Normalizing versus learning to cope with failure and rejection

This week, Twitter saw the advent of a hashtag I’m kind of conflicted about: #ShareYourRejection. It was primarily for writers because there rejection is everyday, even for established writers, and because you have to contend with it. I brought it into academic Twitter because I think these things are equally as important for academics, specifically young academics…but I have to remind myself a lot, too, and I am not young by any means.

The criticism arises that the ability to share your rejections and failures openly is a function of privilege. Undoubtedly. There is part of me, however, that thinks it’s a good use of privilege, to show that even those whom you may think are past all that are not. Most definitely not.

Some of these stories turned into humblebrags: this editor rejected me, another one finally took the book and it went on to win awards etc and then that editor died of shame. I think sometimes even these stories can be helpful. Marty Wachs told me a story of somewhat similar ilk, not at all humblebraggy, that sustained me through many rejections and that I still tell to my own students.

My shared stories of rejection were not nearly as triumphant. These involved my advisor rejecting me for a book editor job when he was a journal editor–without a word of “sorry, kid, I had to go another direction” and my colleagues rejecting me for a leadership position here.

I have never gotten over these, and I should. A smarter, tougher, more seasoned academic would put it away, compartmentalize it, not think about it. Instead, though each happened years ago, they still hurt, and I don’t have anything triumphant about them to relate now.

Actually, a bit of schadenfreude, I guess. By shooting me down when I tried to lead at USC, my colleagues gave me the time and space, as I changed from ambitious young faculty member to jaded older faculty member, to learn that I was perfectly happy *not* leading anything at USC (or anywhere else).

People in normal organizations will wonder why that matters. Academics will understand that is a major, major problem to have tenured faculty who have no interest in running things. I remember when I was talking with John Randolph, a colleague of mine at VT, about it and he shook his head. “They are going to regret that.”

Nobody mentored me out of this problem, and I’ve never wrapped my own head around it to come up with other ideas, so I never got over it, and now I am pretty convinced that my lack of ambition towards other scholarly roles is just as well because I would probably be *inherently* bad at them. We’ll likely not know now.

These two moments of rejection hurt so much because they are those that remind one that you just aren’t a favored child–and I never was one. If you have autism or Asperger’s, you are never the favored child. You are loved *despite* who you are. You are not easy. You are awkward, weird, often embarrassing. Going places with you involves shame. It’s clear to everybody that you are burden instead of a joy. You don’t relate to people the right way. When you are never golden child, you know it. And it hurts. And reminders of that hurt sting, even as you grow into the person you are and the realization that for you, at least, to be is to be singular, alone, with the human relations extended to you caveated, asterisked.

Book recommendation: I really liked Gavin Shatkin’s Cities for Profit: The Real Estate Turn in Asian Cities

Info first: I am not paid to review books here, nor do publishers seek out my attention, nor do I sell advertising. I’m just hanging out here, talking about what I think.

Here is the cover, which I don’t love but as we know, that’s not the author’s fault. My problem is that it looks like a lot of other covers. I get why book designers do this for Los Angeles, and it’s not as though freeways can’t represent the Asian megacities. But it just makes the book more generic than it is.


It’s available from Cornell University Press, in paperback (still speedy, but much better than the hardback), and it’s definitely worth a look in your university library if you can find a copy.

Shatkin is a terrific writer and thinker, and in this book he discusses the “real estate turn” in Asian cities with a focus on mega projects in Jakarta, Kolkata, and Chongqing. I didn’t keep track of the number of projects he discusses in each of these cities, but it’s quite a few, so much so that I had to make a little graph to keep track of them. As it is, he finds a lot of common factors across these projects, and one of the most notable is the cities’ willingness to change the value of land underneath people and shake them off it like grains of sand from a beach towel (my characterization, not his, which is much more careful).

In particular, Shatkin highlights the governing dynamics of urban very large planned urban developments (what some of us call MegaProjects). When these cities seek major redevelopment, they aren’t mucking around: the Bukit Jonggol Asri development in just south of Jakarta comprised of 30,000 hectares, which was about half the size of Jakarta’s entire geographic footprint at the time.

Shatkin’s story is one about economic elites controlling city developments agendas in new, brash ways, with CEO politicians driving the decision-making. We’ve always had giant-ego CEOs extending their leadership into city-making and planned urban developments. They are always the smartest boy urbanist in any room. This is different, however, from PUDs of the past, notably for their displacement and market dominance potential.

One case study, Magarpatta City, Shatkin portrays as a qualified success in presenting an alternative model to corporate control over vast swaths of urban land. Instead, a collective of farming families there worked ahead of the development they could see coming from the growth of the Pune, a big IT center. But Shatkin asks the key question: is this model replicable? And the answer is likely no. The families are far from impoverished peasants: they are instead a group of market-dominant, related families who wielded significant political and economic power through Pune’s sugar industry. This is a story about elites swapping horses with other elites instead of what has appeared throughout the rest of the urbanizing globe: step 1 take from poor people based on some modernization or modernization rationale, step 2 build, baby, build; step 3 watch the money fall into specific pockets.

For students reading, please pay attention to his methods. The key to rigor in qualitative research is triangulating evidence from multiple sources, if you can possibly do so. Here are Shatkin’s sources:

interviews, site visits, government and nongovernmental organization reports and data,plans, architectural renderings, annual reports and promotional materials from developers, and newspaper and other media accounts.

And while he’s not strict or tedious about triangulating, he does fine. He’s got the receipts, as they say.

Policy expertise versus policy loudmouths, yet more on rent control

So a self-appointed policy expert with 76 followers came at me yesterday to explain that rent control is just plain bad governance, has nothing to do with capitalism/socialism or labor no matter how much armchair rhetoric I do on it. Rent control harms communities period, the end, there is no debate.

This person has to be a troll trying to waste my time because that comment is just silly.


Of course, there are only about eleventy billion case histories, from around 1845 onward (props to whoever guesses the references) on the political economy of development coalitions showing how renters and communities are harmed rather routinely by new development. I am going to highlight one of my favorite books from this year later in the week on just this topic.

Why do the anti-rent control studies get to rule the day for policy but not the abundant evidence we have that development itself can cause tremendous harm to impoverished people and renters? Because unlike we scientifical neoclassically trained economists, those little community studies are done by people with a (gasp!) political agenda! Unlike wonderful, objective us. Our studies are just so durn wonderful that our Complete Objectivity(TM) affirms our priors. Yay,us.

If you actually believe this, I got a fancy bridge in New York to sell you.

Thus, Richard Green basically demonstrates why he is one of my favorite colleagues:

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There you have the difference between an actual policy expert and some loudmouth who thinks his beliefs are answers. Anybody who studies policy knows seriously that we don’t know as much as we’d really like to. We have to make decisions with imperfect information–otherwise we would get nothing done. And waiting too long to do something can be just as bad, if not worse, than doing nothing.

But all that should make us go forward with humility and flexibility. A great deal of policy is judgment, sadly. Richard’s judgment on rent control is “no.” I get why Richard reads the literature the way he does.

My judgment is…”I wouldn’t rule it out right away granted our existing conditions. There are some debatable things here. What is the specific proposal?” No, I wouldn’t get on board with a policy covering all LA County in perpetuity. But around a specific development project instead of limp “community benefits” nobody delivers? I’d read the proposal, for sure.


Now, Richard is an economist and a MAN and all, and he’s taking my “It’s kinda debatable” seriously even if he is a no, so can ya just respect him a little and get outta my face?

So here’s another one of my genuinely brilliant colleagues: Antonio Bento.

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Now, you would have to be some special onions to be smarter than Antonio even if you have convinced yourself you are smarter than me because Antonio and Richard are both very sharp. And Antonio is willing to grant I have a point– noting that ‘second-best’ part.

Ultimately, I have questions about just how big a trough we have in calling something “second-best” versus “third-best” versus “oh ratpoop, it’s all FUBAR” when it comes to housing and land. When I get musing about UBIs, people jump on me and say “landlords will just up rents by X amount.” Now that is a straight-up market power argument even if it’s not couched as such. There are always theoretical and empirical questions, and these questions are not analytically straightforward by any means.

When you think about it, all I am really saying is that if you want to take rent control off the table and you want it to stay off, you should probably come up with a better idea for renters and laborers than “Oh, just let us build what we want, it will trickle down in time. We’ll take care of ya.” Otherwise people will use democratic politics to use whatever influence they can vis-a-vis the long odds of development politics against them.

And they should.

Cleaning up some points on my rent control and location monopolies post

So I didn’t get as much nastiness about my rent control post as I thought I would, but I did get some, including some misreadings.

I would love to do one of those cool screen shots with stuff highlighted, but I had two threads take off on Twitter and these comments got buried, so I will give you the gist.

One smartest boy urbanist corrects me to say that it’s “hyperbolic and misleading” to refer to land markets as noncompetitive.

Somebody else without their head up their bottom could respond “Isn’t it a little misleading to say noncompetitive? It’s imperfectly competitive.” I would have responded nicely there. We could have had the following chat.

But alas, smartest boys do not like it when their cherished concepts are poked at, let alone by mere women, and IT HAS TO BE WRONG that urban land markets aren’t sufficiently competitive for efficient outcomes BECAUSE I DON’T WANT THAT PREMISE TO BE TRUE.

Only this dude doesn’t know what he’s talking about because we (and that includes me) really have no idea how competitive land markets in most cities are because data on who owns what is hard to get. And it’s hard to get for good reasons and bad reasons. And even when we can get names and property tax rolls, which firms own what holding companies would require some extensive legwork and/or witchcraft.

Beyond that, it’s hard to know exactly how much market power a firm or a small collection of firms have to have before we put a special label on them as oligopolies. Some markets are obvious: effective cartel formation and behaviors are good signs that you have an oligarchy.

I took an entire class when I was in grad school on how to measure market dominance. It was a great class, co-taught by a law professor and one of my favorite econ profs (Professor John Solow), centered on the question how much market power do firms have to possess before anti-trust laws are violated?

I’m arguing that if urban land markets have reached a point where they are not sufficiently competitive, then “teh market” potentially has a real problem for social welfare even if we got rid all gubmint land use regulation tomorrow.

Remember, we start from the premise that cities are special places for land markets. Property rights in part mean you have monopoly control over the thing you own: in cities, owning a parcel of land means you own not just whatever building but the land itself and thus its location. And it’s that third thing where monopoly control and market power strike me as potentially bad for social welfare and becomes very limited in terms of competition, especially with infill strategies.

It’s why land assembly becomes such a headache, for one.

Here’s another example. For about 5 years straight, I sat through one NLF location bid after another in LA. I don’t know much about stadia, so I shrugged. We had three proposals of varying seriousness. I had very smart real estate people tell me about why each of those locations were viable, and I had very smart real estate people tell me about why only one of them were viable, and of the latter, I encountered advocates of all three locations as “the One.” It just goes to show you how predicting the future is a) required and b) all screwed up.

I have no idea who was right there. I’m sure that having three locations rather than just one made some difference with the NFL (speaking of noncompetitive markets), and it made those locations compete to some degree, but once the Inglewood decision was made, everything about the parcels surrounding that location changed overnight in ways that other locations do not get compete in.

In theory, people who value the location will outbid others to be next to the stadium. Yay, efficiency! In practice, we just handed landowners a huge increment in asset value (that we won’t tax them on particularly effectively in California) which means land speculation is a nice, no-work alternative to building stuff. And it hands little but a headache to existing renters, unless they want and can afford stadium access.

This problem about monopoly control over locations becomes an issue with transit-oriented development strategies as well. Don’t get me wrong. They are good strategies! We want them. But there is a station area land bonus (if we are investing in transit properly); it’s unearned; and you can’t get that proximity everywhere. If the network is sufficiently ubiquitous and the transit ubiquitous frequent, then this becomes less a problem. Networks, even great transit networks, however, are never so ubiquitous, and service seldom so frequent, and we are a good long ways from those ever being the case in LA.

Point 2: Well, this is an interesting idea about location monopolies and all, but I don’t know that rent control is the answer.

First, of all, I didn’t say that rent control was the answer. I said it was an answer. In particular, it’s one of few regulatory tools that labor has to try to advance its interests vis-a-vis government capture among capital and land owners.

The question with all these of these various land use regulations, for me, always comes down to which ones are causes of market distortions (all of them) and which ones are symptoms of market distortions (all of them)? That makes for a messy analysis, but one that strikes me as far more useful and realistic than market analyses that pretend market power in land markets is not a political issue from the get-go.

Rent control is a lot like unions or minimum wage laws. Scratch a neoclassically trained economist, and you will get in response to any of these OMG these will hurt poor people! We mustn’t do them!

Well, then entire capitalist system can harm poor people, too. Objecting to this one part of it–rent–becoming somewhat less punitive for a subset of people strikes me as a little much, even if those people benefit at the cost of other people in similar situations to theirs.

For a parallel, we’ve had Trumpites singing about growth and unemployment. But who cares about growth if labor never gets a portion of it? And it’s great that some people got jobs and benefited. But lots of people losing health care (not to mention the future residents stuck with our budget deficit) lose out.

We can’t pretend that this system exists independent of politics, nor should we treat small fish organizing democratically to protect what they have as prima facie wrong because of distributional concerns. Those distributional concerns are built-in and structural, so if you support the structure, than you should probably be prepared for people to organize in order to have what influence that structure allows them…

Rent control (gah I am a masochist), zoning, and oligopolies in location markets (Henry George, oh my!)

This should be much better proofed than it is, but I wanted to get something posted and OMG school is starting and I have other real work to do!! BOOOOOOOOO. Mea culpa.

My brilliant colleague Richard Green asked Twitter this morning:

Richard K Green on Twitter Has there ever been a time when a price ceiling has led to greater output of a good

It’s a very good question and the answers have been insightful, leading to a thought-provoking thread:

Richard K Green on Twitter Has there ever been a time when a price ceiling has led to greater output of a good

Now, none of these are what I would call price ceilings, but they are worthy answers because they bring up all sorts of nice things we should understand about land markets. Rent control really is a price ceiling–it’s externally set by a regulating body. However, these instances are insightful because they show that suppliers will also control prices as a market capturing and dominating strategy–and that can be really profitable. In particular, Nic Duquette’s (another one of my brilliant colleagues) example of miles driven is a very, very good one. Gasoline markets are oligarchic with abundant evidence of collusive behavior and resource-based, and that makes them rather similar to land markets in growing cities. Americans have gotten cheap gas largely because they were price-setters for decades in a global market with a few suppliers who profitably expanded the demand side of their revenue calculus rather than price increases (among other things, like tech changes.)

Rent control and zoning get a beating in YIMBY and market urbanist policy advocacy as market distortions. Richard is right; we have every reason to believe, both theoretically and empirically, that rent control act as disincentives in the production of rental units, prompting shortages and higher rents than we would have otherwise. Ditto with zoning, which is not a price control, but which has the same effect of limiting supply and prompting shortages as an explicit control over supply.

The reason I am not as hard on zoning and rent control as others in discussion are, however, is that I see them as politically derived compromises–in Econ terms, second-, third-best policy options–in attempts to correct the problems related to externalities (and make sure white people can hoard resources, but I’m getting there) and imperfect competition among land owners.

First of all, let’s be very honest in the way that I like being honest about scholarship: land economics is not a very well understood field; neither are housing markets, but they have much more research, particularly recently, than land markets. Henry George’s key insight many years ago was that urban land is a *special* kind of good where individual ownership creates a harmful monopoly–a monopoly over location.

So let’s think about things in those terms. Zoning then doesn’t just represent an intervention into markets from bad-old government; it’s instead a tool that small monopolists (parcel owners) can use for collusive behavior. So zoning is bad, right? Ok, but is it the root of the problem? We have evidence from urban land markets all over the world where US style Euclidean zoning is not in place that land owners can find other ways to collude through mafias, landownership agreements, etc. (Don’t get me wrong; they often make much nicer physical arrangements than what results in US cities, but they are still looking out for numero uno and keeping their assets increasing in value. Their conduct is way more like that of natural resource miners than competitive suppliers.)

Rent control enters this equation not, then, strictly as a price ceiling in a competitive market, but as a regulatory tool enacted in response to oligarchical control over location among landlords. Rent control may not be welfare-enhancing in the long-term, but it certainly could be in the short-term within noncompetitive markets for location.

I guess what I am getting at here is that root problem is private ownership of land, not zoning or rent control. Market urbanists love property rights, but to really get the holy grail–efficiency in housing markets–we have to have competition and that just doesn’t occur sufficiently among land owners in growing cities. (Developers are a different question). One thing that armchair econ people get wrong about property rights is the idea that they are an end in themselves, and everything falls correctly from there. No. If we want efficiency, we want to make sure that property rights are assigned optimally from the get-go. Zoning and rent control may compound the problems in various ways, but land markets themselves are noncompetitive before we even start.

So this makes this a lot harder. Sorry.

Permit Pattys and “eyes on the street”

In my undergraduate class, we have a section where we talk about public space and its uses, as well as the important extant criticisms of public space within structures of male, white, cisgender, etc supremacy. My goal is to help students understand the tension at play: public spaces are important, but it’s also important not to romanticize them. We can’t ignore the policing of black, female, trans, gay, lesbian, disabled, etc bodies and lives at the hands of dominate groups in those spaces.

I have spent quite some time thinking about this in the parallel trends of securitization, privacy, camera, drones, etc. When I was in my master’s and my PhD program, I would bring up security issues in public space only to be condescended to. Smartest Boy Urbanists you know, and at UCLA there were quite a few that were more emancipatory than thou, if you know what I mean. I was told that Jane Jacobs had the answer, and the answer was eyes on the street.

At the time, I had my doubts. Jacobs noted that the natural eyes are the street are small business owners. Cough. Another romanticized group. Are you really trying to tell us that small business owners have the general good in their hearts when they call the police? They are capital; they likely will behave as capital does with regard to police. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has pointed this out in the many years following Jacobs.

I do think it’s entirely possible that people in public spaces can look out for each other, demonstrate care and decency, and protect each other in public space. I read a wonderful story to that effect here:

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To the point: Eyes are necessary but not sufficient. Eyes on the street and the practice of looking out for people–especially those most vulnerable to harassment and violence–has to be an active social virtue. It doesn’t happen “naturally.” Instead, it a conscious, active ethic of taking collective action for a stranger’s welfare. And when it happens, it’s powerful, beautiful, and potentially life-saving. It’s not libertarian; it’s communitarian. Or perhaps it’s uniquely urban.

As awful as the Permit Patty stories are, they do provide me with contemporary exemplars for the class in trying to understand what security in cities means: security for whom, exactly, and how? Many of my students come from real estate development with ideas about how regulation is strangling–strangling!–developers. But Permit Pattys illustrate just who is subject to regulation and just who uses the police to control “public” space in cities.

Edited to add: BTW, the point has been made, in spades, about white people calling the police on black people for no good reason. So maybe we white people could get it together and knock off endangering people. Ok?

My bad Little Free Library behavior

Ok, if these were the worst things I’ve ever done in my life, I’d say that I’ve lived a life of singular virtue. But alas, there are many more sins which we shan’t discuss here because the past is the past and all that happened before the internet so ahem.

ANYHOO. As some of you know, I have been doing some empirical research on Little Free Libraries. One of the things I’m doing is dropping in to photograph them to compare what we see on all the instagram sites with how the libraries just look when we encounter them in the built environment. (The idea being, hypothesis-wise, that stewards primp up their LFLs before taking pictures and posting on social media).

So the idea is that I go out with my bunny-boo (Andy) and I take pictures, leave a postcard in the library asking for an interview, and then I am supposed to take a book (which I often do: apparently, 1970s paperbacks with square-jawed dudes on the cover are my Kryptonite)….and leave a book. This last part I am not so good at.

I do have a box of books in the car with books I’ve told myself I am going to discard. One of the reasons why my bunny-boo agreed to do this project, and to help me build my own at home, was that it was going to help me let go of books and have fewer piles of books all over the place.

The theory was that I would feel better passing along a book that I loved knowing that it was going out to other readers.

Instead of that, when I read a book I love, I go out and purchase a new copy of the book to put in the LFLs I visit.

Hangs head in shame. And thus the book piles remain undiminished.

Like so:

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And so:

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And so

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And that’s just the start.

Marie Kondo would so not be impressed.

Mixed in all these are library books that USC Libraries bloody well wants back. I’m afraid to go over there, lest a pit trap open up under my feet so they can capture the worst offender in their history.

I THEN got the brilliant idea that if I was going to be buying books to hand out to the LFLs I was documenting, I would hand out copies of my colleagues’ books in a bit o’ shameless USC Price promotion. So I’ve been handing out this one, from my colleague Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: The Sum of Small Things.

The Sum of Small Things A Theory of the Aspirational Class Elizabeth Currid Halkett 9780691162737 Amazon com Books

And this one, Is the Cemetery Dead, from my colleague David Sloane.

Amazon com Is the Cemetery Dead 9780226539447 David Charles Sloane Books

I regret nothing.