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Fuck Nuance

[ 54 ] August 30, 2015 |

An outstanding polemic/manifesto from Kieran Healy on theorizing as a practice and its internal enemies. The general critiques and lessons here apply well beyond sociology:

When faced with a problem that is hard to solve, or a line of thinking that requires us to commit to some defeasible claim, or a logical dilemma we must bite the bullet on, the nuance-promoting theorist says “But isn’t it more complicated than that?”; or “Isn’t it really both/and?”; or “Aren’t these phenomena mutually constitutive?”; or “How does your theory deal with Structure, or Culture, or Temporality, or Power, or [some other abstract noun]?” This sort of nuance is fundamentally anti-theoretical. It blocks the process of abstraction that theory depends on. By now it covers large parts of sociological theory much as kudzu covers large parts of the South: it is so widespread and well-established that it seems to be a native feature of the landscape. But in fact it is a pernicious and invasive weed.


It is difficult to participate in seminars or attend professional meetings in contemporary Sociology and not hear an audience member say to a speaker that their theory or research is missing something, or has ignored some dimension, or neglected to adequately address some feature of social reality. This is the kudzu of nuance. It makes us shy away from the riskier aspects of abstraction and theory-building generally, especially if it is the first and most frequent response we hear. Instead of pushing some abstraction or argument along for a while to see where it goes, there is a tendency to start hedging theory with particulars. People complain that you’re leaving some level or dimension out, and tell you to bring it back in. Crucially, “accounting for”, “addressing”, or “dealing” with the missing item is an unconstrained process. at is, the question is not how a theory can handle this or that issue internally, but rather the suggestion to expand it with this new term or terms. Class, Institutions, Emotions, Structure, Culture, Interaction—all of them are taken generically to “matter”, and you must acknowledge that they matter by incorporating them. Incorporation is the reintroduction of particularizing elements, even though those particulars were what you had to throw away in order to make your concept a theoretically useful abstraction in the first place.

Trigger warnings, 90’s edition

[ 34 ] August 29, 2015 |

There was a time when I opposed trigger warnings, because I worried they’d have a chilling effect. That was the mid-90’s, and the ‘trigger warnings’ in question were the FCC’s voluntary but widely adopted “TV Parental guidelines” that went into effect in 1997. I knew this system didn’t include any overt censorship, but I worried it might have a chilling effect on material that might be controversial–that viewers, advertisers, and networks might be worried about ratings, and the pressure on writers and directors to avoid the kind of content that might result in a TV-MA tag for the show. I think it’s safe to say, from the vantage point of 2015, that my concerns turned out to be overblown.

It would be a mistake, I think, to suggest that these guidelines played a major role in ushering the golden age of television they happened to coincide with; correlation is not causation and all. And the analogy is far from perfect; writers and producers were and are obviously self-censoring in a number of that syllabus creating professors are not (and vice versa). Viewers aren’t perfectly analogous to students, nor networks to administrators, etc etc.

But like many people who seem overly worried about trigger warnings on syllabi today, I thought I was capable of predicting how this would play out, based on what turned out to be an overly simplistic set of assumptions about the motivations and likely behavior of the various actors. I turned out to be clearly wrong, at least in part because I didn’t give some of the relevant actors enough credit. The rating system seemed to lead to less viewer freakouts, and less attention paid to them by advertisers and networks, and more potentially controversial and challenging material on the air. The prediction of a chilling effect from trigger warnings, similarly, requires taking a fairly dim view of maturity of students, and the professionalism of faculty. Perhaps that’s warranted, but based on the faculty and students I interact with, I’m not convinced that’s likely to be the case.

Tall Tales from Texas

[ 19 ] August 29, 2015 |

For some reason–perhaps laziness or force of habit, or engagingly alarmist (‘new records for traffic misery!’) press releases, media outlets across the country dutifully report as fact the whatever new congestion ‘study’ the Texas A&M Transportation Institute releases. The problems are significant: their approach uses bizarre assumptions, questionable data, and despite being produced under the aegis of an institute at a major research university has never been subjected to peer review.

David Alpert:

The report, from Texas A&M University, looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn’t bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city has worse roads? By TTI’s methods, it’s Denseopolis. But it’s the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

Joe Cortwright: 

The authors continue to report data for 1982 through 2007, even though TTI’s model for those years doesn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumes that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods.

The presumption of the methodology is that our goal–to avoid “waste”–is to have sufficient road space available that the most popular times to travel see no delay whatsoever during peak times. That sounds nice, as long as we temporarily forget that land and money are scarce resources.* What makes the best (and most congested) cities attractive to access is that a)there’s lots of economic opportunity and activity there, and b) they are interesting and attractive places to visit. Ginormous 12 lane highways and acres of parking competes with those values; it’s a boring, ugly land use that generates little revenue. Walkability and human-scale density and cars travelling 60 MPH don’t go together.

Pretty much any time you decide to X at the most popular time to X, you pay for your timing in some way, whether in money, time, or flexibility. For whatever reason, we’ve elected to have a system where commuting by car at peak costs time instead of money. This choice has some cross-ideological appeal; on the anti-tax right the alternative is treated as tax increase; on the left it offends a kind of egalitarian ethos about access to a public good. I see the force of the latter position, but think it’s ultimately mistaken; transforming the cost of peak congestion from a time penalty to a financial one contributes to a number of progressive goals (environmental, of course, but public transit, as buses get stuck in congestion too). But either way, the notion that we should expect this activity to come at any price at all is both unrealistic and entirely undefended.

*The atmosphere’s capacity to store carbon emissions is a scarce resource too, of course, but the underlying logic here would still be deeply flawed even if global climate change turned out to be nothing more than a figment of Al Gore’s fevered imagination.


Firing bad cops

[ 31 ] August 28, 2015 |

Setting aside her pathetic racial resentment, what’s striking about SPD officer Cynthia Whitlatch’s account of her unjustified arrest of William Wingate is that even if we take her self-serving account entirely at face value, it paints a clear picture of an officer unfit for duty:

Murphy noted that Whitlatch admitted she “did not see Mr. Wingate swing his golf club at the police car and hit the stop sign; instead, she admits that she only saw movement out of the corner of her eye and heard a noise, leading her to assume he swung at her car and hit the stop sign… The Named Employee observed Mr. Wingate look at her with a furrowed brow and assumed that he was purposefully directing an ‘angry’ look at her.”

Whitlatch seemed fixated on Wingate’s alleged furrowed brow, which she said she could see through her rearview mirror as she drove away from Pike and 11th. She said she knew he was glaring at her because he was angry.

Her patrol car’s dashcam video shows that when Whitlatch confronts Wingate at an intersection one block away, Wingate appears to have no idea who she was or why she is asking him to drop his golf club, which he was using as a cane.


 So she hears a strange noise and comes is, in her mind, a perfectly logical and plausible explanation–an elderly black in her vicinity inexplicably attempted to strike a passing police car with his golf club/cane. Furthermore, his “furrowed brow” constituted sufficient supporting evidence for this hunch that it’s off to jail on a ‘contempt of cop’ charge for him. And this is her story; the best she can come up with to try to save her job. Happily, her ability to present an exonerating, self-serving account of the incident was hindered by her dashcam.
This is kind of a big deal in Seattle because, if her appeals aren’t successful, she’ll be one of the first police officers fired for excessive force or misconduct in a good long while. It’s easy to see why previous chiefs have not bothered–their firings can be overturned by a review board stacked 2-1 with current SPD officers. (This is in sharp contrast with the King County Sherrif’s department, where Chief John Urquhart, who is much less shy about moving aggressively to remove problem officers.)
As an aside, while the quality of The Stranger’s news section generally and political coverage in particular has declined noticably in recent years, their ongoing coverage of police misconduct (the now-departed Dominic Holden and Ansel Herz in particular) has been excellent, and is probably part of the reason the effort to remove such an obviously unfit officer as Whitlatch has made it this far.


Zduriencik fired

[ 42 ] August 28, 2015 |

Finally. It’s long overdue, of course, and absolutely necessary. As a Mariners fan, I suppose I should be feeling, if not joy, at least a sense of relief. Instead I mostly just feel anxious and concerned they’ll screw up the next, crucial step–will the organization’s reputation for meddling with G.M.’s decision-making make it difficult to attract strong candidates? Are the relevant decision-makers capable of identifying strong candidates in the first place? Given how Zduriencik was able to use someone much smarter than he to bluff his way into the job, I’m worried the answers may be “yes” and “no” respectively.

….The following sentence should fill all Mariners fans with despair:

Bob Nightengale reported that the team may have interest in White Sox president Kenny Williams, while Ken Rosenthal notes on Twitter that they’ve reached out to former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd.

Against Park and Rides

[ 110 ] August 24, 2015 |

On the handful of times I’ve used BART to get somewhere besides the urban core, I’ve been dismayed by the land use choices at some of the outer stations–extremely valuable land in an area with an acute housing shortage, devoted to nothing but the subsidized storage of cars. This staggeringly inefficient land use choice is often defended, as newishlawyer does, as a half-measure; better to get people using transit for some of their commute than none at all. Jarrett Walker makes the case against park and rides well here. (Walker, by the way, is not the kind of wonk who chooses journalism over politics–he’s an active transit consultant who’s been involved in transit reform in many cities, and is well aware of the politics involved.) I’ll summarize and add a few thoughts of my own. There may be some cases in which this is true, but as a general rule the problem is, as usual, that this ignores the ‘scarce resources’ problem in two ways and contributes to perverse incentives in two others. First, the scarce resources issue.

1) Land. If you’re doing high-speed, high-capacity transit right, it dramatically increases the value of the land within the walkshed of the station, by declaring it to be for nothing but car storage, without seeing what other uses people are willing to pay for. By taking dense development and economic activity off the table, you diminish the potential for economic growth, and the potential to take some of the market pressure for housing, offices, etc off San Francisco. Of course, one way to alleviate this is to build parking garages, which use less land to store more cars, leaving more left over for potential TOD. The problem with this, of course, is that parking garages are expensive to build, and it generally falls on the agency to build them. Which leads to the second scarce resources problem:

2) Dedicated funding for transit. Every time in my life I’ve had the opportunity (and having spend most of my voting years in Seattle this is a bunch of times) I’ve voted for higher taxes in exchange for funding more and better transit. In every case, the taxes I’ve voted to authorize have been insufficient to meet the transit needs they’re aiming to meet. At no point is the level of service great enough, the funding for capital improvements to improve service sufficient. On the other hand, there’s lots and lots of government spending on roads and other amenities for cars, most of which I never get the chance to vote against. We’re often too quick to assume this is a reflection of what people want, rather than a reflection of greater power for interests who enrich themselves with road construction than those who enrich themselves with transit construction. If we had train and bus manufacturers in every state, things might be different. Certainly in Washington state, transit does better at the ballot box than roads do, and there’s some evidence to suggest that WA voters not alone in that preference. But whether the imbalance is driven by our preferences or by our politics, it’s something we have good reason to be frustrated with from a variety of perspectives. So when pressure is used to take some of that too-little money we have available to subsidize transit and is used to subsidize car use instead, we have very good reason to push back against that.

On the perverse incentives:

1) It’s easy to understand why suburban communities gifted with a high speed high capacity transit option might think the demand for a park and ride is a reasonable one to make. It’s only a few miles away, after all, so from an environmental perspective it might seem reasonable–creating a structure that allows people to drive 3 miles rather than 23. The problem, of course, is that when park and rides are constructed, they don’t just offer a place for people in town to park. They offer a place for people who live even further out to park, if they get up early enough. In an effort to provide low-carbon transit for people 30 miles from downtown, you up providing medium to high carbon access for people 55 miles from downtown to park, if they don’t mind getting up at 4:00 AM to get them. (I’m not sure about other agencies but in the case of Sound Transit, because it’s a regional authority it’s not allowed to build municipality-restricted facilities. The towns themselves could acquire station-adjacent land and build something only for their town’s residents, but of course then they’d have to spend their own money, which is a great deal more difficult politically. The expectation that parking should be free really is at the root of the problem here.) So park and rides supported to incentivize low-carbon commuting and local access end up incentivizing ever longer commutes, and getting up really really early.

2) The above scenario–teasing suburban residents with the sweet free parking next to the train station, only to be taken away by the early risers, leads to a fairly predictable political demand–more free (or heavily subsidized) parking. Why wouldn’t they? This cheap, convenient solution to their transportation dilemma is already there, we just need a little more of it! Of course, there are other ways to get them to the station: walking, busing, biking, cabs and kiss and rides. And these can be better or worse. If we didn’t tease people with the illusion of free, convenient parking right next to the station, we might incentivize them to put political pressure on their local governments to improve local transit, or maybe better bike access, to the transit center. What they’re probably willing to pay for car storage almost certainly couldn’t compete with what people are willing to pay for other land uses for that extremely valuable land, if forced to compete. If they were exposed to the real cost of car storage, the personal and political efforts to find a good way to access the station would be directed more productively from the start.

I’m not a dogmatist. I know that some political projects require sub-optimal elements to generate sufficient initial political support, at least initially. But that doesn’t make it good policy. If we’re going to build park and rides, they should at least be priced according to demand, rather than a willingness to get up really early. (I’d say that means charging enough that there’s generally still some spaces available after, say, 9:30.) Newishlawyer is concerned we need to better “sell” urbanism and density before we make a policy change like this, but I disagree. There are places where urbanism and density arguably need a better sales pitch; I happen to live in one of them. But in much of the country, including most places where serious mass transit investment is likely to be made now, it’s already in increasingly high demand. We need to legalize building more of it, so people who aren’t extremely wealthy or winners of the low-income housing lottery can live close to their jobs, and whenever possible stop using limited transit dollars to subsidize ever greater sprawl.

Weekend transit links

[ 110 ] August 23, 2015 |

What I’m reading lately, public transit edition:

Jarrett Walker has a thoughtful, inconclusive post on the issue of transit agency integration (reflecting on the excellent SPUR report on Bay are transit). Like Walker, when I first encountered and tried to use transit in regions with confusing and poor integration (Bay Area, late 90’s) I assumed integration into a mega-agency was the right answer. Like Walker, I’m much less sanguine about that view now. One potentially attractive solution in balancing one of the potential shortcomings of integration–municipalities in a larger agency who want to have greater than average levels of service (and are willing to pay for it)–emerged out of necessity in Seattle/King County last year. The County-wide agency avoided cuts during the recession by postponing capital investments, cutting recovery times down to the bone, spending down its rainy day fund, and an emergency 2 year $20 car tab. Facing inevitable cuts last year in light of those choices, they went to the voters in an April special election with a $60 car tab and .1% sales tax increase, and lost. Seattle politicians, noting that the measure passed handily in the city, and on the urgent need to preserve and expand transit there, put together a Seattle-only version of it for the November ballot, where it handily won. (In the ensuing months economic forecasts improved such that many of the previously proposed cuts wouldn’t have been necessary anyway, meaning that the additional revenue could expand service within Seattle–a fact that if anything probably helped the measure pass.) This doesn’t bring back Seattle Transit as an independent agency, it just means the KC Metro has a baseline level of funding and service (and, since 2010, clear service revision guidelines governing the geographic distribution of service), and municipalities within the county can purchase additional service from the agency. The model is now there for other cities who might wish for more service (Mercer Island has in a very limited way taken advantage of this model for a new shuttle, and may purchase more additional service). This model doesn’t address all the problems mega-agencies present, but it seems like a potentially useful model for at least one of them. It recognizes the need for a route around regionalism without abandoning regionalism altogether.

Parking shortages: perception vs reality.

The first so-called “Dutch Intersection” in the US, went live in Davis earlier this month. In the near future we’ll see them in Austin, Sacramento, Boston, and Salt Lake City.

No, Frank Blethen, you fear-mongering, dog-shooting asshole, Eastlink isn’t going be dangerous.

A helpful road diet explainer. When done well, road diets improve safety and access without increasing congestion.

Houston’s ambitious and significant revision of its bus network just launched. It’s cost-neutral, but embraces the principles and practices transit wonks are constantly imploring agencies to adopt–fewer lines, straighter, more frequent, simple and legible. I’m generally persuaded by this vision, but acknowledge it’s mostly theoretical at this point. What happens with Houston ridership in the near future is well worth watching, and very important data point for reformers (if this goes well) or their legacy-route protectionists (if it doesn’t).

…..a few more:

Jeremy W. in comments has a good link on the right wing war on the MBTA in Boston.

I’ve written before about the leveling off of vehicle miles traveled overall (which means a per capita decline) and the refusal of DOTs to recognize it. The most recent numbers show that trend may, lamentably, be starting to shift back to growth, leading to some unseemly gloating from the FHWA. Doug Short takes a closer look at the numbers, which are rather more ambiguous than the FHWA would suggest. (It occurs to me, in looking at data like this, to wonder how many VMTs restrictive, exclusionary zoning, which prevents people who might want to do so from living closer to their jobs, adds to this total.)

Speaking of the clusterfuck that is the deep bore tunnel project, the estimated completion date is now 2018, and WSDOT is no longer even pretending to believe Seattle Tunnel Partners estimates. And when it does go online, it’ll probably screw up bus service and create congestion for people actually trying to get downtown, that place where the jobs are and the tunnel doesn’t go.

Times Square

[ 69 ] August 22, 2015 |

One doesn’t generally expect to side with Andrew Cuomo against Bill de Blasio. But de Blasio’s apparent openness to his police commissioner’s terrible idea to tear up the Times Square plazas and turn them back into car sewers deserves serious pushback and Cuomo is right to give it. Kimmelman:

It’s hard to grasp his calculus. One of Mr. de Blasio’s big initiatives, Vision Zero, aims to improve pedestrian safety. Ripping up the pedestrian plazas in Times Square, restoring cars and forcing millions of people to dodge traffic again, runs headlong into his own policy.

As an exasperated Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, put it on Thursday: “Sure, let’s tear up Broadway — we can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces.”

“That’s not a solution,” he added. “It’s a surrender.”

The Times Square plazas were devised by the former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. Not for the first time, Mr. de Blasio is creating a peevish impression that, even now, he is running against his predecessor when he needs to be running the city. After the plazas opened in 2009, pedestrian injuries dropped 35 percent, and injuries to drivers and passengers in cars fell 63 percent, according to city records. Skeptics forecast calamity for retailers and commercial real estate. Business boomed. Surveys reported leaps in satisfaction by residents, workers and tourists.

Sometimes public spaces can be messy, and difficult to govern. I don’t have any particularly strong views about how the costumed panhandlers and their ilk should be addressed, or even how much of a ‘problem’ they actually are. But I do know that responding to this kind of challenge by giving up and turning public spaces into deadly car sewers isn’t a progressive position, and de Blasio shouldn’t be entertaining it.

The NIMBYs of Nickelsville

[ 37 ] August 18, 2015 |

File:Nickelsville at T-107 Park 01.jpg

Erica C. Barnett has a gift for writing about NIMBYs that parallels Edroso on wingnuts: a light touch on the commentary with an eye towards the absurdity of it all, while not getting in the way of them hang themselves with their own words. (Great examples here, here, especially here.) The most recent NIMBY outrage is the overwrought reaction to the planned location of a homeless encampment on a block of city property in Ballard. (Danny Westneat, of all people, explains how unfounded the fears are here; more background here, on the charge that such places increase crime in the neighborhood see here) Barnett says what very much needs to be said here:

No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?

How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?


As someone who has often recieved a fair amount of pushback for suggesting that people’s stated desire to restrict to housing supply in their neighborhoods is motivated at least in part by classism, I can’t help but feel a little bit vindicated here. The mask slips a bit more often when it comes to homeless people, rather than ‘low income’ people generally.

On jargon and humanities scholarship

[ 227 ] August 17, 2015 |

Murc, in the Foner thread:

Every important, highly technical endeavor has highly technical jargon that’s pretty impenetrable from the outside, but I’ve noticed for some reason only the humanities seem to get flak for it. Nobody gets pissed off when MD’s or engineers or physicists speak to each other in their private professional language, but a philosopher starts dropping words like “hermeneutic” or “epistemology” and suddenly lips curl and the sneering begins, usually accompanied with the implication that the people using them there made up words and fancy book larnin’ are big old frauds.

So I’m usually prepared to accept and defend “jargon” until specifically proven otherwise.

He’s got a point, and there is a double standard at work. However!

He’s replying to an example–engineers talking shop about trains–that’s an example where jargon has clear intragroup communication advantages, to be weighed against the limitations it imposes on communication with those outside of the group. The community in question has little incentive or need to communicate effectively with those outside the group–they’re just talking shop. Historians obviously have a different calculus here; there are good reasons to wish for better communication with those outside the group. (Individual historians may just want to sell books, but there are also good civic reasons to wish for historians in general to communicate effectively to a broader audience.) But it’s worse, I think, in some humanities-oriented fields, where there’s significant career pressure to come up with something *really profound* to say, and jargon provides a tempting shortcut, as well as a shibboleth for who identifying true insiders who properly belongs in the conservation. (An important part of my own graduate training in political theory involved being told in no uncertain terms to try again, stating my claims and arguments more clearly and directly, with less jargon. On some happy occasions, the result was much clearer thinking and better prose. On less happy occasions, I was forced to abandon the original claim on the grounds that it turned out to not mean much of anything at all.)

The particular example Foner uses here–replacing the specialized, ‘insider’ language of “bourgeois revolution” with the more accessible “capitalist revolution”–turns the claim into a specific one, about the particular consequences of the civil war, rather than one that tied the claim up in the verbiage of Marxist theories of revolution. “Is the Civil War a bourgeois revolution in Marx’s sense?” is perhaps an interesting question for a certain kind of person (of which I am one), but it’s as likely to be a distraction from giving a clear account of the relevant history here, with little added value for most potential readers. Whether that was the intention or not, referring to it as a bourgeois revolution rather than a capitalist one narrows the audience in two ways–first, to those familiar with the specialized terminology, and second, to those inclined to view history in more or less Marxist terms. There’s no notable or obvious analytic advantage to the choice, so the narrowing of the audience is really all it’s accomplishing.

History is different, of course, but I think a crucial part of good work in my own field of political theory involves vigilance against the temptation to lean too heavily on jargon. Some of the best and most sophisticated work in political theory is perfectly accessible to most intelligent and careful readers (the linked article, among the most influential in political theory in the last 20 years, can be taught to college freshmen with little or no background with relative ease.) We can’t always achieve that goal, but much of the time our lack of writing skill, not the sheer complexity or profundity of our ideas, is to blame. This isn’t always the case, of course, and some of the anti-jargonism really is just anti-intellectualism–but by no means all of it, and Foner’s example offers a good example of the kind of situation in which avoiding jargon widens the potential audience at virtually no cost.

TL/DR: Jargon can provide specificity and precision, but it also serves other, less admirable purposes, including gatekeeping, signaling, and obfuscation. Being vigilant about what particular uses of jargon are doing in particular cases is an important part of doing historical and other forms of humanities scholarship well, and shouldn’t be lumped in with general anti-intellectualism.


[ 54 ] August 12, 2015 |

The Tinder twitter feed’s overwrought, whiny, self-important meltdown over the Vanity Fair article is amusing, but it’s no defense of the piece itself, which is mostly lazy and content-free. It’s not much more than a collection of quotes designed and arranged as perfect clickbait to shock and titillate the kind of people looking to get unseemingly worked up by moral panics and jeremiads about how Kids These Days are doing everything wrong and it’s going to destroy the world. A considerably more interesting, and enlightening, approach would be to try to make sense of the rise of technologies like Tinder in light of empirical findings from research on generational sexual behavior; which strongly indicate millenials are having less sex, with fewer partners, than the previous two generational cohorts.

Bad anti-housing arguments

[ 186 ] July 24, 2015 |

In the San Francisco housing thread below, Steven Attewell points to this post by Robert Cruickshank that complicates the most simplistic version of the claim that some portions of ‘the left’ in San Francisco oppose housing. Cruickshank, accurately, points out that a number of recent leftist politicians and mayoral candidates ran on platforms with thoughtful, progressive plans to increase supply, with a strong focus on affordable housing. I don’t doubt this is true, but I don’t think that entirely rebuts the central claim of Metcalf’s central argument; namely, that ‘the left’ has unwittingly contributed to the current housing shortage and attendant affordability crisis. I don’t doubt the sincerity or wisdom of Matt Gonzalez and others’ housing plans, but the rubber meets the road when that faction is forced to choose their second best option amongst the following:

1) New housing built, with significant units set aside for affordable housing

2) New housing built, with relatively few units set aside as affordable housing

3) New housing not built.

The problem isn’t that the left favors (1), it’s that they have repeatedly agitated for (3) over (2). The case that adding more housing to our cities positively contributes to a significant array of progressive goals seems pretty much unimpeachable to me. Martin Duke lists the benefits, in the context of Seattle; most apply just as well to San Francisco:

  • Fewer vehicle miles traveled, resulting in less energy usage, air pollution, and run off into the Sound.
  • Less farmland and virgin forest destroyed for new housing.
  • More legislative representation and better treatment of urban issues in Olympia.
  • More time in congested central cities, where vehicle speeds make fatalities rare.
  • Less competition for existing affordable units.
  • More economic activity both in construction and in the businesses spawned by new units
  • A larger tax base for large capital projects (like light rail) that benefit everybody, as well as social programs

And this is true even when the new housing is expensive, because it takes the pressure off older housing stock by taking rich people out of the bidding for it. But significant portions of the left in San Francisco have worked very hard to convince themselves that (3) makes a greater contribution to progressive policy outcomes than (2). This leads them to make some pretty strange and embarrassing arguments. Since it was linked in the thread below and I saw some anti-housing NIMBYs in Seattle circulating it on facebook a few weeks ago, let’s take a look at Tim Redmond’s effort on that front:

The people with high disposable incomes who fill those condos or luxury rentals will spend money in town, creating a demand for jobs – restaurant workers, grocery clerks, cops and firefighters, bank tellers … and those people will also need a place to live.

(Sup. Scott Wiener notes that the city’s police force hasn’t kept up with the population growth. Perfect example – bring in 5,000 new wealthy residents, and the city faces pressure to hire more cops to protect them. Those cops cost tax money – but they also need places to live. And that puts pressure on the housing market).

So according to the study, by Keyser Marston Associates, every time the city allows 100 new high-end housing units, it needs to build between 20 and 43 new affordable units – just to keep the housing balance the way it is now. Put the affordable units in the main complex and the impact is lower (because fewer millionaires move in). Built them, as is common, somewhere else and the impact is greater.

In summary, for every 100 market rate condominium units there are 25.0 lower income households generated through the direct impact of the consumption of the condominium buyers and a total of 43.31 households if total direct, indirect, and induced impacts are counted in the analysis.

If the city demands 15 percent affordable set-asides, then every market-rate building adds more demand for affordable housing than it supplies. That means every new building makes the housing crisis worse.

This analysis has a rather obvious empirical flaw, so obvious one would think it hardly needs to be stated: refusing to build a luxury unit will not dissuade its would-be wealthy resident from moving to the city. It’s not like they’re moving to the city because they really liked that one particular condo. They’re almost certainly going to come anyway, and bid on some less-nice unit, denying some less-rich person, quite possibly a long-term San Francisco resident, for those worried about displacement, from living in a city.

But the obvious empirical flaw in this argument is trumped by an even more terrible normative flaw: namely, that it’s a good and progressive policy to prevent jobs, including some good middle class jobs, from being created. In the context of 2015, less than a decade after a massive job destroying recession, followed by many years of anemic job growth, which has pushed many thousands out of the job market and harmed the economic well-being and security of the middle class, this is particularly grotesque, simply because the city doesn’t want to go to the trouble of allowing for enough housing for them, should be seen as appalling immediately.

Another thing–there’s plenty of potential for new housing with minimal displacement in the city, simply be liberalizing some of the rules that strangle development in single family zones. One example, which had some success in Vancouver and Portland, and is now being proposed in Seattle, is to change the incentive structure and rules regarding the construction of backyard cottages:

Adding tiny, freestanding structures behind single-family homes across the city would increase density while preserving neighborhood character, proponents say. This would go a long way toward satisfying the city’s official policy of “infill development,” putting more housing on existing underutilized land. But first, the city would have to tweak existing building regulations tailored to mid-20th century lifestyles.

The trend is catching on, with small apartments popping up in urban backyards across North America. Like attached “granny flats” within existing buildings, backyard cottages are smaller dwellings, tucked away off the street — typically 200 to 800 square feet — with little aesthetic impact.

But remarkably, San Francisco seems stuck in a 1950s zoning mentality, mandating single-family dwellings with large backyards across nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land. Backyard cottages are nearly impossible to construct within city limits, due to a combination of zoning laws, labyrinthine building codes and a lugubrious review process that grinds development to a halt when just about anyone protests.

This isn’t a silver bullet–nothing is–but it’s an obvious no-brainer. Each unit contributes to affordability twice, once for the renter and again for the homeowner, making it easier to make the mortgage. While the linked article overstates the potential here, it’s a good idea that costs the city nothing, is more likely to produce relatively affordable units than luxury construction, and has the potential to help out strapped homeowners, all while distributing density in a low-key way.

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