5 min read

Road communism

Underpriced roads cause costly externalities; eating local won't lower your carbon footprint; fifteen "whitepills"; and embracing unpredictability.
Road communism
Photo by Minku Kang / Unsplash

1—Road communism

Most of our roads are free, at least in terms of direct payments (users instead pay for them indirectly with fuel excise taxes). But that creates problems:

"Cars have had a catastrophic impact on the urban fabric, in particular its design; the United States is the worst affected, but in Britain it's largely because of cars that the ugliest city centres tend to be in the richest part of the country, the Thames Valley. It's not a lack of money that makes our towns so hideous, it's the combination of planning rules, collective bad taste among designers, and car dominance.

Perhaps the biggest negative externality is simply traffic; the more people drive, the more they destroy the utility of other people driving. As the saying goes, you're not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic. London drivers spend around 149 hours a year in congestion, costing the city £9.5 billion a year; across the United Kingdom traffic jams cost around £60 billion annually."

According to Ed West, pricing the congestion-related externalities caused by road users would go some way to solving the problem:

"If you're stuck in traffic in an urban area, it's because that piece of road is being underpriced. No one likes the cost of rush-hour trains, for example, but we understand that, if they weren't more expensive than other journeys, they would become even more unbearable as everyone piled on to the same carriages. As a result, we would all suffer. Likewise, we pay more for flights during holiday times because that is when demand is highest; if airlines or rental companies weren't allowed to charge more during peak season, the supply would dry up and collectively we'd all suffer."

You can read West's full essay here (~7 minute read), which concedes that while pricing road use isn't "entirely fair... [it's] the only way to reduce the 'tragedy of the commons' associated with urban gridlock".

2—What, not where

Does it matter from where your food comes? Not if you care about your carbon footprint:

"It's true: moving our food around does come with a climate cost. But, importantly, transport emissions are usually small compared to the emissions generated on the farm to grow the food. Transport is just 5% of food emissions.
The reason this number is so low is because most food that is transported internationally comes by boat. And, shipping is very carbon-efficient. Per kilometre, it emits 10 to 20 times less than trucks on the road. And around 50 times less than flying. Food that comes by plane – air-freighted food – does have a hefty carbon footprint but, very little of our food comes this way. Your soy and avocados are not coming by plane."

Most of food's transport emission footprint comes domestically (trucks), but even that is small compared to other choices we make:

"Most of the emissions from food come from land use change and production on the farm. What matters most for these emissions is the type of food you're eating. These differences can be massive. Producing 100 grams of protein from beef can emit 10 to 100 times as much as producing it from peas or beans.

Emissions from transport are tiny compared to these differences. That's why what you're eating usually matters much more than how far it has travelled."

You can read the full post by Hannah Ritchie here (~8 minute read), which notes that only an "extremely localised food system" – i.e. food "produced from your neighbouring farm" – would meaningfully cut food emissions, "but [that's] not realistic in the world we now live in".

3—Fifteen "whitepills"

Read all fifteen here.

4—Embracing unpredictability

"Ukraine/Taiwan/EU global political dramas, Twitter's cowboy takeover or FTX's explosion into the biggest outright fraud since Enron" – is today's world more volatile and harder to predict than it was in the past? Yes and no:

"We take for granted how good our Amazon suggested purchases are, how sloppy our Google queries can be, or how immediately interesting our Instagram/Twitter feeds are when we log on. We see OpenAI's outpainting feature demonstrate the expanding neighbourhood of predictability around any human effort. Similarly, the eerily good AI-generated Joe Rogan and Steve Jobs podcast shows us that beyond predicting what you might say, software can now predict how you might say it. Put simply, if you are easily modelled, then you are easily predicted, and this will have increasing implications in the future."

That's from Daniel Goodwin, who notes the paradox – "how can more and more of the world be increasingly predictable while the biggest parts are increasingly unpredictable?"

Goodwin's answer is that "the hardest aspects to model are becoming more influential", which can produce big gains but also large costs if governments attempt to force predictability:

"In an excellent Q&A, Tom Kalil references the book Seeing Like a State by James Scott: this book is an essential list of high-budget failures of governments forcing complex systems to become manageable. Examples include natural forests in post-feudal Europe that were converted into unstable monocrops which eventually collapsed, and cities planned from airplanes by foreign architects (eg, Le Corbusier and Brasilia) that resulted in barren spaces that were used in opposite to the best-laid plans. The highlight of Scott's book was a narrative of Jane Jacobs' successful fights against the top-down planners: while Robert Moses and Le Corbusier were flying in planes, Jane Jacobs was walking at street level observing how people lived."

You can read Goodwin's full article here (~12 minute read), which advises governments to stop trying to force predictability and instead "actively study and experiment how to create conditions that encourage more unpredictable results of individuals or groups in hyperproductive communities".

5—Further reading...

💸 How long until we get adverts? The free ChatGPT beta is probably costing OpenAI/Microsoft north of $US100k/day.

😷 "In China, a dam seems on the verge of breaking. Following a wave of protests, the government has begun to relax some of its most stringent zero-COVID protocols, and regional authorities have trimmed back a slew of requirements for mass testing, quarantine, and isolation."

🗑️ Belt and Road 2.0 seems destined for the dumpster: "I investigated how the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's flagship paper, has covered the BRI over the past nine years. The analysis reveals that Beijing is keenly aware of the initiative's pitfall. But Xi's effort to revamp the project hasn't received meaningful support from the pragmatic faction inside the CCP. As long as BRI 2.0 remains Xi's one-man show, it has no better chance of reviving Chinese investment or bettering lives in developing economies."

📰 Déjà vu: Meta threatened to remove news from its apps, including Facebook, if Congress passes a bill requiring it "to pay for links to news content in its apps".

🕊️ How long until Twitter moves to Miami? "San Francisco officials are investigating reports that Twitter has set up sleeping quarters for employees in its Mid-Market office, prompting Elon Musk to lash out at Mayor London Breed."

⚔️ The German government thwarted a Reichsbürger coup. The whole thing was quite bizarre.