Saturday, May 5, 2007

Crooked Timber vs. the suburbs

There's something about the suburbs that appears to periodically freak out the Crooked Timberites. Exhibit A was a Daniel Davies riff against big-box retailers that provoked a very interesting comment thread.

Exhibit B is Kieran Healy's shock at viewing the most desirable places to live for his demographic:

In the Top 10 for Singles are the fun, densely-populated places you might expect: New York, L.A., Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. For Young Couples, we have cool hangouts like Portland, Austin, and Boulder. Empty Nesters get to kick back in Bellingham, Santa Fe, Tahoe and Berkeley....

But what does my demographic, Families with Children, get? Number 1 in the nation: Louisville CO. It’s followed closely by Gaithersburg MD. Roswell GA, Lakeville MN, and Flower Mound TX round out the top five. Now, I don’t want to offend the many fine people of Gaithersburg, MD or Noblesville IN, but Roll on the Empty Nest, I say.

I confess to some puzzlement at Kieran's distress. What most of the top-ranked Family With Children places have in common is that they are semi-affordable suburbs adjacent to cities that fell into one of the other Top 10 categories [What about Noblesville IN?--ed. I got nothing, but that doesn't mean it's a bad place to live.]

In a follow-up comment, Kieran elaborates:

[C]ome on, everyone. Do people really not find the notional life transitions laid out in the chart—from New York or L.A. to Boulder or Austin to … Flower Mound or Gaithersburg—even slightly funny? It’s like, as if the endless diapers and slug-like minivans aren’t enough, here’s where you have to live.

Having made the move from one of the top 10 places for Singles to a place that I'm guessing ranks high on Families with Children, all I can say is, thank God for the suburbs (in fairness, Hyde Park is not exactly a typical urban neighborhood):
Five minute walk to the elementary school? Check.

Five supermarkets within a ten-minute car ride? Check.

Lots of children for our children to befriend? Check.

Reasonable access to big city to enjoy childless activities once in a blue moon? Check.

Swinging key parties to get to know the neighbors better? Thankfully, this isn't The Ice Storm, so no.

I suspect Kieran was mostly being flip, but I do think there's a part of him that shudders with dread about the exemplary suburban locale.

To which I have to say, sure, it's easy to find fault. But I'll take the small downsides of suburbandom over the nasty stares I recall getting when entering hip and trendy restaurants/supermarkets/stores/shopping malls with a few rugrats in tow. At this point in the 21st century, having small children is kind of like belonging to a different religious persuasion that others view as bizarre and discomfiting. It's nice to be with one's own kind during these years.

posted by Dan at 09:52 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (1)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Forward progress on intellectual property

"Striking the proper balance on intellectual property rights" is one of those ideas I put in my conceptual hope chest along with "unilateral elimination of all agricultural subsidies" or "fiscal conservativism" or "NBC renewing Friday Night Lights for another season" as policies I'd really like to see but don't expect to happen.

So, it's a pleasant surprise to read the Economist's tech.view column explain that the Supreme Court actually took a positive step on patent rights:

In a unanimous decision that is being hailed as the most important patent ruling in decades, the Supreme Court early this week swept aside the non-obviousness test used by the appeals court. In its place, a common-sense standard based on real-world conditions is to be applied to all patent applications that combine (as most do) elements of existing inventions.

The case ruled on by the justices concerned an accelerator pedal developed by a Canadian company called KSR. The pedal could be adjusted for a driver’s height and used an electronic sensor, rather than a mechanical cable, to change the engine speed. Teleflex, a rival manufacturer, demanded royalties, claiming the device infringed one of its patents.

KSR argued that Teleflex had combined existing elements in an obvious way, and that its patent was therefore invalid. A district court in Detroit agreed, but the decision was subsequently overturned by the appeals court in Washington, DC. Under the Supreme Court’s new definition of obviousness, Teleflex would have been lucky to get a patent for the pedal in the first place.

The justices’ opinion has been welcomed by the high-tech community. It is impossible to build a laptop, mobile phone or video recorder without infringing dozens of the thousands of patents that cover the various components involved. Computer firms have responded by engaging in a patents arms race and negotiating cross-licensing deals with everyone they expect will be involved.

This is wasteful enough for the Intels, Microsofts and IBMs that can afford such profligate practices. But it can be life or death for smaller, innovative firms. When challenging incumbents’ old-fashioned ways, upstarts like Vonage can find themselves forced out of the market by dubious patent litigation rather than actual competition.

The Supreme Court’s ruling this week will make such anti-competitive practices harder to sustain. Vonage, for one, may be the first of many to seek legal redress from all the shoddy patents endorsed by America’s over-eager courts.

posted by Dan at 12:56 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Well, I'm glad that hiatus is over

After a short, four-year hiatus, Brink Lindsey is back and blogging. Go check him out.

posted by Dan at 11:21 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Housing and the productivity slowdown

Labor productivity growth in the United States has declined every year since 2002. In the first quarter of this year it fell below the symbolic 2% barrier, evoking bad memories of the stagflation-era economy.

Over at Capital Commerce, James Pethokoukis argues that the slowdown should not be a cause for concern:

[M]any economists were concerned when productivity came in at just 1.6 percent last year. Was America returning to its old low-productivity ways? If so, that was a much bigger problem than the housing slowdown. But it looks like the housing slowdown itself has been making strong productivity look bad. Here is what the econ team at Goldman Sachs recently said on the topic:
"We believe there is a straightforward explanation for slower productivity growth—the housing downturn. The sharp drop in homebuilding activity has not yet led to a significant decline in employment, so productivity in this sector is falling rapidly. Productivity growth in the rest of the nonfarm sector remains at a healthy 2.5 percent pace. Housing productivity should begin to improve within the year. Two factors—seasonal hiring patterns and the lag between the slowdown in home sales and the slowdown in home construction—have delayed the employment adjustment, but we expect declining residential housing employment to pull nonfarm payroll growth below 100,000 jobs per month in the spring and early summer."
Dale Jorgensen, productivity guru and Harvard economics professor, told me a similar story in a chat today.
This seems like a peculiar inverse of what was happening in the economy circa 2002-3 -- astounding productivity gains that were not matched by wage or employment growth. One wonders if this means that, for the next year, the U.S. economy will observe the obverse of marginal productivity increases but robust wage and employment growth. Profit margins have been sufficiently high to allow this to happen -- though I confess I fail to see why firms would have an economic incentive to act in this fashion.


posted by Dan at 09:03 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Will NBC save our marriages?

Either my wife has secretly married Entertainment Weekly writer Dalton Ross, or the television show Friday Night Lights has an interesting gender effect. Ross explains in his Glutton column:

It started just the other week as I watched FNL's season finale. I had never bothered to introduce my significant other to the show, because, well, she likes football about as much as she likes my Star Wars lightsaber collection — which is to say, not very much — so I viewed the entire season by myself. But then something else dawned on me: Christina loves teen shows.... It occurred to me that, hey, Friday Night Lights is as much -- if not more -- a teen show than it is a football drama. So I implored her to give it a chance. To my shock, she agreed (again, we're talking about football here). We had the first nine episodes on DVD. We watched one. Then we watched another. Then I went to bed, and she watched two more. Next night, same drill. She went through episodes the way I go through cans of Milwaukee's Best. Only she didn't wake up with a headache in the morning.

Now, I know what you're thinking: How is your marriage in trouble? You've found a show you both love! What's the problem? Well, the first problem is that when I asked Christina whether she was a Street girl or a Riggins girl, she replied emphatically, ''Riggins!'' This means she digs the bad boy, and not being a bad boy myself by any stretch of the imagination, this causes me some concern. (She in turn inquired whether I was a Lyla or Tyra guy, which I refused to answer because I am smart and realize that either answer would come back to haunt me in the long run.) The bigger problem, however, is this: I'm out of episodes. Like an addict that is being denied her fix, my wife is going through serious withdrawal symptoms. She actually ordered me to not come home until I got more DVDs (which might explain why I remain typing here at 10:23 in the evening). Luckily, I have my sources. My peeps over at NBC Universal have taken pity upon me and are hooking Christina up with the rest of the season.

Whew — crisis averted. But for how long? Sure, we'll get a dozen more episodes, but at this rate that'll take her about a weekend to plow through them. What then? In case you hadn't noticed — and judging by the ratings, you hadn't — Friday Night Lights is not exactly what you'd call an audience favorite. A critical darling, to be sure, but a seriously low-rated one....

And as much as I absolutely adore Friday Night Lights, I clearly recognize that this show will never, ever be a hit. What fans love about it — its realism and understated nature — does not appeal to mass audiences. Twenty million people are simply not going to watch a show with shaky cam shots of kids in a diner, so it's hard for me to convince the powers-that-be to keep the show on the air in the hopes that it will suddenly do big numbers. Convincing NBC brass of the show's excellence is also rather futile, because everyone that works there seems to be a big fan of the program. They know it's good. So I am left to play the only card I have left — the preservation of my holy matrimony. Look, NBC, I have children — two of them! Do you want them to grow up in a broken home just because you benched what might be the best drama on network television?

I lack Ross' NBC connections, but my wife got so hooked on the show after I introduced her to it that she caught up on all the episodes by watching them online (they're all still available, by the way).

And, as in Ross' case, my wife is a huge Riggins fan, even though he's the bad boy of the show. "He's just gorgeous... and smoldering," she said. She then tried to assuage any anxiety I might have had by reassuring me that, "you are as un-Riggins-like as you can possibly be."

I feel much better now.

[Yes, you, who link to Salma Hayek at the drop of a hat, should get upset at this!!--ed. True, though I have never (and will never) told my wife that she was "un-Hayek like."]

Oh, and for FNL afficionados, I'm neither a Lyla or a Tyra guy -- I'm a Tami guy through and through.

posted by Dan at 08:40 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What I learned at the 2007 Brussels Forum

So, what did I learn at the 2007 Brussels Forum? Four things small and large:

1) I cannot stay in Brussels for longer than 72 hours. This has nothing to do with the city, it has to do with its chocolate sector. Its rich, succulent, delicious, and unbelievably fattening chocolate sector.

2) It might surprise those aware of America's unpopularity in Europe that the transatlantic relationship seems on pretty solid ground -- more solid than in 2006. There are quibbles, to be sure, and Iraq remains a bone of contention. Across a wide array of other topics, however -- Kosovo, China, the transatlantic marketplace, and Russia -- the differences were not that great.

3) It would be safe to say that the Russians did not have a good conference. Indeed, they were acting like... well.... like Americans acted circa 2003. Generally throwing their weight around, acting callous towards states that disagreed with them, proffering implicit threats of action, that sort of thing. The most provocative moments of the conference came with debates between Russians and everyone else over exactly what Putin was thinking. The dust-up over the moving of an Estonian monument prompted spontaneous applause/hissing and catcalling at one one-the-record session (go to 49:30 of the recording). Things got worse once the camera and record-keeping was turned off.

4) When it comes to the transatlantic relationship, China is the 800-lb. elephant in the room. Its rising power cannot be ignored. The $64,000 question is whether China's rise will cause the Americans and Europeans to compete for Beijing's favor or force greater coordination between the US and EU.

If you want to catch the proceedings, click here and select the topic that interests you. You might even catch a few cameo appearances by your humble (and fatter) blogger.

posted by Dan at 08:56 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

As Rogoff goes....

It's a bad, bad sign for Paul Wolfowitz when Kenneth Rogoff decides to write a satirical memo in Wolfowitz's name for It's an even worse sign when he can write the following paragraph:

I trust you [the staff] have not been unduly influenced by the recent letter calling for my immediate resignation, signed by forty-two former World Bank managing directors, senior vice-presidents, vice-presidents, and directors. You and I can surely see through this thinly-veiled attempt to manipulate the value of “Paul Wolfowitz resignation” claims [on TradeSports]. I want to assure you that the World Bank Internal Investigations Unit will look into this matter. If any of the letter’s signatories are found guilty of price manipulation, they will be dealt with harshly. Let’s not forget who is paying their pensions.
Wolfowitz has argued that he's the victim of a smear campaign, and there's a small grain of truth to that charge in that he is not solely responsible for the current imbroglio over his paramour.

However, when the staff that runs Wolfowitz's signature initiative indicates that his problems are compromising that initiative, it's time to say adieu.

posted by Dan at 02:06 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (1)

I'll be back in action soon

Your humble blogger has returned from Europe, and the 2007 Brussels Forum, filled to the brim with stuff to blog about (including the trade contretemps I unintentionally triggered). Alas, while the brain is willing, the body needs to recover from its jet lag... and, come to think of it, the brain has massive loads of grading to do.

So, more this PM. While you wait by your screens, however, anxiously hitting the refresh button to see if I've posted another missive, here's a question to you: any recent developments that you feel demand a blog post?

posted by Dan at 08:44 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)