Questions to debate/discuss as California considers a right to shelter

I am having some depression today, so this may not be as cogent as it deserves to be.  But I want to start some conversations. 

State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a vision in SB48 on a “right to shelter.” Right now, it’s in trial balloon phase: Wiener and his team seem to like doing proposals like this to gauge reactions and get feedback. (I now no longer feel any guilt whatsoever on criticizing SB827.  This way, Wiener gets some free consulting from yoinks like me, and he can gauge how people are reacting.) 

The thing about somewhat vague proposals is that devil is *always* in the details with policies, and some of the nonsense critics of 827 had to put up with during the deliberation as people who love the idea of upzoning screamed and yelled at us as called us names for not being sold on a generic policy concept and wanting to know upfront what protections are on the table to protect existing renters. 

Here is a nice discussion of New York’s conflicts about implementing a right to shelter over the years. 

The right to shelter is a similar big concept that would benefit from more discussion to flesh out what we are really thinking. 

Some important policy points: 

1.  Can we link the right shelter to a stable, long-term funding source?  I hate that merely asking this question puts you in the realm of shithead online debaters who are all like HOW YA GONNNA PAY FOR THAT HUH HUH UHUH whenever they see a social welfare policy like single-payer discussed. There are many ways to pay for things. It doesn’t hurt to ask the question now. 

To actualize a right to shelter, we’d need to work with cities, and the last thing California cities need is an unfunded mandate to house people. That is a recipe for *bad* shelters, fiddled numbers, etc. 

It would be helpful to start locating possible funding streams, such as homeless program bond funds, to link to new legislation. (These bonds are big pots for now, but bonds are time-limited, and a right to shelter would not be.)  

Who has figured this out already? 

2. Accessibility to services versus service eligibility requirements.  The current language suggests “ability to access services.” 

That’s a big and I’d argue,  good statement, but it could mean several things, ranging from: 

A) shelters should be in transit-accessible locations, as should social service agencies;

B) shelter staff help development treatment plans and enable comprehensive service sign-up and provision (this is a hard one; shelters usually do have staff to help with service access, but granted the large range of services people need and the consolidation of those services, most clients do have to travel, see (a). 

And more importantly: does the right to shelter hinge on developing and sticking to a housing transition and/or treatment plan, or is a right to shelter a right to shelter regardless of client compliance?  

There are pros and cons of both.  Trying to program individuals into treatment or housing plans undermines the notion of a right.  Our current policing notwithstanding, you don’t get disqualified from the right to a jury trial unless you waive it.  It’s not conditional on how nice you are, whether you’ve done what the cops and social workers have told you to do so far, etc. Sentencing, however, does tend to include those things. 

That said, the right to shelter surely should not be envisioned as a means of housing people who could be transitioned into longer term housing if they got the medical care they need. The point should probably be helping people in the short term and in the long-term wherever possible, and the idea is to incentivize people to make and stick to long-term plans. 

 The question becomes what exactly we want to emphasize about the right to shelter: the “rights” language or the “shelter” language. Pretty much any qualifiers or strings you attach to a right undermine its status as a right in practice, even though rights are hardly unconditional. Thus far, New York courts seem to have agreed with advocates that the right to shelter precludes denying shelters based on compliance.  

You really can’t force people to accept treatment, but you can deny them access to other things if they refuse to comply.  I don’t like it, but I do see the point of it. 

C) What is going to be the spatial model for shelter locations? Cities may be tempted into “warehousing”— fewer, bigger shelters with lots of beds, instead of more, smaller facilities because neighborhoods oppose shelters and you have to optimize what you build when you see any daylight at all. (This is why infrastructure projects get big: conflict negotiation has scale economies, and you have to negotiate no matter what the project size.) 

There are pros and cons here again. It’s easier to make sure service is accessible if people are in one location.  It can also turn a place into a stigmatized dead zone that acts as a rationale that opponents use to drub you with when you propose new shelters. 

D) What does the demand created for new shelter beds by a right to housing mean vis-a-vis single-family zoning that says no shelters? Does the right to shelter trump single-family zoning, or do zoning rules mean we likely consolidate shelters in the scant, already-mixed zones we have?  I prefer the former, but I can see some reasons for the latter, too, mostly having to do with the ability to get construction done and services offered faster. 

E) How do we keep families together? The language Wiener used says that partners will remain together. How do we work with families experiencing homelessness?  I do think this is something that NYC’s experience could help with. 

These are some things I’ve been thinking about.  I don’t have any answers yet, and FFS don’t use this post as a “god that Schweitzer woman hates any new housing” blather because that’s not true. Wanting to see actual policy proposals on the table is not a sin, nor is it evidence that I hate everything YIMBY. 

Kafka on patience (from Mark Pianalto’s @mpianalto lovely book On Patience)

I have ben reading Matthew Pianalto’s excellent On Patience the past week. It’s philosophical exploration of the virtue, and I’m finding the book both intellectually worthwhile and emotionally nurturing.  In the first chapter, he has an extended quote from Kafka’s biography that I found particularly inspiring: 

[p]atience is the master key to very situation.  One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything,  but at the same time remain patient and forebearing…There is no such thing as bending or breaking.  It is a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided.  To abandon that path is always to break into pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself.  The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love.  One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, always see the the young fresh green spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait.  Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true. 

 There is an activeness to Kafka’s patience, and that’s one key to Pianalto’s argument.  Patience does not mean acceptance or inaction, particularly vis-a-vis injustice.  It is something else entirely, something active, that holds you together while the rest of the world is what it is and while change creeps along. 

Regional gas taxes, regressivity, and what spillovers count

Bad proofreading day. Sorry. 

So we got started on a gas tax regressivity discussion on Twitter the other day, with lots of people who have never published about gas tax regressivity explaining things to me, who has actually published on gas tax regressivity, about gas tax regressivity. 

It’s been awhile since I worked on gas taxes, so I don’t feel terribly up on the literature, but there’s a lot here we can talk about both for California and for France anyway. 

Again going back to the rent control discussion,  so much of what happens with any policy, including tax policy, concerns what you do with the proceeds. If you increased the gas tax and then used the revenues to pay for school lunches in schools serving low-income communities, it could very well be a *progressive* change in the tax code.  If you collect gas taxes and use the proceeds to re-pave the streets in the wealthy parts of town and leave the poor people to deal with potholes, it’s regressive all the way through. A gas tax takes a larger percentage of income from lower income drivers than higher income drivers, as do congestion charges, and so it meets the technical definition of regressivity, but without information on where the revenues go, we really should not shoot down gas taxes out-of-hand as regressive. 

A couple things. In the case of gas taxes, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most of the costs of gas taxes are shifted forward onto consumers no matter where you collect the taxes from. Producers here have at best an oligarchic structure, and granted US auto dependence (ditto much of  France), consumers do not have a lot of choice about alternatives to purchase besides a) decreasing consumption (ok to a point if it means consolidating trips and ride sharing,  but not to the degree it causes them to give up food) and b) purchasing more fuel efficient vehicles, which is also good to some degree, but it’s a durable goods purchase (long-term strategy) and I suspect the fuel savings costs get internalized to the value of the car (no proof, just skylarking based on the $5K premium SoCal dealers were tacking on Priuses a few years ago due to the wait list they had for them.) 

This is all by way of saying that gas taxes serve as a Pigouvian tax on gasoline consumption, and society would like that, even though it pinches. It’s got to pinch if we want people to alter their behavior. But with transit alternatives sorely under provided and land use patterns what they are, the fact that working people have to drive in order to get what they need is hardly the fault of the gas tax.  

There are any number of things governments can do to help out needly people who need to drive. Just as they can provide Fastrak credits each month for those drivers they worry might be unduly harmed by congestion charges, they can also provide tax-free or tax-discounted gallons to gasoline consumers in similar straits.  They can increase the size of the EITC to accommodate for fuels taxes, but that is problematic granted cash flows for many impoverished families.

They can also roll out, as Transport London did, a ton of new transit services at exactly the same time they laid out their aggressive cordon toll. (Yes I am old to remember when they did it, and it was good implementation with some glitches, but still. You knew where the money was going.)

Rural consumers often have no choice. I prefer to parse based on income, but to the degree that some places have lots of substitutes, I really do think we’d gain quite a bit by moving to local option fuels taxes in a similar structure to local options sales taxes.  There’s no reason why San Francisco couldn’t charge way higher tax gases than they do.  Granted that many of the externalities associated with fuels consumption are local in nature, it’s appropriate that cities with air quality concerns and available alternatives like transit should charge higher gas taxes. 

The discussion on Twitter took an interesting turn, then, as a whole bunch of people starting getting on me about spillovers and leaks, like somehow I don’t know these can be issue. But they are always an issue with any tax policy, and I think the concern about spillovers with the gas tax are waaaay overblown. Sure, there are consumers who always fill their tanks up on one side of the jurisdictional line to beat the tax, but how many of them are there? If we somehow got our regional governance shit together in California and the entire SCAG area charged higher taxes, who from Santa Monica is going to drive to rural Riverside every week/biweekly to save a few dimes a gallon? Ditto with just about all the big regional governments.  Surely, we’ll lose some people on the borders.  But the world has continued to spin, and cigarette taxes have continued to function,  even though I used to buy a few more cartoons of cigs when I passed through Missouri on my way back to Iowa. 

Something else caught my attention at the discussion: I’ve never seen this “OMG, border effects and spillover effects OMY” discussion over any other charging schemes. Urbanists squee in delight and clap their little hands at higher parking charges, seemingly unconcerned will the spillovers to neighboring areas (which may already be congested, too, and it’s not like those spilling over aren’t driving and dodging the charges). I’ve never once seen anybody fret about sales tax spillovers from one city to another.  So why do people seem so concerned about gas tax dodging is beyond me. It’s a fact of life in local public finance, and it’s a numbers game. Santa Monica probably shouldn’t try a $9/gallon tax; the point is to capture a big enough market area that dodgers are a minor portion of the whole. 

What I see in France is only somewhat about petrol taxes. Like Brexiters, I think they are pissed at Macron and government after government that does little for them. In Macron’s case, it doesn’t help he sounds condescending (even to the French)m  and he cozied up to an American president that I strongly suspect many Frenchmen consider to the be apotheosis of American vulgarity, entitlement, and ignorance.  I suspect they they are sick of austerity politics and “corporations first” neoliberalism just like the rest of us. 




The Real Academic Grievance Industry

The academic grievance industry, conservatives want you to know, consists of  progressive scholars like myself, manufacturing dissent via dealing in race, class, and gender “grievances” while enforcing that scary, scary political correctness on one and all.


I shall instead describe to you how the real academic grievance industry works. What I will relate is now a common story, made common not because we purveyors of political correctness wield so much power from our part-time appointments in Gender Studies departments,  but because conservative media machine needs content and thus will make mountains from the teeniest, weeniest of molehills.

   It all began one day during the recent Kavanaugh hearings, when feelings were running high. Price Women & Allies, a wonderful student group I advise at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy, sent out an announcement that they are having a workshop on Title IX, a federal civil rights law  signed by President Nixon in 1972 disallowing discrimination in education. In the email, the students urged their readers to “believe women.”

Two little words, so much ensuing angst.

Enter an engineering professor, to inform the entire listserv—aka hundreds of people who never asked for an opinion—that the phrase “believe women” undermines due process and that false accusations do occur. For extra measure, he added a threat fallacy by noting these student organizers would appreciate due process were they themselves ever falsely accused of something one day. The timing was inconsiderate, to say the least, and some misguided souls might think most of us already know that due process matters and humanity is flawed.

The faculty are rather used to it. He drops his quips and insights on our listserv now and then.

This time, though,  students got pissed. Some wrote back, hotly, to call the message insensitive, while our school administrator stepped in with statistics that show sexual assault is extremely common. One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that false accusations, however,  are rare, ranging in about 8 to 12 percent of cases.

Some students organized a protest in our lobby, to which USC deployed a security contingent so embarrassingly large they must have been expecting the Ruskies and a biker gang instead of just a few of our own students trying to influence the institution. Finally,  the Price School dean wrote to chide the engineering prof for being tone deaf when we are trying to create a better environment at USC Price for women.

Then the real fun began. Engineering proffie wrote a neener-neener response to the dean, and somehow–o mystery of mysteries—the student newspaper got wind of the schmozzle and ran a story that quoted the Proffie saying he merely wished to debate important ideas. Then, again, somehow, who knows how, Inside Higher Ed, got involved where again then Proffie stated that he was just trying to engage in open debate. Then (oh yeah, not over yet) the LA Times, prompting me to question for the umpteenth time my subscription, published an opinion from a freelancer for the Reason Foundation, using our email teapot tempest to exemplify just how far-reaching challenges to free speech have become on campus.

This incident was grievance industry playbook: 1)  insert opinions into a random discussion; 2) when others tell you to can it, invoke free speech as though your random email constitutes some grand insight  and any hint that one might shut one’s cakehole a threat to the US Constitution and 3) some enterprising person makes sure an aspiring pundit gets to hear of it. Aspiring pundit will do the rest, and it’s all much easier than actually doing any real research, both for the academic and the pundit. Never, ever sit your fanny down to compose a sound conservative or libertarian argument and then get it published if you want your views both circulated and treated with respect. That’d be…work!

By contrast,  heaven help you trying to report sexual misconduct at most universities. We’ll run you from one unsympathetic administrator to another, waste your time, and tie you up in so much red tape your eyeballs might pop out and bounce around the room. But if a liberal looks at you funny, you can air all the dirty laundry about your employer in public you want to.

Variations on the playbook have turned out beautifully for Charles Murray, whose research when he did try to do any blazed new trails in bad research design. Murray’s gig now is to be a wronged conservative academic whom young conservatives can bring to campus to annoy people they do not like. Now, there are conservative and libertarian–or at least, not overtly progressive–scholars out there doing real research that young libertarians and conservatives could bring to campus, like Thomas Sowell, Mary Ann Glendon, Greg Mankiw, lya Somin, Robert Putnam,  Eugene Volokh, and just about every Chicago school economist that has tenure anywhere. These scholars bring challenging new directions for thought. They are not household names, and none create much controversy when they come to campus. Why? Because they deal in difficult ideas rather than the vitriolic pablum brought by Murray and the Twitter loudmouths students always seem to want.

Just after the Kavannaugh hearings,  USC Price had Dr. Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation to give a talk.  Where were all LA Times insights on this visit and what it meant for the “balance” of ideas presented to students? Where are the pundits? Pundit J,  where you at, Skippy? There has been nary an op-ed about this event, so I wrote this one because I’m tired of the whiners getting all the attention. Dr. Poole gave a wonky policy talk, appropriate to students in a policy school, to promote his most recent book on privatizing highways. There were no protests. Nobody shut anything down. Marlon Boarnet, the chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, stretched the budget to get lunch for the students and our guest. We had videoservices record the talk, and it is on our website so that those outside the university can enjoy Dr. Poole’s talk and his ideas get broader circulation. We even let Dr. Poole park on campus for free! That’s the keys to the castle on an urban campus, friends.

 USC was one of three universities where Dr. Poole spoke in California. That hardly suggests universities treat alternatives to mindlessly progressive thought as anathema.

Who arranged his visit? The young libertarians because it’s all about exploring their ideas that are so poorly treated on campus? No, my staff and I did, at the request of…..the engineering proffie so worried about us all not willing to debate to alternative ideas. Most people never heard of us, unlike Anne Coulter or Milos Yuckypants or Dinesh D’Incompetent.  We’re just the people who day in and day out teach our classes as best we can, arrange for good scholars to visit to broaden our opportunities to learn, and try to do respectable policy research amidst the endless flapdoodle in American politics.

The academy may not have as many conservatives or libertarians as we should, perhaps–I’ve never counted—but in my experience,  we routinely welcome those making genuine contributions, like Dr. Poole. They deserve our attention. The grievance industry vendors do not.

What’s really the problem with “humanizing” animals “too much”

Slate published some yuck from Ruth Graham, lecturing us one and all about how dogs are dogs and people are people and no, Sully doesn’t mourn President Bush  and scientists who study animal emotion think yada yada.  There was a lot of eye rolling, but also people who want us to get over our foolishness about ascribing human emotions to animals because it’s not “factually right”. 

We don’t really know what’s “factually right” when it comes to animal intelligence or emotions. We have some science, it’s contested, and don’t @ me: scientists bring their own biases to this work, too.  That doesn’t mean science is worthless, it just means it happens in cultures and contexts like every other form of knowledge production. 

Here’s the bottom line: If we recognized animals as having emotional lives and intelligence we would have less rationale to treat them as horribly as we do.  *That’s* the vested interest.