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Bad anti-housing arguments

[ 186 ] July 24, 2015 |

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

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

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

3) New housing not built.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern Capitalist Economy, Then and Now

[ 32 ] July 24, 2015 |


Slaves, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861

Harold Meyerson overstates his argument on the Southern economy as the point of low-wage capitalist production both before the Civil War and today, but he makes a lot of good points and it’s well worth your time. Basically, Meyerson uses the new historical literature on the connections between northern capitalists and southern plantation owners to draw comparisons to the recent growth of low-wage industrialization in the anti-union South. There has been some return of heavy industry to the South in low-wage, non-union states that provide workers few opportunities for economic advancement and are constricted by state governments that are firmly in the pocket of the companies. And that has, as Meyerson states, created two nations in one, as during the mid-19th century, as northern and western liberal states increasingly pass worker-friendly legislation while southern and Midwestern states pass anti-worker legislation.

Meyerson also notes the expansion of southern style governance north in the present, although he significantly underestimates how prominent this was in the pre-Civil War North, as the Democratic Party was a white supremacist party no matter where it ruled. The point about two nations in one is something I’d observed. I will note that the comparison between slavery in 1860 and non-union auto factory work in 2015 is stretching it pretty far; after all, there is still plenty of truly brutal work happening around the world, often in conditions of slave labor. But there’s no question that in a world of globalized capital, low-wage American production can make sense in some industry and unless the U.S. government steps up with pro-labor measures, politicians in the pockets of corporations will bend over backwards to create states that serve those companies as much as possible.

What Punishment Should CEO’s Receive for Egregious Violations of Safety Standards?

[ 88 ] July 24, 2015 |


Is life in prison too harsh a punishment for this guy?

Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case.

The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday.

Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia. Prosecutors filed a legal brief Wednesday in U.S. District Court revealing that the U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, concluded the scope of Parnell’s crimes “results in a life sentence Guidelines range.”

Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell’s company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg’s and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.

Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell’s recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.

Prosecutors’ legal brief also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell’s two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell’s brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant’s quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.

According to the CDC, deaths linked to the outbreak were reported in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia.

Both sides are calling this unprecedented, and it is. But then if your actions lead to the death of someone in most circumstances, you can be held liable and forced to serve a lot of time. If your culpability goes to the point of defrauding customers to avoid safety and that then kills people in four states, that’s pretty bad.

I will note that there’s no way that the public outrage over companies killing customers is likely a lot more intense than the same CEO killing workers through unsafe work practices. But then threats to consumer health has long drawn more outrage than threats to worker health.

NIMBYism And San Fransisco

[ 151 ] July 24, 2015 |

It really hasn’t worked for the non-wealthy.

The Dreamlife of Beetles

[ 115 ] July 24, 2015 |


“We want someone willing to write up the “stop hitting yourself” version of political polarization in the most hackish form possible.” “What about Fred Barnes? Never hurts to return to the classics!”

Obama should have known better. He violated a decades-long rule of thumb in Washington that an initiative significantly affecting tens of millions of Americans should have popular support and a bipartisan majority before being approved by Congress. Since Obamacare had neither, it has stirred protests and disunity, anger at Washington, and political polarization.

Obamacare was “the biggest mistake of his political career,” says Jeff Anderson, the executive director of the 2017 Project. “It showed his political naïveté.” It was especially damaging to Obama, Anderson says, “from his perspective of trying to transform the United States of America.”

The raw partisanship of Obamacare’s passage was a preview of Obama’s presidency. Rather than woo Republicans, Obama attacks them, questioning their motives and values. He makes no effort to compromise. He spurns bipartisanship. After Republicans won the House in 2010, he began to turn away from Congress and govern through executive orders.

Right, Obama just unilaterally decided not to collaborate with Republicans. It’s not as if congressional Republicans made a public decision not to collaborated with Obama on any major issues. Clearly, Obama should have done the bipartisan thing and given Republicans a complete veto over everything.

It gets even better when you get down to specifics:

It didn’t have to be this way. But when the health care legislation was being drafted, Republican senators who wanted to have a role in shaping the bill were shut out. A small role might have satisfied them and won their votes. A few concessions surely would have. But none was offered. “Imagine FDR doing something like that,” Anderson says. “Or LBJ. No way.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh mercy. The interminable process of trying everything to get some Republican support for the ACA — the price of securing the votes of conservative Democrats — is described as offering no concessions at all. Oh, and conservatives have always loved FDR and LBJ.

What’s surprising is that Obama failed to understand he could use Republicans to his advantage. In the early weeks of his presidency, he and Democrats stiffed Republicans in drafting the stimulus. Had they accepted tax cuts proposed by Republicans, the stimulus would no doubt have given a bigger jolt to the economy. And the package would have been bipartisan.

Other than the facts that Obama did in fact agree to include more tax cuts in the ARRA in exchange for getting the Republican support he needed, and replacing aid to state governments and spending with tax cuts made the ARRA less stimulative, this still makes absolutely no sense.

In negotiating with Iran, Obama could have argued for a better nuclear deal by invoking his ornery Republican opponents in Congress. They will attack the deal furiously and make it impossible for the American public to swallow, he could have told the Iranians—unless you offer concessions. Instead, it was Obama who offered concessions, Republicans are tearing the deal apart, and the public is wary.

Other than the facts that Iran did in fact offer substantial concessions, that Republican opposition is not in fact a meaningful source of leverage, and in the unlikely event that anybody involved with the negotiations cared they would know that Republicans would attack any Iran deal signed by Obama, this still makes absolutely no sense.

But it’s Obamacare that is the president’s unending nightmare. Had he allowed Republican participation and produced a bipartisan bill, the political drag wouldn’t exist. If fixes were needed, he could ask Congress to make them. Even today, Obama insists he would entertain changes. But he’s failed to start negotiations. And when Republicans announce a proposed fix, he simply says no.

If only Obama had gotten non-existent potential Republican support for the ACA, he would be able to get “fixes” like replacing the ACA with a package of tort reform and preempting state regulations! (Only not really, because Republicans can’t even pretend to coalesce around a terrible alternative to the ACA no Democrat would support anyway.) What was Obama thinking?

You know, sometimes when you want the most shameless, comprehensively dishonest and intelligence-insulting hackery, you still have to go to the best.

Republican Environmental Planning

[ 16 ] July 24, 2015 |

Neighborhood Flooded

The House just passed a bill that would eviscerates EPA coal ash regulations. Why are those regulations necessary? See here and here if you want to review what a coal ash spill can do and what the health effects of being near this stuff can be. You want coal ash heavily regulated.

A Republican president in 2017 would sign this into law. Given that the House is going to remain with the GOP and the Senate probably will, this is what Republican governance would look like. Coal ash pollution for all!

Did Iranian Nukes Matter?

[ 37 ] July 24, 2015 |
Operation Crossroads Baker Edit.jpg

“Operation Crossroads Baker.” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years back, I made the case that Iranian nukes didn’t matter. I argued that all of the blathering notwithstanding, very few hawks cared much about the nukes, and the Iranians were unlikely to gain significant advantage from developing nuclear weapons even if they managed to pull it all together, and that an Iranian nuclear weapon was exceedingly unlikely to produce further proliferation. I made that argument because it was obvious to me, then, that Israel and the Gulf states were essentially indifferent to the Iranian nuclear program, and were much more concerned about the extent to which Iran could increase its influence across the region. I made this argument because I felt that journalists and analysts were dangerously overstating the importance of the weapons, with potentially serious consequences.

I got some pushback, but I think this is a good time to revisit that argument.

Who Cares About Iranian Nukes?

I think it’s become exceedingly clear over the last few months that US hawks, Israeli hawks, and the various Gulf states did not, and do not, care about the Iranian nuclear program. These groups have shifted, almost effortlessly, from whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability in “18 months,” to whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability after the sunset of the current inspection provisions in ten years. This isn’t even an accurate characterization of the deal, but that’s beside the point; the threat of a nuclear Iran has never amounted to more than a side-show for the hawks.

What the hawks want is indefinite militarized confrontation between the United States and Iran. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, this is hardly irrational. Iran supports terrorist groups and other non-state actors that like to mess with the Saudis and the Israelis, and both the Saudis and Israelis would like to have the military capabilities of the United States at their disposal. Nor is it irrational for the Saudis and Israelis to believe that the US will come through with this kind of support; the entire GOP Presidential field (with the possible, partial exception of Rand Paul) seems committed to making it happen.

The nuclear program provided a convenient rhetorical focal point for this argument, for the same reason that WMD provided a focal point in the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The idea of nuclear weapons is scary; we have an emotional commitment to freaking out about nukes well beyond any operational or strategic utility that they offer. Bleating about how Iran will have nukes in less than 18 months (a claim that Israeli, US, and Saudi hawks have been reiterating since the 1990s) is an easy way of saying “hit those people hard” without the need for any careful strategic analysis.

Always the Right Time

This is why, for hawks, it is always the right time to strike Iran.  The Oren piece is useful in this regard.  No conceivable deal could achieve what Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal.  He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or Doran, or Kroenig, or Lake, or Kristol, or Cotton, et al ad nausuem) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.  They’ve known, for quite some time, that the Iranian nuclear program actively detracts from Iran’s ability to pursue its national security goals, both in terms of sucking up resources, and in drawing international sanctions.

But while Iran’s other behaviors are irritating, they don’t have the same resonance for the United States as the nuclear program.  And for someone who really wants a semi-permanent guarantee that the United States will threaten to bomb Iran, only nukes work, even if nukes aren’t the central concern.  As Fred Kaplan has noted, the really big problem for Israeli, Saudi, and US hawks is that the deal might work, that Tehran might take nukes off the table, and the Iran might reintegrate itself back into the community of nations.

What the Deal Accomplishes

Don’t read the above as an indication that I think the deal was pointless, or that the negotiators on either side did a poor job.  The central accomplishment of this deal, assuming it survives ratification in the various legislative organizations it has to sort its way through, is to sideline hawks on every side.  American hawks lose their most convenient talking point for war.  Israeli hawks lose their most useful rhetorical tool for browbeating the United States.  Iranian hawks lose the nuclear options.  This is the real threat that the hawks see, and it’s why they hate the deal so much.

And let’s be clear; whatever Iran does with the sanctions relief, including a conventional military buildup, is almost certain to produce, on balance, less human misery than an Iran that becomes “North Korea plus oil.” Nukes wouldn’t get Tehran much in the way of negotiating leverage, but they would provide a constant excuse for hawks on either side to agitate for conflict. The social and rhetorical effects of nuclear weapons have always vastly exceeded their military or strategic utility. The negotiators in both Iran and the P5+1 understood this, and worked hard to produce an accord that would remove the most effective tool that the hawks on either side had for bringing about war.

The Dangers

And so in some sense, Bibi Netanyahu got the deal he deserved.  He hoped that shrieking endlessly about the Iranian nuclear program would produce either war, or an indefinitely militarized relationship between Washington and Tehran.  Unfortunately for Bibi, people listened to what he said, rather than what he meant. To bring us back to the top, does this mean it was OK for journalists and analysts to go along with the project of vastly overstating the importance of nuclear weapons?  There’s certainly an argument to be made that letting the hawks hang themselves was worthwhile.  I don’t think you have to look very far to find the dangers of this argument, however. If we currently had a President a bit more to the hawkish side than Barack Obama, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or if the Iranian hawks had demonstrated more strength, then the misconception that Iranian nukes matter could have led to a dreadful outcome.  We’ve seen it before.


Jarred/Country-Style Pork Ribs Ideas

[ 64 ] July 24, 2015 |

Hey, folks. The other day I asked:

I find that nothing really subs for the fresh tang of homemade salsa, NOTHING. So basically when I look for a jarred salsa I’m expecting nothing more than a pleasant condiment to put on corn chips or Mexican food. But, still, jarred salsa is a handy thing to have in the pantry. So what’s your favorite brand?

And, while we’re at it, what’s your favorite jarred brand of BBQ sauce?

This brings me to country-style ribs. Normally I rub them with a premade rub and sear them then throw them in the crockpot on top of some potatoes and cover everything with a cup of BBQ sauce. When the ribs are falling apart and the potatoes are tender, I remove the ribs and brush them with more sauce. But I’ve made this a billion times and frankly I’m sick of it. What do you do with country-style ribs?

What Should the Minimum Wage Actually Be?

[ 47 ] July 24, 2015 |


We often debate this question. $15? $20? Is that too much? At point might it start actually affecting employment? One sensible way to set the minimum wage is to tie it to worker productivity. And if that’s the standard, according to Nicholas Buffie and Dean Baker, the minimum wage could be $18.42, if we tie it to the reasonable standard of peak purchasing power for the wage, achieved in 1968. Seems reasonable to me.

“We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.”

[ 120 ] July 24, 2015 |

Shorter Michael Oren: “The Iran deal sucks. Obama should have gotten one in which Iran gave up far more in exchange for nothing. By having the leadership to lead, with leadership. He could probably get Congress to pass single payer in the same bill.”

More on the Kitchen’s Changing Status

[ 96 ] July 23, 2015 |

I found this interesting because it briefly tackles a favorite subject of mine–the morphing of kitchens as hideaway workspaces into tricked out status symbols. I still find this morph fascinating.

But more than that, the author almost has me convinced that open-plan kitchens are a bad idea. I’m a serious, messy cook. My kitchen is often greasy, smoky, smelly and hot. It’s not a glamorous place. Is there something to the idea that kitchens should be hidden away? I’m not sold yet, but I’m open to being convinced.

Mainstream Republican Candidate Advocates Ending Medicare

[ 142 ] July 23, 2015 |


Shorter verbatim reasonable, moderate, thinking person’s conservative Jeb! Bush: ““I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out [Medicare] for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something.”

It’s instructive that Jeb!’s call to end Medicare comes just as cost projections for Medicare have come down substantially. Jeb! is, of course, lying about wanting to end Medicare because it’s fiscally unsustainable. He wants to end Medicare because Republicans are ideologically opposed to providing access to health care for the non-affluenct. (Cf. also Republican statehouses and the Medicaid expansion passim.)

Meanwhile, Politfact has already declared my claim that when Jeb! Bush says he wants to phase out Medicare he wants to phase out Medicare the lie of the millennium.

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