Thursday, February 28, 2019

A proposal for an Alternative Green New Deal


Usually, Bloomberg Opinion understandably does not want me to repost my Bloomberg articles at this blog. But they made an exception for my Alternative Green New Deal plan. So here it is.

***

The planet is in grave danger from climate change. No reasonable person can doubt this fact. Drastic and immediate action is needed to reduce global carbon emissions.
But that doesn’t mean that any sort of drastic action is a good one. The Green New Deal, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has two big flaws. First, the plan overreaches in its desire to deliver a raft of expensive new entitlements — guaranteed jobs, benefits, health care, housing, education, income and more. If the large deficits required to pay for all of these things ended up harming the economy, it would actually hurt the cause of limiting climate change rather than help it. Second, the plan focuses far too much on the U.S.’s own carbon emissions. The U.S. accounts for only about 14 percent of global carbon output, and that percent is falling every day. The climate change battle will be won or lost in developing countries such as China:



So I propose an alternative Green New Deal, which would focus on actually defeating climate change. Some of the proposals here are included in the Green New Deal resolution; some are not.The first pillar of an alternative Green New Deal would be green technology. If the U.S. can discover cheap ways of manufacturing cement and concrete without carbon emissions, and of reducing emissions from agriculture, it will give developing countries a way to reduce carbon output without threatening their economic growth. To this end, the U.S. should pour money into research. The budget of ARPA-E, the agency charged with leading this research, should be increased from about $300 million to $30 billion per year.
The second way to move green technology forward is to encourage the scaling of these technologies. As companies build more solar power, batteries, smart grids, low-carbon building retrofit kits and other green technologies, the costs go down. To that end, the government should provide large subsidies to green-energy companies, including solar power, batteries and electric cars, as well as mandating the replacement of fossil-fuel plants with zero-carbon plants.
Infrastructure spending is also important. The original Green New Deal’s goal of building a smart electrical grid is a good one, as is the idea to retrofit American buildings to have net zero emissions.
Technologies developed in the U.S. need to spread quickly to other countries. All ARPA-E breakthroughs should be freely transferred to other countries, through the offices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or other agencies. Subsidies should be increased for companies that export their emissions-reducing products. The plan should also include offers of favorable trade relations for countries that reduce their use of fossil fuels, as well as tariffs on the carbon content of imported goods.
An alternative Green New Deal should also provide incentives for higher density in urban areas, since sprawl contributes to emissions. It shouldn’t require the decommissioning of nuclear plants. It should also implement a carbon tax, something now missing from the plan. This would encourage factories to reduce carbon output, to encourage air and sea travel to search for lower-carbon alternatives and to address various other sources of emissions.


In addition, an alternative Green New Deal should include proposals to make sure as little as possible of the costs of the transition fall on the economically vulnerable. Government infrastructure and retrofitting projects will naturally create many green jobs. The proceeds of a carbon tax can be rebated to low-income Americans, either as a carbon dividend, or through earned income tax credits, child tax credits, food stamps, housing vouchers and income support for the elderly and disabled. These policies combine the goals of fighting climate change and supporting the poor and working class.
In order to sweeten the deal politically, an Alternative Green New Deal should also include some economic policies that aren’t directly related to climate change — but make sure these are things that should be done anyway, and which won’t break the bank. Universal health insurance, which would free employees to move from job to job, as well as giving the government power to negotiate lower health-care prices, should be included. Increased spending on public universities and trade schools in exchange for tuition reductions, and grants to help lower-income students pay for these schools, would help increase educational attainment without being too costly.
Finally, an alternative Green New Deal should involve progressive taxes, both to raise revenue for the spending increases and to let the nation know that the well-off are shouldering more of the burden. Wealth taxes and inheritance taxes are good ideas. Income taxes should also go up, not just on the super rich, but on the affluent and the upper-middle class as well. And most importantly, capital gains and dividends should be treated as ordinary income, which would increase the tax rate actually paid by the wealthy.
This alternative Green New Deal has similarities to Ocasio-Cortez’s version, but also has key differences. By focusing on technological development and international assistance, it would tackle the all-important problem of global emissions. By avoiding huge open-ended commitments like a federal job guarantee or universal basic income, and by including progressive tax increases, it would avoid the threat of excessive budget deficits. Ultimately, this plan would represent the U.S.’s best shot at fighting the looming global menace of climate change while also making the country more egalitarian in a safe and sustainable way. It would be a worthy successor to the original New Deal.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Book Review: The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri


If you do not read "The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium," by Martin Gurri, you will not be sufficiently prepared for the world to come.

Well, you probably won't be anyway. No one will! But this book brings together a startling number of important threads of contemporary politics, geopolitics, public affairs, and media, and weaves them into a coherent, comprehensible, and very plausible narrative. And it does so far better than any other book, blog post, or Twitter thread that I have seen attempt to deal with these issues (including my own modest foray). So buy this book and read it.


Why This Book Is Great

The basic thesis of the book is that social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack - but not to replace - the dominant institutions of society. Citing examples from the Arab Spring revolutions to the Indignado protests of Spain to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, Gurri pegs 2011 as the year where the new paradigm of viral, explosive discontent first asserted itself. 

Importantly, Gurri defines the "public" in a weird, idiosyncratic way. It's not the people as a whole, so it can't be represented by opinion polls. It's not the "masses" of the mid 20th century, since it's not organized into hierarchical mass movements coordinated by leaders. Instead, Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. Thus, the public is actually a different set of people in each situation.

(Gurri's public is somewhat similar to my own conception of the "Shouting Class", but not quite the same. The Shouting Class are the set of people who are always vocally upset about one thing or another, due to their own personal life dissatisfaction, natural argumentativeness, desire for attention, or other factors that can't be assuaged or mollified by any change in the structure of the world. Gurri's public often includes these people, but often also includes non-shouters who genuinely care about one particular issue or are moved to action by viral enthusiasm instead of their own natural predilections.)

Social media, Gurri asserts, has both empowered and emboldened the public, freeing it from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. The age of Walter Cronkite has given way to the age of the Twitter mob and the Facebook protest organizer. But the newly empowered public, he argues, has not focused on building things up, but on breaking them down. The public's goal is negation - denunciation of respected leaders, derailment of political programs, overthrow of parties or governments, discrediting of institutions, etc. 

Gurri worries that this constant anti-everything attitude will descend into "nihilism", and that weakened institutions will be trapped in an eternal stalemate with an eternally raging public. The events of the 2010s have certainly conformed to this description. And the book, the first edition of which was released in 2014, looks especially prophetic when viewed from the vantage point of 2019. All the trends Gurri describes have only intensified.

The usefulness of this book is in drawing parallels between a bunch of things that might seem unrelated (and as a former CIA analyst, that's Gurri's specialty). If the many explosions of anger and activism since 2011 were fundamentally about specific issues - the Tea Party about taxes, the Women's March about sexism - then you might expect the anger to recede as the issues get successfully addressed. But if Gurri is right, these things are fundamentally about a technology - social media - and the way it changes power relations between the public and elites, then we can expect today's explosions of anger to be followed by others tomorrow, and then others the day after tomorrow, and on and on and on. 

Gurri may not convince you - in fact, if he does, you're probably not enough of a skeptic - but he will give you a new framework with which to usefully think about the political chaos of the modern world.

That said, there are some limitations, omissions, and missteps in the book (as there are in every book). Here are the biggest things I think Gurri left out:.


More Than Two Futures

Near the end of the book, Gurri allows for the possibility that his big thesis might be wrong. But he demands that readers choose between his hypothesis and the "null hypothesis" - i.e., the exact opposite of every trend he describes. If he's wrong, Gurri asserts, the world will proceed toward greater centralization, greater hierarchy, greater trust in and respect for authority, etc. etc. 

But this is a false choice. Gurri's vision is complex and multi-dimensional, not a univariate hypothesis that can be tested against a null. It's perfectly possible that Gurri's description of the world will hold true in some respects but not in others. For example, it may be that elites and institutions never regain their aura of Olympian invincibility, but that the public becomes more constructive over time, eschewing nihilism and pushing for big utopian visions like the Green New Deal. Or it might be that elites never become effective or respected, but successfully implement systems of total social control similar to the one China is trying to implement. Or it might be that elites never recover their power and effectiveness, but the public gets tired of outrage and finds something else to do, leaving society in a comfortable stasis.

There are many possible futures, not just two. 


Underrated Public, Underrated Elites

Gurri takes a very even-handed approach toward the public and the elites. He criticizes the former for its inflated expectations and destructive nihilism, while taking the latter to task for failed grandiose promises, tone-deafness, and exclusion of outside voices. But my impression is that he is a bit too hard on both.

Recent protests in the U.S. have not been completely nihilistic - often, they've motivated real, concrete policy changes. Occupy Wall Street probably contributed some popular energy to the push for financial reform, which culminated in the Dodd-Frank law. The Black Lives Matter protests, which Gurri mostly doesn't touch on, may have led to needed police reforms in many cities. In Tunisia, the Arab Spring led not to bloody civil war, but to the first green shoots of liberal democracy. I'm not a big fan of the Tea Party, to put it mildly, but they did seem effective in their goal of forcing Obama to cut spending.

Meanwhile, elites have not failed as badly as Gurri describes. The era of desegregation, civil rights, and the Great Society saw massive, permanent decreases in the black poverty rate (and modest decreases in the white poverty rate):


During the mid 20th century, the era Gurri describes as High Modernism, the U.S. government also built the interstate system and helped create the early internet, in addition to implementing Medicare. Other rich country governments successfully implemented government health care systems that to this day are highly effective and relatively cheap. Government research pushed forward the frontiers of science and technology in ways too numerous - and too important - to count.

More recently, efforts by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations led to modest but real decreases in poverty. Even after Obama was checked by a Republican Congress, his Clean Power Plan helped start a transition from coal power to natural gas and renewable energy. Gurri excoriates the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve for failing to stop the Great Recession, but it's notable - and at the end of the book, Gurri even admits - that things never degenerated into another Great Depression. The system may not have worked perfectly, but it worked

In other words, the public often gets things done, and government often gets things done. Gurri is too hard on both. 


So Why the Rage?

Gurri accuses the public of nihilism, and that accusation often seems right - especially when it comes to Twitter outrage mobs and the more radical political movements that have fought each other in the streets since 2017. But he doesn't really explore the reasons for this rage. He mentions elite failures - the Iraq War, the persistence of poverty, the Great Recession. But he also characterizes the public as being generally drawn from people whose personal circumstances are not so dire. So why are people so mad?

One possibility is that we're dealing with a "revolution of rising expectations". This is the theory that an era of steady progress leads to ingrained expectations of continued progress, or even accelerating progress. So whenever the inevitable slowdown or minor reversal arrives, a generation with great expectations explodes in rage at the future visions that suddenly seem denied to them. Last September I wrote a Twitter thread applying this idea to disappointed educated young people and the rise of the socialist left in America. The process might apply more generally. It might have been the success of modern societies and their elites, rather than their failure, that set the public up for disappointment and rage.


This Might Have All Happened Before

Gurri declares 2011 to have been a "phase change" in human relations, and portrays modern social media outrage and protests, and the chaos they cause, as something new under the sun, crucially dependent on information technologies that have never existed before. But the events he describes sound strikingly, even eerily similar to those described in another book I read recently: "Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848".

"Phantom Terror" describes how, in the wake of the French Revolution, the governments of Europe became extremely paranoid about the existence of conspiracies they believed were fomenting revolution. They implemented police states, but could find no such conspiracies. Yet revolutions happened anyway - spontaneous, grassroots revolutions, culminating in the upheavals of 1848. Some governments fell and were replaced, most endured, and the character of European governance largely persisted even though institutions and their legitimacy seemed permanently weakened. And all of this without any centralized hand or elite conspiracy driving the revolutions - just a bunch of spontaneously materializing mobs. Sound familiar? 

Another pair of books I read recently were "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence". These books described the political upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s - smack dab in the middle of the elite-dominated industrial age. These were years of chaos. Hundreds of riots, striking every major American city. Widespread protests. High-profile assassinations. Thousands of (mostly non-fatal) terrorist bombings every year, very few coordinated or directed by any organization or hierarchy. And this chaos repeated itself throughout Europe, and in much of the rest of the world - witness China's Cultural Revolution. 

These were two former eras, one far in the past, one recent, in which spontaneous activism and popular rage led to widespread rejection of elites and endemic political chaos. And yet in each case, the public didn't need Facebook or Twitter to revolt - all it needed were pamphlets, independent newspapers, books, or that ultimate information technology, word of mouth.

So the Revolt of the Public might not be such a new thing under the sun. Instead, it might be a recent manifestation of a recurring phenomenon - a periodic eruption of popular discontent. Such a cycle might be driven by improvements in information technology - the printing press, telephones, radio, blogs, and now social media. Each time information technology improves, it might lead to an explosion of chaos and rage while elites and institutions struggle to adapt. But each time in the past, the slow-moving engines of government, business, and media have eventually figured out how to put the lid back on public rage. It may turn out similarly this time. 

More historical perspective might have also affected Gurri's predictions and recommendations, which he delivers at the end of the book. Gurri predicts a compression of society's hierarchical pyramid, and recommends that governments adopt a combination of localism and responsiveness. But over the last few centuries, as information technology has improved, government has tended to move in the opposite direction - toward greater control, greater intrusiveness, and greater projects of centrally directed social change. In the 1400s, government was highly localized and parochial, with the exception of the occasional conquering army. Why should we expect to go back in that direction? Instead, should we not expect Even Bigger Government and Even Higher Modernism to eventually assert itself as the antidote to social media rage? 


In Conclusion

These omissions in the book should only emphasize how thought-provoking it was, and how interesting and useful of a framework Gurri has created for evaluating the modern world. I'm not repudiating Gurri, but riffing on him. I'm sure if you read this book, you'll find yourself doing the same.

So grab a copy of "Revolt of the Public". In these turbulent times, it provides a much-needed map.



Update

Martin has a friendly response to my review! He basically says that A) government may have done OK, but the public is never satisfied, B) government may have done OK but it over-promised relative to what it could deliver, and C) the public often doesn't even want real change, just to protest and get mad and feel important.

Those all seem right to me. These ideas are part of the reason Revolt of the Public is such a great and important book.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Souls of Yellow Folk," by Wesley Yang


"He was ugly on the outside, and once you got past that you found the true ugliness on the inside."
- Wesley Yang, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho"


Wesley Yang is not here to make you feel comfortable. He's here to find your most vulnerable places, and then, methodically, to poke you in those places. To pierce the veil of optimism that you use to get through your days. To make you think thoughts like: What if nobody really loves me? What if nobody really loves anybody? What if your failures are all your fault? What if they're not your fault at all, and society is out to get you?

Wesley Yang is here to make you sit with discomfort.

The Souls of Yellow Folk, a collection of Yang's essays, is a very Generation X work, in an age when Generation X is being rapidly eclipsed and forgotten. The voice is that of the disaffected, semi-detached loser, blaming himself for his own condition even as he watches the world grind down the people around him. It's Beck/Nirvana/Mudhoney/Soundgarden/Eminem. Really, the closest comparison I can think of is the graphic novels of Adrian Tomine.

This ironic, self-deprecating attitude extends to the book's provocative title, a play on W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk. Besides both being collections of essays, the two books aren't similar at all. Though some of Yang's essays deal with the Asian-American struggle, many don't. And even the ones that do offer little in the way of a practical program for racial advancement or emancipation. The message - ironic as always - seems to be that Asian Americans don't have "souls", or at least "soul", in the way that Black Americans do. That while Black Americans can find purpose in their long struggle for emancipation, inequality, and economic survival, Asian Americans find themselves like atomized specks adrift in a capitalist, postmodern fog - earning high incomes and long ago freed from systematic government oppression, yet denied promotions and invisible in popular culture. Free to succeed or fail as individuals, but denied the security of inclusion in a Real America that may or may not even exist.

"The Face of Seung-Hui Cho", the first essay - and one of the most powerful pieces of literature I've ever read - is nominally about the mass murderer who shot 49 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007. But really it's an autobiographical essay, about being Korean American and reacting to news of a massacre by another Korean American. Yang takes the gnawing question, which most people wouldn't even dare to ask themselves, and asks it openly: Could that have been me?

Cho was an incel killer before "incels" were even a thing - a man who blamed his sexual failures for his depression and alienation, who blamed women for his sexual failures, and who blamed society for his failure to attract women. Our usual approach to such people, whether or not they become violent, is to anathematize them - to assume that they're beyond the bounds of comprehension, like some scholars have claimed the Holocaust is. To slap labels on them - "insane", "psycho", "misogynist" - and to then drop them in a mental trashcan where we no longer have to think about what makes them tick. They're not a matter for empathy or human understanding - they're a matter for the FBI.

And for most of us, this approach makes sense. We don't need to go through life wondering what it would take - if it would even be possible - to make us, too, pick up a gun and murder dozens of innocent human beings. There's no need to spend our emotional bandwidth on that. We have better things to do.

But Wesley Yang attempts it. He goes right to the most vulnerable place, right to the horrible question: Was Seung-Hui Cho denied romantic love because he was an Asian man in a racist America? And did the shame and loneliness of that denial push him over the edge from mentally disturbed young man to mentally disturbed young murderer? If girls had been attracted to Seung-Hui Cho, would he have ended up safely recuperating in a mental hospital instead of with a bullet in his head? Would his victims be alive today?

Probably not. Almost certainly not! But we'll never quite know, will we? And it's this terrible never-quite-knowing that's at the center of many of Yang's essays. In "Paper Tigers", Yang deals with the bamboo ceiling, and the way that Asian Americans denied promotion are forced to endlessly wonder whether it was systemic racism, bad luck, or their own personalities that held them back. In "Game Theory," he profiles the protagonists of the 2000s-era pickup artist movement, and asks whether even a lifetime of practice seducing women could make any man successful finding real romantic love. In a trio of essays - "We Out Here", "Is It OK to Be White?", and "What Is White Supremacy?" - he asks whether the social justice movement's crusade to purge structural racism, well-intentioned as it is, will end up creating a set of impossible expectations for society.

In one of my personal favorites, "Inside the Box", Yang recounts the dawn of technology-assisted sex culture - ubiquitous porn, dating apps, and all the rest - and recalls wondering whether they would kill romance, and whether romance was always a lie. He takes this further in "On Reading the Sex Diaries", where he dissects the anxieties of promiscuous tech-addicted New Yorkers who desperately hope for romance even as they distract themselves with intrigue.

The exception to the theme of discomfort might be Yang's profiles of famous individuals; several of the essays are portraits of people like chef Eddie Huang, technologist Aaron Swartz, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. These aren't bad pieces - Yang's impressive command of the English language means that nothing he writes is bad, and there is a lingering tone of uncertainty over the value of even the most successful people's achievements. But the detached, journalistic approach of these profiles somewhat breaks the mood of the rest of the book.

Reviews of The Souls of Yellow Folk have ranged from the insightful to the airily dismissive. Some of the reviews seem a bit like "Reviewer 3" - academic slang for a scholar who complains that your research paper doesn't happen to be the one he would have written. Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in the New York Times, expresses disappointment that Yang didn't turn his anxiety about anti-Asian racism into a call for organized political struggle. But organized political struggle just isn't what Yang is about. He belongs to a different literary tradition - one that sighs and broods and stares out a window instead of shouting and marching in the street. Call me crazy if I think our society needs both kinds of writers.

An insightful piece in Slate by Sophia Nguyen, however, hits closer to home. Near the end of her review, she notes that women are conspicuously absent from Yang's essays - the profiles, the protagonists, and the villains are all men (with the exception of Amy Chua, who gets a brief profile!). There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course - if you want to write about men, you can write about men. Men are people, men are interesting.

But I'm not satisfied. For a writer who took on the monumental, soul-crushing task of empathizing with a mass murderer, it can't be that hard to empathize with a woman or three. I want to know what Yang thinks it's like to be the women his male protagonists dream of finding romance with and winning validation from. I want to know if he thinks the bamboo ceiling feels different when there's a glass ceiling as well. I want to see him profile at least one famous woman.

But there will be time for that. I have a feeling Wesley Yang is just getting started. In the meantime, pick up a copy of The Souls of Yellow Folk, and enjoy being uncomfortable.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Book Review: "Stubborn Attachments", by Tyler Cowen


Tyler was good enough to give me a review copy of his new book, "Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals", so here is my review!

This is a philosophy book. It tries to answer the question of what a society's priorities should be. That's interesting, because Tyler is usually a very circumspect guy who doesn't like to come out and make strong value statements. So it's cool that he's finally telling the world, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks society should be all about!

There are two things about the way Tyler approaches philosophy that I really like. First, he's very informal, and doesn't bother to painstakingly define terms or refer to things other philosophers have said. That would probably annoy some people in the academic philosophy field, but it makes the book extremely readable even for a layperson. 

Second, he doesn't try to set out an absolute, formalistic, fully internally consistent system of ethical principles - instead, he embraces an eclectic, often conflicting set of principles. This is refreshing, since rigid systems always prove fragile to intuitive counterexamples. Too much of ethical philosophy seems to consist of people finding intuitive counterexamples to rigid systems of principles, forcing advocates of those principles to redefine them in a way that wouldn't invite those counterexamples. As a sort of a Humean, I kind of believe that people's ethical systems are all just derived from moral intuition, and aren't really internally consistent, and never will be, and thus shouldn't have to be. It's therefore refreshing to see Tyler embrace a sort of eclecticism, where he draws at will on several different principles. This sort of philosophizing has very little formal discipline to it - it's basically just saying "Here's what I think is good". But so what? That's basically what we always end up doing anyway.

Anyway, OK, on to the actual ideas in the book. Basically, the book is an argument that long-term growth is the most important thing a society should strive for. The reason is that future people are just as important as present people, and the future is extremely long, so there are lots of future people. Thus, making sure we keep growth going is the most important thing we can do, morally speaking.

Importantly, Tyler makes sure to include sustainability in this calculation. Growth in technology doesn't matter much if the planet is unlivable. This point is inserted as a caveat, and deserves more attention throughout the book than Tyler gave it; he should have talked a bit more about environmental policy. But it's good that he put that qualification in there.

Tyler's moral reasoning appeals to me; I strongly agree that we should care more about future generations. 

But the problem with this idea is that it doesn't lead to a lot of actionable policy ideas. Tyler seems to think that laissez-faire economic policies are often pro-growth. But this is usually only true in the slang sense; most economists would say that cutting taxes or cutting harmful regulations raises efficiency, but not steady-state growth. It seems unlikely that a change in the top marginal tax rate from 40% to 25%, say, would compound over the centuries into living standards that are hundreds of times higher. In a typical Econ 101 setup or Ramsey growth model, the tax cut would simply bump up GDP a bit, and then growth would continue as before.

The big exception to this is Romer-type endogenous growth. If a slightly higher GDP results in a slightly higher research expenditure, which discovers a slightly higher number of new ideas, which leads to a slightly higher GDP, etc. etc., then the long-term benefits of anything that raises GDP today are absolutely enormous. 

But how much do we really believe that model? Did the Industrial Revolution - the greatest explosion of human living standards ever observed - start in Britain and the Netherlands because GDP was a bit higher there, which allowed the economy to support a higher number of researchers? Maybe, but I think even Paul Romer would be incredibly skeptical about that historical story. Instead, there were probably some institutional or contingent factors at work. 

Which brings us to my main problem with Tyler's big thesis - what are the actionable ideas here? Tyler mentions the problem of uncertainty - the fact that we don't really know what will lead to sustainably higher growth - but IMHO ultimately doesn't deal with it to my satisfaction.

The Industrial Revolution was the biggest sustained growth success story in the history of the human race. But now imagine you're an administrator in Ming Dynasty China in the 1400s. What policies do you recommend in order to make China industrialize? Even with the benefit of centuries of hindsight, the answer is not obvious at all. You can dig up coal, build factories, etc., but plenty of countries tried this approach with disappointing results. Even now, we don't know what combination of factors allowed Britain to succeed (accidentally!) at industrialization when other countries' later, deliberate attempts failed.

And if we don't know the magic growth-shifting policies in hindsight, how likely are we to know them ahead of time? 

This goes double for sustainability. The Industrial Revolution was amazing, but there's still some chance - small, in my opinion, but real - that the whole thing will cause the death of the planet's environment and make it permanently uninhabitable for the human race. If so, we might eventually wake up and realize that we would have been better off staying as subsistence farmers, trapped by the Malthusian ceiling, for many thousands of years, instead of enjoying a few centuries of doomed affluence. (Note again: I think this is unlikely, but it's hard to rule out). 

Anyway, the big weakness of growth-above-all-else-ism is that we mostly don't know what policies are likely to produce the kind of sustained, self-compounding, super-long-term growth that Tyler rightly declares we should prize. And given the risk that what we think are pro-sustained-growth policies might ultimately retard the rate of super-long-term self-compounding growth, this risk acts as a sort of discount rate - a reason not to completely sacrifice our present on behalf of our future, because we don't really know whether we're sacrificing our present to destroy our future. (In many economic models of intertemporal choice, risk aversion and time preference aren't separable, so this is just a hand-wavey version of that.)

BUT, that said, I do think there are a couple things that we can focus on that are more likely than not to result in super-long-term sustainable growth improvements. These two things are scientific progress and technology that enhances environmental sustainability

The more ideas humanity knows, the higher the probability that the increase in our choice set gives us access to things that raise super-long-term sustainable growth. So, science. 

And the more tools we have to reduce our use of finite resources, the higher the probability that our choice set includes futures where we don't destroy ourselves by destroying our environment. So, sustainability tech.

Thus, "Stubborn Attachments" reads to me more like a manifesto for basic research and green technology than a manifesto for laissez-faire economics or any of the other things that commentators call "growth policy". If we want to leave a much better world for our infinite future generations - and to maximize the infinitude of those generations - basic research and green technology are our best bet. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Yuppie Fishtanks: YIMBYism explained without "supply and demand"


YIMBYism is the idea that cities need to build more housing in order to relieve upward pressure on rents. In Northern California, where I live, YIMBYs tend to get into fights with progressives about market-rate housing. YIMBYs don't want to build only market-rate housing, but they think market-rate housing has to be an important component.

NorCal progressives, in contrast, tend to think that market-rate housing is bad - either they think it lures more high-earners into a city and pushes up rents (induced demand), or they object to private housing developers making profits, or market-rate housing just sounds like cities catering to the needs of richer residents instead of poorer ones. Instead, the progressives tend to support what they call "affordable housing" - either public housing, government-subsidized housing, or privately-subsidized housing mandated by inclusionary zoning.

When defending market-rate housing, many YIMBYs appeal to the idea of supply and demand. If you supply more market-rate housing, the market rate itself will fall, making many previously unaffordable houses into affordable ones. This might be true - in fact, evidence suggests it is true, at least to some extent - but I think it's a weak defense, for several reasons.

First of all, supply and demand is a simplistic model. It assumes a single homogenous good, when in fact everyone knows that housing comes in a bunch of different types. It doesn't take location into account, when everyone knows location is crucially important in urban real estate. And there are some situations, especially labor markets, where supply and demand just seems like a bad model for how the economy really works.

Second, the effect of new supply on rents might not be enough to help working-class families. If you build a ton of new housing and rents only go down by 3% - or go up by 3% less than they would have otherwise - it's not going to do a lot to help the people who progressives really want to help. Because of this possibility, "supply and demand" can sometimes sound a bit like "let them eat cake".

But in fact, I think it's very important to build market-rate housing. And though the forces of supply and demand are probably at work, I don't think the supply-and-demand model captures exactly why market-rate housing is important. So in this post, I want to try to explain the YIMBY position without invoking supply and demand.


Background: Invasion of the Tech Yuppies

The structure of the U.S. economy has changed a lot in recent decades. Knowledge-based industries like tech, medicine, and finance are much more important - for simplicity's sake I'll refer to all of these as "tech". Tech businesses have ever more of an incentive to cluster together in cities, which means that tech workers - who tend to earn high salaries - have been moving into cities like San Francisco.


If they're going to work in the city, these tech workers are going to want to live in the city. Where will they live?

Some will move into shiny new glass-and-steel apartment complexes downtown:


Looks kind of like a fishtank, doesn't it? A beautiful fishtank for yuppies.


But these beautiful giant yuppie fishtanks have limited space. So some of the incoming techies will go looking for apartments in other parts of town - neighborhoods occupied by long-time residents.

Many of the long-time residents currently renting these units are working-class. Many come from disadvantaged minorities. Some are artists or other creative types. 

The incoming techies have lots of money to spend, and landlords - the people who own the units where the long-time working-class residents live - know this. Therefore, they have an incentive to raise the rent, which usually means the working-class residents have to move and the techies will occupy the nice old Victorian apartments pictured above.

Now, often they can't do this, because of rent control. But there are things they can do to get around rent control. They can convert units to condos. They can evict tenants under the Ellis Act. Or they can just wait for residents to move out, then raise rents.

Additionally, not all apartments are subject to rent control, so often this isn't even necessary - landlords can often just raise the rent, which usually results in the replacement of working-class tenants with yuppie newcomers. 

The result: Displacement, gentrification, and an increasing rent burden on everyone not protected by rent control. 


How to Prevent Displacement From the Tech Invasion: The YIMBY Solution

The YIMBY solution to the problem described above is simple: Build more of the pretty glass fishtanks to catch the incoming yuppies as they arrive.


Most of the yuppies would probably rather live in the fishtanks. The fishtanks tend to be located downtown, near to where the yuppies work (SoMa, Embarcadero, etc.), rather than in the older residential neighborhoods. Additionally, the fishtanks are pretty and modern and new, with gyms and common space and other stuff yuppies like. Probably more attractive for the average yuppie than an aging Victorian far out in the Mission or Haight with no built-in community or on-site services.

Even more importantly, long-time working-class residents and struggling artists and disadvantaged minority families are highly unlikely to go live in a yuppie fishtank. That means that every unit of yuppie fishtank housing - i.e., new market-rate housing - that you build will either A) be occupied by a yuppie, or B) sit empty on the market. Landlords want to fill all of their units, so if there are too many fishtanks and (B) happens, they'll drop the rent until more yuppies move in.

Eventually, every yuppie fishtank unit that you build will be occupied by a yuppie.

Now if the new fishtank units catch the incoming yuppies and prevent them from invading long-time residential working-class neighborhoods, that's good!

And if the new fishtank units lure yuppies away from long-time residential working-class neighborhoods, that's also good!

If the new fishtank units instead draw yuppies in from other cities - for example, in the Peninsula to the south - that's not ideal, but also not so bad. It means more yuppies in the city, but they'll be living in fishtanks instead of in long-time residential working-class neighborhoods. In other words, it's a wash - it neither increases nor decreases the total number of gentrifiers. (In any case, I think this is unlikely to happen much. The number of tech yuppies moving to SF is constrained by the number of tech offices in SF - almost no one wants to commute down the peninsula and back every day if they can help it. and yuppies are usually rich enough to be able to live near their jobs if they want.)

So the YIMBY solution to the yuppie invasion isn't - or shouldn't be - just to build market-rate housing anywhere and everywhere. It's more like the following:

A) Build market-rate housing that appeals specifically to yuppies, clustered in specific neighborhoods away from long-time working-class residential areas.

B) Instead of tearing down existing housing to build market-rate housing, replace parking lots and warehouses and other inefficient commercial space with new market-rate housing.

In other words, YIMBYism is about yuppie diversion. It uses market-rate housing to catch and divert yuppies before they can ever invade normal folks' neighborhoods.


Why Affordable Housing Is Not a Great Solution to the Yuppie Invasion

Affordable housing - a catch-all term encompassing public housing, publicly subsidized housing, and privately subsidized housing - is popular among progressives, and is often put forward as an alternative to market-rate housing. 

Although YIMBYs believe affordable housing is good (for reasons I'll explain below), they also believe it's not a very good solution to the yuppie invasion described above. Why? Because affordable housing accommodates gentrification instead of preventing gentrification. 

Suppose you're a long-time working-class resident who gets displaced by rising rents. Now the government offers you affordable housing somewhere else in the city. Well, at least you still have a place to live, and at least you're still in the city you've always lived in, right? But you have to move out of your home, which is expensive and emotionally draining. And you probably have to move to a new neighborhood, where your local ties will be weaker. In other words, it would have been better if you never had to move at all.

So if cities can catch and divert the incoming yuppies (with new market-rate housing) instead of accommodating displaced working-class people, it's much better.


Why Affordable Housing Is Good Anyway

Affordable housing isn't a great solution to the tech yuppie invasion, but YIMBYs still want to build affordable housing. Why? Because affordable housing allows working-class people to move into the city to avoid commutes. 


Building new market-rate housing probably doesn't draw many new yuppies into a city from outside, since if their jobs are outside the city they'd still have to commute; most people would rather not commute, and yuppies can typically afford to live near where they work. But many working-class people are forced to commute from outside the city. Affordable housing changes that equation. It allows more working-class commuters to live closer to their jobs.


NIMBY Solutions to the Tech Yuppie Invasion?

The YIMBY solution of catching and diverting incoming yuppies with market-rate housing (yuppie fishtanks) seems like a good one because it creates a city where everyone, yuppies and working-class folks alike, can live, while limiting the disruption to long-standing neighborhoods and communities. 

But some progressives dream of other solutions, based on strengthening protections against yuppie invasions of long-time working-class neighborhoods. For example, repealing the Ellis Act, making it harder to evict tenants. Or strengthening rent control, making it harder to raise rents when a tenant leaves.

YIMBYs generally support repealing the Ellis Act. Rent control is more ambiguous, since it tends to hurt a lot of working-class people while helping others. 

But initiatives like these, on their own, won't be enough to create a good city for working-class residents. 

When combined with prohibition of market-rate housing development, these initiatives seek to drive yuppies out of a city entirely. By creating an iron-clad, invincible wall around working-class neighborhoods and apartments, and confining them to ever-shrinking, ever-more-highly-priced islands of market-rate housing, this strategy seeks to force yuppies (and possibly their employers as well) to leave for greener pastures.

But this is not a good idea. Driving yuppies and tech businesses out of the city means lower tax revenues. Those tax revenues are essential for paying for city services for the poor and working-class. Public housing, housing subsidies, homeless shelters, drug addiction clinics, social workers, public transit - these things all rely on tax revenues. And tech businesses and yuppies provide those revenues.

NIMBYism, even progressive NIMBYism, doesn't lead to a city that works for everyone. It sacrifices prosperity, and (even more importantly) the social services that prosperity makes possible, in order to avoid the cultural change that comes from having yuppies walking the streets.

That doesn't seem like a trade worth making. A successful city is one that doesn't simply preserve itself in amber, but embraces positive change that will improve the lives of its working class and poor residents. 


Wait - Does This Explanation Really Throw Away Supply and Demand?

Astute readers will notice that supply and demand isn't completely absent from this explanation of YIMBYism. But this explanation contains several major departures from the textbook supply-and-demand theory that you might learn in an Econ 101 class.

First of all, in a typical supply-and-demand model, there's only one kind of housing. In this explanation, there are three kinds of housing - "yuppie fishtanks" (new market-rate housing), long-time resident housing, and affordable housing. Market segmentation is real. This is something activists actually understand better than people who think only in terms of supply and demand.

Second of all, a typical supply-and-demand model of housing ignores location. In this explanation, location is crucial - the YIMBY solution is to build new market-rate housing in neighborhoods like SoMa, so that incoming yuppies go there instead of to neighborhoods like the Mission.

(Now, there are far more complicated economic models out there that capture all of these ideas and more. These models are actually more nuanced and realistic than my explanation here. But it's very hard for most people to think in terms of these models, and these models can also give different predictions depending on their assumptions.)

So when defending the YIMBY position, it's important to go beyond simply yelling "supply and demand". I hope this post gives YIMBYs a language to talk about market-rate housing without having to assume that all housing is the same, or that location doesn't matter. 

Market-rate housing isn't the only solution to the problems facing cities like San Francisco. But it is an important, even crucial part of the solution.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Noah Smith's Japan Travel Guide


Now is a GREAT time to travel to Japan. The country has really opened up, thanks to Abenomics, a weak yen, and the impending 2020 Tokyo Olympics. New technology has also made it a lot easier to get around the country, and to find cool stuff. Japan is in the middle of a huge tourism boom, and who knows how long it'll last, so you might as well be part of it. Go see the world, take a trip to Japan!

Anyway, for a long time, people have been asking me for tips about what to do when they go to Japan. So instead of re-writing a list of recommendations every time, I thought I'd write a blog post. So here it is: Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan.

This list is HEAVILY weighted toward the "urban Japan experience", rather than touristy/historical stuff like temples, shrines, etc. or outdoorsy stuff like skiing and hiking. I've found that Japanese cities are the most distinctive thing about the country, and that people who do the "wander around in the city" thing and hit up some of these attractions on their first trip there tend to have the most fun. 

It's also heavily weighted toward a first-time or second-time visitor who probably doesn't speak fluent Japanese, so it doesn't contain much hole-in-the-wall or out-of-the-way stuff either - i.e., Japan residents or regular Japan-goers will find this pretty "basic". If you're a Japan resident or regular Japan-goer who wants cool hip underground stuff to do and little unknown hole-in the wall restaurants or whatever, hit me up. Or better yet, you show me stuff. ;-)



When to Go

The most popular time to go to Japan is in late March/early April for the cherry blossoms (hanami). Warning: It will be very crowded and expensive. 


July/August is also a great time to go - you can see awesome fireworks and go to little traditional festivals with a bunch of yukata-wearing folk. It's fairly hot and humid. November is also a nice time to visit, and is much cheaper than spring or summer.



Getting Around

Getting around in a foreign country can be a bit of a challenge, but with these handy tips you should have no problem, even if you don't speak a word of Japanese (though you should learn Japanese because it's a cool language!).

Flights: There are lots of random cheap flights to Japan, and you just have to search a bunch to find them. But one trick you might want to try is to fly out of LAX. Try booking a round trip from LAX to NRT (Tokyo), and then booking a separate round trip to and from LAX to your home airport, and see if that saves you some money.

Lodging: Airbnb, at least until recently, has worked AMAZINGLY well in Japan. Many Airbnb owners are commercial operators, rather than owner-occupiers as in the U.S. So for a much cheaper price than a Japanese hotel, you can stay in a fully furnished Japanese apartment! Apartments for 2 or more people are especially cheap and often spacious. However, Japan has just stepped up regulation of Airbnb, and there was one episode where many reservations were cancelled. The cancellation thing should be a one-time event (I hope), but still, you'll have to check to see how available Airbnb is when you make your trip. If you can't find an Airbnb, try staying at a cheap hotel like Solare.


Pocket WiFi: This is incredibly useful. It'll let you use wifi anywhere in Japan, even on trains. This means you'll have a functioning cell phone without having to pay for international data rates (or phone if you use a voice calling app), AND wifi for your laptop. You can rent a pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communications or Ninja WiFi. You pick it up at the airport when you arrive, then put it in an envelope and drop it in a post office box when you leave. An alternative is to get a Japanese SIM card, which is slightly cheaper and doesn't require you to carry around a WiFi, but which will slow down considerably after 7GB of data. If you go with this option, I recommend Mobal. Finally, some Airbnb places come with a pocket WiFi, so if you get one of those, you don't have to pay for data in Japan at all! The only drawback is that you'll have to find the Airbnb place from the airport without data.


Google Maps: Google Maps works incredibly well in Japan. Many Japanese streets don't have names, so you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly for a long time...unless you use Google Maps, in which case you can unerringly walk directly to your destination every time. You can copy-paste Japanese addresses into Google Maps and it will handle them just fine.

Japan Rail Pass: This pass allows you to take any JR train for free. That includes the shinkansen (bullet train), which is the easiest way to go between most cities in Japan. It also lets you ride JR trains within cities, which are especially useful in Tokyo. JR passes come in 1, 2, and 3-week-long varieties. If you're going to travel around the country, this will save you a lot of money, but if you're going to just stay in Tokyo, or just go to one other nearby city, it probably isn't worth it. You can buy a Japan Rail Pass in your own country at an approved location or through a travel agent, or you can buy it in Japan at the airport until March 31, 2019.

Suica/Pasmo Card: Suica and Pasmo are actually two names for the same thing. This is a refillable RFID card that will let you use JR trains AND subways AND private rail lines throughout Japan. The only things you can't use it for are shinkansen and a few other special rapid trains. It's super useful. You can get it at the ticket machines at any train station. That is also where you refill it. Suica/Pasmo cards can also be used at all convenience stores, many drink machines, and many supermarkets! Super useful.


From the Airport: If you fly into Tokyo, use the Keisei Skyliner to get to the city, UNLESS you got the JR pass, in which case use the Narita Express because it's free. If you fly into Osaka, use the Nankai Airport Line.

Local Transportation: You'll mostly be using the train. Taxis are around but they're very expensive. Uber is basically nonexistent. The train stops running between midnight and 1:00 AM, so be careful not to get stranded. In Osaka you can also buy a bicycle if you want, which will run you about $100.

Paying for Stuff: You will need cash in Japan, so keep some on you. Visa cards can be used at a lot of stores and restaurants. Suica/Passmo cards can also be used in many grocery stores and convenience stores. But you will need cash. To make international ATM withdrawals, use the ATM in 7-11, which is pretty ubiquitous, or another ATM chain called Prestia. Google Maps can help you find the nearest 7--11 or Prestia if you're short on cash.

Pronunciation: Japanese is a fun and easy language to learn, but even if you don't know any, it's important to pronounce things right when asking for directions. Lots of things are written out in English letters, but you still have to pronounce them right. All "a"s are pronounced "ah", like in "ha ha". All "o"s are long, like in "so". All "u"s are pronounced "oo", all "i"s are pronounced "ee", and all "e"s are pronounced "eh" like in "pet". "R"s and "L"s are sort of halfway between the two, somewhat like the "R" in Spanish.


Daily Living

Climate Control and Laundry: Almost all rooms have wall AC/heater units. The remote controls are in Japanese, so if you can't read Japanese, use an online guide like this one. Many rooms come with an in-room washer/dryer, but the dryer will probably not actually dry your clothes, so you'll have to hang clothes up on the balcony to dry. An alternative is to use a wash-and-fold service, which you can look for with Google Maps.

Drinks: There are drink machines everywhere in Japan! You can use your Suica/Pasmo card at some; others you'll need cash for. They don't take 5 yen or 1 yen coins.

Convenience Stores: Convenience stores have most of the stuff you need, and they're everywhere. There are a few big chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, and Sunkus being the big 4. 7-Eleven is the best, since it also has international ATMs (note that 7-Eleven is sometimes "7 & i" in Japan, but otherwise looks the same). Convenience stores have water, snacks, drinks, crappy food, random household stuff, condoms, tampons, etc. You can use your Suica/Pasmo card here. Convenience stores are open 24/7, which is...convenient.


Pharmacies: The big chain is Matsumoto Kiyoshi, which is similar to Walgreens or CVS. There are some other chains too. Some Matsumoto Kiyoshis are open 24/7, others are not.


Supermarkets: There are a ton of supermarkets around. The best one is Aeon, but it's rare. You just sort of have to look around for random supermarkets, they're on main streets. In supermarkets you can buy cheap prepared food, if you just feel like grabbing something quick and don't want to go out.

Food Courts: Next to many big train stations, there are department stores. In the basements of department stores, there are food courts. These are not sit-down food courts like in an American mall; they are take-out. But the food tends to be pretty good, and there's a huge selection. If you need some good food fast, these are a good bet.




Places to Visit

There are too many cool places to visit in Japan for me to tell you even a few of them, and if I do tell you some, you'll all just go to the same places and won't be able to swap stories. So I suggest you wander around, ask friends who live there, look on the internet, etc. etc. But just in case you still want me to tell you some places to check out, here's a short list. 


Tokyo

Much of what you'll visit will probably be on the west side of the city. This is where all the famous "cool" neighborhoods are: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shimo-Kitazawa, etc. So I recommend staying somewhere near that area, for easy access. You'll mostly use the JR Yamanote line (loop line) to get around.

Shibuya: Remember that one crazy neon-drenched intersection you see in every Western movie or news report about Japan? That's called Shibuya Crossing, but its real name is Hachiko Square. (It used to kick Times Square's ass, before they redid Times Square and turned it into Blade Runner.) Hachiko Square is a convenient place to meet up with people, people-watch, or begin your adventures into Shibuya. Shibuya has tons of good places to eat, lots of giant stores and malls, alleys full of cool little bars and trendy dance clubs, and (weirdly) startup offices. Just go there and wander around. It's the quintessential "urban Japan experience" you're probably looking for.


Harajuku: This is where the fun kids hang out, or used to before it got taken over by tourists. You can still go to cool boutiques like Dog or 6%Dokidoki and see fashion kids of the type advertised on the @TokyoFashion Twitter account. Fight the crowds on Takeshita Street, or wander the less crowded backstreets of Ura-Harajuku. Most importantly, visit Tokyo Design Festa Gallery, a free art gallery with a cool cafe out back. I've met too many interesting people there to count, and the crowd is fairly international. 


Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Koen): This is Tokyo's equivalent of Central Park or Golden Gate Park. It's right next to Harajuku station on the JR line. The park has a huge and beautiful old Shinto shrine called Meiji Jingu, a huge hangout area where people picnic a lot, and wooded jogging/biking trails. During hanami season in late March/early April it's especially amazing, especially on the weekends. At the south end of the park is a footbridge that crosses to a cool amphitheater area where they have events on weekends, and if you keep walking that way you'll get to Shibuya.


Shinjuku: This maze of neon backstreets is another quintessential "urban Japan experience". If you come out of the east exit from JR Shinjuku station, you'll arrive at an old red-light district known as Kabukicho. In Shinjuku you can also go to Robot Restaurant (warning: it's silly), hit the bars at Golden Gai, explore Japan's most famous gay district at Ni-chome, or even see the last few yakuza if you go to the right monjayaki restaurant. Or just wander around, really.


Akihabara: This is known as "geek city", but it probably won't seem that different from the rest of Tokyo. Go wander around some geek shops, play video games (Taito Station is my favorite arcade), visit a maid cafe (warning: pointless, cheesy and overpriced), etc. But don't expect to be mobbed by anime geeks in full cosplay (for that, go to Comiket or other similar events).  

Shimo-Kitazawa: If you want to go to a hipster neighborhood, this is probably your best bet if you're in Tokyo for the first time. Jake Adelstein lives here, so make sure to bring a sword.
(Note: This is a joke. Swords are very illegal in Japan.)

Odaiba: A giant game center, with some little beaches nearby where people party in the summer. Nice views of the city and bay from the monorail (which is actually not a monorail, interestingly enough).

Ikebukuro: Where the fun kids hang out and do fun stuff now that Harajuku and Shibuya have been mobbed by tourists. Of course now you'll read this guide and mob Ikebukuro too, and they'll have to find somewhere else! Damn general equilibrium!

Shimbashi: Also known as Shinbashi, this is where to go if you want to see and interact with Japan's famous "salarymen" in the after-work hours. Well, this or Yurakucho. Or Kanda. Or Ikebukuro. Damn, Tokyo has a lot of salarymen.

Daikanyama: This is a very cool, modern, "new urbanist" style mini-neighborhood near Shibuya.

Asakusa: This has another cool shrine, and an old-looking district around it, as well as a nice riverwalk.

Roppongi: Here's where to go if you want to hang out with English-speakers, meet seedy characters, or hit the international clubs. Go to the top of Mori Tower for a nice panoramic view of the city. There's a nice art gallery in the building too, which always has surprisingly good stuff in it.

Ageha: Ageha is probably Japan's best dance club, if you like dance clubs. It's a little ways out of the city, so you have to take a bus. 



Osaka

In Osaka, you'll mainly be getting around via subway. The Osaka Municipal Subway is the best-run train system in the entire Universe. In most of Japan, you walk on the left, but in Osaka you walk on the right, so remember to do this, so that you bump into all the people visiting Osaka from other cities. Also, watch out for bicycles. 

Umeda: Umeda is Osaka's answer to Shinjuku, but is actually kind of what Shinjuku was like before it got mobbed by tourist hordes. Lots of great food and cool neon streets. Visit the Hep Five mall and go up on the ferris wheel to get a nice view of the city.


Namba: Even cooler than Umeda. See the Glico Man and the other big neon signs next to the Hikakebashi bridge, and walk around the riverwalk there. Go to Dotonbori street and eat some yummy food and go to cool shops. Walk down Namba Walk, a covered shopping arcade, all the way up to Shinsaibashi (where there are many good restaurants and clubs). Or go underground and wander the endless vast subterranean shopping centers. Or head over to Nipponbashi (where I used to live) and go shopping for electronics. You really can't miss, in Namba. 


America-Mura: This mini-neighborhood, near Namba in the south of Osaka, is called "America town", but is neither American nor a town. It IS, however, a very cool place to hang out, with fashion shops and fashion kids in the daytime and cool clubs and bars at night. The streetlights look like robots, and one building has a giant clown on it. Go catch a live show at Sunhall, which was a rockin' place a decade ago and probably still is. Or buy cool clothes at Tom's House (or anywhere else, really). Or go buy rock & roll records at Time Bomb. Or just hang out in Triangle Park, which isn't actually a park, but more of a concrete slab where kids sit around. In Ame-Mura you can almost feel the ghost of young Noah Smith wandering around taking pictures of fashion kids and asking for band recommendations...


Osaka Castle Park: Also known as Osaka-jo Koen, this is a big nice park with a castle at the center. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, and is now a facsimile, but the park is really great and has fun people to meet and excellent views of the city. And lots of stray cats.


Tennoji Zoo: A zoo that has some Asian animals that you might not see as much in Western zoos.

Sakuranomiya: The best place to do hanami if you're there for cherry blossom season.


A Few Other Places

Kyoto: Everyone likes to go to Kyoto and see the temples and shrines and geisha (who are actually not geisha but who cares). If you do that, make sure to go to Kiyomizu, Yasaka, and Gion, and then Kinkakuji and/or Ginkakuji if you want even more traditional stuff. If you'd rather do something more hip in Kyoto, go hang out on the Kamogawa riverbank.


Okunoshima: This is an island full of bunnies. It takes a day to get there and a day to get back. You decide if it's worth it, for an island full of bunnies.


Hakone: A town with a bunch of onsen. If you want the real "country ryokan and onsen-hopping" experience, go here. You can also take a bus or taxi to a tea shop that has great views of Mt. Fuji. But if you want to see my favorite onsen in Japan, go to Kawayu in Wakayama south of Osaka, and visit the senninburo (giant outdoor river bath). 


Himeji: Possibly the only real samurai castle in Japan. Unfortunately, samurai were quite short and didn't have access to much metal or other materials, so the castle consists mainly of plain wooden corridors that are too small to stand up in. It also has a haunted well. 

Really, I'm the wrong person to ask about touristy stuff around Japan, since I don't do a lot of touristy stuff. Places like Sapporo, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Mt. Fuji, etc. are pretty famous tourist destinations, but I've actually never been to them.


Food to Eat

The problem with Japanese food is that A) there is a ton of amazing stuff, but B) the traditional stuff that people typically go for is not the best, and C) there is a lot of bad stuff too, so if you go around trying random stuff you also won't have the best experience. On top of this, I'm a bit afraid of sending too many people to a few awesome restaurants that I know, for fear of swamping them and forcing them to become uncool tourist attractions. So writing a Japan food guide is tricky. Instead, I'll focus on types of food to try, and mostly let people find their own stuff, recommending only a few places. To search for good food, use Google, Tabelog, and Tripadvisor.

Izakaya: The best food in Japan is actually found at izakaya, which are basically Japanese tapas restaurants. The problem is that lots of izakaya are cheap chain restaurants - good for parties, but not exactly fine dining. But the slightly upscale izakaya are the place where real creative cuisine happens in Japan - in fact, not eating at izakaya is the biggest food mistake that tourists make. But there is such a dizzying array of izakaya that it's impossible to give any general guidelines for how to find the good ones. Just two of the many that I'd recommend are Teppen in Shibuya and Fumoto Akadori in Tamachi. If you must go to a chain, go to Nijyu-Maru or Za-Watami.

Ramen: Everybody loves ramen, but you should definitely eat ramen in Japan, because it's just...better. There are two basic types: A) ramen without a ton of fat in it, and B) ramen with a ton of fat in it (aburamen). For simple classic ramen, a good place is the most famous touristy chain, Ichiran. For fatty aburamen, my favorite is Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku. For fancy ramen, try TomitaMensho, or Menya Itto. Ramen is one of the rare foods that's as good in Tokyo as in Osaka. There's actually better stuff out there too - ramen gets as fancy (and as snobby) as you like.


Nabe: Japanese hot pot. Really damn good. Served year-round but more popular in the winter months. Try chanko nabe, the traditional food of sumo wrestlers. 


Yakiniku: Barbecue! Japan does it very well. This can include pricey wagyu, Korean-style stuff, or weird seedy places that are difficult to describe. Try them all! A favorite of mine is Shibaura, not to be confused with the neighborhood of the same name.


Okonomiyaki: A bready cabbage pancake with meat or other stuff inside and sweet barbecue sauce and mayo on top. Do NOT eat this in Tokyo; eat it only in Osaka. 


Kaitenzushi: This is what Americans call "sushi boat" - sushi on a conveyor belt. Japan does it better than anywhere, of course, and it's actually pretty cheap. Genrokuzushi in Osaka is the best, and Heiroku Sushi near Harajuku is fun and touristy and good.

Monjayaki: This is a Tokyo specialty - a gooey hash made on a griddle at your table. The best places are in a neighborhood called Tsukishima. 

Kaiseki: This is a kind of restaurant where you get a long series of very small, very well-presented dishes. It's fairly expensive.

Italian food: Japanese Italian is different from what you'll get in the States or elsewhere. For lunch, little Italian eateries can't be beat. Il Buttero in Shibuya is a good example. 

Beer: Japan has gotten into the craft beer game, and there are lots of nice places where you can try good stuff. My personal favorite is Craftheads in Shibuya. Weirdly, Japan is into craft pilsners, which you don't see a lot of, so that's worth trying.

Sake: There are too many awesome sake places in Japan to count. The key is to try "amakuchi" and "karakuchi" sake, to avoid just getting the dry-tasting stuff we usually get in America. Also, of course, try a bit of nigori. 

Crepes: The best place to eat Japanese crepes is probably on Takeshita St. in Harajuku, or Namba shopping arcade in Osaka.


Drinks: Drinks I recommend include Pocari Sweat (sports drink), Bikkle (yogurt drink), and royal milk tea (especially the Ko Cha Ka Den brand found in Coca Cola drink machines). My coffee drinking friends strongly recommend Boss Coffee.


Snacks: A great salty snack is Jagariko, potato sticks that come in a small paper tub. A great sweet snack is Choco Takenoko, small cones of graham cracker dipped in chocolate. Other stuff, like Pocky, you're probably used to already.



Fun Stuff To Do

This is just a random list of fun stuff to do in Japan. Some of this is redundant to stuff above.

Shell out some money and go to a music festival like Fuji Rock or Sunset Live.

Shop for cool clothes in Shibuya, Harajuku, or Ame-Mura.

Buy some fireworks at a corner store and shoot them off in the park (legal!).

Drink on the street or in a park (legal!).

Shop for kitschy fun stuff at Village Vanguard.

Go to a rabbit cafe, an owl cafe, a cat cafe, or whatever type of animal cafe you can imagine. It probably exists. Just Google it.

Play goofy video games at Taito Station

Go see the awesome art at Design Festa (and don't miss Design Festa Gallery, open year-round!). 

Visit the Shibu House art incubation space (you have to email them for an invite).

Take a riverboat cruise around Osaka or a boat cruise around Tokyo Bay.

Walk around the huge underground shopping malls in Osaka and get totally lost.

Picnic in Yoyogi Park or Osaka Castle Park.

Go to a rave, which is still probably fun even now. Or go clubbing at Ageha

Go to a live house (music club) like Sunhall, Fandango, or any of the places in Shimokitazawa.

Go to a summer festival. Or see some amazing Japanese fireworks, which often put the 4th of July to shame.

And obviously, go to a park if you're there for cherry blossom season. In fact, just live in the park. Camp out there every day. Meet all the people. It will make you happy.


And there you have it! Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan! This guide will be updated with random recommendations over time, but those are the basics. Happy travels, and post pics!



Izakaya List

I asked friends of mine for izakaya recommendations...I will list them as they trickle in. Places I can personally vouch for are marked with an asterisk..

1. Seigetsu*

2. Nozaki Saketen*

3. Bakushuan

4. Donjaca

5. Tamakin Roppongi*

6. Uratsubaki*

7. Maru Aoyama

8. Teppen

9. Fumoto Akadori