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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

[ 86 ] 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

[ 34 ] 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”


Obstacles to urban living: the traffic study

[ 165 ] September 10, 2015 |

According to Christopher Leinberger, in his excellent book The Option of Urbanism, Americans’ preferences regarding housing fall into three groups of roughly equal size: Those who have a moderate to strong preference for auto-centric suburban living, those who have a moderate to strong preference for dense, walkable urbanist environments, and those who have weak or no preferences between the two and could go either way. (There’s a generational shift toward preferring urban walkability and a falling out of love the driving and car ownership, there’s probably been a shift toward the second category since Leinberger wrote that book). so Unfortunately for the environment, public health, and the people in the second group, around 80% of our existing housing stock in this country is suited to meet the needs of the first group. This suggests a shift is in order, as it seems difficult to justify using zoning and land use law to continue to dramatically oversupply a product with more social and environmental externalities, while at the same time restricting the availability of a product that produces all manner of public goods (in addition to the obvious environmental and public health benefits, the more people living at urban scale, the more rural and natural land can be left undeveloped).

The conversion of suburban spaces to urban ones doesn’t make much sense in a lot of places. It’s difficult to produce from scratch, on demand, for a variety of reasons (such developments are expensive, and placing them where land values are low isolates them from organic urban density, making them high risk investments. And often end up weirdly off-puttingly inorganic and sterile). It makes the most sense, obviously, to focus that redevelopment on suburban-ish style living in areas already close to the same. They can piggyback on the amenities of nearby walkable neighborhoods, they’re more likely to have something close, or at least closer, to the appropriate levels of transit for such developments, and so on. Furthermore, while we might wish to designate a threshold where we designate a neighborhood one or the other, but in reality it’s an ordinal, not cardinal distinction and adding density (or, from a planning perspective, allowing it to be added) on the margins is a relatively low-intensity way of shifting the housing stock toward the preferences and needs of the society.

Proponents of land use laws to allow more people to live in and near single family areas in cities face a dizzying array of local resistance strategies, which are often quite effective. Much of the local resistance involves tool work together to form a kind of war of attrition under that flies under the banner of local democracy or neighborhood autonomy: piling on various delays, costs, and burdens to development such that developers are more likely to give up and ply their trade elsewhere. Many of these tools–design review, environmental impact statements–have entirely worthwhile rationales, but it’s difficult to design them to serve their stated purpose in a way that doesn’t also make them a tool in the anti-development toolkit.

Which brings us to “traffic studies.” The traffic impacts of new development projects are worth studying, right? Shouldn’t we plan for new development? Sounds sensible enough, but here’s how it plays out:

The bible here is the ITE’s Trip Generation handbooks, which collects vehicle trip data from various locations depending on land use, then presents the result in the form of graph, based on a rate of trip per assumed relevant characteristics, for example, per 1000 square feet of Gross Floor Area.
By using that data as is, there are a flurry of assumptions that are made:
  1. All locations of a given land use with similar floor area (or other quantitative feature) will have a similar number of trips generated, it doesn’t matter if it’s a restaurant in the heart of a city or in a tiny town in the boondocks.
  2. Essentially all trips generated or attracted by the location will be made in cars.
  3. Congestion level and traffic conditions will have no effect on the number of trips made to and from that location.
Now, people may point out that these assumptions aren’t always, or even frequently, true, but these still form the basis of most traffic studies. Why? Well, engineers are taught during their formation that being “conservative” with their calculations is always the best option. In this case, this has nothing to do with politics, it means always opting for more precaution, supposing higher loads than is plausible, so that the resulting design is sure to be able to withstand much bigger loads than it can be expected to face. This is rooted in structural engineering: someone who designs a bridge wants to avoid a catastrophic failure of the bridge, and so will overdesign the bridge for greater loads than necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen, so loads will be high-balled and material resistance will be low-balled.
That makes plenty of sense for structural engineering, where failure destroys the structure and may even put human lives at risk, so that outcome is downright unacceptable. In that case, the cost of being conservative in one’s calculations is merely a higher construction cost, there is no externality in most cases. So overdesigning a bridge has no drawback, except for the higher cost.
However, the problem comes when you apply that “conservative” mentality to traffic studies. In this case, it means assuming the worst case scenario of traffic, for instance, all different buildings have their PM peak flow at the same time, all trips are made by car, and using the Peak Hour Factor to suppose that all movements achieve their maximum 15-minute vehicle flows at the same time. It also means low-balling somewhat road capacity. So you’re designing roads to avoid congestion at higher traffic levels than the roads will usually see.
This approach basically views congestion, even during the peak hour of the day, as a catastrophic failure in a way similar to a bridge falling down. It also assumes that there is no externality to overdesigning an intersection, of using longer traffic signals, of having a higher number of wider lanes, wider medians, the only drawback is the cost…
When it comes to roads and congestion, we have no choice but to bite one of the following three bullets:
1) Road space at peak travel times will be allocated to those willing to spend extra time in traffic.
2) Road space during peak travel times will be allocated by a willingness to pay a congestion fee (ala London, Singapore, Milan, Stockholm.)
3) An extraordinary quantity of public resources and high-value land will be devoted to roads, externalities galore be damned, in order to socialize the cost of peak travel time car useage.

Myself, I’d go for (2). Raise more revenue, which in actually existing cases turns out to be mostly from the rich, incentivizes devising more efficient ways to use a public resource, and perhaps most importantly internalizes at least a few of the externalities of cars. My fellow Americans seem to overwhelmingly prefer (1) to (2), to which I say fair enough. But either is preferable to (3), which is a nightmare on environmental, land use, and allocation of scarce public resource grounds.

…..for a more optimistic take, see this comment from someone who works on this kind of study in Rochester. The traffic study doesn’t have to be a disaster if the inputs are better, and it’s a relatively easy fix to make if there’s sufficient political will.

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.

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