One of the privileges of working at a sustainability think tank is being able to read about (and share!) ideas and research tidbits that I find genuinely interesting.  For me, the most valuable ideas are those that run to counter common sense, or that buck the conventional wisdom:  solid research that challenges my gut instincts is what’s most likely to open my mind to new ways of thinking about the world.

Rodin's "The Thinker" - Flickr Steven FettigSo in celebration of our Fall Fund Drive—and as a reminder that Sightline depends on your support to bring you ideas like these—here’s a list in no particular order of five fascinating, puzzling, and counter-intuitive ideas I’ve run across in my years at Sightline:  things that really got me thinking, and helped me grasp how little of the world I actually understand.

1.  Money can’t buy (much) happiness.  But shoes can.

It may be heresy to mention this at a time of widespread economic hardship—but once you get out of poverty, having more money doesn’t actually do all that much to enhance your sense of wellbeing.  Maintaining strong, meaningful social relations matters more—which is why the Amish are among the nation’s happiest people, despite a material standard of living that many of us might equate with being poor.

And in some ways, money can be as much of a hindrance as a help to attaining happiness.  Apparently, what matters more than your absolute standard of living is how you compare to your peers.  Living in a merely nice home in a neighborhood of high-end luxury mansions can make you feel lousy, since you’re reminded of your relative deprivation every time you leave your house.  As one happiness researcher puts it, “the brain is a difference detector; almost everything that it senses, it senses as a comparison.”  And sometimes, getting more money merely reminds you that there are still people who are richer than you.

But shoes…well, that’s another matter entirely. Apparently, small, daily comforts—like comfortable footware—really can improve your life satisfaction.  But even there, money gets in the way:  new research suggests that having (or even thinking about) money can impair our ability to enjoy life’s little pleasures.

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  • 2.  Sometimes, energy efficiency doesn’t save energy.

    What happened to coal consumption when 18th century inventor James Watt introduced a new steam engine that was at least three times as efficient as its predecessor?

    As this old post details, coal use didn’t fall—it skyrocketed!!  Suddenly, coal power was viable in dozens of applications where it wasn’t economical before—and despite the efficiency gains of the new engine, coal consumption shot through the roof.

    That’s just one example among many of efficiency gains that don’t have the hoped-for effect.  This post, for example, discusses how higher fuel economy standards for cars can lead to more driving — and hence more car crashes and other “externalities” like congestion, parking costs, and noise pollution. In the end, we save gas—but also exacerbate all of the other costs of a car-dominated culture.

    Reading about the “rebound” and “backfire” effects of efficiency gains convinced me that policymakers can’t rely on technology alone to solve problems like climate change.  Instead, we need something more certain—like a firm emissions cap in a cap-and-trade system—to ensure that emissions will decline.

    3. Cities have their own rhythm. 

    As it turns out, you can tell an awful lot about a city just by measuring how quickly their inhabitants walk.  Knowing only walking speed, researchers can predict—with uncanny accuracy—a bewildering range of details about the city:  average wages, the number of restaurants and libraries, crime rates, and a host of other little details that seem to have no relation to pedestrian habits.

    But as it turns out, there’s a robust literature on cities and “scaling laws“:  things like walking speed in a city are closely correlated with the number of inhabitants in a city, which in turn correlates with all sorts of other important facets of urban life.  And researchers find that as cities get larger, they move faster.  That’s the exact opposite of what happens in animals, whose metabolic rates tend to slow down as they get larger.

    4. There is no such thing as “perfect” democracy.

    I think I’ll need a sports analogy for this one.  Imagine three basketball teams, each boasting a different set of assets. The players on Team A are really tall; Team B is fairly tall and fairly fast; and Team C is really fast.  In head-to-head matchups, Team A can beat Team B (size matters!); Team B beats Team C (size and speed beat speed alone), and Team C beats Team A (fast breaks and smothering defense beat lumbering 7-footers). 

    So who’s the best among the three teams?  Well…none of them!  Just as there is no “best” throw in a game of “rock-paper-scissors,” there is no “best” team, since each can be beaten by one of the other three.

    As with sports and children’s games, so with democracy.  It’s perfectly possible that in a three candidate political race, Candidate A would beat Candidate B in a head to head matchup, B would beat C, and C would beat A.  Weird!!  In that case, there is no such thing as a public “preference.”  Instead, it’s the rules of the political game that determine the winner.

    Unfortunately, as Nobel-winning economist Kenneth Arrow has shown, there is no flawless way to design voting rules—every single voting system can produce weird results that violate core intuitions about how a “democratic” institution should function.  Still, some voting systems
    are better than others
    .  And as it turns out, one of the worst systems of all is the one that’s most common in the US:  the “first past the post” system that awards public office to the top vote-getter.  First past the post turns third-party candidates from legitimate participants in the political process into potential spoilers—which is a big reason that the US has had just two major, entrenched political parties since the beginning of the republic, and why our political debate is simultaneously impoverished and intensely polarized.

    So whenever you think about the wisdom of the “founding fathers,” consider that the democratic legacy they handed down is sternly frowned on by modern mathematicians and voting theorists.

    5. The “powers that be” don’t actually want housing to be affordable. 

    Over the years, I’ve linked several times to this classic post from the City Comforts blog—which argues that, despite all of the huffing and puffing about housing affordability over the last decade or so, most folks with political power have no natural incentive to make housing more affordable

    Take homeowners:  they want the price of their own homes to go up!  Banks, mortgage brokers, developers, real estate agents, and even the construction trades also benefit when home prices rise.  Neighborhood advocates whose top goal is preserving neighborhood character typically frown on policies that might boost the housing stock. And depending on local tax rules, politicians may be happy to see property values rise, since rising property tax rolls can help boost local tax revenues.  So the only people who really want affordable housing are renters and first-time home buyers—folks without a lot of political clout.

    To me, this suggests that housing affordability problems aren’t so much a failure of policy as of politics: even assuming that we know what we could do to make housing more affordable, the political incentives are all in the wrong direction.

    Image of Rodin’s “The Thinker” courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Fettig, distributed under a Creative Commons license.