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“It couldn’t be cut up and then buried because no one wanted to cut it up”

[ 55 ] November 14, 2015 |

Thursday was the 45th anniversary of some very questionable decision-making on the part of the Oregon State Highway Division, but what I assume was a high water mark in the career of KATU reporter Paul Linnman.



[ 162 ] November 14, 2015 |

I peeked into one of the recent long angry threads just long enough to notice a back-and-forth about calls for a return to civility, and the appropriateness thereof. Obviously, of course, context is everything; there rather obviously are some circumstances where a call to civility is a reasonable thing to do. (As an instructor in a college classroom, for instance.) In the context of most heated political discussions, through, such calls seem like a bad idea, for two reasons. Assuming good faith,* it’s just a poor strategy for actually producing more civility in the world. Presumably, the uncivil person is that way for a reason, and scolding them doesn’t make that reason go away, and is as likely to make them angrier than not. A wiser approach, which I aspire to but don’t always succeed in following, is to just be the civility you want to see in the world. If someone is making arguments you deem worthy of engagement, reply to the substance, as if they were making their point civilly. Perhaps this will interpellate them into civility, perhaps it won’t, but that’s largely beyond your control anyway, so don’t fixate on it. If the lack of civility on the part of your interlocutor bothers you to such a degree that you can’t manage to follow this strategy, you probably shouldn’t engage. (Or, if you do engage, recognize that you’ve effectively removed yourself from the role of civility advocate.)

The origin on this conversation, of course, is the video of angry Yale students confronting Christakis. My own first reaction to that video is to very ardently wish the students were being more civil. The reason for this reaction obviously isn’t an ideological, abstract commitment to civility, but instead because I can more easily place myself in Christakis’s position, which is an unpleasant thing to contemplate. But that’s not a good reason to double down on that gut reaction, reaching for a set of arguments about the proper bounds of civil discourse to adorn and bolster it as something more than an identity-driven gut reaction. There are some very good reasons to resist the temptation to double down on that reaction, one of which is that I simply have no idea what it’s like to be part of an institution and a community that is simultaneously and constantly openly sending both the message that you’re a valued member of the community and belong here, and (usually less openly and directly) that you’re not, and you don’t. The less capacity for empathy I have, the less it makes sense for me to sit in judgement of the proper ratio of civility to anger in the response.

*This assumption is probably not warranted in many, if not most, cases. The public call for civility in discourse usually strikes me as an act of image-maintenance; seeking rhetorical advantage from such a call, such as demonstrating to third parties how reasonable you are. It’s usually performative; an act of public identity maintenance.

Slavery book notes I: Slavery in the Cities

[ 26 ] November 9, 2015 |

For a new course I’m preparing as well as a couple of research projects, I’ve been reading lots of books about slavery, primarily American slavery. I thought I’d post some comments here occasionally. Not book reviews, per se, but just whatever thoughts I think are worthy of sharing on a few of the books.

For the first entry: Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860, by Richard Wade (1964). The name was vaguely familiar to me, it turns out for good reason: in addition to being something of a bigwig in the field of urban history, he’s was a Schlessinger-aligned Democratic Party operative.

The book is a fascinating read, particularly in light of recent work on the consequences and character of slavery in a capitalist era with respect to the rise of cotton. Not that Wade sets out to say anything in particular about a theme as broad as “slavery and capitalism”; it’s not a theoretically ambitious work. And my understanding is that in the 1960’s, when this was written, the notion that Antebellum slavery was a fundamentally capitalist venture was generally rejected by both economic theory (Marx and Smith are more or less on the same page here) as well as leading historians of the “two distinct economic systems” school. Baptist is particularly useful at demonstrating the folly of this assumption now, but his work is part of a more general turn to think about American slavery as part of a capitalist system. We know, now, that the notion that slavery was a system in decline in the mid-19th century, thus the civil war was unneeded because it was collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiencies, is a species of confederate apologia, and fails to capture the economic vitality of of slave capitalism with respect to cotton. But while the story of the rise of cotton is probably the most important story of slavery and capitalism, it’s hardly the only one. While Baptist tells as story of slavery interacting with capitalism at high levels of international finance, the story in Wade’s work is, at least in part, about the interaction of slavery and local, small-scale capitalism.

Wade’s book examines trends in slavery in American cities, with particular attention to the details of everyday life, in institutionalized slavery’s final four decades. The false narrative of decline regarding slavery generally is less obviously false in the cities he examines here–in most of the cities he focuses on, the slave population is either declining, or growing at a slower rate than the overall population. In the cities included in Wade’s study, slave owners tended to be small scale. In sharp contrast to rural slavery, most slaves were owned by people who had a relatively small number of slaves–plantation-level holdings were quite rare, and a higher percentage of whites owned slaves. Furthermore, there was no one or two general or task slaves, as a rule, performed. This created a number of interesting pressures. As many slave owners were not particularly wealthy, a set of pressures made for a very different dynamic. The use of slaves as domestics was common, but could be an expensive luxury. The demand for slave labor in many enterprises was also less predictable and constant than in some agricultural settings. This all contributed to the frequency of ‘hiring out’ slaves–that is, leasing one’s slave to someone who had a greater need for the labor. Hiring out made slave labor more sufficiently flexible for the labor demands of an urban economy, and in practice created expanded opportunities that seemed to undermine the institution of slavery. It was not uncommon for some slave owners to find it more convenient and profitable to let their slaves arrange for their own employment as well as their own living arrangements (space was a good deal scarcer for urban slave owners than it was on the plantation), known as ‘hiring their own time’: “they gave their master a certain sum each month; and all that they made over that they retained.” (48). Insofar as this sort of arrangement became commonplace, it created a distinctly blurred social line between slaves and free negroes, who lived together, attended the same Churches, intermarried, and so on. It also created the prospect of ‘manumission by self-purchase’–that is, slaves saving surplus earnings and purchasing their own freedom (sometimes through a proxy, in cases where the owner had an ideological opposition to manumission). I did some digging on this, trying to find historical estimates of self-manumission rates, which are hard to come by, but I did find on report (in this book) that around mid-century the self-purchased former slaves made up 26% and 42% of the free black populations of Philadelphia and Cincinnati, respectively.)

Because the evolution of hiring out to self-hire obviously undermined the institution of slavery, cities took pains to restrict the practice, albeit with little success. Wade also tells the story of so-called ‘grog and grocery’ shops, essentially bodega/corner stores that catered to slaves. They sold various goods that slaves would often be sent to pick up for their masters and also illicitly sold them alcohol. These stores were seen as a menace in part because of the alcohol access, but also because they provided a social space for slaves and free blacks to meet, exchange information, and engage in commerce on their own limited terms. Several of the cities discussed in the book went through rounds of crack-downs, but with little seeming success. They were the subject of routine angry denunciations in the local newspapers.

In both of these cases and a few others in the book, the particular way in which the existence of markets fractured white self-interest provided openings for the slave population. One city*, though, provided a glimpse of another possible future for urban slavery, one that, had it been more widely adopted, might have made the cities look more like the cotton-growing countryside: Richmond. Richmond saw less of a decline (the slave population grew only somewhat slower (~3X) than the white population (~4X) from 1820-1860, and they had one of the more stable gender ratios (most cities were seeing an increasing ratio of women to men in the slave population), and more and growing large-scale slave owners. This is in part because Richmond was, compared to the other cities, integrating slave labor into industrial work in a more systematic way, and on a larger scale, in tobacco processing and ironwork. He doesn’t get into it in much detail here, but the intense brutality of industrial slavery has been well-documented. If Richmond, rather than Baltimore or New Orleans, had been the future urban slavery absent the civil war, the tentative steps toward a kind of quasi-freedom urban slaves had managed to take could very easily have been wiped out, bringing the horror of cotton slavery to the city.

*In a fascinating and puzzling omission, Atlanta is not included in this study, and no explanation is given. Given Atlanta’s relatively high level of industrialization, I wonder if a similar dynamic might not have been taking place there.

WRA: Raise the state minimum wage

[ 23 ] November 5, 2015 |

Of all the dire predictions made about the likely consequences of Seattle raising its minimum wage, one that actually struck me as a potential concern was the prediction that certain forms of low wage employment would cluster near but outside the city. Not only does there not seem to be any evidence this is happening, the politics and economics of the situation have led to some interesting political reconfigurations:

In an indication of how much traction the minimum wage movement has gained statewide, the Washington Restaurant Association, which has opposed immediate citywide minimum wage hikes to $15, said Thursday it now actively supports raising the state’s minimum wage…..

“Our state now has multiple different minimum wages with the likelihood of many more to come. It’s creating a checkerboard of wage laws that are difficult on everyone,” Anthony Anton, Washington Restaurant Association president and CEO, said in a news release. “We are looking for a positive statewide solution. Restaurants are calling for local and state lawmakers to join together to find an answer.”

Anton’s statement called for “an increase in minimum wage done the right way. We have learned through local discussions that there are ways to support neighborhood restaurants and raise compensation for employees.”

Unfortunately, you’d need to turn two Republicans in the Senate to get a bill at the state level, and the Democrats’ map isn’t good for getting the Senate back next year, so it’s likely initiatives or municipalities for the time being. 2016 is also looking like the best shot in a while for a Republican to win the Governor race, as Jay Inslee has turned out to be a pretty unpopular governor. If I were Inslee, I’d be hoping for a minimum wage initiative on the statewide ballot, which I would then talk up and associate myself with as much as possible.

How should I vote? Ohio edition

[ 37 ] November 1, 2015 |

It’s rare for me to be undecided on how I’m going to vote with 48 hours to go, at least on an issue or race I care about, but here I sit. While 2016 is shaping up to be the year the dam breaks on marijuana legalization, Ohio has the only recreational legalization initiative on the ballot in 2015. I’m on record here as a proponent of the view that while some approaches to legalization are preferable to others, these policy details matter a great deal less than ending the practice of making criminals out of marijuana users as soon as possible.

Issue 3 is testing the limits of that view. It represents the best and worst of initiative politics at once. The best, of course, is that a dreadful policy with elite consensus support is finally being effectively challenged. The worst is that issue 3 is a cynical exercise in profiteering; it would set up a constitutionally mandated monopoly for 10 sellers, who are, unsurprisingly, bankrolling the campaign. (Further demonstrating the absurdity of initiative politics, opponents are supporting issue 2, which would make state-created monopolies unconstitutional. What happens if both issue 2 and 3 pass? No one seems to know!) My inclination would be to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and contribute to ending the gross injustices of the drug war the first chance I get, but in this case, should issue 3 fail, there appears to be a much better initiative for the 2016 ballot, which should also produce a friendlier electorate. Is a year’s worth of arrests and prosecutions a price worth paying? I’m curious to hear how our Ohio readers/voters are leaning.

The drunk utilitarian

[ 21 ] October 28, 2015 |

Research! From France!

The hypothetical moral dilemma known as the trolley problem has become a methodological cornerstone in the psychological study of moral reasoning and yet, there remains considerable debate as to the meaning of utilitarian responding in these scenarios. It is unclear whether utilitarian responding results primarily from increased deliberative reasoning capacity or from decreased aversion to harming others. In order to clarify this question, we conducted two field studies to examine the effects of alcohol intoxication on utilitarian responding. Alcohol holds promise in clarifying the above debate because it impairs both social cognition (i.e., empathy) and higher-order executive functioning. Hence, the direction of the association between alcohol and utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian responding should inform the relative importance of both deliberative and social processing systems in influencing utilitarian preference. In two field studies with a combined sample of 103 men and women recruited at two bars in Grenoble, France, participants were presented with a moral dilemma assessing their willingness to sacrifice one life to save five others. Participants’ blood alcohol concentrations were found to positively correlate with utilitarian preferences (r = .31, p < .001) suggesting a stronger role for impaired social cognition than intact deliberative reasoning in predicting utilitarian responses in the trolley dilemma. Implications for Greene’s dual-process model of moral reasoning are discussed.

Let me suggest an alternative interpretation. One way to characterize pushing the fat man is as the utility-maximizing choice. Another way to characterize it is as The Bold Thing That Needs Doing. Perhaps the more drunk people are more inclined to undertake TBTTND than sober people irrespective of its utilitarian or deontological character. (Examples might include calling up an ex, quitting one’s job, eating a giant omelette at 2:00 AM, etc.) The perceived preference for utility maximization may not, I suspect, be as central to finding here as the abstract (I don’t have access to the study either) would seem to suggest the authors think it is.

The leftward shift in Democratic policy positions is not the problem

[ 224 ] October 19, 2015 |

Elizabeth Warren at Women In Finance symposium
pictured above: not the problem

I’m mostly in agreement with Matt Yglesias here: the post 2014 political landscape can’t really yield any other reasonable conclusion for a national party than the one he draws. His assessment regarding the Republican party seems more or less correct to me as well, as is his assessment of the electoral shortcomings of the political dynamic that makes Wendy Davis the state-wide candidate in Texas in 2014. Indeed, this is one of several reasons the #feelthebern crowd can be so frustrating–whether the next Democratic president is 17 clicks to the left of the median vote in congress or merely 14 isn’t necessarily entirely irrelevant, but there’s no good reason it should be a central concern for Democrats, or a repository of considerable energy.

Here’s where I find some disagreement:

If a black guy with the middle name Hussein can win the White House, the thinking seems to be, then anything is possible. Consequently, the party is marching steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave — even though existing issue positions seem incompatible with a House majority or any meaningful degree of success in state politics.

If we treat the issues listed here as the core basis for the current leftward shift of the Democratic Party, it strikes me as a pretty electorally canny way to move to the left. Taking the issues one at a time: The wave-conversions to a pro-SSM position by major national Democratic politicians were neither courageously/foolishly premature nor embarrassingly late; they took place at more or less the precise moment that the shift on public opinion on that issue was at least politically harmless, if not helpful. There’s still a handful of districts and states where this isn’t good for them, but that number is going to continue to go down, they have much bigger problems in those districts anyway, and the political strategy worked spectacularly well.

Raising the minimum wage is a fine partisan issue for the Democrats. In 2014 the reactionary Tom Cotton waltzed to an easy victory in the Arkansas senate race, yet polled nearly 10 points behind the minimum wage increase on the ballot. There are few issues that are more clearly ballot box winners for the Democrats than this one. A nearly 50% federal increase, to $10.10, is supported by large supermajorities nationally. Similarly, the underlying premise of the grand bargain, social security cuts, would be an utter catastrophe for the Democrats; avoiding them is an electoral no-brainer. (You can occasionally goose the results to get theoretical support for cuts as deficit relief, by pairing them with tax increases, but even then, it’s important to remember that public opinion in favor of deficit hawkery is a mile wide and an inch deep.) Furthermore, as we move into an era where we’re forced to confront the consequences of the failed social experiment of replacing pensions with a a tax shelter for high earners, the electoral salience of expanding social security benefits, already popular, will continue to increase. Paid family/parental leave is such a huge winner that Marco Rubio is pretending to support it. Gun control is admittedly more complicated here, but the nature of the Democratic leftward lurch, it seems to me, reflects that more complicated reality. It seems to me to be primarily the widely popular incremental measures that are seeing broad public support, such as universal background checks, while insofar as individual Democrats are calling for more than that that seem fairly sensitive to their specific political circumstances.

Again, none of this is to suggest Yglesias’s larger argument is incorrect–the Democratic Party is indeed in some real, underappreciated trouble, the Republicans do have a workable strategy to maintain power in the House of Representatives and most state/local governments for the foreseeable future as long as they can’t capture the White House, and while they are at a distinct disadvantage on the Presidential front, they’re by no means hopeless there. This is a terrible dynamic for the Democrats, and they don’t appear to be on a path to developing a plan that’s likely to fix it. The more politically savvy fans of Bernie Sanders see his value in pulling Clinton to the left, which is fine and good, but not a particularly important chokepoint for the project of pulling policy outcomes leftward. It also shouldn’t be taken as licence to throw out the median voter theorem out the window, because some issues don’t fit it particularly well. (The observations made about these issues can contribute to a kind of pundit’s fallacy for the left–if moving toward my view on issues A, B and C is good or neutral for the Democrats, that doesn’t necessarily imply anything about issues D, E and F, even if we’d like it to.) Nor is it a a suggestion that these policy shifts are sufficient to fix what’s wrong with the Democratic party–or that further shifts on these issues would necessarily be a solution to it. And, of course, the most successful Republican candidates can sometimes successfully demagogue their opponents’ otherwise popular positions. Whatever the problem is, though, I don’t see any good reason to believe these policy shifts are exacerbating the problem. Insofar as the Democratic party has seen a leftward shift, it’s been, as one would expect, an electorally sensible leftward shift. It’s not the solution to their problems, but the reasons to think those shifts might be doing some good on the margins seems more plausible than the reasons to think they’re doing harm.

Election day!

[ 48 ] October 18, 2015 |

Canadian Flag

Happy Canadian election day! Stephen Harper and the PC Conservative Party of Canada have controlled Parliament for nearly 10 years, although it appears his reign of terror may be coming to a close. This would seem to suggest he’s not handling the pressure particularly well:

Hungry for votes in the Greater Toronto Area, they embraced the populist might of Rob and Doug Ford, welcoming them this week to a campaign event in the Fords’ stomping ground of Etobicoke, arranging to share the spotlight with them on Saturday at a rally for the Prime Minister in Toronto. The brothers’ propensity to share unwelcome thoughts (Rob mused in late August about Doug replacing Stephen Harper, should the Tories lose) mattered not. Nor did Rob Ford’s admission to using crack cocaine while mayor of Toronto. This was Team Blue closing ranks.

So Rob and Doug hit the pavement, cameras in tow, to knock on doors in key swing ridings such as Etobicoke–Lakeshore and Scarborough Centre. “I think we’re doing well out there,” Doug Ford boasted on Tuesday. “We’ve had a really good response.”

Then, within 36 hours, it was all up the spout. On Wednesday evening, Maclean’s posted on its website an excerpt from Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable, a book written by Mark Towhey about his time as Rob’s chief of staff at city hall. The passage features a harrowing, damning account of Rob Ford in a screaming match with his wife, Renata, in which he berates and threatens her over drugs, money and, possibly, a gun in their house—all while their children were trying to sleep upstairs. Links to the item quickly spread on social media.

…Harper was customarily clipped in response, saying queries about Towhey’s account should go to “those individuals” involved—apparently, meaning Rob and Renata Ford. He noted, without uttering the Ford name, that the family’s support of the federal Tories is “longstanding and well-known.”

I’m trying to imagine the mindset in which what we knew about Rob Ford wasn’t sufficiently troubling to question the wisdom of signing him up for one’s campaign, and I’m struggling.

At any rate, let’s call this an open thread for the election. I haven’t been paying particularly close attention to the campaign; did the apparent shift in support from the NDP to the Grits in the last few months stem from identifiable campaigning failures on Mulcair’s part, or did voters just get around to remembering the Liberals still exist?

Inept, dishonest straw-grasping: “minimum wage kills jobs” edition

[ 24 ] September 27, 2015 |

Earlier this year, we saw a pathetic attempt to claim that the first phase of Seattle’s new minimum wage law was already–a month before it went into effect!–destroying the restaurant industry in the city make the rounds in a variety of right wing publications. It was based on a strikingly inept attempt to extrapolate a trend from a few anecdotes, and the narrative collapsed under the slightest scrutiny.

The latest effort in the desperate effort to show a negative effect on restaurant employment took the important step of using actual data. Unfortunately, not well. Mark Perry attempted to suggest that a Jan-Jun decline in restaurant employment in the Seattle MSA, which comprises the three most populous counties and around 50% of the state’s population, as indicating a negative effect of Seattle’s new law, even though the city comprises less than a 5th of the MSA. As Barry Ritholz Invictus, writing at Barry Ritholz’ blog, notes, this hackishness was immediately repudiated: “Unfortunately for Professor Perry, when you live by short-term noisy data, you die by short-term noisy data. To wit: The very same metric highlighted by the good professor above just produced the biggest one-month gain in the entire history of the series.”

Unsurprisingly, Professor Perry has not been deterred. As of September 22, he’s still trying to use MSA data to demonstrate the job-killing effects of Seattle’s minimum wage laws. Of course, it’s theoretically possible that Seattle’s minimum wage is so brutally depressing job growth in the city that it’s dragging down the whole MSA. This is something we can actually check for. It’s as hackish as ever, as RitholzInvictus and Goldy demonstrate. Goldy:

Fortunately, we’ve got plenty of other data to work with. For example, friend of the blog Invictus has been providing us with weekly updates on Seattle food service permits showing a roughly 3.2 percent increase in the number of establishments in-city since the start of the year. But what do the number of food service establishments tell us about the number of food service employees? Actually, quite a lot.

The US Census Bureau provides detailed employment data at the city, county, and MSA level every five years, and Seattle’s ratio of food service employees per food service establishment has stood near 14.5 in 2002, 2007, and 2012. And since there’s no reason to suspect a substantial shift in this ratio in the three years since the last city-level report, we must logically conclude that Seattle’s 3.2 percent increase in the number of food service establishments since the start of the year roughly correlates to a 3.2 percent increase in Seattle’s number of food service employees.

Meanwhile, the state provides monthly county-level data jobs data, which, seasonally-adjusted, shows a 2 percent increase in food service jobs since the start of the year in King County. Since we know Seattle’s food service job growth is roughly 3.2 percent year-to-date, and historical Census data tells us that Seattle accounts for about half of King County’s food service employment, we can extrapolate the data to conclude that the number of food service jobs in non-Seattle areas of King County have only grown by about 0.8 percent year-to-date.

In other words, food service jobs are growing four times faster in Seattle than in lower-wage surrounding King County. Wow!

What about the rest of the MSA? Seasonally adjusted, state data shows Snohomish County food service jobs growing at only 1.3 percent year-to-date, while food service jobs in Pierce County have actually declined by 0.5 percent. Thus, if there has been a loss of bar and restaurant jobs in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA, the loss has come entirely from Pierce County—where the Tacoma city council recently failed to raise the minimum wage. Food service jobs in the rest of the three-county MSA—especially in higher-wage Seattle—continue to grow.

So thank you, Professor Perry, for proving the job-killing impact of Pierce County’s lower minimum wage.

The connection between permits and overall job growth could turn out to be a off a bit, of course, but it seems unlikely it would considerably change the overall dynamic. It’s now clear that the use of MSA data is directly misleading: it an attempt to use the relatively weak economy of Pierce County and Tacoma–where the minimum wage increase effort failed!–as evidence about employment trends in Seattle.

But it’s worse than that. Even if Perry’s dishonest insinuations were correct–even if Seattle and the Seattle MSA were identical–the data he’s using doesn’t really do what he needs it to to make the case against raising the minimum wage nationally. The minimum wage for the rest of the state, whose restaurant industry job growth he’s trying to use against Seattle, is currently $9.47 and is indexed to inflation, so it cannot be expected to drift downward over time absent legislative action, as most minimum wages do. Is Prof. Perry willing to accept the implications here–that raising the national minimum wage by ~30% would not harm employment?

Density, development, displacement

[ 87 ] September 23, 2015 |

Preventing additional housing units from being constructed in growing cities, particularly in the neighborhoods in those cities relatively close to a CBD that already attracts many long-distance commuters and is rapidly adding jobs, is obviously not a progressive policy. Not allowing people to live close to work promotes more miserable commutes, greater sprawl, and has significant negative consequences for the environment, public health, the cost of living for renters and newcomers, and quality of life in general. The primary beneficiaries of restricting housing supply in these areas are people who bought at the right time–it makes their investment/home and artificially scarce commodity, driving up its value. Many of these people have an aesthetic preference for living in a single family only neighborhood, while also enjoying the benefits of people close to various urban amenities. Given that there’s considerably more demand for dense urban walkability than there is supply, and what we’ve got is a clearly reactionary policy.

In cities with a fairly left/liberal political environment, many of these people are unlikely to be comfortable with the fact that they advocate a policy at odds with so many of their avowed values–they have a self-image of themselves as good liberals, and wish to understand their preferences and preferred policies as being consistent with that image. There are a number of ways to go about doing this–pretending that preventing housing from being built in cities is a strategy consistent with environmentalism generally or even is a tactic to combat global warming is a popular one, but it obviously can’t hold up under scrutiny at all. Another strategy is simply demonizing developers, which can be effective, but ultimately just excuses the anti-new housing faction from explaining why less housing is better than more. What possible reason could there be for making anti-housing policy the preferred strategy for progressives? The one answer that has some potential is a concern about displacement. Insofar as development displaces those with long tenure in a neighborhood who can no longer afford to live there, this is an identifiable harm worthy of mitigation. This is particularly the case when the financial hardship will be particularly great.

While this is a valid concern, it’s also a tool for those who wish to restrict housing for other reasons. In Seattle, the Mayor’s commission on affordable housing recommended a number of changes to increase the overall housing stock and the affordable housing stock. One of those changes would legalize a greater diversity of housing types to be built in single family zones, including duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats. Many of these neighborhoods this would apply to have these housing types already, built prior to the highly restrictive single family zoning era. It’s worth noting this proposal didn’t include a physical upzone—no changes to height limits, setback rules, and the like were proposed. As it currently stands, it’s perfectly legal to tear down a serviceable craftsman and build a 3500 square foot behemoth on a standard lot, but building an otherwise similar building with three 11oo square foot units is not allowed.

This entirely sensible and needed reform produced a backlash the political class found quite threatening, and the mayor and key council members walked back their support for this particular recommendation, lest it taint the other, less controversial proposals in the report in the minds of voters. Lisa Herbold, a city council candidate for an open seat in the West Seattle district (probably the district whose voters are most strongly in favor freezing SF zones in amber), tried to make the case that this is actually a progressive position, because it might protect against displacement in some cases, as Seattle’s “naturally affordable” older housing stock might be torn down to make way for expensive new development duplexes and triplexes. Herbold, in response to the point that displacement already occurs when houses are torn down and replaced with more expensive ones:

It’s true that current law doesn’t prevent rebuilding or renovating a single­-family structure that displaces the tenant when a new single family structure is built. But it is not a good comparison because it ignores how upzones create incentives for redevelopment. Hopefully it is understood that the frequency of tenants being displaced after a renovation or rebuilding of a single-family home in single-family zones is less than the frequency of displacement from redevelopment that occurs when the value of property is increased after an upzone. It is that frequency of displacement that makes this a pressing issue when contemplating the upzone of approximately 138,000 single family homes, about 36,000 of them home to renter households.

This is somewhat convoluted, but the point is narrowly correct: there exist some number of houses that a teardown to build one new unit wouldn’t pencil out, but a teardown to build 2-3 units might, and those new units may be unaffordable to the current tenant. Still, while correct on that narrow point, that’s an insufficient reason to reject the policy on two grounds. First, because as Martin Duke notes, there’s more to progressive values than just opposing displacement, and we need to consider the tradeoffs:

I absolutely agree that exchanging one cheap unit for one expensive unit is in most cases a net loss for society, for the reasons she describes. But as the ratio of new households to displaced households increases, the benefits start to overwhelm these concerns. The environmental impact of three middle-class families in the suburbs and a low-income one in Seattle greatly outweighs the reverse. Seattle is much more likely to convert some of those families’ wealth into social services, transit, and subsidized housing, thanks to the generosity of its voters. And an ever-increasing population increases Seattle’s weight in Olympia, which helps in the arena that blocks most transformative policy change.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the upper bound of how much progressive policy Seattle can enact is not primarily set by what its voters are willing to tax themselves, but by the level of self-taxation the state government will allow Seattle to engage in. (This is the same state government all too use Seattle as an ATM to fund initiatives in poorer districts.) In addition to the fact that it’s easier to increase revenue for such goals by adding taxpayers than it is by raising taxes, allowing Seattle’s population to increase could yield a post-2020 state district map that could significantly diminish the capacity of Republicans (and a few rural Democrats) to exercise an anti-urban veto point in the state legislature.

If this were the only argument, though, it’d be dependent on how you weight displacement against other important progressive goals. Seattle is currently adding about half the housing it needs to keep up with the growing population, and the displacement rate for new development is better than 10-1, so I’m inclined to agree with Duke on what our more urgent priority should be. But even if you care far more about displacement than anything else Herbold’s argument fails. Duke again:

…outlawing duplexes and triplexes doesn’t ultimately prevent displacement. Herbold is right that an upzone increases the incentives to redevelop, but this only accelerates an inevitable process where the affordable house gives way to one new home (under current zoning) or up to three (under the proposed change). Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.

This is key. Not allowing duplex/triplex development in Seattle’s single family zones has not prevent massive losses to the ‘naturally affordable’ housing stock. Not long ago Seattle had a significant amount of such housing, and (depending on your threshold for affordability) it’s virtually all gone. I helped a friend on a house search in 09-10. Her parameters were, roughly: 3 BR, <300K, North Seattle. That took the nicer homes and the better locations off the market, but there were still many serviceable homes in North Seattle meeting that criteria. If she'd extended her search to the cheaper South side of the city, there would have been many hundreds more. Now, a search for standalone homes with those parameters on zillow finds around 30 listings, but most of them are either auctions that’ll go for much more or obvious teardowns. The portion of the housing stock at that threshold of affordability destroyed through redevelopment is utterly trivial compared to the portion of it destroyed through scarcity-induced rising prices. The remaining “naturally affordable” single family homes have a few years left, tops. There’s nothing magical about unremarkable, older housing stock that prevents it from being bid up given sufficient scarcity. I have no idea whether she’s using the displacement issue cynically, to make an anti-development agenda fit with per progressive self-image or not. But the most likely practical consequences of her preferred path forward are more likely to serve her constituents anti-new housing agenda than the anti-displacement she says she supports.

Tuesday Links

[ 15 ] September 22, 2015 |
  • Did David Hume learn about Buddhist philosophy while writing his Treatise on Human Nature? Maybe! While I’m not terribly interested in the midlife crisis stuff, the intellectual history detective-work is interesting, if inconclusive.
  • Thanks to Jeremy W in comments, a partial answer to the question, which came up in comments recently, about the mix of housing types in a number of American cities. This is interesting for what it tells us, but also for what it doesn’t: despite a similar rate of single family homes, Dallas is less than half as dense as Seattle. (I’d be curious to see how this breaks down; that is, how much share of the blame would go to larger lot sizes in Dallas, denser apartment development in Seattle, percent of land devoted to not-housing greater in Dallas, or other factors I’m not presently identifying.)
  • What percentage of land in Los Angeles is devoted to the automobile; in storage and movement? Lots of numbers get thrown around, but it’s surprisingly hard to pin down a source. The primary sources of the numbers in circulation seem to be Louis Mumford and Kirkpatrick Sale, neither of whom give any indication of how they arrived at the figure. We don’t actually know.
  • I’d been meaning to put together some sort of review of Sonia Hurt’s marvelous Zoned in the USA; I’ll go the lazy route for now and link to this instead:

    As Hirt points out, Americans appear to be unique in believing that there is something so special about single-family homes that they must be protected from all other kinds of buildings and uses—even other homes, if those homes happen to share a wall….Not only do other countries lack single-family zones, or at least use them much, much more rarely, but the separation of residential from other uses is much softer. Whereas placing a shop in the middle of a residential block would be counter to the very purpose of an American “residential” zone, it’s considered an essential part of neighborhood planning elsewhere.

    In my experience many of the people quick to decry and lament America’s inferior approach to European countries on a range of issues, from health care to the strength of the social safety net, are often reflexive defenders of this American exceptionalism environmentally catastrophic leftover of mid-century social engineering efforts.

  • I occasionally allude to my interest in Philip Pettit’s neorepublican approach to freedom in this space, which I believe I’ve promised some commenters a post about. Someday I’ll write that post, but not today. If you missed it the Spring, as I did, Danielle Allen’s column here does a nice job of deploying some of the central theoretical insights of Pettit’s thought in light of the killing of Freddie Gray and subsequent events in Baltimore, and is worth a read.
  • That particular interest of mine is finally, after many long years, starting to produce some fruit in terms of publications. A short and still somewhat preliminary consideration of what how freedom as non-domination in the workplace might look like (in a society where jobs are still more or less mandatory for wide swaths of the population) has been published in an open access (hurray!) online journal. My somewhat lengthier examination of the limits of the role of the state in the pursuit of freedom as non-domination will be in the next issue of Polity; it’s online  now but only accessible for those with institutional access. I’m happy to provide a PDF to any interested parties.
  • Should non-citizen residents be allowed to vote in Seattle’s (and other cities) local elections? Nice to see this topic get some relatively friendly exposure at the Seattle times. There’s no constitutional barrier for cities who’d like their electorate to reflect their international, cosmopolitan character; recognizing that cities have a political identity beyond that of a mere sub-unit of the state or nation, and that people’s right to have a democratic say in their community shouldn’t be held hostage by byzantine, restrictive national citizenship policies makes good sense. It’s not some sort of new idea; before we became an anti-immigrant nation such policies were quite a bit more common, and it’s a fairly common practice is contemporary democratic societies. If there are good, non-xenophobic, substantive critiques of this expansion of the franchise, I haven’t seen them.

American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom

[ 35 ] September 19, 2015 |

One of the courses in my standard rotation is American political thought, an upper division course that’s one of three courses (along with a general historical course and a general contemporary course) that fulfills our political science major’s political theory requirement. I’ve done the course as an overview/survey kind of affair, and it felt rather too disjointed and unorganized for my taste. I’m probably going to offer it in the Spring Semester, but (unlike previous offerings) as an honors class, and a seminar with a cap of roughly 15 students.

On the research side, I’ve been reading quite a bit of historical work on American slavery lately, in conjunction with a paper I’ve been working on. The impulse behind the paper is this: political theorists, particularly republicans, theorize the concept of freedom against slavery, but the version of ‘slavery’ they work with is often quite abstract and ahistorical. How (I ask) might our understanding of freedom change if we used a more historically sensitive vision of slavery as our mirror concept?

I’ll post something more about my answer to that question in some later post, when it’s ready to be published and/or my answer is more thoroughly worked out (for any political theory readers, I’ll be presenting the latest version of this paper at the Association for Political Theory conference at CU-Boulder next month). My purpose here is to throw up a very early draft of my planned syllabus, in which I’m proposing to explore American political thought through the theme of ‘freedom and slavery,’ integrating historical and theoretical work. I’m in the planning stage–this is already probably a bit overstuffed, but I’m open to stuffing it some more before I begin the winnowing down to what I’ll actually assign. This is something of a new area of interest for me, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ve missed something obvious and important; indeed, that’s one of my motivations for posting this here at this stage.

One thing I was hoping to include is an exchange between Frederick Douglass and Stanton, Anthony, and some other suffragists on the 15th Amendment. All in the exchange were in agreement that ideally women should have been included, but there was disagreement about whether to support a 15th amendment that didn’t include women. Douglass (and, IIRC, some suffragist but not Stanton or Anthony) argued that it should be supported, as the need for voting rights as a tool of self-defense was more urgent for (male) former slaves than for women. I have a distinct memory of this exchange being reprinted in some anthology. I could have sworn it was Sue Davis’ excellent but out of print American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies but the internet tells me I’m wrong about that. If anyone knows where that exchange can be found, I’d be grateful.


American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom

University of Dayton, Spring 2016

When Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” he betrayed a rare failure of irony, not to mention a superficial grasp of the idea of liberty. There was nothing at all hypocritical or anomalous about the southerner’s highly developed sense of honor and freedom. Those who most dishonor and constrain others are in the best position to appreciate what a joy it is to possess what they deny.  –Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 94.

It’s commonplace for political theorists to note that our understanding of freedom—what it entails, demands, and requires—is deeply influenced and shaped by slavery, both as an idea and a social fact. It’s probably not a coincidence that slave societies, such as ancient Athens and Rome, and of course The United States, were particularly fixated on the concept and nature of freedom. This course asks a deceptively simple question: how has the experience of being a slave society shaped the American understanding of freedom? This can be framed as a question for theorists or for historians, but we’re going to treat it as both simultaneously, reading work in both fields alongside each other. We’ll occasionally veer into comparative dimensions of slavery, but try to keep our focus primarily on the American experience, its legacy, and responses to it. We’ll strive to consider how slavery has shaped understandings of freedom (in theory and practice) for both White America and the Black America (before and after emancipation), open to the possibility that there might be significant differences there.

Week 1: Slavery, freedom and American citizenship

  • Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Harvard, 1991)
  • Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of American History 59:1 (1972), 5-28

Week 2: The American experience: Slavery in a capitalist society

  • James Oakes: Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Norton, 1990)
  • selections from Ed Baptiste, The Other Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic, 2014)
  • Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic 24:3 (2004), 299-308.

Week 3: Jefferson, slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia

  • Selections from Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, book I (Norton, 1975)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
  • Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Bishop Henri Gregoire” (1808) and “Letter to Joel Barlow” (1809)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (1994), 193-228.

Week 4: Slavery, the framers, and the constitution

  • Mark Graber, “The Constitutional Politics of Slavery,” pp. 91-125 in Dred Scott and the Politics of Constitutional Evil (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Making a Covenant With Death: Slavery and the Constitutional Convention,” pp. 3-35 in Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (ME Sharpe, 2001)
  • Publius, Federalist Papers #54
  • U.S. Constitution, Slavery Clauses: Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 3; Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 15; Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 1; Art. IV, sec. 2, cls. 1, 3
  • James Madison, “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves” (1789)
  • Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field, “Reasons for Dissent” (1788)
  • Donald Hickey, “America’s Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 1791-1806,” Journal of the Early Republic 2:4 (1982), 361-379

Week 5: Varieties of White Abolitionism

  • Samuel Sewall, “The Selling of Joseph” (1701)
  • Selections from James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764)
  • William Lloyd Garrison, selected columns from The Liberator
  • Angelina Grimke, excerpt from “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836)

Week 6: In defense of slavery

  • Selections from Dew, Simms, Hammond, and Harper, The Pro-Slavery Argument (as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the Southern States) (1853)
  • Selections from George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, or Slaves without Masters (1852)
  • John Calhoun, Speech to the Senate (1837)

Week 7: The question of wage slavery

Week 8: Slaves Seeking Freedom (I) Narrating slavery, freedom, and the transition: Frederick Douglass

  • Douglass, My Freedom and My Bondage
  • Douglass, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Week 9: Slaves seeking freedom (II): Marronage

  • Selections from Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago, 2015)
  • Selections from Slyvia Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of America’s Maroons (NYU, 2014)
  • John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “The Quest for Freedom: Runaway Slaves and the Plantation South,” in Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom, edited by Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock (Oxford 2008), 21-39
  • Daniel Sayers et al, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp,” International Journal of Historical Archeology 11:1 (2007), 60-97

Week 10: Slaves seeking freedom (III) economy and culture

  • Selections from George Rawick, From Sun-down to Sun-up: The Making of Black Community (Greenwood, 1972)
  • Selections from Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America (Oxford, 1997)
  • Alex Lichtenstein, “‘That Disposition to Theft, With Which They Have Been Branded’: Moral Economy, Slave Management and the Law,” Journal of Social History 21:3 (1988): 413-440.

Week 11: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction

  • Booker T Washington, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (1895)
  • Selections from Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • Selections from Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
  • Selections from Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution

Week 12: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction, cont.

  • Selections from Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (LSU, 1983)
  • Selections from William Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor 2009)

Week 13: The legacies of slavery, freedom and white supremacy in the 21st century

Week 14: Conclusion, new directions, etc

  • Sharon Krause, “What is Freedom?” and “Plural Freedom”, chapters 4-5 of Freedom Beyond Sovereignty: Reconstructing Liberal Individualism (Chicago, 2015)
  • Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment,” Columbia Law Review 112:7 (2012), 1459-1499
  • David Watkins, “Freedom and Slavery in Theory and Practice”


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