Should buildings stay up?

31/10/2011 § Leave a comment

The Dom Post today had an article on a city council proposal:

Wellington ratepayers could be forced to help fund millions of dollars in earthquake strengthening work for privately-owned buildings under a controversial city council proposal.

We have privately-owned buildings whose owners earn rents from the properties. The council is suggesting that the public should make these private buildings better. Why?

Let me reach into my economist’s kit bag. This looks like a queston of externalities. But what kind of externalities?

We could think in terms of positive externalities. Let’s say an owner spends the money to have a really stout building. The owner bears the cost of that work. The people who shelter in the building during and after an earthquake, particularly people who just happen to be passing by, don’t have to pay for that shelter. If the building is then commandeered for post-event activities, the thousands of people who benefit also won’t be paying. Even just knowing pre-event that there are potential locations for such post-event activities is itself valuable.

Negative externalities describe what happens if a building does collapse. The building may cause casulties as it shakes apart. Once it has collapsed, it will certainly have spilled beyond its designated footprint. Bits of it will lie on the public footpath or road, or on neighbouring properties. With really big buildings, the threat of collapse can affect a large area. The owner has saved money on earthquake strengthening, but imposed costs on others.

Thinking about this as an externality problem takes us to two different answers. In one case, the council should help strengthen the private buildings in payment for the positive externalities. In the other case, owners should strengthen their own buildings so as not to impose costs on the rest of us.

But underlying all this is a question of what we expect from a ‘normal’ building. Whether externalities are positive or negative is related to our expectations of the world around us. Second-hand smoke is a good example: it went from being perceived as a fact of life to a negative externality. Hence the question: under what conditions do we expect buildings to stay up?

GEN-erating interest

28/10/2011 § Leave a comment

The new Government Economics Network had their first quarterly networking event yesterday afternoon. Good attendance from several agencies and at least a couple of private-sector economists. We were treated to short presentations by Lilla Csorgo and Norman Gemmell.

Lilla, from the Commerce Commission, talked about her work in Canada with competition law. She discussed how enforcement agencies de facto create policy, although de jure that is not their function. A quick web search also found that she has a literary career and a blog to go with it.

Norman, from Treasury, gave an interesting presentation on the differences between the skills that economists learn in their training, and ones they actually need to do policy work. This was a detailed case study of two larger questions: what are universities for, and what is the role of on-the-job training in the economy?

Norman has been key in getting GEN going, so congratulations to him for the event. He will be moving on, taking up a Chair in Public Finance at Victoria University (announcement here). Grant Scobie will become – let’s see if I have this right – Treasury’s Acting Chief Economist Designate. Joey Au will be helping Grant with GEN, and is the contact person if you care to find out more.

Rock aesthetics

27/10/2011 § 1 Comment

And now for a culture post…

We went to the Meat Loaf concert last night. It was a lot of fun, regardless of what the Dominion Post says. Yeah, okay, it was a nostalgia trip…but what great times we had!

The opening act, Luger Boa, was fascinating, because the aesthetics were all mixed up. Drummer: pretty boy, played in a singlet. Lead guitarist: looked like cookie-cutter high-school rock band kid.  Bassist: built like Joey Ramone, played like CJ. Rhythm guitarist: had this Bohemian Rhapsody thing going, and are those shoulder pads? Lead singer: massively self-absorbed, exactly like Michael Stipe when I once worked backstage at an REM show. Lined up across the stage, they were a doggie bag of rock cliches.

It reminded me a rock critic’s column years ago. He described two band members (from U2, maybe?) who did that ‘lean our backs against each other while we play’ thing. It’s supposed to be an expression of fraternity, a weary camaraderie. They did it because they were supposed to do it, because that’s how you’re supposed to act when you’re a rocker. The act didn’t refer to an emotion or experience, but to another act.

That old rock duo and Luger Boa were both presenting simulacra. The realm of rock-n-roll representation closed in on itself.

Now, in post-modern language you could call Luger Boa a pastiche. Okay, sure. But what made it not post-modern was the apparent lack of irony. That was what really struck me. Each of these guys had adopted a look from the archives of rock, but with no hint of self-awareness or mockery or irony or – what? – hipsterness?

Irony is mother’s milk for my generation. I never realised how much until I was performing a bossa nova piece (ironically, of course), and a hippy I knew asked me why I couldn’t just play it straight. It was a lovely song, after all. And Luger Boa showed me again what Strauss and Howe have pointed out: irony is my ge-ge-ge-generation’s pose. It was weird to see a band without it. But at the same time, they weren’t able to pull together the pastiche into anything coherent without it.

As for their music? Well, about what you would expect from a doggie bag of rock.

Now open in new location!

27/10/2011 § Leave a comment

I was contributing to the New Zealand Association of Economists blog, but it’s probably time I struck out on my own. I’m still working on what it is I have to say. It’s partly a question of finding a ‘voice’, but also a question of finding an on-line persona.

Anyway, howdy! Please bear with the mess while we sort out our new location.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for October, 2011 at Groping towards Bethlehem.

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