Monday, May 21, 2007

London is Greener

Financial Times' Weekend columnist and author of Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, confirms my earlier claim that urban planning with good transportation systems can provide better energy security, where security can also come in the form of being greener.

I wrote my note lamenting the lack of energy security and urban planning with adequte public transportation in California, one of the largest economies in the world and one of the poorest places when it comes to good public transportation, and yet one of the places that has the greatest ambition to have cities as green as its environ. The only trouble is that you cannot be green with so many cars and so many roads and so few efficient (and nonexistent) public transportation networks.

This is what Harford writes (FT, May 18, 2007):

The Office for National Statistics reports that Londoners produce much less household waste than anywhere else in the UK. From the same source I learn that London’s households are the most likely to have no cars, and the least likely to have two or more cars. Even before the congestion charge came into force few Londoners commuted by car.

London’s Mayor’s office informs me that London emits 40 per cent less carbon dioxide a person than the national average - which would be less than half the rate of ”carbon neutral” Ashton Hayes. All this from a city that is hugely dynamic, innovative and, frankly, disgustingly rich.

It is true that these figures do not include the environmental cost of producing products elsewhere and shipping them to London. That would be a more telling omission if the rest of the country was growing its food in the back garden, but the truth is that most UK citizens fill their houses with products produced elsewhere. They just have bigger houses to fill.

London, like other big, dense cities, is good for the planet. That fact seems to surprise people. After all, cities are polluted places.

...London’s environmental performance comes naturally. My in-laws live in the Lake District in a house that is twice as large as mine with half as many occupants; they drive into town to pick up the morning paper. We travel around by bicycle or walk pushing our kids in a baby buggy because a car is impractical. We are enormously greener than they, but not because we’re more virtuous nor because we’re poorer. We’d like a bigger house, but that costs too much in London. A fancy car would be a waste of money because we’d rarely use it. Economic necessity, rather than deeply held principles, compels us to be green.

The Labels, The Internet and The Musician

Internet, as a giant copy and distribution machine, may and should continue to afford artists with greater autonomy well into the future. Reports of musicians' success in using this copy-and-distribution tool continue to pour in.

For example, Wall Street Journal's John Jurgensen writes about how musicians use the Internet to promote their work ("Singers Bypass Lables for Prime-Time Exposure," May 17, 2007, WSJ, B1). The report focuses on the case of singer and musician Ingrid Michaelson, "a 26-year-old Staten Island native who ... was discovered on MySpace by a management company that specializes in finding little-known acts and placing their works in soundtracks for TV shows, commercials, movies and videogames."

Many shows will only pay unsigned artists about $1,000 for the use of their music on TV, while artists on major labels might garner more than $30,000. Since she has been signed to Secret Road [Music Services, not a label], Ms. Michaelson has been paid up to $15,000 each time her music has been featured on a show or commercial, according to someone familiar with the deals. Secret Road says its cut of Ms. Michaelson's income is in keeping with industry standards of between 15% and 20%.

TV, of course, has become an increasingly powerful force for driving music sales. Apart from "American Idol" and "Saturday Night Live," possibly the most coveted TV slots for musicians are on "Grey's Anatomy," which has helped make songs like "How to Save a Life" by the Fray into top sellers on iTunes. A finale spot on "Grey's" is considered a particularly plum slot. Last year, the finale allowed Scottish band Snow Patrol to break through to a broad audience and played a role in making its featured song, "Chasing Cars," a hit.

Because Ms. Michaelson doesn't have a record-label contract, she stands to make substantially more from online sales of her music. For each 99-cent sale on iTunes, Ms. Michaelson grosses 63 cents, compared with perhaps 10 or 15 cents that typical major-label artists receives via their label. So far she has sold about 60,000 copies of her songs on iTunes and other digital stores. Ms. Michaelson is pouring most of her profits into pressing her own CDs and T-shirts, hiring a marketing company to produce promotional podcasts and setting up distribution for her CDS.

The fact that much good music today is discovered on the Internet before it ever makes it to the labels demonstrates that the labels need to reconsider their full "supply chain" and continue to review their policies and rules governing the protection and distribution of cultural content they come to license ("for a limited time").

On the same day as the report above, The Wall Street Journal also reported a significant move away from DRM which indicates the labels are recognizing the role of the Internet as a means to build networks of fans for artists through low-cost copy-and-distribution of content:

EMI Group PLC, the world's third-largest recorded-music company by sales (and the fourth-largest in the U.S. market) announced yesterday it would license its catalog to Amazon's DRM-free service. The three other major music companies haven't said publicly whether they expect to play ball with Amazon, but people close to all three companies said they don't expect to license content to Amazon in the near future. That means consumers shopping for downloads on Amazon will be able to buy tracks from EMI artists like Norah Jones and Coldplay, but are unlikely to be able to find music by most other major artists, including, for instance, each of the top-10 selling albums last week. Another complication: Apple's iTunes is moving toward offering music without copy protection, and also plans to release EMI's catalog in that format.

Much of the early use of DRM technologies has focused on limiting the power of digital copy and distribution of content.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Software and Transaction Cost Economics

It is good to see someone who has a relatively good understanding of Transaction Cost Economics write about the topic of open source software or software in general:

There was a time when a single determined individual could write the core of a single operating system for a primitive computer. But given the demands of computer applications and the capabilities of hardware technology at present, that is no longer conceivable. The task needs to be divided somehow. This immediately raises a ... core political economy question, about coordination of a division of labor within a centralized, hierarchical structure--that is, a firm. Within the firm an authority can make decisions about the division of labor and set up systems that transfer needed information back and forth between the individuals or teams that are working on particular chunks of the project. The boundaries of the firm are determined by make-or-buy decisions that follow from the logic of transaction cost economics. The system manages complexity through formal organization and explicit authority to make decisions within the firm as well as price coordination within markets between firms.

That's from Steven Weber's The Success of Open Source.

Security Consequences of Urban Planning

Modern urban planning in the U.S., as it has been conceived and implemented in the urban sprawl since WWII, poses serious security concerns that arise from its economic vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities are both explicit, in terms of direct transaction costs such as transportation to work, and more implicit, in terms of aggregate and individual worker productivity. Thus, did The Economist ("In a Jam," May 5, 2007, p. 38) describe the situation in the area where I live:

[The] Bay Area is not set up like a European metropolis. Most suburbanites have quite a drive just to get to an underground station, and must then win a vicious struggle for parking to make it onto a train.

The description fits well with my family's experience here.

In major American cities, workers have to drive long distances (of the order of 80 - 200 km / day) from home to work and back, and a significant increase in gas prices, without a similar increase in better communications technologies (that allow people to reduce trips to work to compensate for other losses) or a similar increase in energy efficiency of automobiles (at the same unit price) can cause perturbations towards lower growth rates.

Lack of adequate and efficient public transportation is not limited to major cities. One in eight who live in the U.S. live in California, just as I do. The state by itself has consistently accounted for one of the top 10 largest GDPs in the world for multiple decades, and it drives the U.S. economy with its vast consumption, tax base, farming and real estate, not to mention high technology. And yet, there are no super fast trains connecting any of its major metropolitan areas together: Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento Valley, etc.

The economic inflexibility of urban sprawl leads not only to higher overall transaction costs throughout the economy but also to instabilities in various sectors. For example, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 51 leading retail store chains have reported a collective 2.3% decline in same-store sales. Michael Niemira, chief economist of the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers says this is the weakest showing since he began tracking the closely watched industry measure of performance in 1970. People have blamed this on a soft housing market, bad wheather in March, a fast Easter or fuel prices. Fuel prices and a soft housing market seem to be the most likely explanations for why this drop has been as large as it has been. While the real estate industry benefits from generally cheap gas prices (which lead to better possibilities for greater urban sprawl) and may be willing to go to war for it (observe how the representatives of American economic power offered almost universal support, in 2002-2003, for aggression against and occupation of Iraq), the spending for war might come back to bite the real-estate and other industries in the form of rampant deficits and inflation, higher interest rates, higher fuel prices and general asset attrition. One would expect that the economic elites and political leaders of a super power to comprehend that peace, justice, stability and truly open commerce (of course, not in commerce of aggressive war machinary) remain the solid base and the best guarantors of mutual understanding and development, economic vitality and growth. However, "stability" is often confused with the extension of imperial rule. In the meantime, a rampant political jargon and an infected moral language equates mass aggression with liberation, injustice with natural rights, murder with "collatoral damange," etc. Such infection of moral language, publicly spread, will always fog people's minds and provide a kind of self-belief among the elites to perpetuate the rule of what becomes a militaristic economy unashamedly pursuing its ends until it exhausts all resources at its disposal (and reaches its own end) at a huge toll in human life and well-being.