The problem below (5×8 – 1/8/13)

The land of the rotting pipe, an annoying tax, a man and his dog, depending on the dump, and when you’re confronted by the unexpected.



Stadiums are sexier than pipes.

That much is obvious, a week after a major water main break in Duluth, being attributed to old water pipes. It’s a similar story to last year’s floods in Duluth, attributed to an old storm water system that’s no longer as capable as it was when the city installed it.

It’s a scenario being played out all over America; the underpinnings of a civilized existence are crumbling, and there’s no stomach for doing much about it.

MPR’s Dan Kraker provides a look at the problem… and the problem.

“People take it for granted, and they don’t think about it until it’s not working,” the mayor of Duluth told him.

A few days after Duluth’s mess, the water main in Minneapolis broke (or was broke). It was put in the ground in 1890.

Last week water mains broke in Green Bay. Yesterday, Pittsburgh lost one. Two days ago, it was Atlanta’s turn. Topeka reported this week it had a record number of water-main breaks last year. And on it goes.

If the country were to do something about it, water rates would skyrocket, and people would likely object to it. It’ll cost about $6 billion to fix Minnesota’s aging pipes, Kraker reports.


Alfred Pigou, the British economist, developed a theory that the things we do affect others, even though these things cannot be measured well. But if they could be measured and these things we do negatively affected others, and people had to pay others for that negative effect, they’d probably do these things less.

It works that way for positive things too, writes Planet Money inventor Adam Davidson in today’s New York Times. Imposing taxes on income and capital gains punishes beneficial work and investment.

There’s an obvious solution, he says: Tax people for being annoying.

Another major drawback is that it’s hard to know where to stop. All of us are constantly affecting those around us in positive and negative ways, which in turn affect the economy, however indirectly. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I notice that some neighbors have well-tended gardens that make my walk to the subway more enjoyable. Others, less so. (Taken as a whole, they also play a subtle but significant role in determining property values.) Can’t we tax the sloppy and subsidize the beautifiers? Every time someone drops out of high school, he increases the likelihood of crime and reliance on public assistance and decreases the overall rise in G.D.P. Should we tax them? Or their teachers? What about taxing obese people who increase the costs of our health care system? Or should we tax fast-food companies instead? (This fall, voters in California defeated ballot measures to impose a tax on sugary drinks.)

Economics offers no objective criteria for deciding what to tax or by how much. That’s one reason many libertarians, like Russ Roberts, a George Mason University economist, will never join the Pigou Club. Sure, he says, externalities exist, but that doesn’t mean the government needs to tax them. Yet in the past few weeks, there has been intense discussion among some economists about one particular externality: the social cost of gun ownership. A National Bureau of Economic Research study by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig determined that guns cost society, on average, a minimum of $100 each and as much as $1,800. Some economists say that a Pigovian tax on weapons, rather than strict regulation, could break the political impasse on gun control.

He says the economic logic, however, won’t outweigh the politics. Discuss.


The amazing photojournalist, Ben Garvin, tells the story of Ty Klietz of Minneapolis. He broke his back three years ago after a night of drinking. Now he gets along by being pulled by his dog, Laylah.

Garvin writes on Facebook that he discovered the man when he was driving home, and Klietz and Layla passed his car.


National Geographic has named the winners in its annual photo competition. Here’s your winner in the “people” category:


Kenya’s Dandora Municipal Dump Site is the only dumping location for waste in Nairobi, East Africa’s most populous city. Located just 8 km from the central business district, the 30-acre Dandora site literally spills into the households of nearly 1 million people living in nearby slums. Behind the statistics of children with respiratory ailments, toxic blood lead levels, skin disorders, and fatal diseases directly attributed to the waste are stories of communities that have grown to depend on the dump–from street children who live off the money they make selling food and other items they find in its piles to residents who are paid pennies a day by private cartels to sort and recycle waste.

How’s your day going?


You’re on the “up” escalator at a railroad station (in this case, New Jersey) when, suddenly, it becomes the “down” escalator. What do you do? (a) Try to outrun it going up or (b) accept that it’s going down and just stop and go down?It took a few seconds, but eventually once people realized they were on a “going down” escalator, they could figure out what to do. No need to panic. There’s a lesson here. Somewhere.

Bonus I:Discussion point: If you had 10 months and the money to do it, where would you go?

Ciao traveler 🙂 from Celesty Lee on Vimeo.

Bonus II: An idea to keep yourself entertained during a long winter.


This is Opening Day for the Minnesota Legislature. Today’s Question: What would you like to see from the Legislature this session?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Legislative preview show.

Second hour: Debunking bad science.

Third hour: A national education reform group has targeted Minnesota as one of the states not doing enough on education reform. We’ll look at what the group would like to see from the state.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A program from the Aspen Ideas Festival about the ways technology might transform the college learning experience. Andrew Ng of Stanford University is the co-founder of “Coursera,” with free college courses for anyone.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – President Assad — his inner circle, and his options. On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al Assad made his first speech in six months. He called the factions fighting against his authoritarian regime “murderous criminals,” and ruled out any chance of talks that could end the violence.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The MPR Capitol crew will report on today’s first day of the new legislative session.

  • BJ
  • Heather

    Interesting #2. My husband and I were discussing what might happen if gun owners were required to buy insurance for their guns (like with a vehicle), with coverage for personal injury in the event of harm (accidental or intentional) to another person. Perhaps that would have the same economic effect as a tax, but with direct benefit to victims or their families.

  • David

    #2) I wonder if Alfred Pigou realizes how much his taxes would rise.

  • JP

    I thought that Dan Kraker’s story about aging infrastructure in Duluth (and beyond) was a very nicely reported story. And you are spot-on Bob, it’s not as flashy as a stadium but sewer pipes and drains are arguably of greater value to civic life and the economy than a billion dollar stadium. I’ve had streets near my house torn up 5 or 6 times due to broken water mains and other infrastructure issues over the ten years I have been where I am in Central Duluth. We’ve also had some of the same streets resurfaced during the same time but not AT the same time. Without knowing all of the engineering and other costs, as a layman I really think that we would do better to replace all of the lines: sewer, water, gas, and lay fiber optic cable and maybe electric whenever a street is redone. Yes, this is more expensive and it might take longer but it is sensible it will reduce outages and rebuilds which are also very expensive as Dan’s story pointed out.

    It’s called forethought. The engineers and workers who laid the pipes under many of our cities 100 to 150 years ago were using forethought. They took pride in their work and their skill and diligence provided enormous value over the decades.

    Which is the only caution that I will offer. I’d hate to see century old-infrastructure replaced with the cheap stuff. A block or so away we have got a brick road that must be 75 years old if it is a day. It’s getting pretty rough in a few spots but it is mostly passable and it is interesting to wonder how many times surrounding streets have been patched and replaced in the meantime, my guess is every five or ten years so … let’s say it has outlasted a dozen or so incarnations of other, faster, quicker cheaper road surfaces nearby. So I guess what I am saying is that building things with forethought is cheap when you are thinking in terms of centuries rather than years.

  • Kevin Watterson

    We’ll deal with things like water pipes when we deal with all the non-sexy things: When it’s too late.

  • Nanci

    While I’m glad to see that Ty’s dog has a harness on I would recommend he get him an x-back pulling type harness and a line that has some give…like one would use bikejoring. I’m a bit concerned for his safety in the chair if his dog isn’t understanding true pulling commands, but there a number of sledding and bikejoring groups in the area that may be able to help him outfit his dog more appropriately so he doesn’t wear out his joints and feet doing this humble job! Nice story.