4 min read

March Links

I’ve become a fan of Matt Yglesias for a while. In particular, he’s been on a pro-building and pro-transit kick, and I generally find his takes to be well-informed and well-written. His recent post on SROs and rooming houses pointed out that Single Room Occupancies (basically, dorms or co-living for adults) used to be much more common than they are now. They tended to worsen the neighbourhoods they were in, so well-meaning citizens gathered and banned them from using zoning regulations. That’s all fine (or not), but in doing so, they also prohibited people from taking in boarders:

Their broader concern is that it was long customary in the United States for people with room to spare in their home to occasionally supplement their income by taking in boarders. So a young person new in town might rent a bedroom from an empty nest couple. Or a family in need of extra resources might make the kids double-up in a room to free up space for a boarder. One countermeasure they advise is to make it illegal to advertise your willingness to accept a boarder.

It's a shame. Freedom of movement is important for economic development, and efficient markets in shelter are good for the world. It's also anti-American – if you own land, you should be able to do whatever you want with it!

I generally believe in supporting creators I enjoy following, especially independent ones. So, a long time ago, I started supporting Tanner Greer, an erstwhile China scholar and American foreign policy critic (there are far fewer people in the intersection of this space than I'd like).

Once a month, he’ll jump on a Zoom call with higher-tier Patreon supporters for a monthly discussion. March's topic was Effective Altruism, the influence of rationalism on it, and its similarities and differences to other intellectual social movements. (I particularly enjoy Greer's perspective on social organizations because he is ex-Mormon. The Mormons have one of the world’s most successful, structured social movements, and there is a lot for the rest of us to learn from them.)

In the discussion, he brought up an old article of his: Questing for Transcendence. It claims that few experiences can consume a human as much as that of a higher purpose. A Mormon missionary will live without privacy for two years in a foreign land and enjoy every second; an EA will do mundane office admin with a smile because they know they are saving the world. But if you ever fall out of that mindset:

Many [returning missionaries] report a sense of loss and aimlessness upon returning to "the real world" [...] For the past two years there was a purpose behind everything they did, a purpose whose scope far transcended their individual concerns. They had given everything–“[heart, might, mind and strength“—to this work, and now they are expected to go back to racking up rewards points on their credit card? How could they?

I don't believe in transcendence anymore. I've been caught up in smaller versions of it before, and it is glorious. It's also very dangerous, and I think one is better off finding purpose in smaller joys. But it's worthwhile to think about what it is we're giving up.

If you’re interested in New York politics, I recommend you keep an eye on this Foundations of New York course. It meets once a week and is run by someone who bills himself as a New York local politics expert. For what it's worth, he has a cool substack. The pitch is:

- The anti-politics meme: the unconscious programming most people have that steers them away from politics.
- The anti-concreteness meme: the rhetorical habits and cultural defaults that prevent people from understanding government the same way they expect to understand a physical trade, science, or math.
- No easy way to learn: politics is as complicated as any STEM field, but you will not readily find easy introductions to it anywhere. Most people only have the option of “figure it out yourself,” with no obvious set of YouTube videos or books to assist them.
- A loss of social technology: New Yorkers (and Americans) were not always so helpless and disengaged from their civic order. People accomplished extraordinary things in the civic realm, and you can become one of these people.

If I lived in New York, I would sign up for it. (I would also sign up for an equivalent Bay Area course if it were available). Applications have closed, unfortunately.

I find that I collect stories of financial crime nowadays. This one was forwarded to me by a friend, featuring a band of four young Americans who defrauded the Bank of England in 1872. Many components will be familiar if you've read Lying for Money.

The fraudsters started with consignment fraud in the US — i.e., borrowing against goods they knew would never arrive. Then, they sought their sights overseas and started forging cheques that would take weeks to clear. Many banks knew this and would not allow customers to borrow against them — but the renowned Bank of England, trusting in the reputation of its clientele, would. Which made it a classic target for fraud.

Dan Wang is an analyst who lives in China (edit: now at Yale Law School, thanks to Lifan Z for the correction!), best known for writing an annual letter that is always interesting, thoughtful and very long. This year’s is no exception. The best part describes his self-imposed exile to Yunnan during Shanghai’s lockdown, and is an ode to the magic of travel:

When I miss the food of Yunnan, it is the dishes from Xishuangbanna that make me most dreamy. The city’s lifestyle is nocturnal since the people are dependent on rubber production: rubber trees are best tapped at night when temperatures are cool. Therefore the streets are fairly empty in the midday sun, coming alive in the evening. That is when people crack open beers and enjoy grilled meats before they enter the forests.

The rest of the piece is a thoughtful reflection on China's COVID madness and the limitations of state power. I particularly enjoyed this passage:

The Chinese state is usually levelheaded; but every so often it succumbs to a manic episode, in which it grips the population, not relenting until it has shaken them out of their pots for backyard steel furnaces, out of their schools for class struggle, or out of their minds for dynamic zero clearing. It then comes to its senses and sets down a battered people, as the rest of the world looks on aghast. The state is then sane and sober once more, though the people feel the occasional nervous tremor.