Thursday, January 31, 2013

More Change, Less Discussion

We are adapting to a more rapid pace of change, and one way we are adapting is by not discussing every change that we observe. Things happen, we all see them and know they happened, but we don’t stop to talk about it.

I saw an example of this recently when I went with a friend to a familiar store. The store had closed, and another store had opened in its place. We went in to look briefly at the new store, but there was no discussion of the old store, the one we had thought we were arriving at. Obviously, its revenue was not enough, and it was gone for good. What was there to talk about?

It was not so different when Circuit City and Borders closed. People talked some about the liquidation sales and checked with each other about the closing dates of specific stores but there wasn’t much talk about not being able to go to those stores anymore. When I speculated about the broader implications of the store closings, it was with other economists.

We go through whole generations of technology with a similar dearth of narrative. Most of my friends who drink beer have, in the last decade, switched to locally brewed beer, seen their favorite microbrewery shut down, and found themselves drinking less often because it’s not always easy to find the time for beer. In this context, the question, “What are you drinking these days?” neatly covers most of the ins and outs of a fairly elaborate sequence of events that a whole group of people have been through more or less simultaneously, even if they did not necessarily experience it together.

We are getting better at telling very short stories. Personal changes that would have been a novel a generation ago can now be condensed to a tweet if need be. “I got a Ph.D. in materials engineering and took a job in Toledo, but the new product flopped and the company might be taken over.” This narrative style leaves out volumes of action but still gets you to the essence of the present situation.

Returning more quickly to the present perhaps makes change less stressful. When you focus on the way things used to be, what might have been, or all the things that could happen next, that’s unavoidably complicated. The present situation, though, is only as complicated as you are ready to make it.

This post appeared originally in Rick Aster’s World.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Universal Plug and Play, Universal Trust, and the Law of Exploitation

There are problems with the Universal Plug and Play protocol (also called UPnP), flaws serious enough that security experts and government authorities are recommending that businesses and consumers not use the protocol, or devices that depend on it, at all.

Universal Plug and Play was supposed to be an easy way for computers and peripheral devices to work together. A computer wouldn’t have to know about a device in advance, because the device would tell the computer all the details of how to deal with it. From the outset, the whole idea had a powerful resemblance to code injection. You really don’t want an unknown device telling your computer what to do because it might tell it to do something destructive. And as it turns out, that is a very real risk with Universal Plug and Play. Security researchers have outlined at least three points of failure that allow malicious devices, or network programs pretending to be devices, to add arbitrary programs to a computer’s kernel, effectively bypassing almost all the layers of security that exist in computers and networks. From my limited understanding of the details, it seems to me that these are very fundamental flaws. That is, no one should expect a fix or patch within the next few years, and if there eventually is a fix, it will involve abandoning the original idea of “plug and play.”

The notion of universal trust that Universal Plug and Play is built on is one that philosophers would have a hard time accepting. Can you ever devise an abstract rule of trust so ironclad that it will never have an exception? History suggests otherwise — that every rule about what you can trust will have exceptions, eventually if not immediately. The Law of Exploitation, which says that every tendency will be exploited sooner or later, also argues against universal trust. If you accept that a rule of trust is a tendency, it follows that it carries within it the possibility of exploitation.

In practical terms, this means any security system will need to be active, so that it can observe and adapt. No matter how carefully a protocol is written, someone still has to be paying attention. For Universal Plug and Play, the people who need to be paying attention include ordinary computer users, who we now must rely on to shut off that feature in networks and devices such as routers, webcams, and printers.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Narrow Bricks

Like many other things, bricks were cheapened for years before they fell out of favor.

Brick walls were the standard structural exterior of a well-built house in the 1880s. They became less popular until by the 1990s, if bricks were used at all, it was as a novelty element or a design motif. It is not that one day people decided they were tired of bricks. To this day, people like the idea of bricks. It was a long series of events that led builders to switch to other design approaches.

It started, as far as I can tell, with bricks getting smaller. This made the resulting wall less strong and stable, and it would crack more easily. This didn’t matter, not right away anyway. You could add more interior strength with a heavier wooden frame. Cracks wouldn’t start to show up for about 20 years, and when they did, they could be patched up easily enough.

Of course, when brick walls started to show cracks, owners might wait years to have them repaired. They could do so without any great risk, but as people saw so many cracked brick walls, it took away from the image of a brick wall as solid and reliable. Meanwhile, architects came to rely less and less on the external strength of a house, putting more of the structure on the inside. By the 1990s, the outer walls of a conventional house were no more structural than any other wall, and the exterior was the opposite of a brick wall. It was made of foam and plastic wrap, covered over with a vinyl facade.

That is a transition that would have happened anyway because of costs, but perhaps the first steps in that direction met with less resistance after brick walls were cheapened when they were at their technological peak. This is a recurring pattern in the economics of innovation. New technology can get a boost when the dominant technology begins to show cracks.

Monday, January 28, 2013

What Is the Right Size for a Store?

A local independent bookstore, Chester County Book Co., closed this weekend with a plan of reopening elsewhere later this year.

This is not just another story about a bookstore closing. It is also about a store seeking the right scale of operations. The store has been in business for 31 years, most of that in a shopping center. There, without moving from the space it was in, it expanded several times and contracted at least once. It added on a record store and a restaurant. In the end, it was all too much, and when the bookstore reopens, it will be at a much smaller location.

There is a trend toward larger, less crowded retail stores in suburban and city-edge settings, and not always for the right reasons. Part of it is that there is so much retail space available. It is a truism in retail space management that a shopping center should not be half empty, but with so much retail space and so few stores, it is not easy to keep a shopping center fully occupied. One of the strategies shopping center managers have employed is to encourage their existing tenants to expand into the vacant space around them. Sometimes this works, but sometimes, as the Chester County Book Co. story shows, you can lose a tenant this way.

Larger stores are, in theory at least, a good thing for shoppers. A larger store may allow for a more logical arrangement of merchandise and more space to move around, and this can save time. For the retailer, though, it costs more to operate a larger store, and especially these days, the increased rent may not be the largest expense. Energy costs for lighting and heating can be a larger expense. Depending on the store layout, a larger sales staff may be needed. This not only implies a larger payroll but perhaps also a less knowledgeable staff, on average.

In the end, store sizes will depend on how shoppers react. Recently I have seen a couple of stores expand and then close, which shows that a larger store space can sometimes actually hurt sales. In general shoppers spend more time in a larger store, but does this mean they will visit less often to save time? Retailers are taking chances with store sizes and it will not always work out well. My hope is that the trend toward larger stores does not lead investors to speculate in new retail buildings in already overbuilt areas. The trend toward larger stores could reverse, if there are more cases like the current one, and this could happen in less time than it takes to build a new shopping center.

Friday, January 25, 2013

This Week in Bank Failures

Banks are shrinking, but not very quickly. Bank branches are closing across the United States at a rate of about 40 per week. But banks continue to open new branches at half that rate, so the rate of decline is only about 20 branches per week. It is not enough to notice unless it is your branch that closes.

If banks are going out on a financial limb to keep branches open, it is a sign that they are betting on an early turnaround in the real estate market and the home mortgage business. The branches that are losing money today will be profitable again if people start coming in looking for a loan to buy a house. Realistically, though, the housing turnaround is still a decade away. The long wait until that happens could turn branch banking into a war of attrition, with competing banks eyeing each other as they wonder who can really afford to keep branches operating at a loss year after year. In the end, it will not be a surprise if it is the community banks and credit unions, which actually make a profit operating ordinary banking offices, that have most of the remaining banking footprint in most of the places in the country, outside of the major metropolitan areas.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

How To Extend Copyrights in Europe

Here is an interesting story from Sweetwater Sound’s inSync newsletter. The European Union is extending copyright in sound recordings to 70 years, from its current 50. This makes a certain kind of economic sense, if you think about the consequences of the Beatles records, for example, falling into the public domain.

However, to qualify, a recording has to have been released. So what do you do, if, like Bob Dylan, you have a bunch of tracks recorded in the early '60s unreleased in the vault that are about to "expire"? If you're Dylan, you release a 50th Anniversary Collection 4-CD set in Europe subtitled The Copyright Extension Collection, Volume 1.

Only 100 CD copies were made, and downloads were available only for a limited time. It nevertheless fits the publication requirement of the new law. Surely other recording artists will do the same thing with some of their outtakes, including songs that may not hold that much interest for the public. The cost of releasing an album, if it is not important to sell many copies, is now less than the cost of having your lawyer advise you that it is a good idea to do so.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The European Financial Transaction Tax

A financial transaction tax got the go-ahead from the EU and could be in effect in up to 9 European countries by the start of 2014.

The tax, though oddly constructed, is a step in the right direction. The strangest thing about the tax is that stock and bond trades are taxed at a much higher rate than derivatives trades. The proposed rate is 0.1 percent for stocks and bonds, compared to 0.01 percent for derivatives. It would make better economic sense — and generate more revenue — if these two rates were switched. But regardless of the details, it is an improvement over the current system in which vast areas of financial activity, involving trillions of dollars in assets, go untaxed.

The new transaction taxes in a few countries will make it easier for other countries to add similar taxes. It will begin to look like a global trend if transaction taxes are eventually added in the United States and Japan.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mali: What a U.S. Rebellion Would Look Like

The United States already has about a billion firearms — and in recent weeks, there has been a surge in both assault weapon sales and paranoid anti-government rhetoric. It makes sense, then, that people are beginning to worry about the possibility of an insurrection in the United States. If that happens, it is not likely to occur in winter, or indeed this year, but it seems there is a chance of something of the sort occurring in the next five years. If you want an idea of what an armed rebellion would look like, the current rebellion in Mali is probably the best example to consider. The rebel army is fanatical, poorly disciplined, and not in the best of health. It holds a view of the world not shared with anyone. Yet it imagines itself a combat-ready army and the voice of the people. This makes for a particularly grisly setup, leading to large numbers of civilian casualties when the rebel army runs unopposed, and rebel casualties in the hundreds when the rebel army comes across any real army.

There are several reasons to think this could happen in the United States too. The fanatical militia groups who would be at the heart of such a rebellion have existed for a generation and now may number close to 1 million (though no one should imagine that a majority of them would ever work together on anything). Rebels in the United States could gain covert financial support from narco-rebels in neighboring Mexico. It is not just the militia members who overestimate their popular support; some of their friends in political office also imagine that there is some popular appeal for overthrowing American democracy and installing an essentially foreign culture by force. With the decline of television, newspapers, magazines, radio, and other mass media, the common assumptions of collective American culture are breaking down, making it possible for extremist groups to imagine that their views are widely held. There is reason to fear groups that are well-armed and extremely overconfident. They can do a lot of damage in a short time.

From the outside, it is hard to imagine what the Mali rebels are thinking as they march forward to near-certain death. If there is a similar insurrection in the United States, it will not make any more sense than this.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cigarette Smoke As a Cause of Asthma

Cigarette smoke is one of the main causes of childhood asthma. That’s the most natural interpretation of a study that found an 18 percent drop in hospitalizations in the three years after 2007 when England’s smoking ban went into effect.

Smoking bans are only partially effective, so this suggests that the contribution of cigarettes to cases of severe asthma in children is well over 18 percent, probably more than 25 percent.

This study adds to many others of recent years, focused on various diseases and symptoms, that suggest that cigarette smoking has a profound short-term effect on everyone exposed to it. Ideally, no one should smoke, but it is especially important, we now know, not to smoke when there are other people nearby or in buildings or cars shared with others.

Friday, January 18, 2013

This Week in Bank Failures

Banks are reporting earnings for the latest quarter, and the results are mixed. It is clear that bank earnings are still complicated as a result of banks’ involvement in mortgages and derivatives. However much the banks gloat or groan, it is hard to tell how well they are really doing.

A new banking rule will affect flippers, investors who buy houses in order to sell them again almost immediately. If the sale is to a purchaser who is getting a mortgage loan for the purchase, the seller may have to have to obtain a new professional appraisal of the house. New appraisal rules also apply whenever mortgages are at unusually high interest rates.

A small bank in Minnesota failed tonight. State banking regulators closed 1st Regents Bank, in Andover, Minnesota. The failed bank had $50 million in deposits. Its successor is First Minnesota Bank.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Walk Around the World

“It’s a small world” may be a cliché, but people don’t fully believe it. For many people, then, the most surprising thing about a journalist preparing to walk around the world as part of a National Geographic project (described in the BBC News Magazine story “Paul Salopek: Going for a seven-year walk”) is that such a thing is possible. The story of humans taking 75,000 years to occupy the world is so often repeated that it is hard to interrupt this narrative to explain that the actual duration of such a walk could be less than a lifetime, conceivably as short as two years. As a marathon runner, I like to compare the distance around the world to the distance of a marathon. A walk around the world might be 100 million steps. That’s 1,000 times the distance of a marathon, but consider that good runners (and even runners like me) complete a marathon in a single morning. My hope is that this planned journey, a walk to South America from Africa over the next seven years, helps more people understand how small the world really is.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Retail in December and January

U.S. retail sales in December did better than the early data had indicated, with a slight improvement even after taking price and population changes into account. Sales may decline this month because of the expiration of a temporary payroll tax cut, or they may hold their own if consumers feel more confident with the “fiscal cliff” story laid to rest for the moment. But after a possible dip in January, there is reason to be optimistic about the trend in retail sales in the months ahead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Moby’s Yoga Interview

It is an interview with a musician about yoga, but Moby also talks in very practical terms (especially in part 2) about the connections between karma, lifestyle, health, and productivity. (The Chopra Well on YouTube)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Best Buy Survives the Holidays

Best Buy did okay last month, with same-store sales basically equal to the year before, though this is not such good news in a year when many underperforming stores were closed. It’s a report that vindicates the chain’s new merchandising strategy which has seen it reduce its stock and carry only a few select brands in each category.

I happened to visit Best Buy over the weekend, and I worried a little about how much of the display was given over to televisions — more, in fact, than ever before. To be sure, if there is a season to be selling television displays in the United States, it is the second half of January, as people who will be hosting Super Bowl parties upgrade. But the store I visited seemed to have more than 100 different models of televisions on display, so that it will be fortunate to sell an average of one of each model in the two weekends remaining before the Super Bowl. Perhaps this is the right adaptation for right now, with manufacturers making more televisions than they can sell, but it surely isn’t a merchandising approach that can be carried forward beyond February 3.

And then what? If the best that Best Buy can do is tread water, it will probably be looking to close and shrink a few more stores this year. For a consumer electronics store, it is a long way from February to November.

Friday, January 11, 2013

This Week in Bank Failures

The banking industry might not be shrinking very quickly, but it is certainly shrinking. Job cuts and other adjustments are on the way this year at American Express, Morgan Stanley, ING, Deutsche Bank, and across the industry. In all, nearly 10,000 job cuts at giant banks were announced or reported this week. The scale of the job cuts, as much as 6 to 8 percent, will put pressure on competitors to also cut back so they can stay cost-competitive. This seems to be turning into an almost-annual cycle of cuts as new reductions are announced almost as soon as the previous ones are completed.

I promised to stop cataloging all the legal milestones in mortgage-backed securities, a subject that will remain in the headlines almost every week for years to come. This week, though, I must mention the more than $10 billion in mortgage-related settlements, including a huge settlement between Bank of America and Fannie Mae. That deal seemed crafted not to immediately break either company, though it must be a painful wake-up call for both.

This week it was time for President Barack Obama to nominate a new Treasury Secretary. Wall Street had been lobbying for a bank executive or venture capitalist in that role, but the White House had other priorities. The eventual nominee, Jack Lew, with a background that emphasizes government budget battles more than profit opportunities, is almost the opposite of the last two men to hold that position. The Lew nomination signals that positioning the government for a future Wall Street bailout is not on the Washington agenda at all. That is perhaps a pragmatic approach, given the pending budget problems that would make a new large-scale bailout almost impossible. Still, for those on Wall Street who were hoping for a third consecutive Wall Streeter at Treasury, there is reason to worry about the implications of a White House moving in the opposite direction.

A credit union closed in Milwaukee on Monday. State regulators closed New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church Credit Union. It had 500 members, but less than $1 million in assets.

The NCUA’s new idea of a “small” credit union raises the threshold to $50 million in assets, similar to the common idea of a small bank. This change reduces the level of detail of regulatory requirements for many small credit unions.

A Washington state bank failure occurred tonight, after a gap of 17 months. State regulators closed the two branches of Westside Community Bank, near Tacoma. The failed bank had less than $100 million in deposits. Sunwest Bank is taking over the deposits and purchasing the assets.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Arctic Sea Ice Slow in Forming

After last summer’s records in the Arctic Ocean, it was no surprise that ice formed slowly in the fall. We expected minimal ice formation in the Arctic Ocean through December, with most of the freezing to occur between January and March.

This is the month when ice formation should begin in earnest, and I expect it will, but in the early going, the NSIDC extent graph has been flat. Ice has been slowed by a persistent high pressure system in Siberia and associated low pressure system centered near the Laptev Sea, pushing warmer Atlantic-like conditions near the North Pole.

In the past, this unusual weather pattern might not have mattered, but with only about 11 weeks for ice to form, there is little chance to make up the loss of one or two weeks. Ice-watchers were already asking whether the 2013 Arctic winter ice would diverge from the patterns of the past, and every little delay makes that seem more likely.

You might expect the high level of northern hemisphere snow cover this month to help keep things cool, but that effect is brief and indirect. The fact that the sea ice halted at the same time that snow was on the ground in so much of North America and Asia shows that the snow cover doesn’t do much in the short run to support the sea ice.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Low Water Levels Restrict Shipping

It is less than two years since record-setting floods in central North America, and now, water levels are not far from record lows, raising the possibility of shipping restrictions on the Mississippi River and Lake Huron.

The recent snow event helped some, but even so, based on the hydrology maps, the Mississippi River is two dry weeks away from stopping most cargo traffic. As it is, barges have to load lighter than usual and navigate very carefully through several problem areas on the river.

A few weeks after that, if spring rains do not arrive early, it could be a similar story on Lake Huron, with larger cargo ships unable to pass through. That would cut off Chicago from the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in recent memory. Already many of the smaller ports on Lakes Michigan and Huron are too shallow for cargo, and it would take a year of normal rain to restore a normal water level.

On both the Mississippi River and Lake Huron, dredging may help in the short run. Crews are removing boulders from the bottom of the Mississippi River to keep it open upstream of the Ohio River, but even that will not help for long if this summer’s weather is a repeat of last year. The real answer to keep the freight moving is more mid-continent rain.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Climate Change in Road Construction

While many think of climate change as a worry for the future, where I live in Pennsylvania it is already having an impact on road construction work. Projects that in years past would have been mothballed in early December to resume in March are carrying on through the winter. This is a calculated risk that makes sense only because the chances of a major snow or ice event or prolonged freeze are less than we planned on in winters in the 1990s.

It is a strategy that has worked well so far this winter. November-like weather in December has been followed by a relatively dry January. Snow has been light. The longest freeze was about two days. And now, the forecast says there is a chance of a week-long thaw. In short, it is the kind of winter you would expect in Maryland, the next state to the south.

All this means there are more days for construction crews to work, and the costs are lower as the work does not drag on as long. It is a financially measurable effect of climate change, and it is not just a possible future contingency. It is here already.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cord-Cutting Sinks In at Cable

TV services now grudgingly admit that cord-cutting is real — that cable and satellite TV subscriptions have gotten perhaps a bit too pricy for a middle-class U.S. household, when compared to the alternatives. It is not that the number of TV subscriptions is falling — yet. But it is not growing either, which means that the market penetration of pay TV is declining at the same rate that the population is growing. It is enough of a trend to worry the cable companies.

TV content providers are still in denial about the erosion of their audience, though, and continue to seek ever-increasing content fees that in the end are paid by TV subscribers. These are the subscribers who remain after others balk at the increasing prices. This clash of views within TV land makes for difficult negotiations, notably including the current shutdown of the National Hockey League. Insiders say the core issue there is U.S. TV revenue.

Over the next decade, TV content providers will not be able to spend enough to stay ahead of the increase in quality of the free and amateur video content available online. Spending more every year than the year before cannot be the answer. But it will probably take a series of spectacular bankruptcies in the TV business to persuade cable channels that they might have to change their business model.

It is not an easy transition ahead for TV content providers as they go from serving a captive audience, effectively glued to the sofa by the remote control, to chasing an audience on the go amid a world of alternatives. The chances of making that leap will be better for those who start early.

Friday, January 4, 2013

This Week in Bank Failures

The federal government is insolvent again, with Congress not likely to approve borrowing to cover its obligations until a new stopgap budget plan is agreed on at the last minute, on a day late in February. In its compromised position, the Treasury could not easily come to the FDIC’s rescue in the event of a large bank failure. Though unlikely, this could cause a delay in reimbursement for depositors in a giant bank failure. This circumstance makes it especially important for U.S. depositors not to rely fully on any single bank account, especially if it is in one of the largest banks. It is always a good idea to have several days of food at home and several day’s worth of cash, if you can manage this, so that an interruption in banking won’t cause any great inconvenience. If you have any extra money in the bank, minimize your risk of deposit loss by paying bills as soon as you receive them. Finally, as always, if you have a lot of money in the bank, you may need to have multiple banks, so that your deposits at any one bank don’t exceed the deposit insurance limits.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Two Bright Spots in the Fiscal Compromise

“There’s almost no economic theory under which the fiscal cliff deal could be called a success,” Reuters wrote this morning in summarizing a Washington Post analysis of the “fiscal cliff” compromise. We are all losers with what the United States’ current fiscal approach does to the economy, and the latest stopgap compromise doesn’t change that, but there are two bright spots, at least, in the latest changes.

  • More than anything else in the tax code, the reduced capital gains tax rates since 1998 are the cause of the continuing economic doldrums since then. The capital gains rates are still too low, but they are no longer ridiculous, and there is reason to hope that they won’t completely squeeze the life out of the economy at their new higher rates.
  • The estate tax in its previous form allowed billions of dollars to be sucked out of the useful economy not just for generations at a time, but in ever-increasing amounts as time went on. The increase in the tax rate is just enough to tip that balance, so that the money lost to the useful economy is diminished, if only slightly, from one generation to the next. Most people think the estate tax doesn’t matter because it only affects estates larger than $10 million, but it is precisely those huge sums of money, in the tens of millions, that matter the most in terms of keeping the economy alive.

It is hard to celebrate when the country is technically in bankruptcy and has just had to pick itself up after stumbling over a “fiscal cliff,” but these structural improvements in the economy are no less valuable for having come along in the chaos of a crisis situation.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy Shoppers, Stressed-Out Retailers

A 1 percent increase in Christmas-season retail sales ought to be good news. Many U.S. retailers, though, had staffed and stocked for a 4 percent increase, so in their budgets, the 1 percent increase looks like a 3 percent shortfall.

It was a record Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but the rest of that weekend was slow. December too was slow, with the weeks before and after Christmas registering declines at most stores compared to last year. Shoppers did not get to see much of these declines, though. The stores were plenty busy when the shoppers were there to see them.

My sense is that shoppers were more happy with this Christmas shopping season than with either of the last two years. It is the retailers who are stressed out this time. But if shoppers got what they wanted in 2012, it may not be so easy for retailers to push their customers to buy more next time around. It was stressful enough this time, retail workers tell me, and that was pushing for a 1 percent increase.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Closest Parking Space at the Gym

Today is New Year’s Day. It is a day when we head off to the gym in large numbers, determined that this year we will exercise better and be in better health. For people like me who on occasion might get only an hour or two of exercise in an entire week, exercise really is the key to better health. And the gym, designed from end to end to focus our attention on effective exercise, is the key to getting more exercise.

And so we are going to the gym today. And when we get there? Most of us will go to some trouble to find the closest parking space so we don’t have to walk so far from the car to the front door. It’s embarrassing when you think about the discord between wanting to exercise and not wanting to walk more than fifty steps.

Well, look, it’s a habit. Before car ownership became commonplace three generations ago, most people too much exercise. It was a real advantage to conserve physical effort. Go back three generations before that, and most people worked on farms, and the possibility of working yourself to death was not just a cliché. In extreme cases, conserving energy could be a matter of life and death. And it became a deeply ingrained cultural habit.

It is a habit that outlived its usefulness not long after we stopped walking everywhere and started driving cars, but it is a habit we have had a hard time shaking.

So where is the rational decision-making that economists like to assume underlies all human people behavior? Well, it is there, but only in the long run, after we alter our patterns of behavior to match what we are consciously seeking. But apparently the long run can be a very long time indeed. This particular habit, of walking the shortest possible distance even at added expense and inconvenience, has persisted for a good half century after it lost its practical value, and I feel comfortable in predicting that it will go on for at least another half century.

Economic patterns are influenced by culture and tradition more so than by ideas of capitalism, socialism, or any other economic ideal. More than we would care to admit, we are just repeating what our great-grandparents did. In truth, tradition has more of a hand in what we do that rationality does.

These patterns change over extended periods of time, but change starts with the individual, and personal change can happen quickly. Today, you can save ten seconds and get more exercise by being willing to walk an extra 30 steps. In five days, you can form this kind of change into a new habit. Then, after three fourths of the people have made a change like this individually, most of the rest will follow the crowd. You see why this kind of change takes so long on a mass scale, but if you are ready to do something new personally, individually, then today is a good day for it.