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.

City rats carry disease, farm rats are wholesome and All-American

There is an ethical principle that I try to enforce in all my classes, whether on urbanism or on planning: do not badmouth places.

People live in those places, and I don’t offing care whether you like a place or whether it meets your standards of cleanliness, crime-freeness, precious aestheticism, or activity preferences. Your opinion of a place doesn’t fecking matter to anybody but you, and as a result, you can keep that opinion to your damn self.

Imagine a plumber coming into your house to fix something, looking around, and saying “What a craphole.” You wouldn’t hire that plumber again. Well, planners are professionals, and planners that run around badmouthing places (like Los Angeles, one of their favorite targets), can and should shut it. Yeah, there are tons of things that should be different about Los Angeles. But there are also things that should be different about New York or London or any of the other places that tend to pass the racist, classist, ableist, ageist, etc standards people carry around in their minds for what is “clean” and what is “desirable.”

For those of my students and colleagues who have wondered about this rule of mine, Donald Trump this week has illustrated just how graceless and indecent badmouthing places is, let alone how utterly racist.

To wit: rural areas have terrible addiction and poverty problems, too. Every farm has rats, unless the farm has poisoned everything in sight. It’s absolutely true that Los Angeles needs to help make places where people without shelter safer for them and the people surrounding them. But there’s plenty of concentrated poverty and meth mouth in rural America, too.

We don’t give up on any of these place or any of these people, nor do we follow our presidents’ terrible example and treat them with contempt. I’m sick to death of people saying “he’s just telling the truth.” Bullshit. It is possible to face problems with love and compassion instead of contempt. Every place and every person in each place deserves that.

Metro staff (very kindly) offered to help me get data

I should have posted this sooner, as Metro staff reached out to me the same day as I posted about how difficult I found working with them data-wise in the past, to offer to help me obtain the data I need, at least for the visualization I have been noodling. WordPress has been acting up, and honestly I’ve been so damn depressed this summer I haven’t done much of anything besides read the Mueller Report (which did nothing for my depression) and watch tv.

Metro’s library staff have always been great, but maybe my difficulties with Metro and data has always been that I don’t know the right contacts. Whenever I am dragged over there for a meeting, I feel like it’s usually with some damn boss of something or other, and 1) they probably haven’t touched data in years 2) they aren’t really interested in any data that doesn’t pertain to their immediate management goals.

So we’ll see how this works out.

What role can the data politics at LA Metro play in worsening, or bettering, its trajectory?

I don’t have much to do with LA Metro for the most part, and it is because they are, simply, a closed shop and thus not generally worth engaging with as a researcher. I’ve had people reach out to me to be on this or that advisory board, which is nice and might have been a way for me to work my way into a more trusting relationship. However, those types of arrangements can also be a major, uncompensated time sink for academics, and I’ve always thought that spending time going to meetings at Metro were, in the minds of Metro staff, a one-way street for information from them to me.

It’s possible Metro staff just don’t like/trust me, which is understandable. Lots of people don’t, and the type of research I do (justice-related) could be potentially threatening, especially to an agency that spent years dealing with a civil rights consent decree.

That said, there are many, many transportation researchers in LA who are much nicer and less prone to whistle-blowing or simple lack of discretion than I am, and I don’t see them doing that much with Metro or Metro data, either.

I don’t blame them, per se. Dealing with the press in a major metropolitan media market is a giant headache, and agency staff can find themselves involved in both a personal and professional firestorm of criticism for things that they had little ability to influence.

However, that data and information hoarding has pretty big consequences for innovation and study. Yes, there are really brilliant people at Metro, and I’m sure they are doing some pretty cool analyses, but if they are, they are pretty quiet about it. Not engaging with researchers means you lock out people who spend their time on the cutting edge of all types of research, and that means yes, you control the information about your service, but it also means you don’t have independent voices attesting to fact that you are doing something well when you do do something well, nor do you benefit from new ideas they bring if they also find fault.

I briefly engaged with Metro via a Metrans project than Gen Giuliano put together, and it was one of the worst research experiences of my life.

It all culminated in a meeting with USC’s asshole lawyers that boiled down to LISA YOU MAY DO NOTHING WITH THE DATA WITHOUT METRO’S PERMISSION, NOT ONE KEYSTROKE DO YOU UNDERSTAND? One of the lawyers said to me that the entire point of the meeting was for them to impress upon me what the terms of the contract were, not for me to talk or ask questions. I left that meeting feeling like a criminal instead of a researcher. It’s like…um, this is a potentially transformative research project and….nobody, not the university, not the agency, nobody but me wanted it to be.

I bugged out of that project as quickly as I could, which, given that they didn’t actually want us to do any research that didn’t contribute to the agency’s propaganda, suited them and me, and I’ve never looked back. Since then, I’ve watched them screw over PhD students by running out the clock on data requests and other shenanigans that suggest they haven’t changed much.

For years I’ve wanted to do a little animation that illustrated passengers delivered via buses and trains that arrive at USC throughout the day to show how important transit is to the USC community. Can I make it? Nope. I probably could get the hourly passenger boarding & alighting data for buses if I pushed, I’m sure, but for the trains? Gad, bring up train patronage data and you’ll get abundant explanations about how those data just don’t exist because….because….because…um…

Now maybe weekday hourly averages by stop in my hands would be a disaster for the agency but I doubt it. Instead, such an animation would bring service to life and communicate something different about the incredibly difficult thing Metro has to do every day: deliver service in a built environment not oriented for transit. It’s advertising for all practical purposes.

All this secrecy was fine and functional in the Golden Era of Ballot Box Measures, where Metro’s bread was buttered readily by voters who could and would vote based on a vision. But after investing a lot, Metro now sits in the unhappy position of trying to show efficacy when passenger counts are falling. Metro could use some new perspectives, and it’s hard to get those when the default seems to be view data use among those outside the agency as a public relations threat. Maybe they are really better off keeping their data to themselves and a few contractors, but it’s hard for me to see how that contributes to a thriving conversation about what the service does among broad audiences.

No innovation can happen in public housing ever, never ever because

….public houing is like all social policy and no innovation is possible in social policy of any ilk ever because social policy is social policy and as we all know, social policy is bad on its face.

I am extra crabby because I’m having biopsies done and they hurt like a mother, but yesterday I finally deactivated Twitter forever because once again, I got sucked into the same conversation I have been having since 1995 and I’m sick of it.

This conversation goes like so:

Me, somebody who teaches social policy and thinks about it all the time: I think we could use some social policy here to make people better off in this instance.

Some economist who thinks about social policy every 10 years: “BUT THAT’S INEFFICIENT BORK BORK BORK.”

All the smartest policy boys in the room: ” It didn’t work very well in this instance and as we know, that one time represents always and forever what social policy can be, whether it’s rent control or community land trusts or any policy that doesn’t begin and end with “get rich white people things.” BORK BORK BORK BORK bork MOAR SUPPLY LET’S TALK ABOUT SUPPLY YOU FORGOT TO CENTER YOUR EXISTENCE ON MY PET POLICY LISA WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?

And I try to say that no, we should learn from bad implementations in prior decades, and what we might do instead, but I can’t be heard over the BORK BORK BORK BORK and pants wetting that public policy isn’t entirely focused on giving things to rich white people.

And then I get tired and give up because firehosing social policy is practically an Olympic sport among US economists and economist wannabes.

Yesterday’s topic was me DARING to suggest that we might want to use some public housing in high amenity areas. WHAT LISA? PUT HIGH-RISE WAREHOUSING UP HAVE YOU NOT LEARNED OF ALL THE CHILDREN POISONED BY New York PUBLIC HOUSING? CABRINI GREEN? PRUITT IGOE? DO YOU HAVE NO SOUL? NO BRAIN?

Look, the US chooses to be bad at delivering public housing the same way it chooses to be bad at delivering public transit and public schools, except when it doesn’t choose to be bad at those things (i.e., well-to-do places.) So spare me the grand policy-tool-by-policy-tool insights on how certain policy tools “don’t work” because I’ve heard them all, and none of those are credible in a world when we’ve had 50+ years of tax cuts for rich people, one after another, with tax cuts being a policy that never gets the same firehosing or skeptical treatment as the mere mention of social policy, even though our tax cut commitments have been a) expensive and b) not particularly effective at anything besides further enriching a global class of billionaires who only think about *really feasible* policy things like terraforming Mars for their people and letting the rest of us burn, unlike the pipe dream of a carbon tax or having some publically owned housing units that don’t suck. (Unless you are Jeff Epstein who gets to use his bajillions to buy an orgy island and produce child porn. Thank God the gummint didn’t take too much of his precious private hoard and deprive the world of all that utility.)

So here’s the actual idea: in very expensive, high-amenity locations, the cities just purchase units in new buildings at cost for allowing the developer additional units, and the city retains the units. So you apply for 70 units, you sell 10 to the city, you get 80, and the city rents their units at affordable rates to people they want in residence there: teachers*, police, seniors, etc. (I have an argument for the seniors I’ll post up another day; it boils down to: expecting seniors to downsize if it means they leave their community means that a lot of them are not going to and are going to rattle around in houses too big for them.)

And no stupid nonsense about poor floors or poor doors or keeping those residents from the amenities of the building, FFS. This is a mixed-income building, period. And the developer is out of everything once the sale is done.

Do I think this is as cost-effective** as vouchers? Not even close,, but as useful as vouchers are, they don’t do everything, and there are two things that I’d like to think about with my idea: First, retaining people who really should live locally in markets where they are getting pushed out. Second, letting cities cash in on real estate the way everybody else does. Property taxes are the END OF THE WORLD, apparently, but cities could benefit from having a portfolio of holdings they can borrow against and sell the way everybody else does since ALL THE SMART POLICY BOYS tell me that land value capture is IMPOSSIBLE and now is not the time to discuss such infeasible things.

And frankly, I fail to see why disastrously underfunded voucher programs are A MIRACLE while disastrously underfunded public housing is A TERRIBLE SIN instead of being two sides of the same problem, which is the “disastrously underfunded” part. Vouchers and publically owned units, yes, house people, but with two really different secondary aspects: helping people stay in a place or helping people achieve mobility, both of which strike me as good ideas depending on the need. Yes, you can use vouchers to keep people in place, but I don’t think that’s by default easier or cheaper to do with vouchers, not when the full cash flow is factored in. And I actually dream about public policy that treats people who need help with housing, including black women and their little ones, like actual people who are welcome and necessary instead of a problem that we are trying to solve on the cheap and keep away from the rest of us.

I think that until we resolve that last sentence, any policy approach is going to be plagued by half-assed attempts at everything, from 10+ year waits on vouchers to public shelters that become death traps.

*Cities could also start paying teachers proper salaries instead of screwing them, either way works for me.

**Cost effective strikes me as a better term than efficiency to describe situations where public policy has a multi-faceted goal and captures the idea that we might be able to attain that goal at a lower cost using more cost-effective tools. Efficiency arguments tend to include the goals themselves in my experience.

Closing out Pride Month, a few words to my @USCPrice 2SLGBTQIA students and colleagues

Price is not very good about celebrating Pride. I think it may be because the school year ends in May, and all of us, administrators included, scatter to the four winds and it’s hard to get anybody to focus on anything USC-related. We also had a busy year this year with the 90th anniversary and multiple retirements.

That is no real excuse, and this Pride month was a big one, with LA turning out with so much pride everywhere that it made me joyful.

And it is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It’s entirely possible to focus too much on one event in queer history, but Stonewall mattered, a lot, leading to the first gay rights march in NYC.

The Shoah Foundation at USC did a *great* job this year with one beautiful blog post after another that deserves a shout-out, and my new scholarly home at USC, USC Dornsrife, tweeted out a lovely message with this super-cute graphic:

Whatever the reasons that Pride month got away from us at USC Price, I wanted to echo the everyday sentiment from Dornsrife for my Price students and colleagues: we love you as you are, all day every day. You are a credit to USC and we are so proud of you. We are lucky to have you here, and you amaze us with your accomplishments.

ACSP: Let’s call the whole thing off?

After my last post, friend and fellow scholar Rolf Pendall asked me a pretty good question, which is: can we really justify having a big yearly conference at all, granted the climate effects of all that travel and the disadvantages big conferences have for many scholars, including myself, whose social anxiety makes most conferences rather torturous.

Rolf suggested smaller regional conferences, which is an interesting idea. Riffing on that idea, I thought about maybe doing topical conferences–a symposium on planning theory, for example.

There are some advantages to smaller conferences, even if I don’t necessarily think they would have much climate benefit. (Maybe I am being dense here but I think shorter trips are likely to add up to roughly the same, and I suspect plenty of scholars would want to attend more than one conference under a new, more distributed conference strategy. )

One major advantage would be that smaller conferences would be shorter and easier for parents to manage and for junior scholars to afford–we could probably manage most tracks at ACSP in two days if we separated them, instead of how ACSP demands about a week-long commitment from administrators, from those who have put the radical planning sessions prior to the main event, and a person can wind up staying a pretty long time at ACSP if they moderate a session on Thursday and their presentation is Sunday. Two days is about $400 to $800 savings in hotel and childcare costs over what can happen with ACSP scheduling now. Lots of people fund travel out of their own pockets, and this savings would be significant.

A smaller conference wouldn’t help me much in terms of my social anxiety, as mine kicks in for any group, big or small. Leaving my house is an effort, so it doesn’t take much to put me off going to anything anywhere at any time. I probably get to ACSP once every three years, and perhaps the right answer anyway: for those of us who just don’t do well in social contexts, emphasizing conference participation less than we have in the past for hiring and promotion would likely be better. I’ve always tried to be useful as moderator, giving feedback particularly to more junior participants on their manuscripts, but I can say I only twice had a moderator do the same for me in twelve years of ACSP.

We could also try timing the conference differently: we could do the big national conference every other year instead of every year. Smaller conferences create new organizing burdens that currently get covered by the bigger conference staff and host universities.

That strikes me as a pretty good suggestion, too, but it shares the same drawback as distributing to regional or topical conferences: ACSP matters for job seekers a great deal. I’m pretty sure I have never succeeded in impressing anybody at ACSP, but that’s just me. We have tons of job networking going on, and if you finish your dissertation and graduate during an “off” year, it would change your prospects quite a bit, and adding an extra year of potential unemployment is way hard on young scholars.

The possibility I like, but the organization wouldn’t, is trimming down the yearly conference to two-three days at most. This involves a lot more work on the part of the organizers, but I do like the idea. Instead of evaluating abstracts, we could limit submissions only to people who submit completed manuscripts by the submission date, we review those manuscripts, and we take the best by tier: by tenured, nontenured, graduate student, giving priority to junior scholars. ACSP wants participants and registration fees (and how else does it pay the bills), but all that leads to a very large conference with a lot of partially baked ideas which may not benefit from feedback anyway, and that don’t reflect all that well on the person giving the presentation.

What idea do you like? Or is there a different one we should think about? I like “planning theory bad mammajama symposium” where I only invite people I like, but I suppose it’s not all about me, more’s the pity.