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Matt's Mailbag — the first one ever
Pour one out for the Texas Embassy Cantina
It’s time, folks. Lots of great questions, and I am sorry that I wasn’t able to answer them all. We even got a few that didn’t lend themselves to the Q&A format but will probably inspire future columns.
A quick note for next time: some of you emailed me instead of commenting in the thread — I always love to read emails, but I’m only choosing questions for the Mailbag from the thread! As you will see below, swift and certain sanctions are key to the good life.
Ted: I've asked this before, but curious if you have a different answer: why are west coast YIMBY groups so much more successful than east coast ones?
This is hard to answer in a really scientific way, but I think some of it is happenstance rather than anything that can be explained structurally. The California-based activists were just better or maybe they got lucky and California-based rich people were more open to backing them than their New York counterparts. Evidence for the happenstance thesis is that internal to the California housing struggle, YIMBYism is much politically weaker in Los Angeles than in either San Diego or the Bay Area. There is just some variation from place to place.
But one thing that I think is structural is that the California state legislature has a much more open structure than its equivalent in New York. There is upside to members like Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner offering bold housing legislation and attracting attention to themselves. The New York legislature is much more hierarchical and leadership-dominated, so member incentives are much more aligned with the idea of going along to get along.
The good news is that it’s possible we are on the verge of a sea change in New York. AOC’s new endorsement questionnaire for New York City Council candidates involves a significant YIMBY element. Eric Adams has specifically called for upzoning rich neighborhoods. Kathy Hochul has embraced a suite of pro-housing measures as she starts her first term as governor. Consistent with my theory that the structure of the state legislature makes a difference, we are seeing leadership in New York emerge from outside of the state legislature, whereas in California that’s been the epicenter.
Zack: If you could go back in time and command an army during the Civil War for one battle (while retaining your current knowledge of all the battles), what would you pick and why?
The main difference between Josh and me is that as a heterosexual male American, I have a lot of Opinions About The Civil War, so let’s talk about the Battle of Chancellorsville.
To the extent that Robert E Lee’s hype as a military genius has any foundation in reality, it comes from his success at Chancellorsville. Here a Confederate army of about 60,000 men faced down the 108,000-strong Army of the Potomac, even with an additional force of 28,000 more Union soldiers nearby at Fredericksburg under the command of John Sedgwick. Lee won decisively here against a much larger force, and he did so with some very unusual tactics — dividing his force twice in the face of a numerically superior opponent. And he made it work.
Admirers call this “Lee’s perfect battle,” and certainly it’s hard to argue with success.
But it’s also hard not to look at it as involving a series of significant errors by Union general Joseph Hooker who lacked experience with large-scale command and did not effectively communicate with his subordinates or move decisively to press the advantage of his numbers. This could have been all right had his subordinates made better decisions on their own, but they didn’t. And then even with all the blunders, it’s not actually clear to me that Hooker needed to withdraw and abandon the offensive. The Union lost more men, but the Confederacy lost a larger proportion of their army.
About a year later, with Grant in command, Lee and the Union clashed again very close to this location in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The Union attack was basically unsuccessful and Grant lost more soldiers than Lee. But aware that he had the larger army, Grant disengaged and then just further pressed the attack to wage another battle nearby rather than acting like Hooker and withdrawing altogether.
So I’d like to re-do Hooker’s work on two levels. First, I think with better command he could have won the battle and won the war. Second, knowing that winning the war would eventually require the bloody Overland Campaign, I wouldn’t have been deterred even if I’d lost the way Hooker did. Nobody ever figured out some special clever way to defeat the Confederacy without extremely heavy casualties between Richmond and the Rappahannock River. Hooker didn’t save any lives by shying away from this, it just detoured the war to Gettysburg and then it looped back around to right where he gave up.
DD: Ender’s Game had a subplot where kids literally Post their way into global diplomatic power. Could this ever be reality and, if so, how far away are we?
We are living in that reality!
Andrew: Have you ever been to a European tex mex restaurant more than once?
I’ve been to Texas Embassy Cantina in London twice (I gather from Google that it’s now closed), Indiana in Paris (several locations) at least a half dozen times over the years (I’ve been to Paris a lot), and Taco Bar in Stockholm twice. If I had a totally different set of journalistic skills I would write a funny book about my adventures in European Tex-Mex cuisine, but I don’t think I could pull it off.
Speaking of which—
Cory: Even before Slow Boring I viewed you as a prolific writer, but the frequency with which you publish and the variety of topics that you thoroughly explore since transitioning to Substack strikes me as unique. I imagine that writing as much as you do requires a ton of reading as well, and I can't understand how there are enough hours in the day for you to publish as often as you do. Can you talk a little bit about your process for selecting topics, researching them, and writing? What does your routine look like? How much time lapses between identifying a possible topic and publishing a post? Are you typically working on one post at a time, or several? Overall I'm just curious to get a glimpse into how the Slow Boring sausage is made.
Not to be an egomaniac or anything, but I think the main way that I maintain a high level of productivity is that I write serviceable prose much faster than most people and I’m really good at remembering things I read or hear.
In terms of process, I would just say I always have a lot of balls in the air. It’s not rare for me to jot down a few paragraphs in the Notes app on my phone while watching TV or standing in line at the local coffee shop just because I came up with a point that I like. Those paragraphs might become the basis of tomorrow’s article, but they also might lay around for days or weeks until I come up with an appropriate frame or hook that makes them relevant. When I’m walking around or folding laundry, I’m usually writing things in my head. And because I really enjoy this work, I’m don’t mind putting in extra time on nights and weekends. I also have help — from Kate and Claire editing the posts and Milan doing research.
But mostly I think different people are good at different things. I can’t visualize anything at all (aphantasia, it’s called) and can’t really describe what things look like, so I’m bad at writing narratives. I don’t really break news or get scoops. And even if I tried really really hard to do those things and took all the best advice, I still don’t think I’d be any good at it. I’ve never won any kind of journalism prize. But we are at a moment in the economics and technology of content distribution where being able to write a high volume of somewhat informative, somewhat interesting stuff is valued, and I am lucky to have come along at just the right time for that.
Sam Warlick: Have really been loving your new archaeological bent, Matt. Here’s a question — what’s one unknown (maybe unknowable) fact from human prehistory you’d most want to be able to have the answer to?
I think there are a lot of known-unknowns about the linguistic situation in Europe before the incursion of the Yamnaya and the spread of the Indo-European languages that dominate the landscape today. Basque, it seems, is a last surviving outpost of a pre-Yamnaya tongue. Etruscan is an example of an ancient Old European language that we know a bit about thanks to some bilingual inscriptions.
But there just really isn’t much information about whatever the languages of Old Europe were because most of these cultures didn’t write at all and even those that did didn’t leave too much behind. And even some of what they did leave behind (like the Linear A script) is indecipherable because we have no idea what language it’s supposed to be representing.
Shoshana O’Keefe: I would be interested in hearing your philosophy on parenting. Do you have a lot of rules? Do you punish your kid and if not, how do you help him learn the rules? Is it important to learn the rules? What are the main values you want to instill in him? Have you read any parenting books and what do you think of them?
In terms of books, anyone who likes this site will enjoy Emily Oster’s books about pregnancy and parenting (or perhaps her newsletter), focused on data-driven takes for quantitatively literate people. That being said, one thing that I think rings through the most rigorous analysis of parenting is that the long-term impacts of parenting choices on kids’ outcomes are just a lot smaller than people seem to think. Which means that I think parents tend to underweight the medium-term consequences of their choices. Because even though parenting decisions don’t have a huge impact on kids’ long-term life choices, they have an enormous impact on how you and your family actually spend your time.
So to that end, I really enjoyed Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bébé about (her interpretation of) the French style of parenting, which I think is a useful guide for any city-dwelling yuppie who wants to raise a kid while continuing to live a certain style of life. Pediatrician Michel Cohen’s book The New Basics is also along those lines.
In terms of discipline, our approach to enforcing the rules is exactly what I say about criminal justice policy — you want to make sanctions swift and certain, and if you can accomplish that the penalties don’t need to be harsh. The key to all of that is to be calm, rigorous, and consistent — don’t get mad and lash out, but explain what the consequences of certain conduct will be and then deliver those promises if the conduct happens. My wife, candidly, is better at the “calm” part than I am — the hardest part of all of this is that your conduct as a parent needs to be driven by objectively “what did the kid do” rather than by your subjective emotional state (which is in part about what the kid did, but also in part about whatever other stresses you may be feeling at the moment).
Aaron: What is your take on German and Swiss-style vocational education?
I don’t know anything about Swiss education, but I have a longstanding half-assed take on German vocational education that is perfect for a Q&A forum: everyone in America likes to praise Germany and their apprenticeships, but you have to understand how different the institutional context is.
The reason German vocational education works is that it’s clearly not just warehousing of disfavored students. Real employers are very involved with it, so the training is genuinely useful. But in America, having community colleges or high schools working hand-in-glove with big companies to provide them with tailored, subsidized job training would be very controversial. Competitors would see it as unfair. People would worry that it’s undermining the wages of the existing workforce.
In the German context, they are more comfortable with the state working hand-in-glove with private businesses because they also have a very different labor relations model. The country has a small number of very large labor unions that engage in “sectoral bargaining” with all employers in a given economic area. And there is a system of “codetermination” in which workers’ councils elect members of corporations’ supervisory boards. So the apprenticeships and vocational education operate in a paradigm of strong worker voice and an entrenched culture of labor-management cooperation that’s totally different from what we have in the United States.
Long story short, I think there’s a lot that’s attractive about German vocational education, but I don’t think you could just transplant it to the United States on a nationwide basis. Now that said, if a particular city decided that it was comfortable being a “company town,” it could work — like Seattle Public Schools could decide to partner with Amazon to create a program to train high school students to do mid-skill logistics work. But my suspicion is that it wouldn’t go over well; American voters expect to see more of an arm’s length relationship between corporations and the government.
The Georgism question
I’m not going to rip off Bill Simmons’ “these are my readers” schtick (in part because nobody wrote in anything too bizarre — maybe next time!) but I wanted to acknowledge that I got several questions basically asking what I think about Georgism and land value tax.
This should be a full post down the road, and that is going to take some work, but as a preliminary answer I think that mainstream thinking in economics tends to underrate the enduring relevance of land in the modern economy. Back in 2013, I tried to run the numbers from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances and came up with the idea that all the land in the United States was worth about $14.5 trillion. It would be more today. Lars Doucet argues that the SCF method lowballs the value of the land and it’s actually even more important than I said. There is a sense in which Doucet is right, but I also think that my way might be more important from the standpoint of assessing a land value tax. Which is just to say that my thinking on this subject is not quite ready to unveil a grandiose take.
But I do think that land is underrated and that the move from classical economics’ three factors of production (land, labor, and capital) to the neoclassical two factors model (labor and capital, with land treated as a form of capital) is a pretty serious error.
As a concluding thought before we end the mailbag, though, I think my biggest disagreement with Georgism is that I think the land value tax idea is actually an excessively limited way of thinking about the political economy of land. In Henry George’s time, we didn’t have zoning and minimum setback rules and the whole panoply of contemporary land-use regulations, but the modern world is full of land-related quasi-rents rather than just the formal land rents that George talks about.