Plumb Lines

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

Fuzzy Moral Absolutism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:56 pm

David, you say 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.”

Isn’t almost the exact opposite the case? Nearly everyone, left or right, would agree with that rather elastic statement, and I daresay everyone at both First Things and Commonweal would. Does the principle simply require that we provide emergency-room care and a few other basic services? Or do we need cradle-to-grave provision for every medical need and more than a few medical whims?

There are good rhetorical and political reasons to not talk about the sacrifices required under any settlement. It’s fine if some people do, it may even be helpful, but it makes little sense  to attack people for not setting flame to their own political causes.

I don’t know where the correct course on healthcare lies, but almost everyone already has a claim on the principle you just put up for adoption.

-Matthew Schmitz

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

Tear Down This Blog!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 10:57 am

Stefan McDaniel lodges some serious objections to sites like this one:

Reading Postman for the first time last month gave me clearer language to explain my rage against the rise of blogging. For what he says about media can be said about literary forms—they are biased toward certain kinds of content. The blogpost is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness. It thus hands the public square over to bullies, sophists, and clowns.

Blogging has broadened the public discussion, but being more “democratic” does not somehow make it a neutral or indifferent forum. The medium, unsurprisingly, has its biases, and certain people are better suited to blogospherics than others. While vicious habits of mind are often the best recipe for drawing traffic, good blogging — blogging that is likely to gain the approval of “young fogeys” like McDaniel — requires intellectual virtue. Daniel Larison‘s long, thoughtful posts are a good example of using the form to cultivate good mental habits. This model — call it anti-blogging — deserves more imitators.

Update: I should also say what our readers hopefully already know: the League has some of the best “anti-blogging” around.

-Matthew Schmitz

October 17, 2009

Werner Herzog’s Film School

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:54 pm

A few of the subjects covered:

7. …How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?

8. Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.

9. Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.

Sign me up.

(via Kottke)

-Matthew Schmitz

October 16, 2009

Censorship Remixed

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:58 pm

Carson Holloway suggests that it’s not violent or graphic lyrics, but the rhythms and melody that should cause concern for those worried about the effect of music on morals:

As I argued in the first installment of this article, however, it is time this limited debate reckons with the voices of Plato and Aristotle, who claimed that people generally and the young especially are influenced most powerfully not by the words of a song but by the music itself—the rhythm, harmony and tune.

So that means it’s okay to listen to feel-good, if not exactly PG-rated, hits like this one?

-Matthew Schmitz

October 15, 2009

Cheese Stands Alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:58 pm

Patrick, I like the bills pictured in your post. They contain no symbols of our national government, no references to our religious traditions, and no winks at Masonic hokum. This intentionally post-everything design would put Robert Langdon out of work.

Most significantly, this tossing off of the older values and their symbols does leave one symbol in place: the dollar sign. Ah, triumph of capitalism. Who needs “In God We Trust” (let alone cyclopic pyramids) when we have the one symbol that really matters?

-Matthew Schmitz

How to Not Die

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:36 am

Joe Carter presents some tips on how not to die:

1. Drive the biggest vehicle you can afford to drive.
2. Never get on a 4-wheeler ATV [quad bike].
3. Do not road cycle or jog on public roads/roadsides.

I’ll just point out that while driving a huge car and not walking may well be a good ideas on the individual level, both create all kinds of hazards when widely practiced. This is why we need to do things to make it so that people can take a stroll without putting their lives at risk. This will require collective action, but such action is more likely to be successful if it is done on a local level as close to the people as possible.

-Matthew Schmitz

October 9, 2009

The Fierce Urgency of Doing Absolutely Nothing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:17 pm

The members of the Nobel Peace Prize committee gave their award to President Obama not for what he did, but for what he didn’t do, not because of who he was, but because he wasn’t George Bush. As a conservative, I applaud their decision. If the disastrous missteps of the past eight years taught us anything, it’s that good leadership requires restraint as much as it does readiness. In a busybody world, inaction is often the hardest and most necessary policy.

We often make the mistake of believing the greatest presidents are the ones who did the most, even when their choices were disastrous. Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also involved the country in a war that it probably didn’t need to fight. How does this make Wilson greater—and especially more peaceful—than, say, Calvin Coolidge?

How many of the major initiatives of the last eight years, like the Iraq War or No Child Left Behind, would gain majority support if we considered them today?

Conservatives who voted for a limited government, one that valued continuity over change, found themselves with an activist president whose forays into Medicare prescription drug benefits and, most disastrously, into Iraq, enlarged the federal bureaucracy and led to a host of unintended consequences. Bush’s creation of new entitlements at home and engagements abroad weakened America’s financial stability and global influence.

The virtue of a truly conservative government is that it is content to do nothing. This kind of leadership might be best modeled in the novel War and Peace. Tolstoy takes for his model of wartime leadership a man named Kutuzov, who was widely criticized in his time for being indolent and neglectful in repelling the Russians. The genius of Kutuzov’s leadership was his realization that the most important thing was to simply kill bad ideas. When the enemy attacked, the main challenge was to not overreact. The brilliant innovation of Obama has been to adopt this approach while distracting the media from his real strategy with a flurry of ballyhooed addresses.

Obama has practiced strategic inaction for years. While a professor at the University of Chicago, he never published a single piece of scholarship, but still was offered tenure. In the Illinois State Legislature and the United States Congress he had no significant pieces of legislation. I’m glad for that, because if he had passed something, it would almost certainly have been a bad idea.

For years conservatives have derided the judicial activism of liberal courts and the overreach of liberal leaders. Activity is a virtue of private enterprise, but in public service it is often a vice.

Obama has made a few missteps that no doubt gave the committee pause. The bailouts were wildly unpopular and, in the case of Detroit’s big-three automakers, far from wise. Health-care reform is likely to arrive riddled with concessions to special interests and loaded with hidden costs. These dark spots should not totally obscure his otherwise impressive record of doing nothing. The fact that his few major initiatives are so likely to cause new fiscal nightmares suggests that to be more deserving of the Nobel Prize, Obama should not have done more, but less. Good for the Nobel Committee for recognizing that.

-Matthew Schmitz

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

Plumb Lines Talks Gay Tweens

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:35 pm

As a special feature, we have two Plumb Lines contributors and a couple newcomers talking about what’s in the news.

KS: The sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher:

DS: The article KS links to is extremely interesting. The weirdest angle is the ubiquitous bisexuality, which has fewer immediate political ramifications and so is talked about less, but is perhaps more ultimately significant than the mainstreaming of conventional homosexuality. The most telling quote in the article: “he’ll make out with anyone.” Might our society eventually come to see any orientation at all as an intolerable limitation of desire? I often think of that splendid line from Troilus and Cressida when contemplating these end-of-civilization moments: “And appetite, a universal wolf… must make perforce a universal prey, and last eat up himself.”

BHD: Encouraging tweens to cement a sexual identity is surely a kind of child-abuse.

DS: BHD, I would be interested to know whether you believe this to be true of heterosexual identity as well. Presumably we all find the article’s token conservatives’ lines about how tweens shouldn’t be thinking about sex at all unconvincing, but it’s unclear to me how one should in fact go about encouraging the cementing of a particular identity, if we think that one best, or discouraging cementing of identity without implicitly endorsing ‘experimentation,’ even if only experimentation of desire.

BHD: A good question, and one that I was thinking about shortly after I wrote that.

I think it’s healthy and prudent to promote tweens’ growing sense of masculine or feminine self; and my pet theory of psychosexual development predicts that this would tend to reinforce their heterosexual identity as an important but appropriately indirect effect. Parents and mentors should model distinctly masculine or feminine virtues. They should encourage tweens to look forward to and prepare for, and eventually embrace, the distinct privileges and responsibilities of their sex (whether these are dealt them by nature or by benign nurture or cultural fiat–the duties of marriage and parenthood being, however, always chief among them). They should more directly foster in tweens the kind of identity that doesn’t develop naturally–supernatural identity as a son or daughter of God, which elevates and perfects whatever other identities do develop naturally, and prepares them to deal adequately with any misshapen identities.

In short: father-son fishing trips; bar mitzvahs; other cultural and religious equivalents of these; and their feminine counterparts. Actually, I think this is less developmentally necessary for girls than for boys, which by the way may account for some of the qualitative differences between male and female homosexuality, but that’s all for another discussion.

WK: I agree with BHD that the most healthy sexual identity develops naturally. But to bring that point out a bit, perhaps the mere practice of self-consciously “cementing a sexual identity” is a bad idea for the vast majority of normal boys and girls. Other pursuits should take up all of a tween’s – and perhaps anyone’s – life, such as identifying one’s vocation, abiding by our responsibilities to God and man,  participating in wholesome endeavors among friends, growing in knowledge and wisdom of life (including the proper exercise of our sexual faculties), and fulfilling family and community duties. A good healthy sexual identity seems incidental to a life well lived, whereas a warped sexual identity often seems to be the result of hyper self-consciousness.

DS: The question hinges on what is meant by “natural,” I suppose. It seems true that a healthy sexual identity should generally develop unself-consciously. This doesn’t mean, though, that sexual identity could develop “naturally” in the sense of “independently of culture.” The mechanisms for the development of healthy sexual identity, some of which, I presume, are those that BHD described, seem to have altered, or to be no longer effective in the same way. The challenge, then, might be to make explicit what was formerly implicit — to preserve, or invent anew, mechanisms for the transmission of the right kind of sexuality from generation to generation. What’s particularly challenging is that these new kinds of mechanism must be oppositional, in that they must provide not just an unself-conscious, virtuous sexuality, but a mode of articulation with public perversity, a counter-discourse of desire. These mechanisms might turn out to be things like going on fishing trips, but I doubt it.

Keith Staples is a contributor to Plumb Lines

David Schaengold is a contributor to Plumb Lines

B. Higgins Dass is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy

Will Kane is studying law

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 29, 2009

Pro-life Fashion?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:35 pm

I’ve been told that being pro-life isn’t just about opposition to abortion, it’s also about the celebration of new life.  Well, here’s your party outfit:


“We want to highlight the belly,” says designer Marisol Rodríguez. “This is happiness that is showing through your clothes.”

If the clothing line’s design shows a fun-loving appreciation for new life, the way it is made is equally telling:

She was particularly troubled by high unemployment among women who are in their 50s — many of them fired from jobs despite their skills, but not yet eligible for retirement assistance, which begins at age 62. “What do you do when no one wants to hire you, and you still have to support your family and pay your rent?” Rodríguez asks.

Hoping to help this segment of the female population that has fallen through the cracks, the designer and her 63-year-old mother teamed up: they established a small workshop in Bogota that employs women in their 50s to hand-craft goods. Housed in a two-bedroom rental apartment, their Bogota Factory doubles as a showroom over which Rodríguez’s mother presides — people come in and see samples of clothing, knitwear and painted wood pieces, then place orders. Mother calls in workers on an as-needed basis (currently there are three women, paid an hourly wage), while daughter provides design and business expertise from afar [. . .]

The idea of expanding the business and exporting goods to Europe is tantalizing to Rodríguez, who is the first to admit that Bogota Factory’s small-scale, low-tech, labor-intensive operation is not the most efficient business model. Sending the fabric to a laser-cutting facility would certainly get the cotton cut faster, and with greater precision, than having a worker use a pair of scissors to execute the job by hand. Then again, the entire dress line could easily be produced overseas.

But for the designer and her mother, the aim is not to eliminate jobs locally, but rather to create them. They would like to be able to employ at least one more woman. Their immediate goal, however, is to offer their current workers a labor package that includes health insurance.

Need I say how (no doubt unintentionally) Catholic this all is?


Fun hood. The baby looks kind of like it is in a minimum-security baby prison . . . did I mention that these things only cost $30?

-Matthew Schmitz

September 28, 2009

Monday Movie Still: Amarcord

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


– David Schaengold

September 24, 2009

You Might Suck

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:11 pm

Speaking from experience, Ivy-League students don’t often hear truth like this. From the Daily Princetonian:

I hate to say it, Class of 2013, but some of you might suck. Some of you might at this moment be on a crash course with a future of hurting people and leaving society the worse for your presence . . .

We will not all go on to be the next Nash or Sotomayor or Forbes. Very few of us will even come close — and whether you will be a “great” might already be out of your control. Always in your control, however, is whether you are good. Whether you cheat on your spouse, disappoint your friends, harm your country, or break the Honor Code — these are things forever in your hands. You’re at Princeton, but so what? In the words of Han Solo: “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”

-Matthew Schmitz

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

The Balance of Dependence

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:02 am

We will be dealing with the decay of that unstable isotope, the nuclear family, for a long time to come. The members of my generation suffered through the chaos of  divorce, remarriage, and custody battles while enjoying some of their rewards (two Christmases!). Now, the balance of dependence is tipping. The first Boomers entered their 60s two years ago. By 2030, the population over age 60 will have increased by 75 percent, with much of that number coming from the “me generation.” As boomers enter their second childhood, we are seeing a great historical irony: the uncertainty and chaos they inflicted on their children is about to be felt by them.

Our society has never been very clear about what obligations a grown child has towards his aging parents. But in the case of the Boomers, the question becomes exceedingly complex. What responsibilities of care does one have toward a stepfather? Toward a parent with more than one set of children? Forget the question Who will get the kids? It’s now Who gets stuck with the grandparents?

This is why I can’t quite agree with this comment on First Thoughts:

The original WSJ article and Schmitz’s addendum miss the point by advocating for “lifelong communities” where the elderly co-mingle with multiple generations. All the advantages they want for the elderly are met if parents, or widowed singles, live with or near their children and grandchildren. Building communities, or incorporating the elderly into communities, sidesteps the issue. No fruit stand customer, no matter how friendly, will attend to these “fogeys” as their health declines. Only a family member can do that. Just because the youngers are too selfish to bother and the elders are too selfish to entrust themselves to their children doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for the ideal and morally correct solution. Families should stay together, especially as they age.

Of course selfishness is the problem, but if we were able to extinguish that vice, there would be no need for good public policy nor, for that matter, the Cross. The challenge is to promote patterns of living in which largely but not exclusively self-interested people make good choices. So to say that children should just have parents move back in with them is not enough. The single-family dwelling in an auto suburb doesn’t do a good job of accommodating the extended family, no doubt because it was never designed to do so. People who already drive their children to soccer practice don’t want to also drive their aging parents to the bingo parlor.

I would love to see families welcome grandparents into their homes, but those grandparents will desire varying measures of privacy. They will want to venture out and visit with their peers. Having a wider web of community interaction — promoted in part by a mixture of housing that includes smaller, single-person dwellings and walkable streets — actually strengthens individual families by relieving some of the pressure they have to bear and under which they so often break.

-Matthew Schmitz

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