Plumb Lines

February 15, 2011

Idealistic Consensus

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:57 am

I’d be interested to hear the Plumb Liners’ views on the six topics of idealistic consensus Scott Sumner presents:

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance

His argument for why these issues aren’t discussed seems persuasive, but then, I agree with him about all six points. In most of these cases, the parties benefiting from these policies are doing so at the expense of the general public. Many arise from simple misunderstandings among the public about macroeconomics.

Immigration is different from the others, however, because the harms of immigration really are general and public. They are merely harms dismissed as irrelevant or irrational by idealistic intellectuals, who tend to believe that cultural goods are unreal or at least can never be rationally preferred to economic well-being. Of course, the general public doesn’t seem to realize how much richer the United States would be if we allowed ten times as many immigrants to enter legally as we currently do. Perhaps if they did they’d be as eager as their pointy-headed fellow citizens to throw ope the gates of El Paso.


February 2, 2011

In the Past They Ate Cream of Celery

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:20 am

Have you noticed that people frequently use “the Past” to mean “the 1950s?” In this discussion the 50s, and innovation since then, are the explicit topic of the conversation, but this doesn’t prevent invective about the various centuries of prior human history from creeping in.

More interesting: various comments are made about the unpleasantness of 50s cuisine. I believe these comments are true, but I wonder if the terribleness of the food in the 50s wasn’t related to the magnificent innovations Krugman et al are so awed by. This was, after all, an era in which prophets routinely heralded the imminent replacement of meals by nutritive pills. That this has never seemed an attractive prospect to anyone before or since the middle of the 20th century perhaps offers some insight into the tastiness of that unhappy era’s food.

-David Schaengold

January 31, 2011

Plumb Lines Redivivus

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:44 pm

After an extended hiatus, some Plumb Liners new and old will be posting again in this space. So, refresh your bookmarks and subscribe once more to our RSS feed. New posts forthwith!

-David Schaengold

February 18, 2010

Blog Update

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:10 pm

You may have noticed that posting has been a bit spotty around here of late. We’re making that spottiness official and going on hiatus. Matt Schmitz and I, however, will continue to blog at another site, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, and I hope you’ll follow us over there. I encourage you to check out Matt’s first post, which is sure to stir up some controversy.

Thanks for reading!

David Schaengold

January 24, 2010

Not that I’m defending Friedman

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:29 pm

Poulos writes:

“Who more than the tea partiers favors small businesses? The idea that the tea partiers long only to ’stop things’ is so juvenile and crude that it hardly merits comment. But Friedman uses that idea to contrast a vision of real productive growth driven by individuals taking charge of their own destinies, which — last time I checked — is precisely the positive agenda that all tea partiers, regardless of sect or faction, tend to promote. Only a pundit like Friedman, however, could blind himself to this actuality, intent as he is on realizing in American practice what his beloved Chinese government has made possible only in theory: the marriage of ancient Egyptian despotism with the modern dynamism of Hong Kong. Only the government, you see, has the extraordinary, unilateral power necessary to breed and launch a million innovators!”

Isn’t there some worry that Friedman might be right? That we’ve reached precisely that stage of history where innovation requires despotism? Hence all the articles about the future of Authoritarian Capitalism. In which case despotism would still be despotism and liberty still liberty, but Friedman, while wrong to prefer despotism, would be right in a technical way. And of course the friends of liberty would in that case face a much more diabolical foe than the Mustache of Understanding.


The folly of Friedmanesque thinking is in its privileging of economics over politics. It cannot conceive of liberty politically, as an end. It can only contemplate liberty economically, as a means.

This folly hardly seems unique to Friedman. Isn’t it shared by most thinkers about what we now call politics? Is this the same as the Front-Porch critique of the GWB “go shopping” moment or the persistent reference to American citizens as “consumers”?

David Schaengold

January 11, 2010

I wish I’d written him a letter before he died

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 5:07 pm

October 22, 2009

The Flip Side of Congestion Pricing

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:47 am

This is a good idea:

A new computerized, scannable fare card would allow New York City Transit to charge passengers different prices depending on the time of day

Charging passengers more to ride the subway when it’s crowded and less when it’s not makes sense, just like it makes sense to charge drivers to use crowded roads. In both cases there are some transaction costs that have to be accounted for, of course — establishing a tolling system for roads and creating a variable-fare system that isn’t too complex for transit — but in both cases, price should be regulating peak demand, not the opportunity cost of time lost in traffic or the unpleasantness of jamming yourself into a thicket of strangers.

Sadly, it looks as though the MTA has ruled out charging more for peak rides, which would help relieve the overcrowding at rush hour. Even so, charging less at off-peak hours will be a net gain for the system’s riders. But why not go all the way and make the subway free when it’s not being heavily used?

Update: Charles Komanoff at Streetsblog does some great analysis of one possible variable-fare structure.

David Schaengold

October 21, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:15 am

It’s great to see one of my all-time favorite redevelopment projects discussed online.  I like Nouvel’s contribution (Gasometer A) the best, predictably.

David Schaengold

October 19, 2009

Where are the Fussy Moral Absolutists in the Health Care Debate?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 1:07 pm

The Plumbliners have mostly refrained from adding yet more amateur opinions to the health-care debate. I hope our readers have noted and appreciated this display of intellectual virtue. A strange feature of the debate I do feel qualified to comment upon has been the relative absence of moral philosophizing in the discussion. Leftists seem to be suggesting that we can have our cake and eat it: universal coverage at reduced individual and national expense, with minimal loss of innovation. Conservatives have a different analysis, suggesting that federal obligations will balloon and innovation will collapse. Which side has it right is not at all apparent to me. I’m surprised, however, that no one has taken what seems to me the correct position: loss of innovation be damned, we have a positive obligation to provide some level of basic health care to everyone in our society, since we can afford to do so. Even if this means that we use the same treatments in 2050 as today, accepting the obviously huge opportunity cost to general welfare. Clearly the utilitarians would tear their hair out about how immoral it would be to privilege the poor we have with us now over against the citizens of 2050, but that no utilitarians have yet torn their hair out in the debate is a symptom of how degraded our political discourse has become.

It’s not surprising that this position hasn’t been articulated, though it’s disappointing, since something like it is very close to obligatory for Catholics. Suggesting that the right thing to do might also be costly is anathema in American politics these days, the Left gains nothing by allowing for the possibility that health care reform might be a disaster for general welfare, and the Right effectively does not recognize collective moral responsibility for the poor. Still, it might  be a nice thing to hear from First Things or Commonweal, instead of arguments about exactly to what extent one may ignore what is written in social encyclicals.

David Schaengold

October 7, 2009

If No One I Know Thinks This is a Good Idea, Why is it Happening?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:25 pm

The Times reviews the proposed new home of the Barnes Foundation and strikes an appropriately gloomy tone about the move.  It’s hard not to see the change as a victory for the bureaucratic, throughput-oriented, chamber-of-commerce view of the world. The Barnes is one of the only museums in the United States that doesn’t make you feel like looking at art should be as joyless and forensic as a drunken hook-up.

David Schaengold

October 5, 2009

And Behold, It Was Just As I Said

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:36 am

I happened to be walking in a pleasant neighborhood near Johns Hopkins on Saturday, and some clever family had planted a pear tree in their front-yard and a peach tree in small patch of earth in the alley behind their house. Both trees were in excellent health, producing enormous quantities of delicious-looking fruit. Vast heaps of it, however, lay rotting on the ground. The bounty of these two trees was small enough that the rotting fruit did not make the block much less attractive. Had their neighbors imitated them, or had the city haplessly planted whole rows of productive fruit trees, the street would have been unpleasant indeed.

David Schaengold

October 2, 2009

Conservatives Become What They Loathe

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:03 am

It is sometimes noted that no one plays the race card as constantly and insistently as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their white, conservative confreres. They have adopted for their own the political evil they long suspected in their adversaries. Their original suspicion was undoubtedly not without justification. There really were some on the Left who accused all their opponents of racism in transparent bad faith, exploiting the guilty conscience of innumerable well-meaning Americans. There were probably many more who sometimes used the accusation of racism as a way of avoiding the discussion of actual arguments they felt sure were wrong anyway.

Somewhere along the way, conservative commentators decided that they could give as good as they got. The difference is this:  the leftists they accused of deploying the race card too casually actually sometimes believed their own rhetoric; most of them seem to have slipped into the habit unawares; they are guilty mostly of laziness and narrow-mindedness. When Glenn Beck calls Obama a racist, whether he means it is actually irrelevant. He is not lazily disengaging with Obama’s policy arguments, but actively attacking the possibility of engagement. The term is hardly more than a snarl of resentment, an ad hominem of the vilest kind. It is exactly what the proto-Becks have been somewhat hyperbolically accusing the Leftists of for decades.

The obsessive hunt for liberal “bias” is a kind of JV relativism, exactly of the kind long decried on the Right. There is a verbal gesture towards belief in objective truth, but no more than a gesture. Via Mark Shea, a document that, with its terms reversed, must be something like what the Right has always feared goes on in Comp Lit department faculty meetings.

David Schaengold

September 30, 2009

Asked and Answered

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:38 pm

“Is there some reason this is a bad idea?” asks Conor Friedersdorf, about his plan to plant fruit trees on city streets. Yes, there is. Most of the fruit will be unpicked, and will fall on the ground and rot. This will result in a greatly increased burden on muncipal street-cleaning employees. If many of them roll into sewers (the fruit, not the employees), as seems likely, actual disaster could ensue.

That said, many street trees currently are fruit trees, just of a genetically modified variety that produces only very small and entirely inedible fruit. The Bradford Pear is particularly common.

David Schaengold

September 28, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Amarcord

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:04 pm


– David Schaengold

September 24, 2009

America’s Greatest City-Hater

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:06 am

At the New Republic’s new urbanism blog The Avenue, Jennifer Bradley takes issue with Thomas Jefferson’s placement on a recent list of history’s hundred greatest urban thinkers. The textual evidence, she notes, is damning. Jefferson wrote frequently about the noxious moral effects of cities and condemned them as inimical to true self-governance.

I wonder, though, if Jefferson’s thought is more amenable to modern urbanism than Hamilton’s, his famously pro-city rival. Hamilton supported effective technocracy and centralized planning projects, while Jefferson supported local organizing and as much direct democracy as possible. Perhaps we can recognize in these two rival systems of thought a foreshadowing of the confrontation between Robert Moses (#23 on the list) and Jane Jacobs (#1 on the list)? Aren’t Jefferson’s values, especially the idea that community participation is good in itself, the ones upheld in successful urban neighborhoods, while the Hamiltonian technocrats have decamped for the suburbs, whose muncipal governments strive to be nothing more than efficient deliverers of services?

David Schaengold

September 21, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Enfants du Paradis

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 8:50 pm

Marcel Carné’s Enfants du Paradis is sometimes called the French answer to Gone with the Wind, but it would be more apt to call it cinema’s answer to Père Goriot. A distinctly Balzacian atmosphere pervades the work, and one of the characters, the infamous criminal Lacenaire, even looks a bit like him.

In this still below, Jean-Louis Barrault portrays a pantomime. The mime intends to hang himself with the bit of string he is holding, but the girl wants to play jump-rope with it instead:


-David Schaengold

September 8, 2009

Tuesday Movie Still: A Man Escaped

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:56 am

As in many Bresson films, the camera lingers on hands and faces:

escaped-01David Schaengold

September 2, 2009

Will They Know How to Read?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:16 pm


Sandia National Labs is trying to figure out how to keep people away from their Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which houses radioactive waste materials, for the next 10,000 years. What must be communicated:

– Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

– This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

– What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

What I find particularly interesting about this project is that it represents an attempt to bring very modern technical reason to bear on an old problem, namely how to make sure that important knowledge survives your generation. The traditional solution being culture.

David Schaengold

September 1, 2009

Mattel and Congress, Sittin’ in a Tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:16 pm

The blinding rage I feel when I read this must be why people become libertarians.

(via McArdle)

David Schaengold

August 31, 2009

Monday Movie Still: 8 1/2

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 4:49 pm

I know almost nothing about Fellini, but I’ll make an uninformed pronouncement anyhow: 8 1/2 is surely one of his most visually entrancing films. Almost any frame at random could be chosen for its elegance, but I found this one particularly interesting:


There’s nothing extraordinary about the composition of this frame, though its symmetry and straightforwardness are certainly significant. The protagonist of the film, seated on the left, is a film director played by Marcello Mastroianni, and a stand-in for Fellini himself. The character typically responds obliquely, obtusely, and deceitfully to everyone around him. His wife accuses him throughout the film of lying both on film and in person, and the character seems to wonder if the medium itself must necessarily tell falsehoods. Occasionally bizarre camerawork and flights of surrealism make the viewer ask the same question (do watch that clip, and this one too, if you can).

The character arranges a meeting with a Cardinal (exactly why is never explained — it is suggested that he might want to ask him questions about the role of the prelate in his next film), and when he finally sits down to talk to him, the camera frames the conversation unobliquely, even naively. I can’t interpret what this framing says about Fellini’s famously complicated relationship to Catholicism, but it does neatly invoke how differently the character acts with the Cardinal than with everyone else. Losing his easy disdain for those around him — typical of the artist and the celebrity — he approaches the Cardinal with a schoolboy’s nervousness (this is very well acted by Mastroianni, whose feet and posture  in this still convey exactly the right tone). At the same time, the camera abandons its own deceits and ruses and presents the scene as simply as it possibly can.

David Schaengold

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