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Public Housing: Myth and Reality

[ 65 ] September 24, 2015 |


If there’s one program conservatives and even most liberals see as indicative of a government disaster, it’s public housing. There’s a kernel of truth there because a lot of public housing projects did turn out badly, with endemic poverty, crime, and a lack of maintenance to rapid dilapidation and a reputation as the worst place in the country to be. But there were reasons for this and not at all surprisingly, race and racism are at the core–public housing was intended by its planners as being a housing solution for stable working families who could pay rent. But the combination of the 1950s housing boom and white flight combined with desegregating a lot of public housing to leave the developments with entirely black populations who did not have the money to pay rent. Thus everyone was paying nothing or very little. Neither federal or state governments had anticipated this situation and thus there was no budget for maintenance. And once the populations in those were black, racism got in the way of policy changes that might make these livable places. Black crime was pathologized as opposed to understood as part of a systemic problem the government helped create. And thus public housing is horrible. This is the story of the outstanding documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about public housing in St. Louis, which I very highly recommend.

Even as sharp a commenter on the American scene as David Simon primarily sees public housing as disastrous, both in The Wire and in the new show on Yonkers, Show Me a Hero, although I have only read about the latter so could be wrong. But there’s a lot more complexity here. A lot of public housing works really well, as Alana Semuels writes:

In some small cities, though, public housing has worked and continues to work. That includes Austin, the site of one of the first public-housing complexes in the nation, which still stands today. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has been recognized as a “High Performer” by HUD for 15 years in a row, and, rather than depending on the federal government for help, it has embarked on a few entrepreneurial programs to raise money.

“We’ve certainly been more aggressive and achieved more than most,” Michael Gerber, the president of the housing authority, told me.

Its nonprofit subsidiary, the Austin Affordable Housing Corporation, owns a commercial property, Eastland Plaza, which it rents out to tenants to make money for the organization, and AAHC also runs well-kept, affordable-housing complexes that feature tennis courts and pools. It’s also launched a community land trust, which it hopes to expand in the future.

“We’ve been fortunate because we’ve developed additional affordable-housing resources that generate revenue, and we’ve been able to use that to plug holes,” Gerber said.

Other properties the housing authority has acquired have been turned into hubs for after-school and mentoring programs and for community development, he told me.

Of course, with just 1,838 public housing units, Austin has a much easier time running a public-housing agency than a city like Chicago (around 18,000 units) or New York (some 180,000 units).

By and large, smaller agencies across the country have been more successful at providing good public housing for residents than giant city agencies have, Goetz says. The example of Austin and other cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota; indicate that public housing didn’t have to fail. And perhaps with some tweaking—dividing big public-housing authorities into smaller, regional ones, or spending more money on housing for the poor in good neighborhoods—it doesn’t have to fail in the future, either.

I don’t have anything particularly useful to say about these specific smaller cities except they are all primarily white, although all have African-American populations. But when a larger city kept its public housing white and segregated, that was another way to keep it financially sustainable. Take Boston, where Black Mass has made it look like Whitey Bulger came from horrible circumstances because he lived in public housing as a child. But that’s not an accurate depiction of this housing, as Jake Blumgart writes.

When “Black Mass” viewers hear about the Bulgers’ and Connolly’s upbringing in public housing — which is repeatedly emphasized throughout the movie — they probably envision a rough, rundown, poverty-stricken warren of crumbling high rises. But the Bulgers were not raised in a neighborhood haunted by extreme poverty and gang violence. Old Harbor Village did not at all accord with the stereotypical image of a housing project, at least when he lived there. Instead it was the crown jewel of the Boston Housing Authority’s housing stock: stable, extremely safe and segregated by income and race. (It was entirely white until the 1990s.)

In the years since Whitey Bulger’s youth, the fate of the public housing complex where he grew up traced the arc of the program overall. From robustly funded and segregated worker housing to increasing concentrations of the very poor, often people of color, and correspondingly decreased political support and funding — culminating in an existential crisis for the program today.

After the war public housing in South Boston remained both segregated and selective. By 1962 many majority African-American complexes in other parts of the city had tenant bases far poorer, with rates of extreme poverty and unemployment that were four to five times higher than those of Old Colony and Old Harbor Village (changed to Mary Ellen McCormack Houses in honor of the Congressman’s mother).

These imbalances were the result of activist agitation for the prioritization of the poorest, reflecting similar debates in cities throughout the country. This fight resulted in more stable families with employment leaving, driving down rents collected, and turning the suddenly underfunded projects into islands of desperate poverty. But the Boston Housing Authority only allowed that process, at first, in majority African-American complexes. In 1964 neither Old Colony or Mary McCormack had a single non-white tenant, according to a report by the Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, which asserted that they still provided “model living conditions,” while majority African-American complexes were “little better than the slums these projects replaced.”

It is true that conditions even in this still-segregated white development did start declining during the 1970s after deindustrialization decimated the job base for everyone in south Boston and the same funding problems as black public housing developments appeared.

But the idea that public housing absolutely can’t work is ridiculous. Public housing certainly can work–if it is properly funded and if that funding does not become dependent upon the racial makeup of the residents. Proper funding and avoiding racism are two things the United States is not good at, so maybe it is a pipe dream, but public housing should still be part of the conversation in housing and urban policy. After all, the privatization of all city housing is just forcing poor people out. A successful city means class and racial diversity. The government should have a huge interest in promoting that. Public housing is ultimately probably a necessary part of that picture. It has to be done better but it can be done better.


Solar Suburbs

[ 21 ] September 24, 2015 |


Visions of rethinking suburbs to be green-friendly abound:

These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one—solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity, and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand. The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars, and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.

This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars, and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.

One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, the chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.

Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” says Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”

Marc Gunther usefully notes in the linked article that this isn’t likely happening soon for the usual reasons–lack of federal investment, untested technologies, dirty energy’s monopoly over electrical grids in many states, etc. But I think more interesting is the idea that suburbs could become green, which I don’t really see. Because actually the vision of these solar suburban planners isn’t all that revolutionary or really all that green. A sentence above reads, “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots.” But that’s only partially true. The homes are going to be just as big. The cars are still in the driveway. Shopping malls and vast parking lots are still part of the picture. All of the land management issues and inability to create public transportation because of a lack of density are still central to this urban model. Sure, it’s somewhat less bad for the environment, but it still leaves people living in these suburbs as committing significantly more environmental damage than the average citizen of New York City.

I’m fine with all sorts of attempts to limit our environmental impact on the planet but let’s not overstate the case. The house in the photo above might have those solar panels. But the lifestyle of people living in a single-family home of that size is not going to be available to everyone, nor is it truly sustainable.

Air, Space, and What Not

[ 13 ] September 24, 2015 |

I have a new interview up at Air and Space Magazine. Take a gander.

And major props to Major Kong for stepping up in a vicious Facebook comment war…

The Perverted Minds of Anti-Sex Conservatives

[ 207 ] September 24, 2015 |

Ryan T. Anderson, Anti-Choice’s own Matt Damon –“He’s so dreamy and young and bright and articulate!”–has his own little outfit, where he totally proves that he cares about baby-genociding by letting his bloggers bitch about liberal sexytimes.

Earlier this year, an article in New York Magazine featured a story involving an eighteen-year-old woman who plans to marry and have children with her father. When the interviewer asked her to respond to those who might question her relationship, she offered the following reply:

I just don’t understand why I’m judged for being happy. We are two adults who brought each other out of dark places … When you are 18 you know what you want. You’re an adult under the law and you’re able to consent.

Her reasoning is typical of contemporary liberal approaches to sexual morality, which are usually justified by appealing to mutual consent. So long as an activity is performed in private between consenting adults, it is argued, there can be nothing inherently objectionable about what they do.

Except that literally no one is making this argument. I think plenty of consensual sex acts are objectionable. There’s a difference between not wanting to police people’s sex lives and finding people’s sex lives laudable. People who are not literal children (the author is a student at FSU) understand this.  That being said, points for coming right out of the gate with incest. Subtly implying that libs are cool with it makes for zesty readin’.


The defender of liberal sexual morality might respond by making a distinction between consent and informed consent. The self-harmer may choose to engage in these activities, but he does so without the full knowledge and understanding of the self-destructive effects that accompany them. If he really knew what he were about to do, then things might have turned out differently.

But this response is problematic for a number of reasons. If informed consent is just a matter of knowing the risks of one’s actions, then it is quite conceivable that someone may still freely choose to pursue self-destructive actions, having understood and accepted the risks. Yet there still seems to be something deeply wrong with a person who chooses to engage in self-destructive activities, even if he understands the risks of what he is doing.

Her reasoning is typical of contemporary liberal approaches to sexual morality, which are usually justified by appealing to mutual consent. So long as an activity is performed in private between consenting adults, it is argued, there can be nothing inherently objectionable about what they do. Why? Because they have given their consent, and consent is what matters most when it comes to one’s decision to engage in sexual activity.

The implications of this position are far-reaching. Many have invoked the consent principle to argue for the permissibility of polyamory and consensual incest. Once we view the morality of sex as being determined only by mutual agreement, then it becomes very hard to make any principled distinctions about the shape of sexual relationships.

When Consent Goes Wrong

There are a number of problems with this way of understanding sex. The most obvious problem with basing sexual morality on consent is that we can consent to things that are bad for us. Here we need only to think of those who deliberately cut themselves, desire the amputation of a healthy limb, or intentionally neglect their own health. These persons may have consented to engage in these activities, but their exercise of autonomy is nevertheless bad and self-destructive. So the mere fact that we may agree to do something does not show that what we are doing is morally permissible.

Sooo…you used six paragraphs to say that people often engage in self-destructive activities and you brought up incest again. This is getting kind of gross, Timothy. I’m a liberal, so I won’t try to police your incest fantasies, but  I don’t find them laudable. TMI, Timmy. TMI.

Can’t help but notice that Timmy also cops to people engaging in non-sexytime-related self-destructive activities, so I can’t wait to read how he’ll deal with that. Unless he’s just not interested in tackling those subjects because it’ll be harder to indulge in his incest fantasies if he wants to talk about, say, cutting.

The problem with this argument centers on the meaning of “harm.” Persons can be harmed physically, morally, spiritually, psychologically, culturally, educationally, financially, and in many other ways. A harm is simply a setback to any kind of flourishing, and persons flourish in a variety of ways. In a moral sense, every immoral action necessarily harms both the person and the community, for in acting immorally he acts against the moral order. If certain sexual acts are immoral, then they are necessarily harmful as well.

Well, Timmy, I don’t find the idea of truck stop glory holes particularly appealing, but I’m quite sure illicit blowjobs have not prevented me from flourishing. Why, I’m flourishing right now…learning, growing…and my skin’s taken on a kind of opalescent sheen. I’m flush with flourishment.


Sexual liberalism’s misguided view of consent is a symptom of a deeper problem: we have forgotten what it means to be free. Our power of free choice, like the rest of our nature, has a purpose.

Oh, really? According to whom?

The point of freedom is not to choose whatever we want, but to choose only those ends that are in accordance with our rational human nature. It is this exercise of freedom that gives rise to self-mastery. This classical understanding of freedom was best expressed by Samuel West, in a sermon delivered to the Massachusetts legislature in 1776:

The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law. When a man goes beyond or contrary to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and brings misery and destruction upon himself. This, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage. The servants of sin and corruption are subjected to the worst kind of tyranny in the universe. Hence we conclude that where licentiousness begins, liberty ends.

Ah, of course. Finally we get the meat of the thing. God and his little conduit, Timmy, should be deciding what’s sexually moral, obvs. Well, now I’m bored and disappointed. You didn’t stick the landing, Timmy.



Exxon and Climate Change

[ 21 ] September 24, 2015 |


In modern America, perhaps no industry is as demonized as tobacco. That’s because they knew that their products killed people and responded by hiding that evidence and asserting their product was safe. But the energy industry has done the exact same thing with evidence about climate change and those companies deserve the same level of disdain. The film Merchants of Doubt, which I sort of recommend (it really drags at the end and if you already know about this stuff, you don’t need to watch it), gets into this comparison in some detail. Bill McKibben explores this further, asking what Exxon knew and when did it know it:

Everyone who’s been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius. That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later—after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping “global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion”—that NASA scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen’s findings? By changing the company’s focus to renewable technology?

That didn’t happen. Exxon responded, instead, by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns. (In a blog post responding to the I.C.N. report, the company said that the documents were “cherry-picked” to “distort our history of pioneering climate science research” and efforts to reduce emissions.) The company worked with veterans of the tobacco industry to try and infuse the climate debate with doubt. Lee Raymond, who became the Exxon C.E.O. in 1993—and was a senior executive throughout the decade that Exxon had studied climate science—gave a key speech to a group of Chinese leaders and oil industry executives in 1997, on the eve of treaty negotiations in Kyoto. He told them that the globe was cooling, and that government action to limit carbon emissions “defies common sense.” In recent years, it’s gotten so hot (InsideClimate’s exposé coincided with the release of data showing that this past summer was the United States’ hottest in recorded history) that there’s no use denying it any more; Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, has grudgingly accepted climate change as real, but has referred to it as an “engineering problem.” In May, at a shareholders’ meeting, he mocked renewable energy, and said that “mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,” which would stand it in good stead in the case of “inclement weather” that “may or may not be induced by climate change.”

McKibben goes on to note that while Obama has stood up to the coal industry, he has largely acquiesced to the desires of the oil industry, opening up a lot of new drilling, including in the Arctic. Oil’s power is tremendous and it is killing us and our descendants through climate change as the tobacco industry killed us. We need to take on this industry and defeat it, something that will require real leadership from Washington to move our energy investments toward renewables and to rip power from sociopaths like Rex Tillerson.

The Court and Violent Video Games

[ 118 ] September 24, 2015 |


Here’s a contemporary equivalent of the frequent porn screenings that took place in the basement of the Supreme Court in the 60s and 70s:

It’s hard to picture Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general of the United States as well as a former dean of Harvard Law School, hunched over at a video game console, controller clenched in her hands, playing a violent video game. It is harder still to imagine her opponent, Justice Stephen Breyer, sitting beside her engaged in the virtual combat, all under the august roof of the United States Supreme Court. But it happened. The year was 2011. She would have been about 51; he 73.

Since the face-off took place in Breyer’s office at the high court, we have to assume they were not wearing their robes — though that would have been a sight.

They were, however, playing in the line of duty. They were struggling to decide a major constitutional question: Whether a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors violated the First Amendment. As Kagan recently told the story at Harvard Law School, neither had made up their minds. It was a “really hard case. A super hard case,” she said.

Brown v. EMA is indeed an interesting and rather hard case. I am inclined to agree with the majority that the ban on the sale of violent video game to minors violates the 1st Amendment. It is true, though, that the law as it stands doesn’t make any sense. Bans on selling sexually explicit material — or, indeed, mere depictions of nudity — to minors are not, under current law, unconstitutional. As Breyer’s dissent points out, this is entirely illogical:

I add that the majority’s different conclusion creates a serious anomaly in First Amendment law. Ginsberg makes clear that a State can prohibit the sale to minors of depictions of nudity; today the Court makes clear that a State cannot prohibit the sale to minors of the most violent interactive video games. But what sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman—bound, gagged, tortured, and killed—is also topless?

If there’s a good answer to that question, it’s certainly not in the opinion of the Court. Since it’s was written by Scalia, you’ve probably guessed Scalia’s justification rests on his favorite technique, the pure tautology: sexually explicit material can be obscene (and hence exempt from First Amendment protection) but merely violent material cannot because that’s how we’ve always done it. But this distinction — which is also reflected in the norms the FCC applies to broadcast television, which allow a network to build a series around a particularly gruesome serial killer but potentially subjects a network that allows a woman’s nipple to make a brief appearance to be subject to huge fines — is completely indefensible. And there’s the additional problem that as currently interpreted by the Court the First Amendment allows the state to restrict the dissemination of materials that depict nudity but are not legally obscene to minors.

This isn’t to say that Breyer is right that the California ban was constitutional. You can make a good case for leveling up an simply ending the practice of declaring materials legally obscene or (in the case of broadcast media) “indecent”. But the current state of the law doesn’t make any sense. If anything, you can make a better case for allowing the state leeway to restrict violent material (especially to minors) than sexually explicit material.

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.

It’s Bisexual Awareness Week!

[ 210 ] September 23, 2015 |

And today is Celebrate Bisexuality Day. Sadly, this post will be about the degree to which bisexual people are not celebrated in the United States.

I first learned about the startling rates at which bisexual, pansexual, and fluid people experience violence from LGM commenter JL (JL uses “bi+” to encompass all these categories).

Sexual Violence and Stalking, Except by Police/Corrections

Bi+ women are 2.65 times more likely than straight women and 3.52 times more likely than lesbians to experience attempted or completed rape*, with a lifetime rate of nearly 1 in 2 (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 1.73 times more likely than straight women and 1.61 times more likely than lesbians to experience some form of sexual violence, for a total of about three quarters of bi+ women. Bi+ men are 2.28 times more likely than straight men and 1.18 times more likely than gay men to experience some form of sexual violence, for a total of nearly half of bi+ men (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 2.36 times more likely than straight women (number not reported for lesbians) to be stalked (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women who are incarcerated in state prisons are 1.38 times more likely than straight women and 1.41 times more likely than lesbians to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates. Bi+ men in state prisons are 9.63 times more likely than straight men, though less likely than gay men, to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008).

Intimate Partner Physical Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking

Bi+ women are 1.75 times more likely than straight women and 1.39 times more likely than lesbians to experience physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, with more than 3 in 5 bi+ women having experienced this. Bi+ men 1.29 times more likely to experience it than straight men and 1.43 times more likely than gay men. Bi+ women were much more likely to experience this from men, and bi+ men from women (NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 2.09 times more likely than straight women and 1.68 times more likely than lesbians to experience what the CDC characterizes as “severe” physical violence from an intimate partner. To pull out a couple of examples, a full 15% of all bi+ women have had a partner attack them with a knife or gun, and more than a quarter have been choked or suffocated by a partner. Unsurprisingly given all this, bi+ women were the most likely group of women to have ever been phyically injured by partner violence (more than a quarter of all bi+ women) or had PTSD symptoms because of partner violence (nearly half of all bi+ women) (NISVS 2010). These stats are backed up by the NCAVP, a coalition of LGBTQ-serving anti-violence programs across the US, which reported in 2013 that their bi+ clients who reported partner abuse (including all genders) were 1.6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a partner, 2.2 times more likely to experience physical violence from a partner, and 2.6 times more likely to be injured by a partner, than their entire sample of LGBTQ clients who reported partner abuse (NCAVP 2013).

Bi+ women are 3.31 times more likely than straight women to have a partner who tried to get them pregnant when they did not want to become pregnant (NISVS 2010). Just throwing this out there, I wonder if the stereotypes of bi+ people, and especially female-presenting bi+ people, as promiscuous cheaters who will inevitably leave their partners, have anything to do with this – if the partners are trying to use pregnancy to anchor the bi+ person to the relationship.

Not only did this surprise and dismay me, it made me wonder about the reasons why. JL notes stereotypes that bisexual people are promiscuous cheaters. Stereotypes that bisexual women are less likely to say and mean no are another possible cause for higher rates of sexual violence against bi women. I’m a bisexual woman, and I’ve heard men make smarmy remarks along the lines of, “bisexual women are so much more sexually open,” as if their prejudgement of my availability was a compliment to me. This offers no explanation for the high rates of intimate partner violence against bisexual men, unless similar stereotypes obtain.

This recent report from the Movement Advancement Project, BiNetUSA, and the Bisexual Resource Center also includes information about class and health disparities experienced by bisexual people. On economic disparities:

Approximately 25% of bisexual men and 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, compared to 15% and 21% of heterosexual men and women respectively and 20% and 23% of gay man and lesbians.

Of course it’s possible that some of the same causes are behind violence, health, and economic disparities; for instance, PTSD does not make it easier to function in the workplace.

The New Slavery

[ 83 ] September 23, 2015 |


Michelle Alexander has called the prison system The New Jim Crow for how it replicates the racial discrimination of the past. That’s only part of it though becuase a racist justice system combined with seeing prisoners as cheap labor means that black people are once again laboring against their will for nothing (or almost nothing) under white supervisors with weapons. This my friends is what you call slavery.

Some viewers of the video might be surprised to learn that inmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?

Not quite. In the shining promise of freedom that was the Thirteenth Amendment, a sharp exception was carved out. Section 1 of the Amendment provides: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Simply put: Incarcerated persons have no constitutional rights in this arena; they can be forced to work as punishment for their crimes.

Angola’s farm operations and other similar prison industries have ancestral roots in the black chattel slavery of the South. Specifically, the proliferation of prison labor camps grew during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, a time when southern states established large prisons throughout the region that they quickly filled, primarily with black men. Many of these prisons had very recently been slave plantations, Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary (known as Parchman Farm) among them. Other prisons began convict-leasing programs, where, for a leasing fee, the state would lease out the labor of incarcerated workers as hired work crews. Convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry at all about the health of their workers.

In this new era of prison industry, the criminal “justice” system, the state determined the size of the worker pool. Scores of recently freed slaves and their descendants now labored to generate revenue for the state under a Jim Crow regime.

More than a century later, our prison labor system has only grown. We now incarcerate more than 2.2 million people, with the largest prison population in the world, and the second highest incarceration rate per capita. Our prison populations remain racially skewed. With few exceptions, inmates are required to work if cleared by medical professionals at the prison. Punishments for refusing to do so include solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, and revocation of family visitation. For this forced labor, prisoners earn pennies per hour, if anything at all.

Angola is not the exception; it is the rule.

Over the decades, prison labor has expanded in scope and reach. Incarcerated workers, laboring within in-house operations or through convict-leasing partnerships with for-profit businesses, have been involved with mining, agriculture, and all manner of manufacturing from making military weapons to sewing garments for Victoria’s Secret. Prison programs extend into the services sector; some incarcerated workers staff call centers.

This might not quite be the chattel slavery of the pre-1865 South, but slavery takes on many forms, as we know today in the modern labor force (sex slavery, slave labor on Asian fishing boats, the debt slaves of Los Angeles sweatshops, etc). Slavery took on many forms in the 19th century too, including major differences between urban and rural slavery in the South, not to mention slavery within Africa and Native America compared to chattel slavery. So let’s be clear, this prison slavery is on the slavery continuum and we need to approach it that way. This violates the 13th Amendment. I know the Supreme Court wouldn’t see it this way, but one can clearly make a reasonable case for it. And the comparison between prison labor and slavery needs more attention.

Where Pride Ended

[ 90 ] September 23, 2015 |


OK, the movie is actually a vanity project mostly financed by the director’s own production company. But I would prefer to think of the decision being made by hack production executives in Armani suits:

“We really need a new idea.”

“I’m thinking it’s time to reboot the Green Lantern franchise. Can we get one of the guys from Twilight?”

“No, no, no. I want a prestige project. Something real classy. Redeeming social value. A Cry Freedom or On the Beach for the 21st century.”

“Hmm. What about the Stonewall riots?”

“That’s brilliant! Gay people are very hot these days. What a story.”

“Do we have a writer?”

“Yup. We have a TV guy who will work cheap. Oh, and surely you remember that Al Pacino/Tea Leoni vehicle from 2003?

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. Who cares about the writing anyway?”

“Fair enough. Who do we want to direct it?”

“Stephen Daldry? His version of Johnathan Safron Foer’s 9/11 novel captured it perfectly.”

“Hmm. I like the cynical manipulation of his work, but he seems a little subtle for our purposes. We want anvils dropped on the head of the audience in the crudest way possible. And I’m looking to get a little more whitebread than Safran Foer.”

“Joel Schumacher?”

“I dunno, seems a little too highbrow. We don’t want this to be too complicated. It’s got to sell to the dumbest person we encounter at a mall test screening. I’m thinking Michael Bay, only with a little less wit and artistry.”

[Execs look at each other]

Roland Emmerich!

Stonewall, a twelfth-rate hack — what could possibly go wrong? Apparently, everything:

Turns out, Stonewall is perhaps even worse than some feared it would be—more offensive, more white-washed, even more hackishly made. It’s so bad that it’s hard to know where to begin a catalogue of the film’s sins. Maybe you start with its leering, bizarrely sex-shaming tone, which has poor cherubic baby-hunk Danny (Irvine)—kicked out of his house by his football-coach father after he’s caught giving the quarterback, yes the quarterback, a blow job—being preyed upon by gross, sweaty, teen-hungry older men upon arriving in New York. In two different scenes, Danny cries pitifully as one of these horrible, horrible men (one of them in grotesque drag) fellate him. (He needs the money, and is then turned out against his will.) Danny shuns the advances of any younger man who isn’t strapping and white, particularly those of Jonny Beauchamp’s Ray/Ramona, a queer Latino street kid who has a big crush on pretty-boy Danny.

Rather horrifically, it’s taken as a given, an implicit fact, that Danny could never, ever fall in love with, or have sex with, someone like swishy, gender-fluid Ray. No, no, people like Ray are meant to forever pine in the shadows for American godlings like Danny. But when Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s character successfully seduces Danny, while playing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on a jukebox no less, it’s understood to be O.K., because he’s at least a somewhat masculine white guy. In that scene, Emmerich keeps cutting back to Ray’s sad expression as he watches the seduction happen, and though Danny is largely meant to be the audience’s safe, easy stand-in, in that scene I think Emmerich wants us to sympathize with Ray.

Because surely we all wish we could be with a Bel-Ami certified twunk like Danny, right? Well some of us do, sure, but of course plenty of other people are instead into what Ray is selling, or any of the other non-white or non-butch hustlers who populate Stonewall but get only a minimal, pat-on-the-head kind of attention. The movie could never even consider such a possibility, though. Here is a startlingly direct exercising of entitlement: “Yeah, I know in real life it happened to those people, but wouldn’t it be better if it happened to someone like this?”

Another take:

The historical drama, which nominally chronicles the gay liberation riots outside New York’s Stonewall bar in the summer of 1969, is so big, broad, and dumb, it doesn’t feel so much like Oscarbait as it does a Broadway adaptation of Oscarbait. It is formally inconsistent (it’s a history lesson, no it’s a romance, no it’s group therapy, no it’s an ensemble comedy, no it’s a police procedural) and uniformly miserable. The acting is so pronounced and deliberate it pairs woefully well with the ersatz backdrops, which always look like they were shot on a soundstage (they were—for financial reasons, Emmerich shot in Montreal, not New York). The script has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, telling instead of showing each teachable moment in a movie-long series of teachable moments. “I take whatever I want and can, ‘cause if I didn’t, I’d have nothing at all,” says a black character at one point. “Nobody wants me. Not even you. I don’t have anything,” says a Latin sex worker character at another. “These kids have nothing to lose,” says an onlooker during the far-too-brief climactic rioting scene.

“I’m too mad to love anyone right now,” says Stonewall’s protagonist during the denouement. Well that makes two of us.

As a connoisseur of hatchet jobs, I would be grateful for this movie if it wasn’t such a missed opportunity and it wasn’t so insulting on every level. And if Emmerich wasn’t such a clueless asshole.

The (Near) Perfect Capitalist

[ 55 ] September 23, 2015 |


Sure Martin Shkreli is human scum. But as a capitalist, isn’t he doing what he is supposed to be doing? The goal is to make money. Anything getting in the way of that is irresponsible to that singular goal. So why shouldn’t he force people to die in order to make profit? After all, as I have blogged about here almost daily for over 4 years, capitalists force people to their deaths in order to profit every day. They do so in the chemical industry, in apparel, in steel, in oil, in coal, in timber, in agriculture, in industry after industry, sometimes in this country, more often outsourced or contracted factories overseas. We ignore this, largely because, unlikely pricey pills, it doesn’t affect us. Such unregulated capitalism is at the core of American mythology, if not Shkreli’s arrogance.

Really, Shkreli is an honest breath of fresh air. Now everyone has an opportunity to know how evil capitalism is at its core.

Of course, we don’t have to allow capitalism to control the medical system. But we do.

The story of Daraprim’s giant price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drug makers set their own prices — maximizing profits the same way that sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other seller of manufactured goods would.

In Europe, Canada, and Australia, governments view the market for cures as essentially uncompetitive and set the price as part of a bureaucratic process — similar to how electricity or water are priced in regulated US utility markets.

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care — but not other products, like phones or cars — because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

When drug companies set their American prices, they don’t focus on the price of making the pills. Instead, they look at what their competitors already charge for similar products — and try to land their price somewhere in that same range, regardless of production costs or how good the drug actually is. Since most drugs are already expensive, new drugs keep matching those prices.

And, if you’re a drug company that produces the best cure for a disease (as Turing does for toxoplasmosis), this makes a ton of sense: you have consumers whose life, quite literally, depends on buying your product. This is what Shkreli talked about, quite bluntly, in his Bloomberg interview.

“We know these days that modern pharmaceuticals and cancer drugs can cost $100,000 or more,” he said. “Daraprim is still underpriced compared to its peers.”

The real question at the heart of the Daraprim outrage isn’t why one pharmaceutical company decided to hike a drug price. The real question is why other companies aren’t taking advantage of the pick-your-price nature of American pharmaceutical policy — and whether they will ultimately follow in Turing’s steps.

The cure for this particular problem is of course socialized medicine and government price controls. But I’ll note again that people die all the time making phones and cars and clothing around the world for these same nations that have made the decision to regulate medicine. If Bangladeshi workers die making clothing, they don’t care much. But if their own consumers die because of high priced medicine, that’s worth state intervention. I agree on the latter obviously, but there’s a lot of hypocrisy from these nations, as well as the same divide we see in this country, where consumer-based activism can sometimes have fast results, but worker-based activism is ignored. If our vegetables have chemical residue on them, that can (and has) to a major consumer movement. But if to avoid this, as was the solution, new generation of pesticides were developed that worked hard and fast but also massively exposed workers, consumers couldn’t care less.

There is one thing that makes Shkreli a less than perfect capitalist. His own hubris brought attention to himself and created the rare public pressure that forces a price down. Had he raised the price slowly but consistently, he could have sacrificed some short-term profits in favor of longer-term success. So he is flawed. But it’s also almost refreshing to have someone so evil that they are willing to strip away all the concealment that allows us to escape the daily knowledge of the human costs of unregulated or poorly regulated capitalism, because he just doesn’t care what we think about it (until it starts costing him money). It’d be nice if we recognized that capitalists kill people every day and do something about it.

The True Price of a Good Paint Stripping Product

[ 13 ] September 23, 2015 |


Jamie Smith Hopkins has a long story on methylene chloride, a chemical used for paint-stripping and carpet gluing that has an unfortunate tendency to kill the people using it. It’s not a huge killer in terms of numbers–56 known deaths in the U.S. since 1980 although that’s probably an understatement. But each of those deaths are completely avoidable. The EPA is slowly moving toward some kind of stricter standards. But it is very difficult for the agency to go hard after a chemical. The industries are powerful, have a lot of friends in Congress and within the EPA and other regulatory agencies, and the government’s power is limited. The methylene chloride industry is estimated to be worth nearly 900 million dollars worldwide by 2020, which is not huge by some standards but we are talking about paint stripping here. Most of the people who have died are workers, some are consumers. How many more suffer brain damage or other physical aliments from being constantly light-headed from exposure at work is unknown. What is known is that this is another example of industry not caring about the lives of its laborers and of unsafe workplaces being a long-term problem in the United States.

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