The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Pricing in externalities

Uber, the ride-sharing company that pretends it isn't a ride-sharing company, has started a massive PR campaign against the city of Chicago because Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants them to pay for the damage they're causing to the commons.

Let's unpack all of that.

Lightfoot has proposed a $3 tax on ride-sharing trips into the Loop, Near North, Lincoln Park, and other affluent areas, and a smaller tax on trips out of the center city, because trips in and out of those areas cause several kinds of damage to the city's infrastructure. This is the definition of "negative externalities." In fact, Uber's and Lyft's pricing model has caused the following problems:

  • A glut of cars on the road during rush hour, with all the emissions and traffic they cause;
  • Reduced public-transit ridership and revenue, which disproportionately harms less-affluent users;
  • The destruction of the regulated taxi industry in Chicago, including thousands of bankruptcies due to taxi medallions losing more than two-thirds their value since 2014; and
  • The enrichment of Uber's officers and shareholders on the backs of underpaid Uber drivers.

Lightfoot's tax will increase the cost of a trip from Lincoln Park to Chicago by $3. If that pushes people to use public transit instead, we win. If people pay the tax, we win. If Uber's board take home less money, that's a neutral result we can all cheer anyway.

Compared with the way London, for example, has dealt with the environmental damage of cars in the central city, Uber's getting off easy in Chicago.

But of course, having gotten very rich through exploitation of other people, they don't see i that way. (Why are billionaires so whiny these days? Even Carnegie built libraries.)

Because we don't have Satanic mills employing thousands of 9-year-old orphans any more, it's hard to see the direct similarities between companies like Uber and companies like those portrayed in Dickens novels. But guess what? They're fundamentally the same. And Lightfoot's tax is only the first, modest step in Chicago government making life better for everyone in the city in the aggregate. The people complaining the most about the Uber tax are the people to whom $3 hardly matters. You can tell because $3 is more than the price of a CTA ride, and less than the current cost of an Uber ride.

If some Uber shareholders have to suffer a little so that people on the South and West Sides can get to work more reliably, I'm OK with that.

Backfield in motion

That's American for the English idiom "penny in the air." And what a penny. More like a whole roll of them.

Right now, the House of Commons are wrapping up debate on the Government's bill to prorogue Parliament (for real this time) and have elections the second week of December. The second reading of the bill just passed by voice vote (the "noes" being only a few recalcitrant MPs), so the debate continues. The bill is expected to pass—assuming MPs can agree on whether to have the election on the 9th, 11th, or 12th of December. Regardless, that means I'll be in London during the first weekend of the election campaign, and I'm elated.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other things made the news in the last day:

  • Writing for the New Yorker, Sam Knight argues that before Boris Johnson became PM, it was possible to imagine a Brexit that worked for the UK. Instead, Johnson has poisoned UK politics for a generation.
  • Presidents Trump and Obama came to Chicago yesterday, but only one of the personally insulted us. Guess which one.
  • That one also made top military officers squirm yesterday when he released classified information about our assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including a photograph of the dog injured in the raid. The dog's name remained classified, even as it seemed clear that he was a very good boy.
  • Grinnell College in Iowa released polling data today showing just how much people don't like President Trump. Moreover, 80% of those polled thought a presidential candidate seeking election help from a foreign government was unacceptable. Adam Schiff cracking his knuckles could be heard all the way to the Grinnell campus.
  • An appellate court in North Carolina ruled that the election maps drawn up by the Republican Party unfairly gerrymander a Republican majority, and must be re-drawn for the 2020 election.
  • Grubhub's share price crashed today after the company released a written statement ahead of its earnings call later this week. The company made $1.0 million on $322.1 million in revenue during the 3rd quarter, and projected a loss for the 4th quarter.
  • The City of Atlanta decided not to pay ransom to get their computers working again, in order to reduce the appeal of ransomware attacks.

Finally, it looks like it could snow in Chicago on Thursday. Color me annoyed.

The sources of pollution

The Guardian has ranked the 20-largest polluters worldwide based on their addition to atmospheric greenhouse gases since 1965. You will not be surprised:

New data from world-renowned researchers reveals how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity, and details how they have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of the industry’s devastating impact on the planet.

The analysis, by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US, the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency, evaluates what the global corporations have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions these fossil fuels are responsible for since 1965 – the point at which experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians.

The top 20 companies on the list have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965.

Those identified range from investor-owned firms – household names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell – to state-owned companies including Saudi Aramco and Gazprom.

Chevron topped the list of the eight investor-owned corporations, followed closely by Exxon, BP and Shell. Together these four global businesses are behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965.

Columnist George Monbiot says the companies got away with this by blaming you and me for their fossil-fuel extraction:

Even as their own scientists warned that the continued extraction of fossil fuels could cause “catastrophic” consequences, the oil companies pumped billions of dollars into thwarting government action. They funded thinktanks and paid retired scientists and fake grassroots organisations to pour doubt and scorn on climate science. They sponsored politicians, particularly in the US Congress, to block international attempts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. They invested heavily in greenwashing their public image.

These efforts continue today, with advertisements by Shell and Exxon that create the misleading impression that they’re switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In reality, Shell’s annual report reveals that it invested $25bn in oil and gas last year. But it provides no figure for its much-trumpeted investments in low-carbon technologies. Nor was the company able to do so when I challenged it.

The ideology of consumerism is highly effective at shifting blame: witness the current ranting in the billionaire press about the alleged hypocrisy of environmental activists. Everywhere I see rich westerners blaming planetary destruction on the birth rates of much poorer people, or on “the Chinese”. This individuation of responsibility, intrinsic to consumerism, blinds us to the real drivers of destruction.

And the band played on.

Overcooked

The UK has started a £100 m repatriation scheme to get stranded Thomas Cook customers home:

The government has said it will run a "shadow airline" for two weeks to repatriate the 155,000 UK tourists affected by the firm's collapse.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said its response to the crisis was "on track so far" and "running smoothly".

Mr Shapps, who earlier attended an emergency Cobra government meeting on the government's response, said: "People will experience delays, we're not running the original airline, but we intend to get this done all in the next two weeks and then end this phase of the rescue."

He also stressed people should not come home early from their holidays but should "carry on and leave on the date they were supposed to leave, having first checked the Thomas Cook website before leaving for the airport".

The government has to chip in because of the way UK bankruptcy laws work:

Had Thomas Cook been based here, it would have most likely filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and tried to reorganize while still flying. But Thomas Cook is a UK company, and that means that when the 178-year old business ran out of financing options Sunday night, it effectively just disappeared as far as the public is concerned. The UK government is solely focused on picking up the pieces in the near term while it prepares for a massive liquidation in the long run.

But:

These repatriation flights are only for those who already left the UK and needed to get back home. Everyone else just gets refunds, and that means airlines like easyJet and Jet2 are about to get a windfall of new business. TUI will pick some up as well, and I’m sure all low-cost carriers that touch the UK at all, like Ryanair and Wizz, will see a healthy uptick in bookings. But in the long run, someone is going to step up. This capacity won’t simply disappear.

So what happened? How did the company accrue billions of pounds of debt when the aviation part of their business remained profitable? Because fewer people like package tours than before:

Meanwhile, as the rescue operation kicks into gear, people are already conducting a post mortem into the death of this 178-year-old travel-industry leviathan—a British household name, with storefronts offering all-in-one resort vacations on almost every main street in the country. Among the causes, one striking possibility has emerged: Did the apparently unstoppable rise of the city break cause the company’s demise?

The rise in popularity of shorter urban breaks does indeed seem to have been a factor. In 2019, the average Briton is far more likely to be found wandering around Barcelona or Amsterdam than, say, sunbathing on the beaches of Spain’s Costa Del Sol, a 1980s favorite.

The number of Britons taking a yearly two-week vacation (a travel-agency staple, long standard because of the country’s generous vacation days) has fallen by more than 1 million since 1996. The number of short trips, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than half of people in the U.K. were taking at least one short trip annually. This shift is crucial, because it meant that most growth happened in a sector where travel agents do relatively poor business.

Most of all, though, it’s the liberalization of the aviation industry in Europe since the late 1990s that has radically changed people’s destination choices. Before the advent of bargain airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair, the only really cheap flights to be had were summer charters to beach destinations, so that’s where people went. Nowadays, the volume of affordable, even obscure destinations has hugely expanded. Previously far-flung cities such as Trieste, Italy, or Riga, Latvia, are now weekend-break destinations. Travel agencies that depend on block-booking a large number of rooms in high-volume destinations find it hard to capitalize on this trend.

I'm sure AirBnB and Hipmunk contributed as well.

I always feel a little sad (or outraged) when a venerable business dies. Everyone will get home from their holidays after this mess, but a company older than a third of the states in the US is no more.

Bad trip

Thomas Cook, founded in 1841, collapsed yesterday, stranding 150,000 people and causing the largest repatriation effort in British history:

The Civil Aviation Authority announced at 2am on Monday morning that the world’s oldest holiday company had gone into administration and that all flights and bookings had been cancelled.

The official administration was timed for the early hours when the largest number of the 94-strong fleet of planes were on the ground.

The tour operator is understood to have made a number of proposals, including asking lenders to reduce a £200m demand for extra funding and for credit card companies to release about £50m of cash they are holding as collateral against Thomas Cook bookings.

A couple planning to get married next weekend, having booked the whole thing through Thomas Cook, are among the disappointed.

Feminist thought on smart-phone use

Via Bruce Schneier, Irish writer Maria Farrell explains how a feminist perspective leads to some creepy realizations about smart phones:

Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

Feminists are often the canary in the coalmine, warning us years in advance of coming threats. Feminist analysis of Gamergate first exposed the online radicalization of legions of angry young men for whom misogyny was a gateway drug to far-right politics. More practically, when the US military finally realised the enemy could use running app, Strava, to track the habits and route-maps of soldiers based in hostile environments, domestic violence activists collectively sighed. They’d been pointing out for years that the app is used by stalkers and aggrieved exes to track women. I’m not the first person to notice that in cyber-security, feminism is a secret super-power. Checking every app, data-set and shiny new use-case for how men will use it to endanger women and girls is a great way to expose novel flaws and vulnerabilities the designers almost certainly missed. So, while looking at our relationship with our phones through a feminist lens may be disconcerting, it’s incredibly useful, and in a deliciously counter-intuitive way.

I'll be mulling her thoughts over for a while.

Slow news day? Pah

It's the last weekday of summer. Chicago's weather today is perfect; the office is quiet ahead of the three-day weekend; and I'm cooking with gas on my current project.

None of that leaves a lot of time to read any of these:

Now, to find lunch.

Lunchtime reading

A diverse flock this afternoon:

Your coder will now resume coding his previously-coded code.

Who needs agents?

In their ongoing battle with large Hollywood agencies, the members of the Writers Guild of America fired all their agents. Subsequently, they went through the usual May cycle of getting new jobs with hardly any difficulty. And this week, the Guild released an online platform to connect writers with jobs.

In a note to the membership, the Guild explained the platform:

Today the WGA is launching our Staffing & Development Platform, which provides valuable new tools to help connect writers with job opportunities in features and TV development. Over 600 producers, PODs, and companies have already registered and set up their profiles. Now, they’re ready to hear from writers like you.

With this new Platform, writers will be able to contact producers, PODs, and companies directly to apply for Open Writing Assignments (OWAs) and to request general meetings. At present, Current members will be able to submit for up to 3 OWAs and 10 general meetings each month. On the first of each month, these counts will be reset to 3 and 10, respectively, whether the previous month’s submissions were used or not.

The dispute revolves around "packaging deals" in which agencies sell studios a "package" of talent for a show or film. The studios pay the agencies a package fee, which the writers never get. In other words, instead of representing the interests of writers, these package deals profit the agencies at the expense of writers, because the agencies have an incentive to reduce writers' fees and increase the package fees.

Agencies still think they're going to come out on top, because of hubris and greed. But the WGA has shown in the past three months, and continues to show with the new platform, that they don't need agents as much as agents need them. In fact, they never have. But as Upton Sinclair said, "it is difficult to get someone to understand a thing when his salary depends on him not understanding it."

The thing you're not supposed to look at

So, it turns out, the President of the United States is a racist bigot, who has calculated that the best way to win re-election is to smash all the norms we've had for a century and a half.

OK, noted. Now let's see what all that sound and confusion might be covering up? How about the dismantling of the administrative state and the removal of any meaningful checks on corporate power:

There are daily proof points that the former lobbyists in the administration are advancing Trump’s quest to eviscerate the administrative state. Just last night, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly rejected a petition by environmental and public health groups to ban a widely used pesticide that has been linked to neurological damage in children, even though a federal court said last year there was “no justification” for such a decision.

“The Obama administration had proposed in 2015 to revoke all uses of chlorpyrifos after EPA scientists determined that existing evidence did not meet the agency’s threshold of a ‘reasonable certainty of no harm,’ given exposure levels in Americans’ food supply and drinking water,” Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. “EPA staffers cited studies of families exposed to it in apartment buildings and agricultural communities that found lower birth weight and reduced IQ, among other effects. But before the ban was finalized, in March 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the agency’s own analysis, saying the agency would reassess the science underpinning that decision.”

Part of the battle to deconstruct the administrative state is a war of attrition. Two research agencies at the Agriculture Department are uprooting from D.C. to Kansas City this fall, for instance, but many staffers have decided to give up their jobs rather than move, prompting concerns of hollowed-out offices unable to adequately fund or inform agricultural science.

This is the flipside, the actual goal, of all the anti-American rallies and palling around with terrorists that the president has done in his administration. All of that is just to stay in power. It's what he has done with the power that will have the longest and most dangerous effects on the country.