New York State of mailbag
Miami Beach zoning, where is Gotham City, and the sad fate of the Kindle single
I’m in my hometown, I had a chance to meet a bunch of Slow Boring members yesterday which was great, and I am basking in the glory of a city that literally reeks of garbage at all times.
No better opportunity to open up the mailbag.
Dara: Does the Ukraine response so far make China more or less likely to invade Taiwan?
You’d have to ask Xi Jinping.
What I hope is that the Taiwanese draw the right lessons from the Ukraine situation:
The West is going to be inclined to be helpful to Taiwan in a conflict with China, but we are not going to go to war with a nuclear power to defend a sentimental favorite.
It is totally possible for a smaller country to extract a high price from a larger invader. Even in situations where the smaller country loses, it can make it hard enough to make the invader regret it.
There’s a virtuous circle where the better the scrappy underdog does, the more likely it is to get help. Russia wanted to deliver a quick knockout blow to Ukraine and then present the world with a fait accompli — do you really want to wreck the world economy over a war that ended already?
All of which is to say that Taiwan should be making serious plans for its own defense, drawing up extensive lists of what kind of equipment would be genuinely useful in that situation and asking friendly countries to give it to them. Just because China is large enough that it could in principle afford to incur huge losses fighting Taiwan doesn’t mean that it would want to.
Michael Adelman: Does the public opinion research have anything to say about what (if any) candidate selection tactics are effective for Dems to distance themselves from the unpopular views of young college-educated urbanists? That is, what makes for effective hipster-punching? Military service and blue-collar background seem to help, and ethnic minority candidates with genuine connection to their groups seem to be better than white candidates making ham-handed appeals to those same groups. But have the trends Shor et al. warn us about gone too far for anything else to matter? After all, in 2020, conservative Latinos and anti-communist Asian-Americans swung against moderate Latino Navy vet and former factory worker Gil Cisneros in CA-39 (~north Orange County). These voters are savvy about national issues and they - not irrationally! - see the people who are pro-socialism and anti-anti-rioting as broadly part of the same coalition as Cisneros. Does this imply that hipster-punching is just really hard and dependent on factors beyond candidate biography?
I think you need to distinguish two things: “which candidate attributes matter?” and “does anything matter a lot?”
The basic attributes that you’d expect to matter really do matter. Ruben Gallego ran ahead of Joe Biden in his working-class, heavily Hispanic district in Phoenix even as the Mexican-American neighborhoods showed a swing toward Trump (while remaining heavily Democratic, to be clear). But he didn’t run ahead by very much. The vast majority of people just vote the same party for House and state legislature as for president, and the individual politicians are largely along for the ride. Candidates for governor have more ability to distinguish themselves from the national party brand. Senate candidates have some ability to distinguish, but less. Ticket-splitting hit an all-time low in 2018 and then got even lower in 2020.
What most analysts say is that this is because politics has become more nationalized. I agree with that but would also add that moderate Democrats have become more progressive. Someone like John Hickenlooper is a moderate Democrat, meaning he's not for Medicare for All or defunding the police, but he's still well to the left of Obama-era moderate Democrats and has backed a fairly expansive Biden legislative agenda. If you had more Hickenloopers in the Senate, bigger and more progressive bills would be passing. Which is a reason why progressives should be more enthusiastic about moderate Democrats. But at the same time, I think moderates would do better if they walked back some of the leftward shifts of the past decade and acted a bit more like the Max Baucus or Mary Landrieu types we used to have.
Mostly, though, I think the national definition of the parties really matters a lot.
Nick M.: I recently learned that in DC Comics lore, Gotham City is located in southern New Jersey and Metropolis is located in Delaware. Does this make sense to you? Where in America would you put Gotham and Metropolis if you could choose?
Separate from the question of dots on the map, I think traditionally both Gotham and Metropolis have sort of been characterized as basically New York City, just emphasizing different aspects of it. But if you pay attention to the logic of the Batman mythos, I tend to think it would make more sense to characterize it as a much smaller city — someplace like a Cleveland or a St. Louis where someone like Thomas Wayne would be a really big deal.
Real world New York City is full of super-duper-rich people and actually none of them are famous, unless they’re specifically attention-seeking maniacs. So when I was a kid Donald Trump was very famous, but he was never the richest person in the city or the most important businessman.
By the same token, while the Snyderverse movies are mostly bad, the conception of Lex Luthor as basically Evil Elon Musk is a good idea. And that argues for making Metropolis into either San Francisco or Austin — someplace full of new money and fundamental tensions about the role of smart rich guys in society. Analog-era Clark Kent had to work for the biggest newspaper in the country (and so Metropolis has to be quasi-NYC) because Superman is trying to position himself in an information nexus where he knows really quickly about major world events. But in the internet era it’s fine for Clark to be working at a regional newspaper or magazine. In some ways that’s actually way more plausible because he’d be under less scrutiny.
Eddy Torres: A few years ago, Dylan Matthews wrote a seemingly contrarian Vox piece that argued that George W Bush was a notably better president than liberals traditionally give him credit for, primarily because of the immense yet lesser-known success of PEPFAR to alleviate and prevent HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. How much does that take resonate with you?
It’s a good piece. I mean, stepping back and thinking about the purpose of journalism, I think the point of that Matthews piece is not really to decisively demonstrate that Bush was or was not a good president. The point is that global public health is a very important topic that tends to get neglected in the media fray, and he came up with a clever angle to attract a lot of attention to an informative story about an important global public health topic, a story that’s so good people remember it years later. That’s part of why I find the death of the Slatepitch regrettable — deliberately provocative framings can be really useful.
In terms of a cosmic assessment of Bush, the reason that I’m always going to be down on him is that the post-9/11 era was a rare moment when American politics got causally thin.
His approval rating was super high, and both mass sentiment and elite opinion were really mobilized toward openness to big changes. And Bush mostly squandered that opportunity, blowing a moment of political possibility on the invasion of Iraq and a mess of tax cuts, then after getting re-elected he pivoted to hard-right welfare state rollback and fell flat on his face. Most presidents just don’t have the opportunity to achieve true greatness because they don’t happen to govern during periods of crisis and opportunity. Bush really could have been a heroic leader, but instead he messed up.
Tak: [What would have happened] if Gore had been president on 9/11?
Gore I think doesn’t get nearly as big a post-9/11 bump as Bush and stays out of Iraq, but can’t generate a particularly satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan. I think in 2004, Republicans are tired after three losses in a row and they nominate John McCain without McCain needing to swing as far back to the right as he did in real-world 2008 to secure the nomination. Between the fact that McCain is very popular and the Green Party vote only grows with the Gore administration bogged down at war and not doing much domestically, the GOP wins a big landslide.
But then despite all McCain’s moderate gestures, it turns out that what a newly elected GOP president with a GOP congressional majority at his back does is pass a huge regressive tax cut. McCain also invades Iraq, which proves very controversial after we turn out not to be welcomed as liberators. After Democrats retake Congress in 2006, though, McCain pivots pretty hard toward triangulation and does a comprehensive immigration reform bill and a carbon tax bill. This leaves McCain’s numbers soaring, so lots of prominent Democrats opt out of the 2008 primary. But Donald Trump, the host of the popular NBC television series “The Apprentice,” runs for the Democratic nomination accusing the party’s leaders of selling out to McCain and selling out working-class priorities. He says we shouldn’t be raising taxes on the poor while cutting taxes on the rich, we shouldn’t be flooding the labor market with immigrants and cheap imports, and we shouldn’t be wasting trillions on wars in the Middle East while also accusing the Democratic donor class of abandoning the traditional focus on lunch bucket populism. He shocks the world by winning the Democratic nomination, but the Trump-Obama ticket is still clearly lagging in the polls until the campaign is shocked by the financial crisis of fall 2008 which puts them over the top.
Chris Brandow: Have you read or investigated the relationship between police shootings and income of suspects, rather than simple racial identities. Obviously income and race are related, but I wonder how significant the racial disparities are between lower income suspects.
The individual-level data on income does not seem to exist, so when Justin Feldman looked at this, he looked at tract-level poverty rates from the census and found that police killings occur very disproportionately in high-poverty tracts and that this is true across all racial groups.
Race and income have independent effects here. A white person is more likely to be killed by the police in a high-poverty tract than in a low-poverty tract, but a Black person in a high-poverty tract is more likely to be killed than a white one in a high-poverty tract. I suspect that the prominence of this issue in the discourse relates to the fact that it doesn’t simply collapse into a class topic. Professional class Black people have significant concerns about being personally victimized by police misconduct that achieving financial stability does not eliminate, and in fact there’s concern about being targeted by the police for being present in affluent white spaces.
Darshanbib: Can you do an analysis of Miami Beach (specifically South Beach) housing? It feels like an urbanist's dream: tons of multi-family housing, very walkable, bike-friendly. Feel like a lot of places could learn from it.
I mean, I like Miami Beach. In terms of learning, I dunno; the reason South Beach is dense is that it’s mostly zoned to allow density. North of here on the map, though, density is generally banned and so you don’t get it. That part of Miami Beach is way less interesting.
I don’t love the game of praising specific places, though, because it gets us too far into debates about aesthetics. I grew up in Manhattan, I currently live in one of the densest census tracts, I enjoy Miami Beach, and I do have a strong personal preference for walkable neighborhoods. But the policy conversation isn’t “what does Matt like?” — it’s “what should be allowed?” And Miami Beach, like every other American town, has huge swathes of land subjected to very stringent restrictions.
Spencer: Do our recent experiences with inflation spell the end for MMT and UBI?
I’m never sure exactly what it is people think they are arguing about when they argue about MMT, but this is a good point on UBI.
The long, weak labor market of the first two decades of the 20th century ended up supercharging concerns about technological unemployment and also dreams of a post-labor utopian idyll. Those things may come to pass some time in the future, but what we’ve seen recently is that with adequately stimulative monetary policy, you can absolutely generate full employment under current technological conditions, and there is tons and tons of useful work for people to do. Right now labor supply is a constraint on housebuilding and oil/gas extraction and trucking, but tons of large retailers and food service places are still hiring, and there are lots of lower-profile issues like schools lacking staff to cover recess and aftercare periods.
I don’t think any of that means we should give up on the welfare state — Nordic countries have higher labor force participation than we do — but it absolutely means that you don’t want an anti-work rhetoric or ideological framing. You want to help people in ways that are consistent with them being healthier, better educated, and more capable of contributing. And you want things like immigration and technological innovation to let us do more and more.
Brad Canard: Could a state government like Wisconsin switch to a parliamentary system? I understand the political incentives are not really there to make a change like this, but in theory, it could lead to better governance at the state level.
They absolutely could and in some ways, I think the incentives are there. Already in Wisconsin you have a heavily gerrymandered state legislature that’s acted to reduce the power of the Democratic governor. A logical progression of that in Wisconsin and other similarly situated states is in fact to move to a parliamentary government where the executive agencies are run by ministers who are accountable to the legislature rather than the governor.
Now a lot of people mentally associate parliamentarianism with proportional representation, which obviously Wisconsin Republicans wouldn’t like. But you can have parliamentary countries with first-past-the-post elections (Canada) and you can have proportional representation in Madisonian systems (several Latin American countries).
Brad: As someone who also grew up in New York State, I'd like to get your opinion on this - what areas make up "upstate New York"? Is it everything in NYS outside of New York City, or does it only extend as far west as the borders of Bills Country?
All parts of New York State that are not inside the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area (i.e., the city itself + Long Island + Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties) are “upstate.”
Steve B: Have you traveled to East Asia and, if so, what would be your recommendations?\
I’ve been to East Asia twice, once on a CPC propaganda tour that took me to Shanghai, Beijing, Yiwu, and Dalian in China, and once on a honeymoon where we went to Singapore, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, and Hong Kong. This is a dumb recommendation, but Angkor Wat is really cool.
Honestly, all my Asia recommendations are kind of dumb. Like I really enjoy Cantonese food, and in Hong Kong there is a Cantonese restaurant called Lung King Heen with three stars from the Michelin Guide and it’s really good. So, yes, if you like Cantonese food you will enjoy the most famous and widely celebrated Cantonese restaurant in the world. The American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City that everyone says is good is in fact good. The hawker food courts in Singapore are cool.
One thing about travel is that the most interesting things you see are not necessarily the best. Not a lot of people go to Yiwu or Dalian, so I’m very glad that I was able to visit and I treasure those memories. I’m not going to tell you “oh you have to visit a remote mid-sized city in Northeastern China so you can see their kitchy Russian-style street.” But once upon a time Dalian was Port Arthur, the Russian quasi-colony on the Chinese coast, and there are a few old Russian buildings and Russia-themed tourist attractions around there. And it’s interesting. I also think it’s interesting that our government tour guides didn’t think that was interesting enough to take us there and I had to go in my free time. But to me, the takeaway isn’t that Dalian is so great per se so much as just that it’s nice to keep an open mind and seize opportunities to see things.
Casey Camire: I have been semi-voluntarily added to my (large) corporation's DEI committee. They're going straight for the classics, starting with unconscious bias training. Any good research out there on how to actually improve tolerance and diversity in large organizations I might be able to apply? I want to make a difference, but I also know lots of standard DEI practice is ineffective.
We covered some of this in “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and the main really actionable thing I learned from surveying the research is that it’s really important to urge HR departments not to do things that are directly counterproductive. Read the whole post, but tl;dr is that a lot of diversity initiatives directly backfire.
This is somewhat contrary to the ethos of a lot of DEI initiatives, but basically telling people that there’s tons of racism and stereotyping around that leads to more stereotyping. But if you tell people that their peers value diversity and hold inclusive attitudes, that leads to people valuing diversity more and holding more inclusive attitudes. At a large company especially, though, one of the main things I would push for is trying to convince someone to dedicate financial resources to doing more actual research and experimentation. There is very little solid research on this topic and smaller institutions can’t conduct original research. But big companies could and should.
JDP: You’re someone who’s tested out a lot of different media formats (blog, Twitter, podcast, substack, etc). Is there one that you thought was a great idea and just didn’t work? Or something you think would be fun that doesn’t exist? The one I’ve never figured out why it failed was kindle singles, which seemed like the perfect format for lots of writing but basically produced Great Stagnation and not much else.
For those who don’t know, Kindle singles was basically an Amazon idea to produce ebooks that were shorter and cheaper than normal books. I was very enthusiastic about this idea and Simon & Schuster was persuaded to experiment with a version of it (a cheap, short ebook that wasn’t Amazon exclusive) with “The Rent is Too Damn High,” but the format didn’t take off.
In that case, I think Amazon’s involvement and the Kindle branding hurt the idea because Amazon has a weirdly hostile and contentious relationship with the literary world. The book publishing companies really hate Amazon and they’ve convinced most authors and other influential people in the book world that Amazon is bad and tacky. Like any time you see anyone (myself included) promoting their new book on Twitter they always encourage you to buy it at your local independent bookstore, because people who like books like bookstores and don’t like Amazon, even though Amazon is by far the place that sells the most books. So the whole idea took on the air of being tacky even though everyone agrees that most nonfiction books are too long.
Jeff E: What do you think about carbon offsets and related nonprofits such as Atmosfair, and how would you compare that to direct carbon removal companies like Climeworks?
I don’t want to comment too directly on Atmosfair, but I’m kind of dubious about the offset idea in general.
To see why, think about my rooftop solar installation. The way this works is that while the sun is shining it generates dramatically more electricity than my house uses. And for about nine months out of the year, there is usually enough daylight in D.C. that it produces as much or more electricity during the daylight hours as we use over the course of an entire 24-hour span. Indeed, during those nine months we produce so much electricity on non-rainy days that it “offsets” our electricity usage on the rainy days and the winter months when there are fewer hours of daylight. But in what sense does my renewable surplus really offset the fossil fuels I burn during nighttime or on rainy days? Well it means that natural gas plants (which are easier than coal or nuclear plants to cycle on or off) burn less gas during the daylight than they otherwise would. Which is great. But suppose everyone in D.C. had a rooftop solar installation — it’s not like we could burn negative gas during daytime to offset the gas we would still need at night.
Which is to say that while I think rooftop solar is great and I encourage all my neighbors to go do it (seriously, look into it, especially if you live in a blue jurisdiction where it’s normally available on very generous financial terms), the “offsetting” power of renewables is purely a function of the install base of renewables being relatively low. And that’s not accounting for any shenanigans, trickery, or corporate scams. My household’s net electricity footprint really is close to carbon zero. The problem is that even when that’s true, it’s not a scalable solution to the problem. To decarbonize electricity at scale you need some combination of batteries and non-intermittent (hydro/nuclear/geothermal) zero-carbon power that actually allowed you to not burn fossil fuels.
By contrast, with Direct Air Capture (recall that five percent of all Slow Boring revenue goes to carbon removal) you are in fact offsetting emissions. People on the internet tend to develop fanatical beliefs about the future path of technological development, which I think is insane, so I have no idea whether or not cost-effective large-scale DAC will ever emerge. But I support it both in policy terms and with a large financial investment because if it did emerge, it would provide a real offset. An airline could, for example, burn jet fuel and then be required by law to suck an equivalent amount of CO2 out of the air to offset it. Perhaps you could even manufacture jet fuel in part out of captured CO2, maintaining a closed net-zero carbon loop. But while everyone should support the production of more renewable energy, I don’t think doing that “offsets” emissions in the same way that capturing carbon does.
Nate Meyer: Where do you see content bundling and pricing going? Are we reaching a point where things will start going back to bundles? For example, it's only the 7th of the month and I'm already hitting my Bloomberg limit. It just seems like the unbundled cost of content is far more than a decade ago.
To put it another way, once upon a time it was a cable bundle, the local paper, and maybe a national paper (NYT) and a magazine or two. But it seems to have metastasized. Netflix+Hulu+Disney+HBO and all of a sudden it's more than DishNetwork was charging in 2010, and with the Substacks and Slate+ and the Patreons it seems like a lot. Will the needle ever point toward more consolidation of these costs?
There is a very strong economic logic to bundling. Just on streaming video right now we have plays from Apple, Google, and Amazon, plus plays from all the legacy television networks (Peacock, Paramount Plus, and Hulu), plus Netflix as a successful startup/disruptor plus HBO and Disney from the premium content world, and it’s really just a lot. I think the safe bet is that Amazon buying MGM was just the first step in what’s going to be a lot of consolidation in this industry. I don’t really understand why Apple decided that it wanted to be in the business of being a TV/movie studio. But if they do want to be in that business, it seems like they should buy Paramount or NBC Universal.
To loop this back to politics, I think anti-trust and competition policy are important but too many people instead embrace an ideology of anti-bigness. But the fragmentation of the streaming video market is clearly undesirable for consumers.
News is a little different because I think there are expressive values at stake. Formally speaking, an Yglesias/Greenwald bundle would be more valuable to consumers than a standalone Yglesias Substack or a standalone Greenwald Substack. But some Greenwald readers are very hostile to me and would like the bundle less if it included me and vice versa. What I’ve been hoping to see is a way for Substack to offer bulk discount pricing where people who subscribe to multiple ’stacks pay a lower price-per-stack.