “Shelter” of Reps with 400 members for ease of calculation.

In one decade, there are usually two presidential elections. That means we get 2 observations to learn from. In the same decade, there would be 400×5 “Shelter” elections. That yields 2,000 observations, which is considered respectable for the application of data mining methods.

One application of such a forecasting machine would be to determine which slogans are the most likely to lead to success.