Those wicked, wicked coastal cities according to Cicero 

In Cicero’s Republic, he is having Scipio Africanus hold forth on the history of Rome, and how that history fashioned the Roman constitution, which is the best constitution (lots of people know this, ahem), and we come upon this gem: 

Furthermore, the moral character of coastal cities is prone to corruption and decay. For they are exposed to a mixture of strange talk and strange modes of behavior. Foreign customs are important along with foreign merchandise; and so none of their ancestral institutions can remain unaffected. The inhabitantants of those cities do not stay at home. They are always dashing to foreign parts, full of airy hopes and designs. And even when, physically, they stay put, they wander abroad in their imagination.

(P37, Oxford World’s Classics edition, Niall Rudd, translator)

Meals on Wheels and the killing language of policy outcome rhetoric

Caveats: I am without computer, so I am blogging from my iPad. For some reason, it is not putting in links. There is abundant evidence that MoW delivers positive health outcomes. Just Google. Also pardon the cray typos. 

The Trump budget documented the news cycle last week. I don’t know what I saw more of, really: the outrage at cutting programs for the most socially vulnerable, or the frankly disheartening way that Trump & Co have appropriated the language of evidence-based public policy to twist to their own ideological ends. Beware, always, somebody who says “actually, teh facts are.” There are empirical findings, but the interpretation of those findings are subjective. Unfortunately, we have apparently swallowed so much of the po-mo line that we no longer focus on interpretation, but instead allow ourselves terms like “alternative facts.” 

In the case of Meals on Wheels, budget director Mulvaney  says we just don’t see any results from the program–and thus the appropriation of policy analysis lingo, in the bean countiest way possible, is invoked to condemn a program that  “sounds good but doesn’t deliver.” (The program does deliver on multiple fronts, btw). Left  unsaid are the many, many different things that count as policy outcomes. 

What is, in the language of efficiency, the point of feeding elderly people, after all? They are not returning to the workforce; they are not going to be economically productive. After all, a dollar spent on them might be be better spent on something else.  Thus within that strict paradigm, the only way the program makes sense is if it saves money on health interventions.  To be effective, feeding elderly people should reduce their health care costs. If it is does not, then…? So what if fewer hips get broken if they simply die of something else?  Something potentially costlier to the rest of us? 

And thus there is the killing language of policy analysis when it is turned on social programs. Left aside are the material and yet intangible realities: isolation among the elderly kills (we have good evidence of this) and isolation is also terribly, terribly painful, as is hunger. If we have it within our means to stop suffering, do we not have a duty to alleviate it, regardless of the perceived benefits to us of so doing? 

But I don’t want to stray too far from my point about outcome analysis with social programs. If you get too instrumental with any of this stuff, the purpose and benefits of social programming  can evaporate under the scrutinizing eye. Feeding hungry people? Since when was that a rationale that fit into a cost-benefit analysis? So the benefits associationed with feeding hungry people becomes operationalized and monetized, and quelle suprise…like quicksilver, the benefits measured in this “secondary benefits” approach  become harder to grasp. Ditto with hungry children. We can’t just feed them because they are hungry. We have to feed them to improve their school performance, and if, on aggregate,  average school performance improvements do not materialize, well, that program doesn’t “work.” 

Note that this language of accountability around outcomes never crops up around the military or tax cuts.  Did we win the war on terror? What was the cost-benefit ratio there?  We certainly seem to have made a dent in al Qaeda, but we are still there in Afghanistan, and “democratizing Iraq” does not seem to have brought stability to the region. But that’s security! The sky is the limit! There is no price too high.  And yet, if we subjected the military to the same outcomes accountability routinely applied to social programs, could we ever justify the expenditures? 

This is how power turns the wheels with policy analysis. It is not a question of “alternative facts.” It is a question of what facts and measures matter enough to be exempt from accountability for outcomes and which ones for which accountability will become a weapon used to snuff programs with which power has an ideological beef. 

Note also Mulvaney’s tax rhethoric. We can’t ask “steel workers” or “single mothers” to pay. Perhaps not, But what about billionaires? Oh, now, that’s just crazy. 

Some nifty urban blogs 

In response to my last post about blogging, I got three smart people who reach out for some blog sharing. All of them are great, so you might want to add them to your urban reading: 

Geoff Boeing (PhD candidate, UC Berkeley) and his very cool blog with urban visualization

Jane’sWalkChicago is a blog about urbanism and planning in one of my favorite cities, Chicago, from Martha Frish.

LAvenues Project from the brilliant Meredith Drake Reitan

The Whys and Hows of Academic Blogging 

I was asked to write a little something about academic blogging by the communications committee at ACSP for their new blog. The content appears here and over there. Please do check them out. It looks like they are going to have a good lineup of students and scholars writing for them

To me, my blog is a digital seminar that I can use to float out my ideas, make connections, and hear objections and criticisms from other smart people out in the Interwebs. We have departmental seminars at USC, and they can be tremendously helpful, but one can’t go demanding one’s colleagues read everything one is thinking about at every stage

But blog readers can skip and skim, and they might even enjoy the ride. Thus blogging is simply something I do for two reasons: 1) to try out new ideas and start conversations in a quicker way than via traditional publication, for both new research ideas and current issues; and 2) to keep my writing muscles loose when I am stumped on my writing for publication.

1. Trying out ideas    

Some events come and and go, and they make for good natural experiments; we wrote a paper about Carmageddon, for example (first author, the brilliant Andy Hong now at UBC). But that paper came out nearly four years after the event. I got to talk about Carmageddon and the research we were doing long before that. Blogging is a way to get in on discussions about urban development and politics as they unfold, and as such, it can help you identify some of the movers and the shakers, who are also people who might need to be interviewed for later research. Recently in Los Angeles, we had a ballot box measure on development called Measure S. Since I am doing research on the measure, I wanted to avoid doing any public endorsements or op-eds either way. There were, however, important perspectives and ideas that I thought were missing from the discussion that I brought forward on the blog. The Measure S discussion got pretty hot, and even people I had considered friends started badmouthing me pretty badly for failing to follow their perceived party line. Feelings run hot in politics: if you are going to step into politics with your blog, you had better be ready for vitriol mixed in with legitimate critiques of your ideas. 

Trying out new ideas, even if they are unrelated to current issues, is also really useful. The peer review process is good for many things, but it can be hard on innovation. Some of my most innovative research projects were greeted with scorn or derision by reviewers who are probably perfectly nice people and great scholars. But peer review tends to keep things incremental; you get a paper out of the blue, you don’t really know the person writing, sometimes the writer hasn’t done a great job of setting the stage or the context, and blam! The reviews veer sadly towards the Land of Carping and Dismissing instead of into the Realm of Generous Critiques That Improve Innovative Thought. The blog is a way to jump out of that box before you get to reviewers and say “hey, I don’t have a full argument or set of evidence yet, but here is what I am thinking about.” It gives me a way to try out ideas with people to see how I need to frame issues to get past the blank stares and question marks that are going to accompany iconoclastic thought or weird connections. 

2. Writing as a daily practice 

There are people out there, I suppose, who get up and write every single day on nothing other than their research for publication. I envy them, so much in fact that I hope they drop their cell phones in a toilet bowl. 

  Since I got tenure and began working more on theory writing, drafting and composition have become even more difficult for me. When I am actively working on research writing, I am crabby, spacey and wretched, like a little drenched cat wishing I could do anything else or be anywhere else. Why do I do it? Because not unlike Dorothy Parker, I hate writing but I love having written. Drafting makes me crazy. Revision is my thing; with my jolly blue pencil and black Sharpie, I’m as happy as I ever get. 

 Thus I do not write for publication every day. You should, you really should. I have never been able to manage it. But I do write, on something, just about every day. I journal. I blog. In addition to my scholarly writing, I’ve written two novels under a pseudonym. For somebody who hates creating new drafts as much as I do, I create a lot of text, and I credit blogging for helping me do that. Blogging gives me something to write when I am circling around my scholarship like Jack Palance circled Alan Ladd in the movie Shane. Writing on the blog and writing fiction reminds me that writing can be fun. These serve as relief valves when I am ready to set fire to my research and anybody unfortunate enough to ask me how my research is going that day. Blogging requires sufficient rigor that you can’t just post any old nonsense or people will yell at you. It does not, however, require the sort of rigor one wants from one’s scholarship. Blogging is to wind sprints what the marathon is to a book. 

Those are the why for blogging. Here are some nuts and bolts. 

1. Attach a blog to your scholarly home page, which I think should be hosted outside of your university. Some units have  wonderful media people who actually want to help you develop a web presence, but at most public universities, limited staff time means that they work exclusively for administrators, and administrators are focussed on web content for their charges–departments and programs. If you have to go through staff to get your publications updated online, it is a hassle for you and them. But if you host it yourself, you update as you like, and you don’t have to start all over if you move universities. In addition, you have to take care of your own self-promotion online. The blog should be part of a whole web suite that presents “You, Inc” as a total scholar. Look at authors’ websites or other scholars for inspiration. (Justin Hollander is a good online promoter of his work, for just one place to start.)  

2. Be patient. It takes time and networking to get readers. I blogged to myself for about 5 years. I have found the best way to self-promote is simply to promote and amplify the work of other people. When you link and discuss other people’s ideas, they like it and are grateful. They remember you. They link back to you; you retweet them; they retweet you. Over time, this builds into an audience. No amount of networking helps if you don’t have the ideas to put out there there, though. 

3. If you are a woman or person of color, or blog from difference  or marginality in any way, people will try to bully and silence you. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s advice may be steeped in the privilege she’s had in her life, but it’s still damn good advice: cultivate selective deafness. People have called me every name in the book from “disingenuous” to “empty-headed” to the c-word. Women should not have to put up with the verbal abuse I have experienced in order to write about the city. The luxury of tenure is that I tune it out. I really do not care that I’ve rubbed some loudmouth urban bros the wrong way. I go out of my way to give them a wedgie sometimes because they richly deserve it at times. But if you are easily hurt, that hurt will come to you online if you have anything new or nuanced to say. Bllogging has trained me towards more self-control and thicker skin–two things I always need. 

4. Do not blog when you should be researching. I know, I know I just said above that I use blogging to keep the writing muscle loose. I do. I also know full well when I am blogging to procrastinate. You will catch yourself doing that, too. So don’t do it. I may hate like the very devil to draft new work, but I do it because I couldn’t get and keep a job in the academy without it. Content has to come first; your research and scholarly publication are what you do to invest in yourself as a scholar. You continue your own education by doing research, and you educate others about your discoveries through publication and speaking. You have to create knowledge before you can promote it via a blog or anything else. So that is job #1 on most days. 
I am happy to read and promote others’ blogs. If you would like me to post your blog on mine or you have good content to share, feel free to forward it to me at lsschweitzer589@gmail.com or hit me up via Twitter @drschweitzer

Why does Charles Murray get invited anywhere? 

Ok, yes, by all means, the behavior surrounding Charles Murray at Middlebury College was bad. Insiputably bad. 

But I have a different question: why do people invite him? Sure yes, he’s a human being and citizen and he has rights, but why are conservative students so absolutely determined to bring in an incompetent fraud?  The right should be embarrassed of Murray, if for no other reason that he can’t do math. The beautiful thing about math is that it is not normative. Math is the friend of every educated person everywhere. 

There are serious, rigorous, conservative scholars out there; for all the flouncing around about how there are no conservatives in the academy, there are plenty of libertarian and conservative scholars, and scholars that come with conservative ideas embedded in their work (even if they, themselves, do not call themselves conservatives) who do real research or theory-building. They do good research. Some write great, thought-provoking books.  Murray is a discreted hack. He is famous only because he is discredited. It’s like inviting the guy faked the autism-vaccines data to campus. What is anybody supposed to learn from Murray? “How to turn your career from incompetent social scientist to  celebrity conservative”? Is that the talk he is giving? Because that is where I would place his expertise. 

From the top of my head: 
John Podheretz

Daniel Drezner 

Greg Mankiw 

Mary Ann Glendon

Niall Ferguson 
Roger Scuton 

Matthew Fay

Steven Fish 

Richard Ferrier 

Thomas Sowell 

Robert Putnam

Daniel Lin

Ilya Somin 

Alexander Volokh 

Catherine Zuckert 

Every communitarian out there writing under the banner. 

The spot zoning thing, regime theory, and Measure S 

I’ve said just about everything I have on Measure S that I can use in the blog. The case itself is part of a larger research project I’ve been working on. This is an odds-and-ends post. 

The spot zoning claim is another one where I see Measure S opponents and proponents talking past each other a bit. What is spot zoning, and does it happen?  

1. It depends on what you mean by that term. From what I can tell, I see straight, letter-of-the-law refutations that general plan amendments and variances do not just get handed out like candy.  But if somebody means “I’m surprised and upset that there is a big project near me because most of my nabe is single family housing and that big project is way different from what has gone on before” when they say “spot zoning”….yeah, I am pretty sure that it does happen. 

2. Infill development was probably always going to feel invasive, out-of-scale, etc to at least some people anyway, so as with much in politics, the technical answer to the question may matter less than what people believe is going on. 

Now, infill development, in some form and as an idea, has been central to planning models for good urban form for no less than two and going on three decades. Turning growth away from the fringe and towards places within cities that have capacity has been equally central to just about every planning document the City of LA has produced for ages. By extension, then, that meant new development was going to go into existing neighborhoods. We should expect these things. 

But many people, unlike planners, urbanists, or developers simply do not pay attention to plans or even have normative ideas about urban form. They should. They really should. But alas, we planners and urbanists are competing with family, people’s own jobs which are often complicated and demanding in and of themselves, Disneyland, Free Donut Day, Dostoyevsky, health concerns, and a whole bunch of things that might preoccupy people a bit more than plans, until they see the big project coming at them and wonder who the Sam Hill thought THAT  was a good idea. 

In the spirit of Donald Trump asking ….who knew how complicated health policy was….just about all modern questions in public affairs, including planning, are  complicated once you get into the “how to do a thing” part of implementation. The general idea around infill is simple enough, and pleasant enough. The LA planning, development, and approvals process is not; it’s loaded with specialist jargon and  agents who have spent years mastering and co-creating it. People outside the process understandably do not grok it, and btw, that’s what they pay we agents for. 

This question in Measure S looms large for those of us interested in urban politics because whether spot zoning happens or not, there are some pretty big projects  out there spread out across lots of  neighborhoods.  That is important for whether those neighorhooods join forces politically. 

Although you wouldn’t necessarily note this from much popular and academic urbanism, there is a strand of urban and environmental  theory that entirely rejects the idea that NIMBYism is selfish or self-interested. Instead, the “NIMBY” label gets slapped on by agents of local government -capital coalitions when they run up against local opposition. Capital is supposed to get its way–and this is doubly the case  now that local governments-capital interests have incorporated sustainability into their rationales in what Elizabeth Gearin dubbed the “Smart Growth Machine.” Other scholars like Carol Hagar and Mary Alice Hadad in their recent collected volume, NIMBY is Beautiful, hold that local opposition is very good overall because it forces innovations: when faced with local opposition, project sponsors work harder to find third-way solutions, address the worries the locals have, and in the end, the development gets better overall. The fact that even after that process some people remain opposed is not, necessarily, a sign the system is not working, either. Some planning theorists go so far as to note that there is entirely too little local opposition in our neoliberal age. There is another nice collected volume edited brilliantly by Enrico Gualini on this very subject, following from the work of Chantal Mouffe dab Ernesto Laclau (who sadly passed in 2014). 

In terms of theorists who in general critique pro-development regimes as capital interests over-riding local community sentiment, one of the perennial critiques of local opposition is, simply, that it’s local, parochial, easy to roll over. In regime theory, there are three major camps, roughly: 

1. Capital and pro-capital advocates: developers and city booster types ranging from the mayor to planners to the local media and various big players like museums, esc. 

2. Homeowners who have few other capital assets besides their homes. 

3.  Renters, laborers, impoverished people generally without either owner-occupied housing or other assets. 

Most times, group #1 dominates. They have power, and they have an abiding, long- and short-term interest in growth; #2 are generally apathetic. They do not go out their way to disrupt normal systems of power and domination in cities because those usually benefit them in some way. Instead of organizing coalitions with #3 to fight for great equality and inclusion and democratic control over the city,  they only mobilize when they see the bulldozers coming for them and shrug and go back to their lives  when the bulldozers are coming for those in #3.

This rest is me armchair speculating, but I think it fits the case pretty well. 

The perception of spot zoning, then, and the proliferation of big projects scattered around LA, changes what would be local skirmishes over specific projects. Instead, homeowners get the impression that big projects can happen anywhere (including their neighborhoods) , and that is enough to get them off their fannies and agitating. In the strange bedfellows department, then, the pro-camp on S can readily accommodate people from both #3 and #2 who have a shared, short-term interest regarding specific projects–even if, over the long term, those in #2 will go back to their comparative privilege ASAP because they actually care less about those in group #3.  People in Group # 3 are not stupid.  They know full well that most homeowners supporting them in the moment will evaporate as soon as their interests get met. Solidarity, schmolidarity. But that doesn’t meant that the temporary leverage their willingness to participate now provides isn’t politically useful. 

People have portrayed my writings here as everything from “empathetic” to “disingeneous concern trolling.”  I see it as realpolitik. If LA urbanists want to avoid Measure S type politics in the future, one of the most effective possible tactics is to alter how Group  #1 relates to those in  #3.  I do not think, as some Neo-Marxists do, that their interests are simply incompatible.  Group #1, when presented with a robust coalition of environmental activists, changed its models and modes of thinking to bring those ideas in, thereby changing environmental challenges (some say co-opting). Plenty of anti-displacement folks already agree that new housing supply has to come; if  planners and urbanists pursue a multi-issue coalition with those in #3, including pressing concerns like police reform that those in Camp #2 will never come around to, they might be willing to co-craft a development agenda that makes sense to them if they are really included in the vision and implementation. Remember: infill is going to stay hard even if Measure S does not pass. 

Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday. 

What is the Post-Measure S Agenda for Inclusion Among LA Urbanists?

I have been writing along here trying to get one major point across: the NIMBY anti-growth folks supporting Measure S are different from the anti-displacement folks supporting it. One group is predominately wealthy; the other is not; they hail from different parts of the LA region, they have vastly different access to power, and the consequences from growth they face are entirely different.   The NIMBY group is worried about maintaining their status and exclusion; the anti-disciplacement folks are trying to survive economically in a place where rents are skyrocketing and wages are not.  In yelling about city hall, the former is expressing frustrated entitlement with a city government that has granted them one unfair advantage after another, from extensive mitigation to their specifications on transit to better services across the board. The latter group? They are speaking from 60+ years of experience with bad treatment from federal, state, and local governments around devastating  moves like freeway building, renewal projects, housing discrimination, and violent policing. 

Just because some NIMBY and anti-displacement people have found a perceived common interest in a planning measure does not mean they merit the same treatment or consideration, either rhetorically or in practice. 

Since I have to deal with deal with internet shrieking every time I suggest Measure S is anything other than a NIMBY movement, let me be clear: I am not saying that Measure S is a good idea. I AM saying that planners and development people need to recognize the legimate concerns the anti-displacement folks raise. South and East LA are diverse places with a lot of different people there, and plenty have come out in opposition of Measure S,  noting, right along with the usual market liberal line against the measure,  that Measure S won’t help those concerned about gentrification. 

And that may be true, but it’s not as though the pro-development folks are offering significantly better ideas to those worried about being displaced by development in the short run. When urbanists say things like “gentrification is a myth” or “it’s the market working”, those statements fly into the face of the lived experiences of people grappling with worry about displacement. Does it *really* matter if the statistics show that new units outnumber evictions if you, yourself, or members of your family have been evicted?  Of course the aggregate numbers about what happens matters, but it’s a different thing than if you, personally, are looking down the barrel of the gun. 

 LA has routinely not protected the interests of impoverished people of color (understatement…)  Many in these communities  have no reason to believe that THIS TIME, well, unlike the last 30 times, planners promoting growth really really know what is best and what the consequences are going to be for development in South and East LA. Humility among pro-development folks is warranted but in short supply, so long as we are speaking of supply. 

The problem with the “supply units first” strategy is, simply, that systems of oppression always urge suffering and vulnerable people to wait,  be patient. The benefits are a-coming.  Reform is on its way.  Progress is coming. Yessirreeee, it’s coming. But we all know what James Baldwin said about waiting for progress.

Progress might be coming with development, but the language from most urbanists stresses projects first and people second. I suspect that planners tend think that projects and changing places are how we take care of people–and that may not be as true in the world as it seems in our heads. In the case of development, it’s way possible that developers and the city and the urban reformers get what they want as soon as a project gets approved, while the benefits for communities either dribble in or vanish entirely ….long after those outside a given place have moved on to the next project, having secured their stadia, hotels, and blue-ribbon booster projects without ever delivering to the locals  the benefits that were supposed to accrue from projects that “benefit everyone.” 

So while Measure S is not a great answer, and Michael Weinstein may not be elected  prom king any time soon,  it would be really helpful if all the pro-development  folks would stick around to support the anti-displacement folks in their work for inclusive development after the election.  How does LA urbanism move neighborhood displacement worries from the margin to the center of the city’s development vision and practices?