The argument for density first in the US

Earlier this week, I caused some trouble by pointing out that I think it’s possible to overemphasize cities, and in particular, regional form changes, as a climate strategy. The consequence of doing so, I argue, is a tendency to ignore broader-based policies like Pigouvian taxation that would make motorists think twice, right now, before getting in a car. This is the argument I actually believe; we’re putting a lot of stock in our ability to reshape regions and yet fuel prices stay comparatively low. We’re building lots of nice infill developments, but fringe areas are still growing in some regions, and while VMT is not growing, it’s not sliding as fast we’d like. An uptick in what people pay at the pump would noodge them in the right direction: towards transit or another mode if it’s there, and towards fuel economy if isn’t.

I had some pushback (mostly by smartest boy urbanists) who note that there are no carbon taxes anywhere in the US, and they are right about that, and that gasoline taxes are unpopular. And they are right about that. But just because a more effective policy is not popular does not reduce its effectiveness, and doing something popular but less effective and longer-term may be a very poor substitute. That may be particularly so in this case where the unpopular strategy, petrol taxation, is really an important part of making the regional form and human settlement density strategy happen–see the work of Shlomo Angel on urban footprint.

But nobody has raised the possibility that density and infill redevelopment might be the key that unlocks the political acceptance of higher fuel prices at the pump. If there is a high-functioning transit system in place with lots of great condos and attractive places to live near them, and you have planners and urbanists singing the praises of this lifestyle (aka doing the social marketing), it may be much easier to get people to accept higher prices on the fringe (in terms of development penalties or gas prices) than trying to get them to accept those first, before they see the possible alternatives. That means quite a bit of slack for some time: transit is likely to underperform while you supply spaces that nobody is ready to use yet, but must be there so that people see the option. You’d have to build up quite a bit in the areas slotted for infill because the central-area land prices are high and changing the relative prices between central locations and farther out is a steep problem granted where the coastal US is in terms of supply.

Shlomo Angel’s geographic models are not causal. There is a correlation, and a robust one, between petrol tax and the spread of human settlement. But it might be that petrol taxation–>urban form effects might work the other way around, or urban form—>petrol taxation.

It’s also dangerous to assume local land use changes amount to altered regional forms

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Changes in land use do necessarily amount to a change in regional form. I don’t think there are any downsides to trying land use strategies, but there are downsides to overestimating the climate effects of the strategy.

So I ruffled some feathers yesterday with my post, with twitter smarties telling me what’s what and calling the argument ridiculous and summarizing my post: “local land use change too hard! federal/state carbon taxes easy!”

Here’s a more accurate summary: “federal/state carbon taxes broad-based and potentially immediate! Regional form long-term and harder than people think!”

And so by emphasizing the latter and giving up on or underemphasizing the former, we are screwing up by not holding policy-makers at all levels accountable for both! Federal and state officials have punted the political hot potato of climate policy to cities, and I think we’ve allowed it–in fact, we have encouraged it by overemphasizing what cities might be able to accomplish. Cities are engines for change, we urbanists love to say. And they are. But cities and regions exist in larger policy contexts we should not ignore.

That’s enough exclamation points for now.

That said, the first tweet has an assumption in it that embodies a problem for me: the connections between local land use and regional form feels intuitively straightforward. What settlement density as a climate policy relies on, to make big changes, is regional form–aggregate changes that alter the commuting environment so that people get out of their cars.

It should be the case that higher permitted densities built parcel-by-parcel, development-by-development should accumulate into better regional form over time. After all, development-by-development is how we got sprawl, right?

Sort of.

As the research on sprawl matured, it became evident that sprawl was a bunch of different things: yes, tract housing and bad subdivisions were one set, but there were other things, as well: changing employment geographies and regional fragmentation were others, and the connections between them and single-use or restricted density zoning are more difficult to suss than intuition allows. Sure, single-use zoning isn’t helping. But how much of all this do local land use changes undo now that a great deal has been done?

To me, the move from the parcel or development level to the regional level is empirically and theoretically a lot like the move from micro to macro in economics. We know all these marginal decisions accumulate to trends in demand, etc, but even though we know this, the connections have been slow in emerging and damned hard to predict, let alone create policy for because the number of variables and units of analysis start to proliferate past what we can reliably measure or model. Or, necessarily, perceive.

Benjamin Ross chided me on Twitter and said, Hey, I wrote a book on this (He did, and it’s here, and you should buy and read it) and I’ve not read it yet (I bought it!), so maybe Benjamin has the handle on it we need, and I’m just behind. Jeffrey Sellers and team has some nice empirical research on regional political fragmentation, but they don’t get to the parcel level. Marc Schlossberg at the University of Washington has some very cool measurement approaches, but it’s a grounded approach and doesn’t systematically lay out a theory for how the parts accumulate into a whole.

The question becomes: Is US urban development not so path dependent that we can overcome aggregate phenomenon like existing regional form (and thus commuting patterns, and thus fuel use, and thus climate change) with better local land use choices (parcel-by-parcel)?

It’s a good question, and from my perspective, we don’t really have much to lose by trying it. Absolutely, let’s all change zoning right now. Or get rid of it and rely on nuisance law. I’m in! Big fan of graduated zoning that unbundles land from structures, and of Henry George, right here am I.

But I do think we do have a lot to lose by emphasizing this strategy and not much else.


1) We won’t all try it. Regional governance, despite years of discussing it, is weak and usually advisory, with jurisdictions internal to the region usually being adversarial towards each other and towards the regional governance body. Does it do the fight against sprawl any good if four out of ten jurisdictions change their zoning and growth controls and the other four raise their middle fingers and do not, thus taking as much of the dumb subdivisons as possible? Perhaps it’s marginally better than all 10 of the jurisdictions having bad zoning practices, but are four enough to move the dial? I suppose they could be if the four included the biggest jurisdictions like the city of Los Angeles. Even then, the potential for leakage on the policy is itself a reason to worry that it won’t work.

This is not an issue with single-jurisdiction regions, and those might do great. Horray! How much fuel consumption do those account for?

2) How much urbanization remains to be done in the US? We are at 81 percent now. This is a serious question. If the US changes its immigration policy towards greater inclusion, the answer could be “a lot.” If Milennials start forming households soon, the answer could be “quite a bit” in raw numbers but not percentages and who cares about percentages if the raw numbers stack up because percentages don’t consume fuel and people do. If Millenials in the US go the way of Europe and Australia, the answer could be “eh.”

The first is something we might force if we figured out how. That’s not shaping up to be a short, easy process, either. But if we sort it, all to the good.

For places with rapid urbanization, hey, no contest. Pick smart land use and growth regimes. But for the US?

Two strikes me as an exogenous change that we really don’t control. Redistributing people from the urban fringe works exactly how if we don’t have policies that pinch them in some way for being out there right along with our infill developments if we can’t secure infill developments fast enough to change the relative prices? In shrinking regions, we might have the right combo of relative prices, so ha! Shrinking towards density is a great idea. But let’s not act like shrinking is any less about distributing spoils than other issues in politics, facing the same fragmented political landscape that land use changes currently do.

I come back, again and again, to the good empirical work done by Shlomo Angel’s team at NYU. They have a nice book out on their work examining human settlement across the globe, and they have a lot to say about densifying.

Now, models with the limited number of units that cities provide are always a problem. But Angel is a competent empiricist. They caveat what they need to.

In this and prior research, the one variable that always comes out as significant and negatively related to the size of the urban footprint is always petrol taxation. It’s not zoning regimes, it’s not land use law, it’s not planning. It’s petrol taxation. Now Angel et al still have lots of ideas for how to manage land use towards density. But that petrol taxation variable is a big deal.

I’m not saying that carbon and petrol taxation are easy fights. I’m saying they are fights worth having.

I’m also saying that by turning away from those fights in favor of land use, we have created a policy environment for squirmish after squirmish after squirmish, and on and on in the fragmented political environment of US regions where winning the squirmish one part of the region can be readily undermined elsewhere in the region.

And these squirmishes are harder than they should be because the people involved in them do not face policy environments that make their preferred lifestyles more expensive than they are right now.

Tomorrow I have to teach, but on Thursday, I will make the opposite argument for why, in the US at least, we should try to supply density before we try to change carbon taxes or petrol taxes. I’m not sure I buy it, it’s worth talking about.

Maybe density hawks should look in the mirror a little when it comes to our mess of a climate policy

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: I am an old lady and have been in the universe of “hey, let’s curb car use for the environment” for roughly 30 years of my professional life. The city shaping strategies embraced among planners, designers and urbanists are an important way forward. But these strategies are also slow and incremental compared to immediate interventions like carbon taxes or, analogously, a price floor on fuels like gasoline. By being so loud about city shaping, and so quiet about more draconian and immediate measures like price floors on gasoline or gas taxes, city shapers have their own dirty hands when it comes to undermining action on climate change–that is, by offering policy-makers what seemed an easy-out means to shift policy action onto cities instead of on federal and state government. City shaping became a policy means to look like we were doing something when really, we were moving slowly. So while David Roberts and other urbanists want to yell at individual homeowners as selfish NIMBYs endangering the planet, they might want to take a minute to reflect how they, themselves, have contributed to the climate policy mess we live in–and to change their advocacy accordingly.

Brilliant student and friend Shane Phillips (whose blog you should be reading if you are not) shared via Fboo this piece from David Roberts at Vox , in which Roberts does a take down of Leonardo DiCaprio as a phoney-baloney climate hawk because DiCaprio supposedly endorsed the dreaded Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (learn more about it here, and because I am too lazy to do more linking, do a Google search to find the myriad criticisms out there of it; there’s plenty.) It turns out, DiCaprio had not endorsed the measure. Instead, DiCaprio appears to have had endorsed the idea of preservation in general, as do many people, including yours truly. Roberts had to caveat the statements about DiCaprio but left up his language about how people who oppose infill growth are climate deniers:

But if you live in a vibrant, growing area that’s creating jobs, where people want to move and live, and you are fighting that growth by advocating for policies that constrain it — because you love your view and your on-street parking, because of the “character of the neighborhood,” because you don’t want “those people” coming to your neighborhood on transit, because you’ve lucked into suburban idyll with all the urban amenities, because your home value rises the more housing supply constricts, because you’ve been led to believe that capping housing supply counteracts rather than accelerates gentrification — then no, sorry, you are not a climate hawk. You might even be some kind of, I don’t know, denier


Yeah, those homeowners are some bad people. It’s all about protecting their on-street parking and views, not about protecting the single major asset they own in hopes they won’t have to eat cat food during their retirement or give their kids a start in life. Selfish bastards. THEY are the ones keeping the backbone of America–the working class–living on the urban fringe, not corporate development that, when granted infill approvals, plunks down one luxury tower with insanely high building association fees after another and who, when given density bonuses up the wazoo, flounce around like they are living in A SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE if they are asked to provide a little low-income housing. Those guys there? They are just optimizing their value and profits. That’s teh Market. Just developers doing what Business Mens do. But individual homeowners who optimize on their assets? They are the worst.

(Ever notice that you don’t generally see big developers necessarily advocating for broad land use changes, despite being packed on many a city council and zoning board? Instead, they seek variances for their own individual projects. That’s because they, too, get a nice rent boost from the constrained housing supply when their projects luck into variances and other developers are kept out. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if we are going to yell at homeowners for gaming the system, we should probably note there is plenty of sauce to go around when it comes to urban players not sacrificing their own financial best interests for “society” or “the environment.”)

I’ve written before about my impatience with this way of framing homeowners as the villains here. On the one hand, movements need true believers like Roberts to advocate for change. If it hadn’t been for shrill public health people banging on about the evils of smoking, I doubt we would have had the culture shift to much healthier lifestyles we did around smoking. That’s all good. On the other hand, cities and smoking are not terribly analogous, and I think we’ve more than hit a strong backlash against changing urban neighborhoods, not to mention the very, very successful backlash on climate policy. I suppose powering through that with strong advocacy might work.

But people are smart, and they can see through thin justifications pretty fast. Oh, so your downtown luxury tower is saving the planet, taking cars off the road, is it? Why does it have seven floors of parking, then? And so on, and so forth.

For all Roberts’ confidence and general soundness, he contributes to this sort of thing by saying misleading things in his desire to be emphatic and produce Vox-style prose:

All the biggest, fastest ways to reduce carbon emissions are on the demand side; switching out supply for cleaner options, whether it’s solar power plants or electric cars, always takes longer. And there is no demand-side solution more potent than density.

To borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, wrong. This is wrong in a whole host of ways, depending on what he means by “potent.” Yes, absolutely, every urban model we have shows that density could yield us big emissions reductions. But those big gains are likely long-term gains, and there are plenty of short-term, broad-based demand-side strategies that promise to be both potent and immediate, like carbon taxation and its variants. Roberts writes about these and knows full well they are a big deal. He writes about carbon taxes beautifully in this other Vox piece. But in his desire to scold density limiters, he doesn’t mention the imperative of those immediate, short-term demandside policies. And that failure is a big problem, particularly when he is claiming that the best thing we can do is densify.

Why? Because changing urban form is at best a medium-term and at worst a long-term intervention, and time matters in climate solutions. And as we tell ourselves that “density will save us”, we are not doing some of those short-term demand reduction strategies, many of which could be damn potent if we put some teeth into them, that would get us well on our way to saving ourselves while we try to get infill development to amount to a hill of beans in the density and emissions-reductions department.

Density is not just a demand-side solution, as Roberts implies. Density is a supply variable, too (just about every variable in this type of construct has a dual). So Roberts simultaneously is bemoaning our inabilty to supply density “because politics” at the same time he tells us that density is the most potent demand-side reductions strategy for fuel use. So he’s stuck; are we really going to buy the idea that reshaping existing US metro regions will take less time to amount to sizable climate emissions reductions than fleet turnover? I have trouble with that assumption.

Yes, we would be able to make big gains in carbon emissions if we densified people off the road and into smaller housing units. The issue with climate emissions is not just how far you drive. We’d love to reduce driving for a million reasons besides emissions: crash deaths, time lost, etc etc. Fuel economy would be a great way to change the amount of emissions–carbon emitted is a very predictable function of fuel consumed. We could be improving fuel economy immediately even with revenue neutral price floors on gasoline (tax gas at a high level, give tax payers back their payments at tax-time. An imperfect solution for low-income drivers, but still workable, just as with the considerations to impoverished residents granted under Washington’s 732 carbon tax.)

Even with a revenue neutral price floor on gasoline, you have people immediately doing exactly what you want them doing while we are waiting for cities reshape: 1) think about whether it’s worth the cost to take the car out of the garage, and 2) choose more fuel efficiency at the time of car purchase. The US fleet is shamefully inefficient granted our wealth and technological capabilities, and while it takes time for a fleet to turn, we can get people to use their cars more efficiently and more thriftily now. (BTW, Obama was right: keep your damn tires properly inflated, for Lord’s sake.)

Again, short-term demand-side policies are not substitutes for city shaping policies. But neither are city-shaping policies substitutes for short-term regulation.

So what? It’s not like Roberts is against carbon taxes. Nope, but by falling into the trap of single-issue focus in his post here, he supplies the “density, density over all” narrative that has enabled the policy cherry-picking which has led us to where we are: we have many, many state and federal programs that give a strong thumb’s up (or in the case of California, legal requirements) that cities should reshape themselves, while short-term policies to use less gasoline…never happen. I have watched one federal administration come and go, making a big dealio about city re-shaping policies…with utter silence on Pigouvian gasoline taxes. With candidates running on gas tax holidays, no less. SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH. President Obama became my hero when he stood up to that nonsense for the terrible idea that it is.

Oh, but you say, the gasoline tax is a political nonstarter! Whereas we can make real gains with infill development because it’s so awesome.

The reason why gasoline taxes or price floors are politically contentious is that people would *feel them*. The reason why, for years, infill development and city reshaping policies were not politically hard is that many people didn’t really think it would involve them at all. Opponents to Agenda 21 were easily dismissed as cranks. Somebody else would live in an apartment somewhere else and take transit, and I could keep doing what I am doing. Whereas…raising gas prices means I, personally, have to start thinking now about my choices and perhaps sacrificing something I like.

With all our dialogues about how “seniors will want density” and “Milennials want density” and “OMG there is a yuuuuuuuuuge market for walkable bikable livable thisable thatable urban nabes!” we’ve created a narrative that suggests that those *other* people will save us with their natural-born preferences instead of the rest of us *also* having to leave the car in the garage to stay at home and read a book instead of drive here and there whenever we feel like it without thinking about the costs of that decision. We density advocates have been quick and ready to condemn “technology will save us” thinking as a wishful distraction; we have never had the self-reflection to think our own marketing and branding for density could have a similar wishful thinking aspect to them when it came to letting people cherrypick approaches that delayed and deferred action “until later” and “not in my backyard” rather than going for immediate, broad-based changes.

In other words, we have relied politically on people’s supposition density wouldn’t happen in their backyards to push our policy agenda further than we might have gotten with broad-based fights over penalizing fuel use…and now are surprised that that NIMBYism rears its head once the density agenda moves from abstract concepts to real-world implementation?

What the NII should teach us is that the days of assuming that infill development is politically easy are well and truly over. By being unwilling or unpredictable allies in the fight for gas taxes or carbon taxes, density advocates chose the political battles that the NII and local opposition everywhere now manifests. But infill projects in action bring home the sacrifices that infill entails: the loss of parking, the loss of views, the changing neighborhoods, etc etc. And people will find ways to fight what they don’t like. It’s the nature of democratic politics.

My reservations about Measure M (I’m so sorry, I feel bad, but I have them. I wish I didn’t. But I do.)

I am, in general, a supporter of public transit, and I have, in general, supported Metro-sponsored transit sales taxes before. Measure M is making me crazy. I moderated a terrific panel at USC yesterday with a public finance expert, Mark Phillips, a political scientist, Jeff Sellers, a representative from Metro to make sure we got the agency intel, Stephanie Wiggins, and Executive Director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, Damien Goodmon. They were terrific, and I will post the link to the session when it’s online.

So what is Measure M? Here’s is Metro’s informational page on it., where you see how they split the money by mode, what the planned projects are, the increment the tax will cost (about $25 per household). My problems:

1) $25 per household is misleading, and how much wage increase did people get to cover that last year?
2) Too much rail in dumb spots and underfunding/delaying good rail projects for political concessions
3) Deadweight losses at 10 percent are about 4 times the out-of-pocket costs of the tax, and again, wage growth versus housing cost growth; and
4) This is the last increment we are likely to get any time soon…is this how we want to use that increment?
5) I’d really like an answer on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative before we commit these funds.
6) Metro will be back if this one fails, no matter what they say.

Edited to note: Twitter smarties Erik Griswold @erikgriswold and John Llyod (@boyonabike62)note that Measure M funding can’t go to the Ontario airport LRT as it is out of county. Dang it, and I was having fun mocking it. But that does not help with me with my Vermont grump. I should note that I think LRT is overemphasized in the project list more generally, but that itself wouldn’t get me to vote no. My big one is the NII one.

1)….about that $25 per household
$25 dollars per household, no big deal, right? But let’s keep in mind that’s on top of the existing percentage, which is high. Because California’s sales tax laws are pretty well-crafted, our resident tax economist Mark Philips estimated for the panel that about a third of income is spent on items subject to the tax, so we are, with this measure, essentially taking a total of 10 percent of that third. If I am right there, that’s a decent chunk, and yes, we are already paying the prior 9 pennies/dollar, but Measure R *was* going to sunset, which gives some of it back to us…but not if Measure M passes. That makes R permanent for all practical purposes , and the Measure M hike will be permanent. It is a big increase dressed up like a small increase, and while sales taxes are paid a little at time, it’s already costly to live in Southern California without digging into everybody’s pockets even more.

Just about all the evidence from the empirical research on sales taxes shows them to be shifted onto consumers.

I’d just like to see another couple years of strong regional wage growth before I think we should take another increment of it.

2) LRT where BRT should be, BRT where LRT should be
That said, it might be worth it if we loved the projects, and there are some very good projects on the list.

There are, however, also places that show planning by politics, and while planning is always political, it’s possible that the sausage-making process winds up creating stinkers now and then that should be sent back to the drawing board. Political science faculty \ Jeff Sellers served on the panel, and he pointed out that politically forged project lists at the ballot box may, or may not, reflect good mobility priorities. Everybody hates pork, but pork is the grease that spins the wheels. It’s interesting to me that pork has moved to the regional level now that at the federal level all the discretionary money gets programmed so fast. That said, there is smart pork and dumb pork, and then there is who is given prunes so that others can have pork.** I’m unhappy with one of the prunes, in particular.

Fabulous panelist Damien Goodmon, Executive Director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, noted one of the worst (this is so bad, even Metro’s wonderful reps did not have much to say on it.) A dedicated BRT on Vermont is not a real solution. Vermont is one of the most congested corridors near LA’s downtown, and USC is either the largest or the second largest employer in LA County. Yes, it’s already served by the Expo Line, but it would be nice to have a stop somewhere along the northwest side of campus, too, where travelers coming from the westside on the purple line could transfer at Wilshire and Vermont. But with LRT on Vermont, you get both the close-to-DTLA bump, the big employer bump, and the connectivity to exisitng lines bump (Purple Line and Exp Line).

But no, a BRT in the project.

However, that bustling hub of regional importance, the Ontario airport, has an LRT project tucked in. Now, I thought we were doing all these infill projects to avoid sprawl, and LRT out in Ontario strikes me as an obvious way of boosting a regional center way out on the suburban fringe, which strikes me as sprawl-inducing of the first order. (oh noes, rail never causes sprawl! Except when it does.) In fairness, the LAX expansion plans have generally included upping the traffic out of other regional airports, including Ontario. But: didn’t we just promise ourselves the shiny high speed rail system so that we didn’t have to boost all that air travel? Ok, I know: it’s possible we could use both. But that’s one problem of planning spread across fragmented political jurisdictions. CAHSRA can promise one set of things while LAX and Ontario pursue another set of things, and while statewide transportation plans are required, they aren’t really binding and nobody really pays attention to them when there is money on the table.

BRT shouldn’t be used as a political sot. It should be used where semi-rapid transit would be a nice idea. I do think you can get really good operating improvements with it. But not on corridors already so congested that the dedicated lane is going to clutter with drivers tempted to jump in. And beyond that, the “having it both ways with BRT” transit advocacy. When transit advocates want rail, BRT gets downplayed and problematized as “only semirapid” transit, but well, it’s good enough for the people along Vermont. It’s not good enough for West Hollywood, but it’s good enough along Vermont. It would be somewhat of an improvement. But not enough; like Wilshire, Vermont is an obvious rail corridor south at least to Expo under current conditions. It would probably work nicely south of Expo, too, buy much of the commercial density is north of that. That said, building south of Expo might be a chance to boost up some of the commercial activity for south LA. So LRT is absolutely vital and the best and worth every penny when it comes to voter-rich suburbs, but BRT is a “viable improvement” in the actual urban core of the region.

This rankles.

3) ….about that $25, it doesn’t count the deadweight loss associated with going up to 10 percent, which is a big threshold in the empirical literature on sales taxes

Deadweight losses occur because a tax stops people from doing something they might have done had there been no tax. Mark Phillips has a great example he shared with me from his class: if we tax move tickets so high nobody goes to the movies anymore, nobody would be out any money, but people will probably miss going to the movies. That second is the deadweight loss.

The empirical evidence on deadweight losses suggest they grow, in an nonlinear way, as the tax rate gets higher. When Prop A and C were passed, we were at a lower threshold overall rate. At 10 percent, we are generally talking about deadweight losses at about 4 times the amount of out-of-pocket costs (again, quoting Dr. Phillips, but that jibes with what I’ve read.)

Now, with good, strong wage growth, this effect may not dominate. But it would be nice to see a stronger showing there, esp vis-a-vis housing cost inflation in the region. Alternatively, we could try to tell ourselves that this wonderful set of plans in Measure M would make it so that people could ditch their cars and that would be a big, big savings. That is a very sound argument, and I am generally sympathetic to it, except for the futureness of the car savings and the presentness of the costs to LA residents. Give me another couple years of good regional growth, and I would feel better about the nowness of the cost stream.

4) Because of #3, I think this is the last increment on the local option sales tax that we are going to get, and do we really want to use it this way?

Not on our schools, not on an earthquake rebuilding fund…not on any of those things? I actually don’t know that I would rather use it for something else. It’s just got me a little worried.

5) I’d really like an answer on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative before we commit these funds.

This is not Metro’s fault. They try to place these measures during presidential election years because those years give us good voter turn-out, and that’s worked to Metro’s favor in general. I get it, I do.

But NII ballot-hopped to the March ballot, and damn it, regardless of what its proponents say it will do, it is unpredictable whether it will pass, and if it does, what it will do. As I have noted, supply-side housing people say that the NII will stop development and worsen housing supply constraints, thereby worsening LA’s affordability crisis. I believe them. NII proponents say that will not happen; they say it will just prevent developers (not naming any names here, but his name rhymes with Effry Almer) from putting up monstrosities. They don’t want to stop housing; they just want to stop behemoths from being planted on them. Who to believe? Both. (It’s possible, btw, that if the NII succeeds, it will make the westside unavailable for development so that the money people will have to start looking at places along the Blue Line, for instance. That wouldn’t be terrible.)

Anyway, to the degree that the NII might delay land use changes even more in LA, it’s a problem looming on the horizon for Metro. What Measure M does is increase transit supply. That’s a good thing…but only if there is demand, and the NII could well make it hard to redistribute housing geographically in the region to support transit. That means, if both Measure M and NII pass, we would be committing billions to supplying a system permanently hamstrung on the demand side.

I’d be a lot easier in my mind voting on M if I knew for sure the NII had failed, or, if it passes, how it was functioning in practice in LA development.

6) Metro will be back if this fails this time out, no matter what they say.

Phil Washington, Metro CEO, has said Metro won’t be doing this again if this doesn’t pass. #blesshisheart. It’s a hassle for Metro, and I get why he’d see things that way: it’s an expensive, time-consuming process to keep doing these project lists and negotiations.

However, Mr. Washington will ride off into the sunset in a few years. Like all public managers of high profile agencies, he will pass as they all pass. In Mr. Washington’s case, I suspect his will be to another high-ranking, plum position because he seems good at his job. But he, as all others before, will not be CEO forever. And with billions out there in the LA County tax base, Metro will come back if this one fails. It would be silly of them not to.

Then I would have my answer on NII, and I would know what regional growth is shaping up to.

I honestly do not know how I am voting on this one. I’m sad, too, because normally I can count on myself to say yes on these things.

*I should note that I vastly prefer prunes to pork, but I don’t think most people do.

Little free libraries in San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo

I’ve been working on some research on community exchange boxes (Chapter 10 of the book), and most of my research has been online. But yesterday I took out the camera and Andy drove me to look at some in South Orange county, CA.

Snapped this LFL and its steward while she was loading up her car! Felt like a bit of heel as the family was going on an outing, but she very kindly answered my questions quickly anyway.


This is another good one in Mission Viejo. This one is on a cul-de-sac:


Of all I surveyed yesterday, this one here had the best selection of books for my tastes:


From which I scored this baby:

14713537 10154985467926029 920235106309236902 n

I lurrrrrrrrrrve Chaim Potok. I’d highly recommend him as an adult young adult writer. I’ve not read this one, so I’m looking forward. And yes, we have a box of books in the car so that if I take book, I can leave one, too.

This one I found in San Juan Capistrano, though, is my favorite:
It’s on one of those little streets in SJC where there are no sidewalks but the streets are supernarrow so cars are going slow, and the houses are all tucked up against each other with nice, mature gardens in the front.

Donald Trump: white spatial fear and concern trolling, 2016 edition

I’ve noted in various places on social media that Trump’s campaign is struggling simply because he doesn’t know to campaign. The tapes are bad, but his followers had a passel of ready-made excuses for that. The major problem for Trump is the David Duke factor; he’s got people crawling out of the woodwork who celebrate the fact that Trump readily insults all the people they, themselves, hate–one of my students told a chilling story about dudes in Trump shirts at his gym sporting swastika tats, eyuch–and if you play nice with nonwhite constituencies, then those trogs get mad and see you as a sell-out. And it’s pretty clear that Trump shares the beliefs about The African-Americans, and The Mexicans and The Muslims and The Jews (the guys in the yarmulkes), so that’s his gig, too. He flourishes there. Then there’s…CHINA.

One sticking point for Trump in last night’s debate concerned his tendency to conflate “inner city” and “poor” and “black.” That construct is pretty dated if it was ever true. Certainly, there are impoverished inner ring suburbs, but many of those were also immigrant gateways over the last century as well as being African American. But the trope that black=inner city is very convenient for the real estate mind. African American neighborhoods in cities have been targeted time and time again for what Jane Jacobs’ calls “cataclysmic money”–the type of money that bulldozes you out and other people in, instead of the sort of money that might help people in neighborhoods gain wealth. The “African American Inner City” as a place of poverty and disorder is a construct, and it’s one that enables the constant rationale for “cleaning up” blight that allows those with cataclysmic money to come in and take–moving moneyed folk in, getting those without money out.

The binary “suburbs=white, rich, safe” and “inner cities=black, poor, dangerous” is one that should have died long ago. This spatial binary is a dog whistle trope wrapped up in a good bit of Clive Bundyish concern trolling. It appeals to people in rural areas who see cities as riots, crime, and decay even though by every measure urban quality of life, and wealth, has gone up year after year.

Suburbs, too, come in all flavors. There are rich white ones and poor white ones, and rich ones with Latinos in them and poor ones with Latinos in them, and so on, and so forth. There are wealthy black suburbs that go back close to 100 years in our metro regions (Uniondale, Baldwin Hills, etc).

But the key coalition for Trump concerns the white suburbs and the white rural residents who think they know what’s best for places they fear and don’t get to get know: those black, black areas. But they do so, magnanimously: black people do not need access to stable credit, tenure security, school fiscal enhancement, or business opportunity, or other things that might make the money flow in their direction. They need police. More and more and more of those police. Because the police mean order, and order is good. And once everything is orderly, then the Decent Black People(TM) can bootstrap themselves on up the American dream. Concern trolling 101: what is good for Those People also happens to be thing that I think will maintain the status quo and my personal property.

Peter Higgs and #slowscholarshp in the Guardian

It was a little weird to get up and read an interview in the Guardian UK with Peter Higgs on his way to accept the Nobel Prize in Physics…odd because I thought that he’d already won that. Higgs sounds a bit of curmudgeon: no televsion, no email (boy that sounds awesome), no web (but how does he view cat videos???)

He’s got a nice bit in there about how he just wouldn’t fit today’s mold of churning out paper after paper. The line about peace and quiet is particularly apt:

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.

Edinburgh University’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.

Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’ “

Peer reviewing pet peeves

So I have been doing the scholarly gig for awhile, and I have Opinions. Here are some of my pet peeves that reviewers do, in no particular order.

  • saying that work is not valid because it’s qualitative work, and therefore, not valid, after agreed to study qualitative work

    There it is, inevitably, a complaint about qualitative methods since you can’t generalize, even though you have not generalized in your paper, the paper is simply not generalizable and thus should not be published. Um, yeah, we know; all of us took research design, sweetie, all of us; don’t agree to review qualitative work if you have the belief that the only work that should be published is generalizable in the social science sense of the word. You already know you are going to recommend rejecting the paper based on method alone, and anybody who agrees to review a paper just so they can have the petty joy of hitting “reject” is a dick.

    Let somebody who believes the methods well enough to distinguish when they have been done properly. Otherwise you have appointed yourself the epistemology sheriff in town and nobody who isn’t a philosopher needs an epistemology sheriff in their town.

  • banging on about one hypothetical question after another that are really only tangentially about the question at hand

    Sigh; go write your own papers that answer these questions then and bloody tell me whether I’ve answered the question that I actually posed in the damn paper well enough to merit a contribution.

  • hand-wringing about how this particular paper didn’t solve every outstanding question in the field

    Oh, gosh, you mean the paper didn’t solve the dispute between Rawls and Harsayani and the dispute between neo-marxists and postmodernists and didn’t resolve the man-nature dichotomy? Jeez, where did this author get a degree? The correspondence school PhD from the University of Rancho Cucamonga?

  • lecturing and/or condescending about “the rich literature in yada yada “that this author does not seem to know.”
  • That last one really gets me. As soon I read that hackneyed phrase “there is a rich literature”…I’m thinking, “would you shut the hell up?”

    Reviewers have no evidence on what an author knows and what they don’t know based on the 7000 words in any given manuscript. Maybe I do know that literature and I just didn’t think it was germane. Or I just couldn’t wedge it into the manuscript. At some point, the onus is, in fact, on a reviewer to explain why “this rich literature” is germane to the point, or else you look like a

    a) somebody who is playing a childish “I gotcha” game (“I know something you don’t know neeeeener neeeeeener neeener.” OR

    b) somebody angling to get yourself cited.

    Really, I got no problems with (b). We all the know the score, and while it is unseemly to use your power as a reviewer for your own agenda, I’m willing to grant that it’s nowhere near Mussolini’s level when it comes to abuse of power. We will all live with these petty grabs, as long as reviewers have enough decency to know the limits. (Don’t reject a paper because it failed to cite you; I have seen reviewers do this, and, um, no.)

    If you are going to try to squeeze a citation for yourself out of it…then damn it, just cut to the chase:

    “The framing here suffers because it needs to draw somewhat from the extant research on X. In that literature, they have found some important things about Q and R that strike me as germane to the question about yada. Some key explorations in that literature are One Cite, Two Cite, Three Cite, My Cite. Those might help fix this problem.”

    The freaking end. Spare us all the “I know a literature youuuuuuuu doooooon’t knooooooooow.”

  • Taking things personally or whining when the author explains why you are wrong and they are right.
  • Ok, I get that I am snarky in print (I am also snarky in person), but honestly, by the time you read my letter, I’ve edited out all I really wanted to say and just the left the “I’m right, you’re wrong” part. Don’t go blathering on for pages about how something is wrong, with italics and various other emphatic phrasing, if you aren’t going to expect an author to come back at you with a similarly strong opinion. If you feel strongly about a point, say so and say why and move on–and expect that authors are going to feel strongly about some points, too.

    On one of my last papers, I had to deal with a reviewer who demanded we add another case study, and I said I wasn’t willing to do that because it diluted the point of what was, on its face, an interesting single case. I did point out that I understood the social science problems, and that it is perfectly valid to decide in a specific journal that they aren’t interested in historical methods in general, and if that really is an editorial choice for this journal, then that’s certainly understandable and we could take the paper to a history journal.

    This reviewer comes back, complains that I am being mean, and whines that he or she “spends a lot of time and thought in reviewing” and by the time I am reading that sentence, I’m ready to barf.

    Would you look out for your own ego? You didn’t seem to be terribly worried about mine when you went on lecturing me for paragraphs about the purpose of multiple case study design, like I’m undergraduate who didn’t read the Yin book.

    Really? You spend time and thought reviewing? Ya think you are the only sailor on the Pequod here? I review on average about 30 papers a year, and have done so for about five years, and that’s not counting the papers I do for lots of PhD students and young scholars personally. I have been a reviewer on several of the last “best paper” award winners, and I review just about every book proposal that comes my way. Ok? You know what that and $1.75 gets us? A ride on the bus. It’s my job. I try to do a good job, and I’m glad that this reviewer, too, tries to do a good job, but please stop making a tussle about who is right or wrong about something–particularly something that may come down to taste and editorial preferences–about you.

  • Trying to kill a paper because the author has not sufficiently genuflected and changed the things you thought needed changing.
  • For one thing, I try to say to authors “hey, I think this here might be a big deal” versus “this here is a small deal.” If an author doesn’t take your suggestions, it’s because they think you are wrong. That’s ok. People are wrong sometimes. Sometimes, people are wrong about other people being wrong. It happens, too.

    There are two sides to this. If an author has blown off something I consider to be a big deal, I want to know the reason. Maybe it’s a good reason I didn’t think of.

    And some writers really are wasting your time as a reviewer: they don’t care what you think and they are too lazy to revise. Now, there are many, many complaints that people can make about me, but one is not that I am insufficiently responsive to reviwers. I do a lot to deal with their suggestions, and if somebody has got an important point, I will turn myself inside out to deal with it.

    But reviewers are not customers at a Burger King where they have a right to have it their way just because they were kind enough to serve as reviewers. There has to be a give-and-take, and while I want my time and energy respected as a reviewer, authors deserve to retain authorial control over the manuscript’s scope, voice, and vision. If they give me a good reason for why they are right and I am not, then that’s the end of it. I might have additional concerns, but those are a separate conversation. It’s not my paper, it’s theirs.

    If I have authors who do not take my suggestions seriously, I make a decision based on what is there. If I really do think the manuscript should be rejected based on the problem I pointed out, I do that. If these are just matters of improvement, but the paper is acceptable, I say that they should improve the manuscript but I’m out as a reviewer and the paper is basically acceptable if less than what it could be with more revision. Nobody needs a reviewer they aren’t listening to, and I got other stuff to do.

    Once I had a problem with a multi-case study manuscript where I objected to how the cases were presented. I thought the authors were getting in their own way, and it wasn’t clear that they had a control. I suggested changing the way the cases were presented, and/or adding a case if they didn’t actually have a control.

    This struck me at the time as a pretty big deal.The paper just read like a meandering mess to me, and other reviewers seemed to me to be reacting to the problems in organization. Organizing multiple cases is hard. The journal editor strongly emphasized another reviewer’s comments, instead of mine, and I shrugged and went on with my life, even though I thought the editor was making a mistake.

    The author’s came back to me with the response “It’s always possible to suggest another case, but doing so adds nothing new, so we did not take this suggestion.”

    Ok, but the suggestion had also included the possibility of reorganizing and clarifying if they already had a sense of what the case controls were. I read the paper and had the exact same problem, so I wrote a short second round review and said, “hey, this paper’s structure and organization is not helping it. I strongly advise re-outlining it for clarity…” and then I made a couple of suggestions.

    The journal editor again did not emphasize my suggestion, so it came back from the second revision with the same smelly pile of organizational problems it had all along, and I refused to review it. I told the editor that I’d told both him and the authors twice before what the problem was, they didn’t listen to me, and now he’d put the authors through two rounds of revisions, and my only suggestion was to rewrite the entire first half. He had two other reviewers who hated the paper by now and wanted to reject it, and the editor actually called me on the phone and said he needed me to step in because he was neither a method nor content expert. I said that I didn’t have any other critiques besides the one I’d already made, to no avail, twice before.

    This struck me–and the editor agreed–as a mishap in editing. Perhaps because I wasn’t emphatic enough in my original review, both he and the authors missed that my point was a pretty important one. They had a paper they had revised multiple times, and the only thing I could add at this point was a suggestion that could potentially lead to a great deal of revision–restructuring work is sometimes not at all straightforward–and that I also couldn’t recommend publishing unless that work were undertaken, and that we were not here because I hadn’t pointed it out before, but because the editor hadn’t noticed that I was saying that something that was a basic problem for the manuscript. This was a great editor, too. He just didn’t see it. Maybe I should have yelled and screamed as the paper was heading for the cliff, but I think pointing out the cliff multiple times is sufficient to the point.

    The editor accepted the paper, warts and all, which is fine. I personally wouldn’t have, but I am rather famous for rewriting and overwriting and perfectionism and maybe I was wrong. Maybe the authors and other people see the connections in the structure that I never did.