Solving the Financial Crisis: Looking Beyond Simple Solutions

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When presented with complex ideas about complicated events, the human tendency is to think in terms of Jungian archetypes: good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. The more complicated the events, the more the human mind seeks to limit the number of variables it considers in unison in order to make sense of what it sees. The result is a tendency to describe events in the simplest black and white terms, ignoring the spectrum of colors in between.

This principle can be seen in the current explanation of the financial crisis.  read more »

A Little Genius for the City’s So-Called ‘Art World’

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There’s a little girl – maybe 10 or 12 years old – whose family owns a store just a couple of miles from Downtown Los Angeles. She spends a lot of time at the place after her nearby school lets out for the day, sort of helping out but mostly just hanging around where her older relatives can see her.

I call her “Little Genius” because she’s always reading a book or busy at a computer or making paper dolls or working on some other challenge.  read more »

The Leveling of Citigroup

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The idea that Citigroup could support the family by gambling didn’t begin with Robert Rubin. It’s part of a long tradition. What was different in the most recent go-round is that, this time, Citi didn’t invent the game. Of course, once it got to the casino it characteristically placed larger bets than anyone else.

Word that Citigroup is teetering on the brink of break up brings a certain wistfulness to this former Citibank speechwriter. Not because intensive care is something new for the old bank — it isn’t — but because it ended up on life support by following the crowd instead of leading it.  read more »

In a Financial Crisis What Happens to the Dog Bakeries?

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What will happen to the dog bakeries? I ask this question, because this line of business (and perhaps many others) escaped my attention for so long. I saw my first one years ago in suburban St. Louis. As one interested in economics, poverty and history, it struck me that dog bakeries represented a perfect symbol for the many “discretionary” business lines that have been established in recent decades in what has been called the consumer economy.

This discretionary economy consists of businesses for which do not exist in societies with little discretionary income. It includes in its ranks a host of businesses that did not even exist before the last couple of decades, from dog bakeries, to Starbucks, tony cafes, specialized clothing stores and personal fitness centers. While these businesses might have been attractive to the households of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, people just didn’t have enough discretionary income to support them.  read more »

A Bailout For Yuppies

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The recent call by the porn industry – a big employer where I live, in the San Fernando Valley – for a $5 billion bailout elicited outrage in other places. Around here, it sparked something more akin to nervous laughter. Yet lending a helping hand to Pornopolis is far from the most absurd approach being discussed to stimulate the economy.

Some influentials close to the administration may even find the porn industry a bit too tangible for their tastes. After all, the pornsters make a product that sells internationally, appeals to the masses and employs a lot of people whose skills are, well, more practical than ideational.  read more »

Advancing Economies by the Power of Industry

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For the last quarter century there has been a growing tendency among policy makers and corporate executives to downplay, and even ignore, the primary importance of the ‘real,’ or tangible, economy. It is now widely believed that the primary engine of wealth creation is the manipulation of symbols and images — ‘the new economy’ of the ‘information/creative age’ — as opposed to the manufacture of tangible products and services.  read more »

Corporate Sponsorship of the Golden Gate, the Ultimate Sign of Failed Infrastructure

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The most anticipated tourist attraction in the city where I live, The Golden Gate Bridge, is a testament to the lasting utility of a well executed infrastructure project. The world’s most famous suspension bridge still serves as the critical artery connecting San Francisco to the bedroom communities of Marin County to the north, where much of the city’s workforce resides. Remarkably, this marvel of engineering was completed in the late 1930s – a time when the U.S. was coming out of the Great Depression.

The New Deal brought about an expansion of infrastructure that should inspire us. Yet nearly 70 years after its completion, the sobering reality remains: it’s difficult to imagine a project of that moxie being constructed today.  read more »

Tough Budget Math for City Politicians: Bad Economy + Human Nature = More Cops

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Our economy is going to get better some day, step by step. But it’s bad right now, with a full recovery likely a matter of years rather than months away. Public officials should plan accordingly, keeping in mind how the vicious cycle of a bad economy turns typical decision making on its head.  read more »

The Mobility Paradox: Investing in Human Capital Fuels Migration

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China has an interesting urban development strategy. The government bypasses those areas that it considers backward and plagued by poverty and entrenched political corruption. Instead, the investment goes into those areas it presumes to be new boomtowns.

Now imagine if that Darwinian approach was used here in the United States. A report (“City Beautiful”) authored by two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia advocates pushing federal infrastructure dollars – which could soon be flowing in the hundreds of billions – not towards our tired, hard-pressed urban areas but those that have experienced the greatest extent of gentrification.  read more »

Daschle And State-by-State Healthcare Mistakes

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Tom Daschle appears before the Senate this week for confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services. While Daschle knows his stuff on health care (see his book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis), the discussion is likely to be sidetracked by those who champion a reliance on insurance companies, or on piecemeal reform starting with children. Or, as I’ll discuss here, on a wrong-headed impulse to depend on the states to create new health care models.  read more »