USC just ended its transit subsidy program, and the cost of my bus pass went from $30 to $100

My employer, USC, decided to eliminate their alternative commuter program, and as a result, the cost of my pass is jumping to $100 a month from roughly $30, and I can’t justify that cost every month when I look at how often I commute to campus.

To say that I am disappointed in USC would be an understatement. We are either the largest or the 2nd largest employer in Los Angeles County, and we have an obligation to help lead the region to better, more sustainable solutions for mobility. Our alternative commuting program was a success; many of us used it.

It also won a host of awards, which USC continues to display on its website.

They responded to the deluge of emails they got in response to the decision by putting up this “bureaucratic blah blah blah” page which basically says:

“The elimination of the subsidy was carefully considered and compared with other available alternatives.”

Well, ok, what are those alternatives? I’m listening. Why are those alternatives not explained? Why were those alternative programs not in place before you stopped the transit program? What does the university get out of this deal? Oh, wait, Transportation Services gets to keep $$$$ from parking rather than spend them subsidizing transit use. The USC decentralized and draconian budget process bears part of this blame: I suspect that Transportation Services leadership saw the $$$ and saved itself staff rather than continue a program that is good for the university but not in the financial interests of Transportation Services.

I do understand, but it’s still incredibly bad policy. It makes USC look like jerks, and USC doesn’t need that kind of help.

The reason for the “blah blah” is that there are no alternatives: this is just a pay cut for anybody at USC who has a disability that prevents them from driving and the university’s lowest wage workers. The real alternative is: those who can drive will do so, and those who can’t will eat the pay cut.

There is nothing about this move that makes sense for any aspect of the University other than Transportation Services. It’s bad for the employees, and it’s embarrassment for USC as a whole whose leaders have talked endlessly–and I think they are sincere–about sustainability. But it’s typical, head-in-clouds, lofty sustainability without the pragmatic follow-up that programs like this provide, largely because few people actually understand how important transit is to economic justice and sustainability.

Being a transit and sustainability expert here is frustrating, to say the least.

California’s End of Life Option Act and USC Bedrosian’s discussion of the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.

You should hear the Bedrosian Center podcast about the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey where we discuss end of life planning, and how most people say they want to die at home–but that doesn’t happen. Our discussion can be found here.

The specific information you need in order to understand California’s End of Life bill can be found here.

One of my favorite jokes goes something along these lines. Once, during a terrible flood, a rescue boat came upon a true believer who refused the help. “God will save me!” She declared, refusing the spot in the rescue boat. The waters rose still more, and then the true believer was approached by yet another boat. “No, she said, I don’t need you. God will save me!” She said. Eventually, the flood waters rise so high that she has to get onto the roof of her house. A helicopter comes and throws her a rope. “No,” she says “God will save me!” Eventually, she is swept away in the flood, and she dies. When she reaches heaven, she looks at God and says “Why didn’t you save me? Wasn’t I a good servant? Did I not believe?” God threw up his hands and said “Lady, what do you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

The point being that end of life decisions are in our hands, too. When life ends and death begins is as thorny a philosophical problem as when life begins.

USC’s Rachel Junken visualizes David Levinson’s Accessibility Lab data on employment accessibility

I toss out vague assignments to my master’s student and give them some data. This way, I see what they come up with–it’s often much better than if I had told them exactly what I wanted.

This is what Rachel Junken came up with:

Job accessibility junken

These data have always bugged me. We could quibble about how accessibility is being measured, but I don’t think we would alter the numbers very much. I think all of us have known for some time that job suburbanization has really changed the US employment landscape. After all, John Kain published his spatial mismatch material in the late 1960s. But I don’t know that we really really can see what that change has meant for US transit unless we really lay it out, region by region, the way Rachel does here. Even places with really quite good transit have real problems with employment accessibility.

Asian poets commenting on Michael Derrick Hudson, and some poetry for good measure

I’ve been racing around with a project this week (yes, I do work, now and then), and I’ve not had a chance to settle down and read think about my reactions to Michael Derrick Hudson and his admission that he took a high school friend’s name and submitted his poetry under it, after having less success submitting under his own, obvious white-guy name. He came clean after having a poem included by Sherman Alexie in Best American Poetry. This is naturally irritating, with the usual outcry of “oh see political correctness can’t stand up to the superiorness of the white guy” and a good deal of criticism being leveled at Sherman Alexie for admitting that he gave the poem more consideration and heavier weight than he would have otherwise out of consideration for what he thought was the writer’s identity, as well as criticism from poets of color for Alexie’s response.

There are a few things I do think I can contribute to this discussion even though I am hardly an expert at poetry, as I want to talk about the writer’s process and being in these markets.

First, this is not like JK Rowling publishing under her initials so that boys will read her book because they would never, ever read a book by a woman. For one, she used her actual initials. And in that instance, she was advised to do so by an editor–aka somebody who had market experience. We don’t know what would have happened with Harry Potter if she had gone with her girlie name; we don’t have that counterfactual, but I suspect the editor was right. I have run my own experiments in class where I allow students to pick their own reading materials, and male students, with only a few exceptions, inevitably opt for full course of men, men, men, men and more men. After all, women don’t know anything worth knowing.

Similarly, I don’t think Hudson’s little gambit suggests a damn thing about being published as a white-guy poet versus being an “ethnic poet” other than people like Hudson can be jerks about the whole thing. I don’t know much about poetry, but I can’t believe it’s any different than most other crowded, elite fields in that you spend your early career getting rejected, period, unless you are very very lucky and very very talented, and the very very talented part is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, and you get luckier the more you stick with it.

My friend, Linsey Marr, is now a full professor, a highly respected environmental engineer and atmospheric scientist, and probably one of the most successful and most consistent NSF grant winners in her field. But I was with her when she started out, and it was one rejection after another. Now, in theory, she’s the same person at the beginning of her career as she is as she progresses. But she’s not the same scientist. The work teaches you, and rejection teaches you, and your work tends to get better. Sometimes it doesn’t, or so people tell me. There are some fields where people assume you are finished after 30, and thank heaven I’m not in one of them because I didn’t even start writing until my mid-thirties. (I think those assumptions are ageist bullshit, but I’m not a mathematician, so maybe I am wrong.)

So the fact that Hudson sent out his early poems under his name and his later poems under the Asian means we can’t identify the source of the variation. He might have gotten the same consideration that Alexie gave him from other editors, sure. But he also may have gotten better at matching submissions to potential outlets, which is something your early career teaches you, and the later poems may have, simply, been better. We don’t know.

We do that when we look at English departments and grad programs and Nobel laureates and publication counts that white guys are doing pretty darn ok, to say the least.

Finally, I don’t buy the idea that because Alexie gave more consideration to a poem he thought came from an Asian writer that that, somehow, proves that there are all these wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful white dude poets languishing in the reject pile because all these substandard Asians and Blacks and whatnot “get all the breaks.” I do think there are probably very talented poets out there who don’t get the recognition they deserve because it’s very likely that in any competitive field where labor is somewhat oversupplied and editors can pick and choose, that very good poets will not get their desert. Let’s put it this way: I doubt there’s a huge difference in talent and ambition between me and plenty of people who wound up adjuncting because that’s all that’s out there save for the very, very fortunate.

In the publishing/art/music world, we live with some subjectivity. No, it’s not entirely subjective: we can tell really bad writing from really good writing. What’s good and bad has some reasoned basis for it even it is not your personal taste. But it’s not the same as a mathematical proof, nor should it be: these are different endeavors in human life. The fact that an editor took the time to really think about a submission from somebody “ethnic” just means out of the oceans of very, very good submissions that deserve our attention but are going to get passed over anyway because of numbers, he wanted to include voices we don’t hear everywhere all the time.

I hardly think that his process is a harbinger of how political correctness is killing us all. I don’t think he’s right in the way he responded, but as somebody who has had to judge competitions and agonized over what to include and what not to include, and suddenly having to rationalize choices at the end, I do understand that it’s not easy. Yes, I guess he should have done the legwork and ferreted out the fact that Hudson was a liar, but honestly, I bet most of the rest of us wouldn’t have, either, because who does this shit? and thus who gets up in the morning thinking “Gee, I need to go out and ferret out the white guy submitting poems under his Asian high school classmate’s name?” and “Gee, I should do a background check on this Dolezal lady who wants a job in advocacy.”

Asian poets have responded, and it’s covered here in a blog entry from The Margins from Asian American Writers’ Workshop:

As AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen wrote for NPR, “In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent of writers reviewed in the New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren’t his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he’s another hysterical white man, envious of the few people of color who’ve breached their quarantine.”

They have a collection of responses from Asian poets, as well, and those responses are well worth reading. My favorite comes from Kenji Liu:

Dear MDH,

Please find attached an invoice for $500. You recently admitted to using my name to submit a poem 10 times. This $500 is to cover all the submission fees you paid in my name, plus any others you have not yet declared.

Please be advised that you are to cease and desist using my name in any way. Any future use of my name will result in further invoices.

In the unlikely event that you win a prize or get a book published, you are to immediately redirect all income (after taxes) to an Asian Pacific American organization of my choice.

Please note that if you refuse, I have access to ninjas.


They also have a page of actual Asian poets you can read, and you should, because poetry is lovely.

Henry George, Raphael Bostic, Chris Redfearn, and Land Leverage

Every year in my PPD 245 class, I try to help students do a couple of important things in urban economics. The first is to think spatially. I start them doing that with Ricardian rents and move into bid-rent gradients. The second thing I want them doing is understanding the difference between total home value, structure value, and land value. Henry George! My class is meant to be an early class, and so I start them working with Excel to learn to clean up and manipulate data. This little assignment I have them do uses Lincoln Land Institute data to explore how land value, structure value, and total home value varies over the course of about 10 years. It’s a really interesting exercise because if they are any good, they get to see this at the end, for four regions:

Screenshot 9 10 15 8 00 AM

Now, ya gotta admit this is cool stuff, because as my colleagues Raphael Bostic and Chris Redfearn point out, wacky things happen when the ratio between land value and structure value get too far off. Notably, you have land that could be far more intensively used, and it isn’t. Henry George gives us some insights as to how tax policy can reinforce these problems.

You can see that here in San Francisco in the lead up to the 2007 crisis.

Meanwhile, go read you some of my brilliant colleagues’ work:

Bostic, Raphael W., Stanley D. Longhofer, and Christian L. Redfearn, “Land Leverage: Decomposing Home Price Dynamics,” Real Estate Economics 35 (2007), 183- 208.

Kim Davis, Ron Swanson, bureaucratic discretion, and civil disobedience

I think the cynical bits of the world predicting that Kim Davis will do just fine cashing in on her jail time are probably right, but I still think it’s unfortunate that she is in jail. One point of clarification is simply that she is in jail not because of her refusal to issue the licenses to same-sex couples, but because she refused to do so after a judge ordered her to. The actual charge is contempt of court. She isn’t in “Jail for Christians.” She’s in jail because she refused to do what a judge told her to. I couldn’t figure out whether she is appointed or elected.

As a result, she exists in a strange situation for those of us who study government-y things. . As either an appointed or elected clerk, she is not strictly a professional bureaucrat, but many of her functions concern the day-to-day legal transactions of local, state, and federal codes. The breadth of the duties of an average county clerk, particularly in a place like Rowan County, can be pretty large. This is one reason why the sitnexttoKimDavis on Twitter is very funny: it takes the pathos of Parks and Rec–the decidedly tedious aspects of public administration–and laughs at it under the national gaze of Kim Davis’ actions:

Sitnexto Kim Davis nexttokimdavis Twitter

The Parks and Rec reference has a point: there’s Ron Swanson, great champion of small government, and he’s….yeah.

That whipsaw between what one believes is right and what one does for a job or a role comes into play all the time within organizations and communities, and it always brings back Hirschmann’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty or questions about individuals should do when vis-a-vis orders to do something they personally think is wrong.

Normally, what I’d prefer to see in cases like Ms. Davis’ is to simply find some reasonable accommodation around it. Think about this way: if the federal government had outsourced document issuance to a private employer, and Ms. Davis were employed by MegaDocuCorp, it would be reasonable, if she has a religious objection to issuing licenses to same-sex couples, that perhaps she just takes some other role at the counter. Or something that wouldn’t involve forcing the issue when her faith stands in conflict with her job role. MegaDocuCorp cannot take the position that it’s not going to issue those licenses, but as long as they have somebody at that counter doing the job, there is no reason why Ms. Davis would have to be the person to do it.

But we can’t really do that here. She has a very specific public role and is a public official, and she doesn’t have discretion on the legal code because she was superseded by a judge. Now, the issue is not necessarily settled forever; Plessy v. Ferguson stood for nearly 100 years and was finally overturned. I think there’s a snowball’s chance of that happening here, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that in the future, the court will reverse recent decisions. But right now, the essence of her role is to check IDs and issue public documents, and those public documents now include licenses to same-sex couples. Even if she refused to hand somebody a license, as county clerk, the license goes out under her stamp. She can’t abide that, and thus, refuses to have the licenses issued at all.

Discretion is always contested terrain because bureaucrats;, judges, and everybody else who has it in a legal context are human beings interpreting their jobs. And while it would be nice if the Law were the Law and utterly objective, it’s not. It’s always, always subject to interpretation. Only in her case, she’s got a ruling.

As to the conservative gloat floating about how “liberals”/progressives love civil disobedience until a conservative does it, well, ok, but there’s shoes for other feet there, too: I remember lots of conservative hissy fits during Occupy for vague reasons that, when pressed, boiled down to ” I’m mad those people are getting attention and have iPhones.” The bottom line is that conservatives disagreed with Occupy, and so they didn’t respect the protests, and now liberals don’t respect Ms. Davis’ position and don’t respect her civil disobedience, either. Pointing out hypocrisy is one of the easiest sports in politics, both sides do it, and it’s never convincing because of both those reasons and the impossibility of having a perfectly coherent set of positions on every issue that arises.

Ultimately, I’m less bothered by recent court decisions than most people seem to be. I thought the Hobby Lobby decision was fine, and while I am sorry Ms. Davis is jail and can’t just be moved to another role, she’s refused to do her sworn duty. She wants to use the power granted her a public official to enforce her own religious beliefs, and I’m sorry, Christians of the world, but many, many of us who are happy to share a political community with you, draw the line at letting you rule by the standards of a faith we do not share. That’s not required of religious toleration by any measure.

A short reading list for Kim Davis; understanding law, justice, and religious liberty

By now the internet has had quite a time discussing Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. I always feel sorry for the people who wind up in Kim Davis’s position, though I am sure part of her probably enjoys the attention for what she perceives to be a heroic stance against what she considers to be an immoral law.

This question–should you obey laws that you don’t agree with–is an oldie and a goodie in political theory and philosophy, where people make a distinction between law and justice for good reasons. What is lawful may not be just, and what is just may not, currently, be lawful. But the absence of any sense of justice in the law robs the law of its moral legitimacy, or why people will go along with the laws in the first place.

I’ve always maintained that the point of theory is to help people empathize with different ways of thinking about the world, particularly ways that differ quite a bit from their own. Towards that end, I put together a little reading list for students who want to think about Ms. Davis and her problem, which is: she believes same-sex marriage violates natural (divine) law (physis), but her professional legal role in enforcing man’s law (nomos). (My computer seems to want to insist on turning nomos to gnomes. What the actual hell? Does the word gnomes come up more often than the concept of nomos? Really??)

Laws and Justice, on the duty to obey laws, or not, and sublimation of the self to political community in classical studies:

Plato: Apology
Plato: Crito
Plato: Phaedo
Cicero: On Duties
Augustine: City of God
Aquinas: Selections from the Summa–get a reader that curates for you
Areopagitica by John Milton
Machiavelli: The Prince; The Discourses
Hobbes, Leviathan
Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation
Burke, Empire, Liberty, and Reform
Marx, On the Jewish Question (this one right here, if you can read no other; this is why conservatives should read Marx).
Mill, On Liberty
Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

I’ve got to run off to class but I will come back later in the week with some contemporary writers and thinkers who have been riffing off the concepts from the classics, but you can’t actually get at an answer for any of this without Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Antonio Gramsci, and some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.