Paul Romer is a Smartest Boy Urbanist and I wish he’d sit down

I do this sort of rant-y blog post on occasion, and it’s not very nice, but we who toil in relative obscurity for years and years need our petty outbursts when the Paul Romers of the world descend from Mt. Olympus to grace us with their embarrassingly banal insights.

I like and respect Emily Badger’s work very much, and I get that this is the New York Times after all, where puff pieces for NYU darlings are bread-and-butter. But this piece makes me want to stab things. There’s some nice stuff in this piece about the actual management of a big festival and how to think about street grids, but….um, there are a lot of people who write about planning for and around mega-events (Eva Kassens-Noor at Michigan State, for one) and um, yeah, the grid has a fair few people who have written about it.

And honestly, changing street safety is something Mexican moms have been working on in LA and Mexico City and lots of other places for a long time but it’s not NYT-worthy (sponge-worthy) until it’s Paul Romer and BURNING MAN and I really just can’t.

Paul Romer! Is going to Burning Man! He discovers the Things! The Things to Fix the City! Here are the things making me stabby from the get-go.

It’s a case study. Economists have pissed on every single case study ever done in the history of the world to elevate their own claims to scientific rigor BUT OH BOY PAUL ROMER IS DOING A CASE STUDY SO CASE STUDIES MUST BE ENLIGHTENING TO US NOW BECAUSE AN ECONOMIST IS DOING ONE. Let’s all pay attention to Paul and his case study because it’s an economist but if it were a historian or a planner or a sociologist doing the case study it would be SPECIOUS BECAUSE IT’S NONGENERALIZABLE DUH PEOPLE WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL, HUH?

Paul Romer’s major gifts, as far as I can tell, are talking about Paul Romer and making obviously basic ideas sound profound. And he has a Nobel Prize, which lest you didn’t get that from the headline, Romer will remind you:

He doesn’t want to give speeches cheerleading his field. But he believes winning the Nobel has expanded his possibilities. More people will listen to what he has to say, if he can just decide where he wants to direct our attention.
Maybe it’s here.
Mr. Romer came to the desert imagining himself as an objective outsider: de Tocqueville among the Burners

Oh boy. Where to start? de Tocqueville…huh. Mmmkay.

At the far edge of town, they found a roller coaster that looked likelier than most things at Burning Man to harm you. It was designed for one fool at a time, strapped into an oversized car seat that shot down one side of a 31-foot wooden U shape and up the other.
Mr. Romer, surprising himself, walked up to it.
“Should I do this?” he asked Coyote. “If you kill a Nobel Prize winner, it’s on you.”

Maybe Romer could just have a non-Nobel-prize-winning economist try the roller coaster in order to protect the Nobel winner. Or a sociologist.

Levi, who did not know whom he was talking to, mentioned to Mr. Romer that his hero was Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 winner of the Nobel in economic sciences.
Well, I won the Nobel prize last year,” Mr. Romer said. “So Danny is a fellow laureate.”

Oh, did you win the Nobel Prize, Paul? We didn’t know that. Now, in fairness, this is right before a little interaction with a young guy where Romer sweetly offers to provide the young guy with a recommendation and gives him a hug. That’s a nice thing. It’s also known as what the rest of us in the professoriate do all the time and not just something we do in between mentioning our Nobel Prizes and breathlessly hagiographic profiles in media outlets. But still. Romer’s status gives him the best “I’m busy” excuse ever, and he still made the time to be nice, so some points there. It WAS sweet and generous.

In Mr. Romer’s Nobel lecture, he implored people to think of cities, especially in the developing world, as places where people get the benefits of interacting with one another.

This is so cute! The cutting edge of economics in 2019 is where the cutting edge of sociology was in 1912. Impressive! Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs would be gratified.

And then, of course, we need the hint that Romer The Economist is Improving Upon Urban Planning because of course urban planners just haven’t had any ideas before a doggedly fame-seeking economist shows up to show us the way:

The proposal forced Mr. Romer to learn the mechanics of cities. He persuaded N.Y.U. to create a new institute devoted to them, and two planning experts gave him an education. Shlomo Angel taught him the foundation of good street grids. Alain Bertaud gave him a framework: Urban planners design too much, while economists cede too much to the market. The answer lies in between — in drawing the street grid on the desert.

Yeah, the answer DOES lie somewhere in between, but that’s area where urban planners exist and HAVE EXISTED FOR AT LEAST A CENTURY, YOU JERKS. Hey, I got an idea, let’s create some straw-man of urban planners as relentlessly controlling government types and then use them to display OUR GREAT WISDOM in deviating from the market fundamentalism that has enriched our discipline for decades and then use that as evidence of OUR GREAT INSIGHT in repudiating that fundamentalism because it’s not like TONS of other disciplines, including urban planning, haven’t been pointing this out FOR DECADES.

I’m sorry, but YOU CAN BITE ME AND MY ENTIRE PROFESSION. Just because YOU never bothered to understand urban planners and stayed WILLFULLY IGNORANT about what we actually do and study does NOT mean you DISCOVERED a thing and then get to dismiss us from it. Thanks for Columbusing us.

Here’s the actual sentence you need there: Urban planners did a whole bunch of valuable work and research before I showed up.

And the final thing…OMG:

A global economy built on ideas no longer has to be zero-sum, he argued. Everyone can use ideas at the same time. Someone living in America benefits if someone in India becomes better off and invents a vaccine.

But we have to make the cities viable first, in this moment when it’s still possible to draw what they might become.

“If we take a pass on this,” he warned, “the opportunity will be gone.”

OOOooooooOOOooooo a warning! A warning of what, who the hell knows? Cities aren’t viable now? They seem to be kinda…well, here even if they aren’t viable in the mysterious dimension that Romer hints at. Um….viable in conforming to Romer’s framing so that Romer can be right about something? What the hell is he talking about besides apres moi, le deluge?

Yes, Romer, you’re very important and your insights on whatever it is you are talking about here will save us all. If we are voting on what to change now before it’s too late, I’m voting for climate change.

Gah. Bad thinking, praised because of celebrity.

That point when sub-points become new projects, and you (I) have made a mistake

I am not sure I’m really ready to write about this just yet, but maybe I’ll never be ready, so I am going to plunge ahead.  I was trying to explain it to a PhD student  the other day during a committee meeting, and I didn’t say things right (I usually don’t) and I was overy emphatic, and it caused another professor, a very writer, to jump in to say “no, that’s not right, I think you need to explore” and I didn’t mean we can’t explore.  I get why she jumped in, as I wasn’t doing a good job, but I still want to talk about this problem with problem and writing definition that I suffer from. 

Maybe I alone suffer from it, but I bet not.  I realized later the reason I was being emphatic: I was projecting.

Research, especially if you are doing something really quite new and different from prior studies, gives you lots of things you can explore. Some of those new directions are sub-problems or sub-points. These are issues or questions you have to sort through in order for your argument, model, or narrative to work.   Some of those new directions are, however, entirely new research projects that you have to wait on.  The first are hard enough; the second can eat up a lot of your time and get you diddly squat except a head start on a new project that may or may not do someday.

Neither of these are prima facie bad, except when dissertation and tenure clocks are ticking.  I was trying to emphasize that while research needs to be a time of exploration, it is also a virtue to be able to evaluate a given exploration early-ish so that you can avoid spending a month working diligently on something that you can’t use in your project of immediate concern. 

To wit: one of the problems with the book I started working on is that I realized that I had actually started two more in the middle of working on the one.  I had to break what had been 250 pages I had deluded myself into thinking was “near done” into 3 deformed, nowhere-near-done things, and it, frankly, broke my heart–so much so that I haven’t finished any of them, and there’s no other reason besides the fact that I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m not working on them, and they are all cold as hell.   For all practical purposes, I’ve walked away from three damn good partial books because I’m so crushed.  Maybe I am just doing a Britney/Britt’any thing a la Season 2 of Glee, so don’t feel too bad for me yet. I’m doing plenty of that myself.  

This problem shouldn’t have surprised me. Lack of focus is a chronic issue for me, and it’s always been an issue when responding to reviewers.  Reviewers who take on snotty tones get on my nerves, but i take critiques very seriously if I agree with them, and more than once I have found myself, in responding to a simple question from a reviewer, writing an entirely new paper in the middle of a paper that needs to be put to rest. 

These false starts and lacunae do not feel good to me. And that’s what I am trying to keep my student from doing. Maybe there is no way to avoid them. Maybe that’s just research, and you just deal with it, but I’d sure like to come up with a more trustworthy way of stopping myself before I find myself in the Thermopylae of writing problems. 

New accountability/Fun feature

Words written: None. Shut up.
Book I’m Reading: NW by Zadie Smith (reread)
Listening to: The Wild, The Innocent, the E-Street Shuffle
Beverage: Cocoa with rainbow sprinkles

Alison Trope (@aptrop)’s: USC as if women mattered

Alison Trope is a professor over at USC Annenberg, and I think she, more than anybody else, captures how I feel personally as a woman working at USC. Maybe all universities are like this, but in the now 12 years I’ve worked at USC, I’ve never felt–not once–that I mattered to the higher ups. Marlon Boarnet and David Sloane, my two department/program chairs, have been wonderful. And it’s not me wanting external validation. It’s different. It’s like…this place has always been so hardened against recognizing and making women visible. Certain, select women, fine, as long as they don’t object or make waves.

That’s why Professor Trope’s Over It project makes my heart sing.

She has map of campus entitled “USC Reimagined.” Go look at it!! When I look at it, I feel like I’m here, with all these women, making all this difference, instead of being an outsider, tolerated rather than included.

*Seeing* all the things, reading (some) of the things, in 15th grade/grad school

There was a BIPOC grad student thread a bit ago about how all the reading in PhD classes just feels like another form of hazing, and a bunch of professors jumped in to say that they don’t assign much reading anymore. I kept out of it because I didn’t want to derail the thread, nor did I want to be a bad guy, but I think there is an art to dealing with reading and references in grad school that needs discussing.

First of all, just assigning long reading lists IS kinda hazing, but not really hazing: it’s part of the privileged world of the academy where students with educated parents have a HUGE advantage over students like me, with parents who couldn’t help because they weren’t privileged enough to go. Nobody believes that you can read 800 pages a week closely. Nobody. If you can, congratulations, you’re better than me. But most people can’t.

So what’s the point of putting all that reading down? Well, as scholars, there is a lot of work you should be AWARE of even if you have not read. It’s enough for me to know, tangentially, that one of Hobbes’ important points in the Leviathan has to do with the sources of political authority because I am somebody who is tangentially interested in political authority. I don’t write about it, but I am interested, and maybe someday I will write about it. Or not. It’s just nice to know that I am watching/reading convos about it that when somebody drops Hobbes, I know his *general* line. If a dispute arises over exactly what Hobbes meant when discussing slavery and human rights, then I am out of my league generally since I have read bits and pieces of his material on human rights (remarkably contemporary in my read) but not all of it. But since I’m not a Hobbes scholar, this is ok.

My life would be less good, and I wouldn’t be as good a scholar as I am (to the degree that I am a *good* scholar, let alone a scholar anymore but let’s leave that debate to another day) without Hobbes in my peripheral vision.

But do I know Rawls? Oh yeah. I’ve read all of Rawls, so thoroughly and repeatedly in fact, that I have strong opinions on what the rest of you can skip in Rawls. (Ignore the minimax chapters) unless you are really, really interested in the debate with John Harsanyi. Then read that chapter for sure.) I have read a bunch of writers on Rawls. A bunch of critiques. All of them? Not sure, but I have a Google alert that tells me whenever a new thing is published on Rawls, some of which I need and some of which I don’t, and I’ll pick and choose what I need. But I will see it all, and probably log them all, in my citation manager because maybe I will take my research in a direction where I will need to engage with that material.

If professors don’t point you to all the readings, then how are you supposed to know the possibilities and directions thought has gone and can go? Answer: You sample, you don’t read everything like your life depends on it. 1) because it doesn’t, and 2) because you can’t. But how do you find the research area you want to work in if you don’t sample widely? How do you bring new ideas into otherwise stale research debates?

Plenty of young scholars think being a scholar is about expressing their opinions. This is a major problem for young scholars: when I was starting out, the internet was younger, and uniformed opinion wasn’t Every.Bloody.Where the way it is now.

To wit: your value as a scholar comes from your informed ideas. Anybody pushing a lot of reading at you may be hazing you depending on how they act about it, but they are also giving you a gift. What students tend to forget is that even though they are students and don’t have a ton of power, they still control how they organize the material for themselves and what they want to go deeply into and what they don’t.

If you refuse to read the things to show your big bad oppressor professors what’s what, you WILL very likely have reviewers hand you your ass for not citing and discussing the important literature in your manuscript, and since everybody has a different idea of what matters in any given field, having a big reading list to go back to when this comes up is handy as all hell.

Tomorrow’s installment will share some very cool things that our brilliant PhD student, Ben Tomey, put together to help students out with All The Reading.

Hasan Minhaj and me, or How To Erase Women from Their Own Research

Edited: I originally misspelled Mr. Minhaj’s name! Grrrr on me. My apologies to Mr. Minhaj and my thanks to those who pointed it out. :(. I think I fixed all the errors but if not hit me up.

One of the problems with oppressive structures is that it allows the people on top to take the work of marginalized people and never credit them. That’s why the movie Hidden Figures was so meaningful, and how I nearly bawled right in Regal Cinemas at LA Live when I saw a whole Brownie troupe of little black girls going to see it.* Colonialism is about plunder, and it’s about taking the work and material from other people and profiting: slavery, ditto.

One of the key questions I think people should ask themselves: “Is this really mine to use?” It’s such a good critical question to ask. It gives you a second to stop and think about whether you owe credit to somebody else before you roll out an idea, and it can potentially stop you from engaging in exploitation.

Another key question is: “Where did [X] come from?” Look for the women’s and the BIPOC’s contributions in what we have. Those contributions are there. They just get buried, erased, or ignored.

Now, in truth, I am very privileged, and I really don’t blame Minhaj or his staff all that much for what happened here because they aren’t scholars. They are comedians looking to be funny and make some points, and honestly, if they can get Americans to be more supportive and less negative about public transit, then I’m happy enough to call it a win. But since this experience happened about some of my work, it’s an easy example to use.

I woke up to find Metro superstar, Matt Kridler, posted this on Facebook:

Description: screen capture of Hasan Minhaj with a quote from a city lab article describing the results of my 2015 study on twitter and public transit.

That’s my study being described. It was published in JAPA quite some time ago (2015), and I wish (and I am sure other people do, too) some young lion would come out and challenge/update it because tech articles do not age well and my study is getting dated.

That said the actual writing also comes from a female journalist who has been erased in Minhaj’s production: The story was written by Aarian Marshall from Citylab, and by just crediting Citylab, Minhaj and Co erased her from her work. She did a nice job on the piece, in which she built on my study to go on to ask other experts and practitioners about the issues I raise.

There is some less-coolness in Marshall piece as well. I’m not named until way down in piece. I’m not credited as the originator of many of the ideas that she riffs on in that piece. For example, she highlights SEPTA, and while I am glad she added the material she did, my research pinpointed SEPTA first. Was this just a lead that she could run with as journalist, or was it an idea appropriated from my work in an uncredited way? She uses my own critique of the study’s sample, and expands on it well, but still, the original critique was mine, not hers.

Oh, and dammit, I collected five years of tweets, not two. 🙂

(Here’s another critique I didn’t think of until way later: the study should have thrown in some controls for region because it’s possible that some places are just objectively bitchier than others, or that some cities are struggling to provide services across the board).

For me, losing credit for these ideas is not really a big deal. It’s an example I am using to make a point about anti-colonial and feminist practices in epistemology. I’m well paid, my work gets plenty of recognition, and I don’t think Ms. Marshall or Minhaj & Co meant any slight or harm to me or my research. In the rush to get media out there, forgetting to locate where the ideas come from is easy to do, and journalists have a hard go of it now more than ever.

The consequences for me are whatevs. I’m a tenured full prof, I’m established, my life is fine. But the consequences for young scholars, especially young BIPOC scholars, especially women scholars, of erasure can be serious.

Please be careful how you use ideas. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my now long life as an academic…your career really doesn’t suffer at all when you promote and support other people.

*and it has Taraji B. Henson in it, on whom I have a terrible crush.

The lowest road there is…

I really hope you have had the chance to pick up Sunday’s NYT for the 1619 project. Matthew Desmond has annoyed me–why do we have to have to sociologists from Harvard explain that evictions are brutal when women, especially BIPOC women, who have been evicted have been saying this decade after decade? But his essay in 1619 is beautifully written and takes our eyes to where they have to go in understanding the US as it was and is–and why our social policy environment is so very toxic:


“If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”

Please purchase a copy of the NYT and give yourself time to read the essays, and please also note the incredible work of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Good advice I have received over the years

In no specific order:

  • “Never get puking drunk on tequila.” — My dad, circa 1980 or so; this is advice I did not heed, and I regretted it.
  • “Adults are more like children than we often think.” –an editor I used to work with during the early 1990s
  • “My mother used to say to me, she used to say ‘Elwood, in this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years, I tried smart. I recommend pleasant.” –Elwood Dowd from the movie Harvey
  • Living well is the best revenge. –adage
  • “Take nothing personally, even if it is meant personally.” –Professor Daniel Baldwin Hess, circa 2000
  • “Students never really understand what you are trying to do for them.”–Randy Crane, my advisor

Feel free to add.

It’s time to discuss my agoraphobia

What’s to say? I am meant to meet two of my favorite people in the world for lunch today, and I’m a wreck.

I was hoping that my social anxiety would get better with age, but the opposite seems to be happening. This is a real problem for a planner, and it’s a big problem for a researcher. For years, I squared my shoulders and faked my way through all the social interactions that my jobs have required.

For some reason, all that is harder to do in the twilight of my career. I think it has to do with my chronic illness: in addition to the social anxiety, I’m worried about getting too far from home or office and finding that I am simply out of juice, exhausted. I can’t really describe just *how* out of energy one gets when you hit your limit. You’re done, and suddenly a simpl 1/2 block walk between my office and the train station feels as un-doable as a marathon.

I share because I think it’s important for other people who have the same issues to see that lots of people struggle. You are not alone.

People with mental illnesses are not the problem

Donald Trump continued with his usual style of “leadership” yesterday by scapegoating people with mental illness. White men don’t cause any problems. It’s the immigrants, it’s women with whatever coming out of their hoo-has, it’s the sun in their eyes, and it’s people with mental illness. He even brought out some of his tried and true “Lock ’em up” tropes with language about compelled treatment. Oh goodie.

This is one of the most convenient tropes for the right because it’s pretty tempting to believe that anybody who walks into a crowd and kills strangers is mentally ill. But men have been killing en masse for a very long time. It’s just that they have usually had the cover of war or colonial control to justify it. What was Wounded Knee if not a mass killing serving bloodlust? I could give one example after another.

From the US government’s site on mental illness:

The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

Let me repeat that: people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

To me, the part that should be challenged is binary between somebody who is mentally healthy and somebody who isn’t. It’s like a light switch. For years, Mr. Mass Shooter Guy can swank around threatening women and abusing their spouses, but they aren’t mentally ill until they unleash their violence on other people.

Just like “bodily” health, people exist in varying levels of mental health–we all do–and some of us just have mental illnesses that are visible and socially unacceptable so that those get the label and the stigma. I have no doubt that the shooters struggle understanding their need for power and control. But just because we don’t know how to treat them, and America surrounds them with images of violent men getting what they want, and parenting is often sadly violent, and schools are violent, and guns are everywhere, and we just wonder how golly wolly this happened.

Cars and guns are a lot alike. They can be a useful tool in the right setting. In the hands of responsible people, they can also be fun. They are often beautifully made. But lots of people can’t use them safely, and thus centering them over people–as in Donald Trump’s language–is wrong.