WELP….I didn’t finish *the* book, but I did finish *a* book

Ok, I am among the first people to note that I don’t always have a lot of self-control. As in, I never have a lot of self control. So let’s just get that out of the way.

I began writing a book about urban theory, and I am still very excited about that book. But that shit is hard. I started out with all sort of questions in my head about “why hasn’t anybody written about this topic in a way that works for my undergraduate class?” Well, I know now. The reason is that it’s Hard.

Midway through the summer last summer, in order to get through a writing block, I started writing, of all things, a novel. I’ve tried to write novels before, but the stories and characters I created didn’t sufficiently interest me to finish them. This time, I got interested. I would work on the manuscript during evenings and weekends when I was too tired to work on data or other things.

Earlier this month, when I looked at the story arcs, I realized that I was actually getting done. It’s a comic novel, a comedy of errors, and I have no idea about its quality. I just had fun writing it.

This weekend, I resolved the last plot point I wished to. I have an alpha draft of a novel. I have no idea what to do with it now. I am sure I have to revise it, but to what end? I have no idea how to go about publishing the thing, or whether I ought to think about that at all. After all, it was supposed to be relief valve from the very steep uphill climb of the theory work.

Keep writing, friends. There’s so much advice and scolding out there that you scarcely need me to add to it. Just keep going. Eventually, you will get somewhere, even if it’s not where you planned, if you don’t stop. If nothing else, I can say to the part of me that always felt like a loser for never finishing a novel that I have now done so.

Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

It seems that the required response to the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Plan for Southern California is to grasp our pearls and get all sniffy about how bad it is, but folks, you gotta understand: I’ve been doing this a long time, and just about all plans with a strong point of view also usually have aspects that are politically, economically, or physically not very likely. I’ve sat through presentations about hovering pod cars and harvest-your-own locavore restaurants on high speed rail. Plans are supposed to have vision, and sometimes, vision shows us the impractical as well as the practical. The plan seems to have been authored by Baruch Feigenbaum. This is, on its face, odd: planners like me usually assume a plan is going to be produced not by single individuals, but via a process, and I am pretty sure that if I authored a plan on my own there would be some pretty outre parts to it, too. I don’t know Mr. Feigenbaum, btw, so I have neither animus nor affection.

Conceptually, I like how the plan addresses one, single issue with a cost-benefit perspective. I think the intellectual backlash on cost-benefit assessment has been well-deserved, but agencies have continued to use cost-benefit language, weakly and not very convincingly, because so many of the projects being schilled tout assumed benefits from climate change to obesity prevention. But here we have an explicit touting up of envisioned toll revenues and project costs. I have my problems with the assumptions on the cost side, but I usually do. At least when these are stated, and connected to a price that people would be expected to pay, we get some clarity on the balance sheet. Now, I do agree that cost-benefit isn’t everything, but it also should not be *discounted* when we look at making public investments simply because it might not make the rail projects we love so much look as shiny as we want them to look. If we don’t think about the balance sheet at least some, our investments are likely to disappoint.

I also think that we could be doing a bit more with express buses and BRT in southern California. I question the use of the BRT label for parts of the proposed network; I doubt we’d necessarily need BRT in the strictest sense on the freeway lengths where it is outlined, but I think the intent is simply to suggest the sort of dedicated lane suburban busways we find in Toronto. I’d actually like to see about a year’s serious experimentation with the idea before I got all “This is stupid” over it. Right now, people in those locations can either carpool, drive alone, or take Metrolink, and that’s not much of a choice set. Yes, Metro already has some of these ideas in their plans, but what of it? New plans always include things from existing plans if either the former or the latter are any good.

Further, southern California could do, in theory, a lot more with corridor management than it does. This plan emphasizes managed arterials, and by managed, we should think managed and priced. I am less sanguine about the prospect of pricing arterials than I am about pricing freeways. I’d like to see people get used freeway pricing first. The general theory is the same: replace unpredictable congestion costs with explicit prices as way to a) help people decide whether they value a trip enough to pay for it and b) generate revenue to pay for the system. I’m just a little worried that it’s much easier to Waze your way around arterials where you have to pay and get on streets not really designed for high traffic volumes, and while I have no sympathy for West siders pissed that they might have to deal in their backyards with traffic when they, themselves, drive constantly, displacing traffic from roads with higher design standards to lower design standards might present a safety loss. It might be, in theory, that the arterial was managed so well with prices (and other improvements) that it would take traffic off those streets onto the managed arterials because the value for money would be so good, but theory isn’t decisive here. It is an empirical question.

That said, the reason we do not have as much corridor management as I would like isn’t that local area professionals are not smart enough to see the advantages, but as usual, disparate jurisdictions and interests within those jurisdictions disagree on the ends for corridor management. For residents, the ends are to slow traffic down and get it to go elsewhere. That’s hardly a congestion solution. From a regional perspective, the idea is to increase throughput overall. And because those two are irreconcilable in one mode (the auto), we have…bike lanes, transit, and walking proposal galore that may, or may not, improve congestion.

Finally, I think the plan highlights points where the problems of auto congestion really are severe. We discuss the TTI report about overall levels of congestion every year, and we all sigh when LA comes out on top…and we all drive in the region all the time, and then go to places, like Washington DC, and then figure out that David Levinson is actually right: congestion is much worse in those regions than it really is on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles. Yes, you get more delay in the aggregate when you cause 10 million people 10 minutes of delay than you do when you cause 1 million people 30 minutes of delay, but qualitatively, those are very different experiences. To wit, LA has some bad bottlenecks that generate quite significant delays as a part of the total, and we just physically are not going to get more out of the infrastructure that is there, even with better management, and in those places, the Reason plan puts in tunnels. Now, I don’t think these are feasible, but I also would point out: if you don’t like those, then what’s your idea? Those are places where, if this were a different plan produced by different people, the map would have little red links decrying these as “problem zones.” Treating those problem zones as problems strikes me as a useful idea, even when the alternative offered may not be, and even though we know these are problem areas already.

We could decide, as UCLA’s Brian Taylor has urged us, to just say that congestion isn’t a problem to solve, but a condition of urban life. I’m willing to go there to some degree, but my urban economist hat notes that if you really hate sprawl, those problem zones actually do represent a problem because they note areas where there are strong economic incentives to move activity to the other side of the bottleneck–maybe not in the next 10 years, but in the next 20 to 30.

I think a lot of pearl-grasping is just that the people who think of themselves as the legitimate commentators/experts on LA transport are pissed because their favorite thing, rail rail rail and more rail, isn’t a feature of this plan, and/or because they think Reason is trying to advocate for more freeways using pricing as cover and/or they themselves get a lot of political mileage out of the fact that the freeway system is hardly optimal. Yes, the plan includes new infrastructure, but the 710, for example, has been on every map everybody who doesn’t live in South Pass has produced for 50 years. I never hear this kind of flouncing around when some architect produces a Tokyo-style train map for LA that would cost so much money we would have no money left for anything else and would also be empty for large portions of the network because it puts the same amount of investment in places that have acre lots as in places where we have good, rail-supporting densities. Instead, these are greeted with rapturous sighs about how wonderful that would be because that’s an awesome vision. And I generally don’t mind, and even like those kinds of visions, too, even though I don’t tend to get poetic about them.

My point is, simply, that good ideas come from lots of places; sometimes good ideas are mixed all up with silly ones, even, and I guess I am disappointed in the response. Reason hardly needs me to speak up for it, but I would prefer we discuss rather than screech or belittle, even when presented with visions and concepts that run counter to our own.

The Paris and Beirut attacks seem rather different in terms of their tactics and urban security

I really have no desire to teach today, as last week when I was summing up the urban design section of the course, I noted that while urbanists tend to focus on inclusion, they do not really have a great answer to the urban warfare issues brought up by David Kilcullen in his book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. We read a portion of this book in class.

Last Thursday, I went on rather at length about how I really didn’t think urbanists take security as seriously as they probably should, given what we have learned about coordinated terrorist strikes against civilians after the Taj bombings. I asked questions, about the role of surveillance, the difficulty of governing megaregions, and how “eyes on the street”–the standard urbanist response to concerns about security–just doesn’t cover us for things like the events in Mumbai, Paris, or Beirut. Eyes on the street captured Jane Jacobs’ response to the notion that people needed suburbs, gated communities, parks, or road standards for “safety”, when really what they needed was lively urbanity and, in her discussion, shopkeepers who would be natural custodians of the street. These ideas about seeing and social capital are not necessarily a sufficient response to urban terrorism in a globalized world that I really don’t think Jacobs or anybody else could have envisioned. Instead, lots of the people on the street are targets.

I do think the Beirut and Paris attacks were tactically quite different, even though everybody seems to want us to discuss them in the same way. I certainly care about the loss of human life everywhere, but these attacks were different in the number and types of attacks. They might have been by the same organization, or loose conglomeration of organizations, but the Beirut attack was done by two suicide bombers. The Paris attacks involved multiple targets and hostage-taking, a lot more like the Taj bombings.

Here’s Greg Kilcullen discussing the need for new ways of thinking about the urban landscape in contemporary warfare. My favorite part is towards the end where he notes that they did a better job in Iraq when they started talking to Iraqis about how to defend neighborhoods. Um, planning!

Your outrage is just entitlement, you coddled kid you, but my outrage at your outrage is Important Political Thinking

From the last week of the NRO, you’d think that some kids at Yale were a bigger threat to America than ISIS. Which led me to a question: if students objecting to things said to them on campus is puerile and self-indulgent, why wet your pants over it? Really? If it’s just kids being kids or lefties fussing over nothing, then get on with the important news of the day rather than pounding on the table telling them to shut up. When I am being disruptive or unfocused in meetings my dean just gives me a look and moves on instead of yelling at me and distracting everybody from what is important.

Instead, it’s been one screed after another lambasting universities for political correctness. I have been wanting to write something about this all week, but Arthur Chu at Salon (of all places) beat me to it. with the best title I’ve yet seen: Go Ahead and Hate on Coddled College Kids: Just Admit that Anti-PC Backlash is Fueled by Outrage, Too.

(Although I don’t think you should hate on coddled college kids.)

Go read his bit. I do disagree with a couple of points. In the case of Yale, people are getting their undies in a bunch in particular over the video of a student shouting that “he didn’t want to debate…he wanted to discuss his pain.”

Oh, quell horror! An administrator! Being expected to listen to a student’s experiences and the hurt caused by those experiences! OMG!!! THAT’S WHAT IS WRONG WITH AMERICA RIGHT HERE! MENIALS EXPECTING VOICE! ELITES BEING EXPECTED TO SHUT THEIR CAKEHOLES AND LISTEN! IT’S ANARCHY. WE GOTTA CLOSE DOWN THE CAMPUSES (except for business and engineering schools) BECAUSE IT’S JUST A HOTBED OF LIBERALS TEACHING OUR KIDS TO BE WHINERS/LOSERS/JUSTICE WARRIORS.

Ahem. I dunno about you, but when I was 20 years old, I didn’t have the guts to shout at an administrator. So there’s that. And the Mizzou students…got a president to resign. When was the last time *the faculty* could do that? Or are people wetting their pants because they LOVE a world where billionaires can yell “dance, monkey, dance” at university presidents, and have them perform, but Heaven Forbid power actually be accountable to the students the institution serves?

What you are seeing is a) typical academic bureaucratic methods of communication that, either intentionally or unintentionally, try to silence a student and b) a student saying, perhaps not in the smoothest way, “Look, dude, we can’t have a debate because you are ignorant. You are ignorant of what is hurting me. So we can’t debate it until you’ve learned it and I have shown it to you.” The shouting may be off-putting, but the student is pissed. Pissed off people shout. If you had to put up with some of the bullshit black students on campuses experience, you’d be pissed off, too.

[And cue all the white people stories about how they were picked on because of this, that, and the other, and they survived, blah blah.]

And my response: yeah, and those things made you feel unwelcome and hurt you. And years later, you still remember it. So why the actual fuck do we want people feeling that way when they are trying to get an education just because you got through it? You didn’t succeed because of that nonsense. You succeeded in spite of it. Bad treatment sucks and it diminishes human flourishing, so what say we conclude that the fact that you were badly treated at some point is evidence that it sucks, and we’re sorry that it happened, rather than as evidence that there’s nothing to see here? There are plenty of things that toughen us up in life without excusing bad treatment. There’s cancer and war and economic futility and our favorite television characters getting killed off.

Instead, yo: the conversation about a student’s rage and pain needs to happen. It’s important. But it is not a conversation that need be the object of speculation while the rest of us ogle and judge and point fingers and opine. The two people in that video don’t need our gaze. They need time. Administrators should be giving these students time. They should be showing up to listen before they talk or debate.

They won’t die if they aren’t the ones talking. I’m 100 percent sure of it.

I don’t agree with Chu, therefore, that the Yale or the CMK controversies are mere contretemps.

But I do agree that the tendency to conflate what is going on there with what happened at Missouri is a mistake because what is going on at Missouri appears, at least from the outside, to be greater in intensity with greater levels of threats and violence directed at black students there. And, btw, if you are out there flouncing around about how inexcusable it is for a black kid to go on a hunger strike and NOT screaming about death threats made against black student protestors, then you should probably look in the mirror and note that behavior makes you part of the problem. Even if you think racism is long gone and the students are wrong, the idea that, somehow, talking about race is more threatening to the world, and thus more worthy of our consternation, than death threats is some seriously -effed up thinking.

But, still, Chu’s essay is a worthy one. Some choice quotes:

What’s really going on, of course, is an argument over what outrage is justified and what outrage is not. The word “outrage” isn’t actually related to the English word “rage”; it comes from the French outré, meaning something that crosses a line or violates a boundary. Our argument over “outrage” is our argument over where the boundaries are, and where they ought to be–and anyone who tells you they don’t have any lines that piss them off if you cross them is lying.


No one at Yale was having their “right” to wear blackface taken away. They were having their “right” to wear blackface and not be made to feel uncomfortable about it by being scolded by members of the community taken away. Just as, in past years when blackface was culturally normal, black people were having their “right” to not be made to feel uncomfortable by being constantly mocked and degraded taken away

As in, you may have free speech, but the rest of us also have free speech, too, and if we use that free speech to say what you say is offensive, then who is the one who should suckitup? If me saying that something you do is hurtful, is that “bullying”? If you are such sensitive widdle flower that you can’t deal with critiques of your Halloween costume, well, I just don’t know what America is coming to.

Was Ronald Reagan America’s Pinkerton? USC Bedrosian discussion of Reagen’s White House

Our policy wonks read Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw At the Revolution , and we sat down to discuss it a few weeks ago. On the resulting podcast are USC Bedrosian faculty, staff, and students: Raphael Bostic, Donnajean Ward, Matt Young, and me.

I listened to our discussion the other day and came to two conclusions: 1) I get very boisterous discussing books and 2) I have always rather thought of Reagen a lot like the Pinkerton character in Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton is not, per se, a bad man. He is very charming, and he is courtly in his affections for Butterfly. But he ruins her anyway because he’s not a careful man, nor is he a thoughtful man. Even at the end, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that coming back to Butterfly, new wife in hand, to take her boy away will take everything Butterfly loves and give her no reason to live. This isn’t a merely cross-cultural blindness on Pinkerton’s part. At some point, all that stops being the winsome charm of a simple, devil-may-care fellow and starts being an unforgivable obtuseness in his character about the way the world works and what other people need.

And that’s a little how I feel about the Reagan legacy. Conservatives revere him as this marvelous leader who emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous 1960s to ‘make America great again.’ If Trump’s slogan sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a constant drumbeat for conservatives. Conservatives are in thrall to imagined past that was simple, clear, and linear, and so much better than today, and we could have that again, if only we did things differently, and progressives are in thrall to an imagined future where things could be so much better than today, if only we do these other things differently.

Nonetheless, when I think of Reagan I think of a truly charismatic leader that, by “simplifying” the issues, led us to two legacies just as socially and economically disastrous as anything the 1960s might have wrought:

1) Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes at the same time they should engage in lots of foreign policy brinkmanship and intervention; and

2) A dollar spent on a social investment in an American is a hand-out to a unproductive person, and, thus, that is a dollar wasted. Rather, if we all just pull together and smile enough, things like need will go away with jes’ a l’il o’ that American gumption and go-gettiness.

Those two led major influences that Reagan legitimized, even if he didn’t invent them, have led the US into crippling levels of unproductive spending and unwillingness to have any serious discussion about social investments at all.

The first impression has led us into one, very expensive foreign entanglement after another, which leads to the US taking on what have turned out to be unproductive spending in blood and treasure. The second influence led to decades where social policy discussions were either one-sidedly stupid or nonexistent, which led to conditions where the possibilities for health care expansion allowed older Americans and the health sector to benefit, while younger Americans got less and less investment, and while I certainly do not want elderly people to be impoverished or to suffer ill health, dollars spent at the end of life are not at all the same economic investment as those made in young people.

And we can’t discuss either of these issues without people running around like their fannies are fire and yelling “SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM FACISM ERMERGERD FACISM YOU ARE JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANS.”

Bostic, in leading the discussion, seemed to want to discuss management; I wanted to discuss policy, and we seesaw the discussion back and forth in the discussion. I agree entirely that Reagan was a wonderful leader who did a great job at many things as president. But I also abhor the policy influences of that leadership. Trump has said, again and again, that people do not care about policy. I clearly do. Which leads me to some questions:

1. Do people vote for individuals trusting that their character is fine, and if that character is in general what they want it to be (in Reagen’s case, seemingly friendly, fatherly, determined, decisive, old-fashioned, decent) is that enough to say that a leader did his job by being those things? Was it enough for Reagan to make people feel hopeful again and to make them love America? That itself can’t have been easy.

2. Or do people–should people–vote for parties based on platforms, even though few people seem to know what platforms are and what they are for, and even though presidential leadership may lead far from platforms?

3. Or should people realize that the individual leaders they see standing on the stage come with a whole host of people. The people running for office aren’t just individuals, they are organizations. In Reagan’s case, that nice old man came equipped a horde of Chicago School Friedman’s acolytes whose dogma was “taxes baaaaaaaaad, markets goooooood” and hawks who believed themselves above democratic scrutiny in the name of democratic security, willing to experiment with the Laffer idea and other trickle-down theories without ever–ever–revisiting their policy experiments for potential failures once we had empirical results on the tax cuts? Is he responsible for them because he gave them “grandpa” cover? I rather think so.

For more of my discussion of the problems with doubling down on Laffer

We probably shouldn’t ignore Rubio’s (good) point about vocational education even it’s mixed with anti-intellectual snobbery

I think Rubio is a fine candidate, even as I mock his knee-jerk, factually incorrect anti-intellectual snub about philosophers.

We shouldn’t lose his point, even though he did: there is nothing wrong with vocational education, and anybody who wants to become a welder should get our support, too, in investing in himself/herself to pursue a career. I don’t know what the deal is in Rubio’s mind, i.e., whether he thinks the world should be “business kings astride the world” and “obedient drones who obey” or what), but it seems to me that not everybody is smart in the same in the same way. Some people are good with numbers; some are good with images; some are good with their hands; and some are good with words. For me, I like to try my hand at a lot of things, but let’s not kid ourselves: I had a preternatural affinity for words and reading when I was a child, and that’s still my best, most productive form of work. But welding is honorable, productive, and important work, and I think vocational education is important, too.

Just as a side note, philosophy is a highly technical field, and contrary to what Rubio likely suspects, there are a lot of conservative philosophers writing very succuessfully, and to large audiences; it’s not all the race, class, gender stuff that is likely to irritate him. Just for one, pick up Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.