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.  

An obviously compromised president

I was scrolling through Twitter last night and I happened upon quite a bit of back and forth about Robert Mueller’s investigation, about how liberals are putting all their eggs in one basket (huh?) and how it’s a nothing burger story. 

I really don’t know what, exactly,  Mueller’s capabilities are, granted that so many people have decided he’s not responsible for anything he does, he’s just their big man, or what people think Mueller’s investigation will tell us that we don’t already know about Donald Trump as a compromised president. 

So much of his administration’s strategy in the Middle East and Iran hangs on their backing of the Crown Prince  Mohammed bin Salman. It’s clear he’s the heir apparent.  It’s also clear he’s a very dangerous guy, and that the president won’t upset him for a number of reasons, including their redrafted Iran deal (redrafted unnecessarily due to Republican hatred of Barack Obama more than anything else.)  

Do most Americans even know what Hezbollah is? They should. I suspect they do not. (I do not write this with any happiness.) 

Those are the somewhat defensible reasons why Donald Trump won’t respond to the Saudis. The shadow reason is, naturally, his business interests globally. 

Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Lisa, don’t buy into the fake news.  He’s fine. 

How would we know that? He’s hired legal teams to argue that the blind trust strategy can’t, simply can’t, apply to him because he and his businesses are just so special .  

The arrangement they have forged says no international deals while the president is in office. But the organization is being managed by his family, and they are not arm’s length managers,  and the very same issues the tax attorneys are using to claim Donald Trump can’t, simply can’t do a blind trust are the exact same reasons why he can never really divest himself in office of his business interests, either.  

We’re supposed to believe that he is such a man of good character that he will put the country first. 


I’m burying the lede here in some ways, but before he stepped into office, Donald Trump’s business dealings with Russians speak to a long, long association of former KGB (read, today’s mafia) are a matter of public record going back decades. Craig Unger compiled 1300 transactions.  In 2005, Donald Trump went from being $4B in debt to…not being $4B in debt because Russian investors “franchised his brand” with no up-front money from him.  I get it, the brand has  value. How much value? And how close were/are those Russians to Kremlin? 

Pretty close.  Do a Google Search of Trump and Bayrock. This is, of course, after Donald Trump said he has no business deal with Russians. 

And there’s the alleged pee tape. I doubt it exists. And even if it does, his followers are crude enough to be entertained rather than disgusted by it. 

What did the president know?  Who knows?  Intelligence assets often do not know they are being groomed. They aren’t agents. They just dupes. 

Besides all this, he’s been a lousy president, antagonizing needlessly the intelligence community and undermining his own ability to govern, in addition to the mess at the border and his cronies have created for ludicrous reasons. 




My data brings all the boys to the yard (to piss on women in STEM)

I’ve been experimenting with Twitter and Facebook.  For the past few months, I’ve been posting my watercolors, which are amateurish, and interspersed with draft data graphics.  There are a lot of graphics that I use for my own  learning and no other reason, so I don’t always finish them. Or I am doing them to derive a graphic for students to finish off in order to get them more accomplished with R.  I’m not always looking to communicate, and I’m not posting looking to be treated like I’m special or a star in data viz or anything of the sort any more than my posts saying “I’m at a Bach concert” are designed to make you think I am some sort of magnificent patron of the arts.  I’m not a consultant selling my data manipulation services.  I’ve already got the cookies I need, thanks. 

What is interesting to me with this experimenting is that my little draft graphics bring Twitter dudes to critique rather than discuss.  I realize this is unscientific, but I have lot of women in computer science in my feed, including some who are accomplished in fields like AI and OR.  Not a single one of the women, after months of me posting draft data visualizations, has *ever* come at me with “you need to fix X” or “this is wrong do it right.” 

Not. A. Single. One. 

Not. One. Not. Ever. 

Whereas if I post a graphic that is just drafty, I will get all the boys in the yard telling me what’s what.  I’ve never had anybody—despite have tons of architects in my followers—tell me with my watercolors that I should use do things differently (I ought to, but I like just splashing around, thanks.). 

Do any of you really think I need somebody to tell me how to use data? 

On Facebook, I posted a graphic I had thrown together in Excel which wouldn’t allow me to designate a x-axis label for some reason I couldn’t suss (I think it was just some glitch that would have gone away had I restarted but meh).  I posted it on Facebook, told people about the x-axis issue, and asked if they could think of other possible display formats. OMG, the drama! THERE’S NO X-AXIS SO I CAN’T POSSIBLY UNDERSTAAAAAND THIS YOU AMATEUR.  I repeated in the comments what the x-axis was.  BUT THERE’S NO X-AXIS.  

Not a single woman on my Fboo commented on it. Only men. One of my colleagues (one of my favorite colleagues) and one of my *students* (a beloved one)  were in the mix talking down to me like *crazy.* 

After that, I started letting partially done graphics out in the world more often and keeping track of who commented negatively. After two years, I have 10 graphics and about 30 comments, none from people who present as female on social media.  Insta is a bust. People don’t seem to be too critical on Insta and I don’t have many followers, both of which makes me like it very much. And it has pretty pictures.  

On Fboo and  Twitter, I have a bunch of comments, all from men, just about all negative. 


Yesterday evening I posted this: 


Dse91MZVAAAVVe jpg large

With the clear indication that I was diddling around, that it’s a draft graphic. A student gave my class some BART data and some people have done a lot with it, others haven’t done anything with it, and I’ve been looking for ways to show them that they can use both the O-D data. I’m also messing with Sankey diagrams.

I got everything “every graphic deserves a legend, I don’t know what’s going here” (Fair enough, but I’m not sure if I am going to bother with making a legend or just using proper station names in labels) to “Well, Berkeley students did this first!” Along with some comment that I wasn’t showing much originality using a chord diagram. Christ, nobody is taking *anything* away from Berkeley students,  I didn’t claim to invent anything here, and *I’ve* never made a chord diagram before, so it was fun and new for me. Isn’t that enough? 

But no, it’s not enough. 

All from dudes. 

Guys, knock this shit off.  This is a way of trying to sanction a woman for participating in high-status places (data viz, computer science, etc) you want to reserve for yourselves, and it’s not ok.  Graphics do not need to be perfect to be instructive, and—believe it or not–nobody asked your opinion. This is a form of mansplaining, and it’s not welcome.  “Tell me how to improve this” is an invitation. “Hey, I screwed around with data”  is not a invite for all y’all to come along and tell me I DID IT WROOOOOOOOOONG. 

I repeat: knock it off. Make space. Don’t police it. 

I would contrast this last experience with a graphic I posted two Sundays ago that mixed watercolors and data: Dru8dMNUcAEUcXe

Now, this son of a bitch is hard to read, and the photograph chopped off the source AND the last station. It’s a mess, from execution to data display. Did I hear a peep? No.  Not a peep! In fact, the train nerds began a super-long discussion about the forecasts, etc, so much so that I finally told them to go outside. (One of my students helpfully pointed out that one can tweet outside.)

Bottom line: watercolor is not a prestige space the way data viz/science is. Nobody need police these creations to assert status and power-knowledge. 

All of this is conjecture, based on a limited run in one person’s social media. But it’s solid enough that it’s probably worthy of a bigger field experiment. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe somebody else—by all means, I’d love to see what others came up with.  Either way, people are welcome in the yard. Just behave yourselves. 


What do you do when a student hurts your feelings?

The answer is, of course, suck it up.  Randy Crane, before I left UCLA, gave me the best advice on teaching I have ever received: students never really understand what you are trying to do for them. They understand their own goals, but often do not understand how to achieve those goals or how the context works.   Students often do not have a lot of power, especially graduate students, and they generally do not know how much they can harm others during job talks, classes, or in other contexts.  Professors OTOH have way too much power over the lives of graduate students. We should be reviewed and acceptable for our mentorship, not in any bean-county way but in the “are you being an abusive jackass?” kind of way.

That’s all by way of saying I’ve usually been pretty good about limiting my emotional responses to students, being patient, and getting over things quickly.  It’s something in my teaching performance over the years I’ve been relatively proud of. 

So….weirdly, in the past few weeks, I’ve had something happen that logically I can say is not a big deal but is *sticking* with me in ways things have never stuck before.  It’s me: students have said far, far worse things to me and I’ve not thought anything of it. 

But for some reason, this one, stray comment really hurt me, and I’m worried it’s going to affect how I relate to this person. It’s a comment I’ve heard over and over and over in my scholarly life from economists, from engineers, etc.  I’ve brushed past it a many, many times.  But this time it landed home, and I’m utterly shocked at my own reaction and my own inability to just let it f*cking  go already. 

I feel like I’ve been good to this particular student, and that I deserved better. But…things like this have happened many, many times before. 

Am I finally vested in my dignity as a scholar? I’ve always been plenty thin-skinned in other contexts, but never with students.  Whatever it is, I don’t like it.  Advice? 


How is one to be a full professor?

I had one of those reminders yesterday that I am not very good at taking care of myself, even as I often do quite well at caring for others. 

1) I was late for my morning class because I went to take a shower, my husband went to buy paint, and the painters showed up and began working on the hallway outside my bathroom. I was naked and needed to return to my bedroom for clothing, and all I had was a washrag and a cellphone. (I finally managed with broken Spanish to explain I needed them to go downstairs.) 

2) I hadn’t eaten any breakfast since I was running late, and during class I started feeling weaker and weaker.  I told myself I’d go get something during the break, but students came up during the break and wanted to talk about their projects, and so I figured I could wait until later to get something.  By the time lunch and the end of class rolled around (class runs from 9 until 12:20), I was disoriented and weak; I was so weak that pushing the elevator buttons seemed hard and I was having trouble thinking.   I had some rice crackers in my office that worked nicely enough as a boost to get me over to the cafe for an actual lunch. 

I’ve never actually pushed things to where my thinking clouded. It was un-good, and it happened much faster than I thought it could, and I’ve not felt fear like that in a long time.  I am unused to feeling my mind not work. 

I asked for help from the wrong people, and I was afraid to ask my students for colleagues or help.  You are supposed to be strong and in charge for students.  If you ask your colleagues for help at a place like USC or any academic workplace, you risk…a lot. 

3) I have no idea where  any of my medication is after I traveled and I haven’t take it in some time. This is dumb and dangerous and yet I still can’t find it.  I know what I would say to a student or colleague who engaged in such nonsense, but here I go. 

4)  I am, once again, being backed into my data monkey corner, and it’s causing a lot of anxiety.  I started out in professional life as data person, a person who made a living because other people couldn’t program, didn’t know how to handle data, or didn’t have my gifts with it.  That moved into my assistant professor life, with plenty of senior faculty who wanted to “collaborate” (aka take credit for what I could do). By then I was twigged to it, so the people I did collaborate were cool.

 I wrote a theory paper out of my dissertation and one of my senior colleagues at USC sniffed when they hired me “well, at least you show some potential for thought in THIS ONE paper.”  It hurt so much and reinforced my belief that I was an empiricist, a decent one, perhaps,  but not one that would ever change how anybody thought about anything, nothing really super duper special like our departmental darling. 

Then after tenure, I got nice roundhouse kick in the face as my colleagues chose somebody else for a leadership position I wanted, and I went into a tailspin, doubting everything about myself and the value of my scholarship. Why give me tenure if you don’t think I’m capable of leading? I decided, after a year, that I was tired of data, tired of the same old tropes in transit and transportation research. I didn’t have any questions there. And I began reading political philosophy, from the pre-Socratics onward. I loved it. New ideas, new challenges, lots of new books to read. 

I got pushed into teaching planning theory, and I was good at it.  I got ideas above my allotted station as data monkey. I began writing about theory, sometimes getting published even. I decided to wander a bit.  I started writing a book that turned into three books because it got bigger, as is the way of my projects. 

I even got promoted to full doing that, which surprised nobody more than myself. 

And yet, the box comes back, and it comes back in a major way.  Each time I think my teaching schedule settles, it doesn’t.  I prep and prep and prep and prep and prep.  This was supposed to get better as my career went on. It hasn’t.

I decided to try to move some of my time over to USC’s gender studies department.  They are a reborn place, with tons of bright people, and if the forces hostile to planning in *every* university finally win at USC, I wanted an exit option other than retirement or being shoved back in with the economists.  More than anything, their classes fill fast, and they need another horse in the harness.  

But the reality is, our new little planning department can’t afford to let me wander off, either. I am, I believe, the only one of us who isn’t a director of something or whatnot that serve to lighten teaching loads. I teach and teach and teach, and I understand why. I’m good at it, I mostly enjoy it, and the department has to have full-time faculty teaching required things. 

Our chair, Marlon Boarnet,  rightly frogmarched us through curriculum reform for several years, and we have a really nice curriculum as a result.   We have committed, however,  to urban data in a big way, and I’m the only one on the regular faculty who can program.   They need me to stay put, teach two new classes centered on data, period. That leave me with my undergrad teaching and the mass transit, another class my colleagues are unlikely to be able to teach. 

Part of me says that now I can go back to my data monkey life entirely differently; I can bring the critical theoretical capacity I have developed and teach about urban data like few other people do, and I might be able to write from that perspective, too. Every other time I’ve taken up new teaching challenges for any length of time, I’ve always done so. Ideas come;  I have always been able to trust that, and I’ve been itching for a new challenge here late. 

But the old warrior is tired. My body is taking its revenge for years of neglect I gave it as I obsessed over building a career.

I am now a full professor, something that in my mind always carried with the possibilities to get more free to do the things one wants to do, the way one wants to do them.  And yet, my relationship with privilege or power is not like that, innately.  I am full professor, something I have worked my entire career for, and instead of feeling like I’ve find motored my way onto easy street, I just see unmet needs around me, needs I may have some capability to meet. 

How does one “full professor” ? I thought I knew and I didn’t. 







I really like this book: Help Yourself City by Gordon C.C. Douglas

I’ve been dipping into the DIY urbanism research, which I like very much, for my research on Little Free Libraries.  I picked up this book by Gordon C.C. Douglas some time ago,  and I wanted to pass along my recommendation because it’s well written and very much worth your time reading. It’s published by Oxford University Press. 

His take on DIY is very much like my own, and so it’s saved me a bunch of work.  The idea behind DIY is that people in neighborhoods have begun, vis-a-vis the postmodern, neoliberal, and when it comes to community needs rather than business needs, hollow state, to just alter things themselves with guerrilla bike lanes or benches.  In my planning theory class, we had a long talk about how diy fits (or doesn’t) within the informality research, and I tend to think it doesn’t belong there, for a bunch of reasons I might save for another blog post. Today it might get us too far into the weeds. 

One critique of DIY is that it’s secure, white  people doing things that people of color would get arrested and endangered for (an argument we had (needfully) during the waxing street art movement),  and I think that’s fair, but I also think that is a description of daily life in apartheid America. It’s not special for DIY, and I don’t think somebody who provides a bench for their neighbors really epitomizes white privilege in a way that really moves the dial. It’s certainly reflective of privilege, but what about affluent white life isn’t?  

So for me a great deal of the DIY research that wants to make more or less of what people are doing a little misguided in that no, it’s not a grand, transformative political statement for a suburbanite to put a bench in their front yard, but it’s also not nothing for somebody to go and do something nice for themselves or their neighbors. I put one out because I saw my elderly neighbors struggling to walk the long block up to the bus stop on Washington.  Then as my disability got worse,  I found it was a nice place to take a break when working in my front garden.  The guys that help me with my garden eat lunch there.  It’s not the revolution. It’s just nice. 

Douglas does point out instances where things stop just being “something nice to share” to being more overly political, and that’s a useful distinction.  Douglas’s main interest is on DIY design, and I am finding myself inspired by the idea.  Design is one of those areas of making that experts guard jealously. Planners are not designers unless they have a design credential, designers lecture me routinely, but then they feel free to lecture me on economics.  One of the reasons I’ve been looking at Little Free Libraries is the idea that kits allow for women, in particular, to participate in creative making and changing the way their spaces look on the exterior of the house, much like front gardens,  without having to have woodworking or other design skills that they are frequently excluded from. 

Douglas is an assistant professor at San Jose State, and if this very nice book is any indicator, I’m looking forward to more wonderful things. 

Glah I screwed up my ACSP round table

So I was asked to be part of a panel on smart cities and environmental justice. I normally do not love being part of any given panel; just let me do a research presentation (which I will also probably dislike doing, just because I hate talking in front of people), but whatever. The autism means I have bad social cue reading so I don’t know on a panel when I’ve annoyed people, talked too much, seemed surly rather than just uncomfortable, etc, and the whole time feels awful.  I should say no to these things. 

I brought what I think is the most important question about sensors and information, and that is: the future of work. Being unemployed in a world without social safety nets is a health issue,  and economic justice is, for me at the heart of environmental justice.   The audience was interested.  One person said that driverless tech, according to his mentor, was going to be good for truck drivers/bus drivers because there is always a shortage (I have trouble believing this; I really can’t think of many capital investments made that don’t in some way substitute for labor. You may make individual truckers better off and more productive, but as a group, I don’t see this, but I hope he’s right and I’m wrong.” The discussion seemed to be taking off, and then: 

Old White Dude (OWD) chimed in and did that thing they do: “well, let’s just get back to the topic at hand. The future of work, the macroeconomy.  This is a panel about Smart Cities. Planners are so ambitious  that we get too broad.” 

Now, I am sure OWD thought he was being kindly, but it was patronizing, and I just didn’t know how to respond right way.  I struggled, and continued on, and at one point just outright asked the question: “why did people want me on this panel if we *don’t* want to take on broad issues like justice?”  Yes, I can program and do math and did one of the first machine learning papers in planning. I’m technically competent. But that stuff? I feel the same way about that stuff as I do my pencils.  They are tools. And of course our tools are important, but they aren’t more important than the social constructs we make.  WE make. 

Here’s the bottom line.  Yeah, we could use environmental sensors to improve environmental justice but please let’s not act like measurements are the issue with environmental justice. 

It’s exactly this “let’s talk about the tech and nothing else” stuff that leads us into trouble with justice.  We have to start with justice and work outward, not the other way around.  Geographer Julian Agyemon refers to “joined up thinking” as being able to avoid that tendency to pretend like our actions in one domain *don’t* have consequences in another that allows injustices to propagate.

So I left the thing confused and annoyed with myself and the OWDs on the panel, and I’m not sure what to do about it.  I always say yes to the “planning and tech” anything because I want to keep fighting for space for women on that stage, but perhaps we have now reached a point where, unlike a few years ago, there are plenty of women with better social skills than I have can occupy that spot and deal with a) less angst and b) less disruption and c) less later self-recrimination than I cause or get. 

Because in the end, I’m just not sure anybody got anything out of that discussion with my disruptive presence there. Maybe OWD was right and I was wrong.  Things might have gone a bit better if OWD had tried “let’s focus more on these justice issues specifically on smart city censors, so we can go deeper.” But just like I don’t have all the answers, OWDs don’t, either. 

If people wanted to have a discussion about how you can use sensors to turn on street lights! Oh my! Then jeez Louise don’t ask me to be on the damn panel. Capitalism won’t be satisfied until we have technology for anything and everything—that ’s the benefits from the structure as well as the cost. 

HOWEVER I also feel like I have to a duty to point out that there are people out there marketing facial recognition software to identify if somebody “looks gay” or not.  How wonderful, say the marketers. We can target a demographic! How wonderful, say Russian surveillance officers. I wonder why.

Stupid autism.  I think I’m done doing these roundtables as I don’t know how to manage the flow of ideas. 


Planning epistemologies and Harry Potter: Trelawney versus Umbrage

I have a student in my planning theory class who is focussed on finding one, unifying theory for planning. He’s of the “If planning is everything, then it’s nothing” school, and it’s bugging him. I think the whole “if it’s everything” logic applies to any topic, and I’ve never needed a unified theory of anything, let alone planning.  But it’s important to him, and far be it from me to discourage somebody from trying something ambitious. You never know where they’ll get to, and it could be very interesting. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and re-watching the Harry Potter movies, and I have insights, y’all! Sybll Trelawney versus Dolores Umbridge pretty much captures the conflict.  Sybll is kinda useless—until she isn’t. She’s presented in a very clever way, and in the hands of a lesser actress than Emma Thompson, she wouldn’t have the charm along with all the irritating aspects of her personality. One of her most irritating traits is to force predictions that are utterly wrong. At the same time, she does make real predictions, but she has no control over when it happens, and she doesn’t remember doing it when she does it. 

Dumbledore has given her a job a Hogwarts not because he believes divination can be taught, but because he wants to protect her from the Death Eaters and Voldemort, as she has made predictions about him he would very much like to get out of her.  The result is a rather useless and boring class she teaches on divination.  But it’s clear Dumbledore wants her close, not just to protect her, but because he sees some value in her whitterings and full prophecies. 

I have a great deal of sympathy for Trelawney.  First of all, as Yoda tells us, “Always in motion, the future is.” Sybll’s tendency to fake predictions that turn out wrong happen, at least in part,  because the rest of the us demand the impossible of her: to be a vending machine of info about the future.  Modernist, instrumental approaches to knowledge want future states nailed down, and nailed down *now*.  Humans crave predictability.  If she were a stronger and more principled person, she could just say “Hey, it doesn’t work like that, goddamnit” but I get it: she’s afraid.  If she’s not a vending machine of knowledge about the future, she will get shoved aside, and it’s hard to make a living as an itinerant practitioner of an art that you can’t command and can’t teach. 

The series’ other big faker, Gilderoy Lockhart, is another commentary on fakery and self-promotion. Sybll is trying to stay alive; she has nowhere to go besides Hogwarts.  Lockhart, by contrast, is a celebrity via relentless self-promotion and the willingness to take credit for others’ accomplishments.  As bad a teacher as Trelawney is, she’s nowhere near his level of fakery. 

And she’s often *right* even when she’s wrong. The tea leaves exercise to me epitomizes so much. If you remember, she asks Ron to read Harry’s tea leaves. Ron says he sees a cross (Where??? Look at the picture below; there’s nothing even remotely cross-like). But there is a very clear image of a black dog.  Black dogs are all over lore as being harbingers of death, and so, Trelawney, in her usual, overly dramatic way, tells Harry that she sees….”The Grim!” 

The real story behind the black dog is coming, however, and it’s actually accurate. A black dog is coming into Harry’s life. And everything else about the black dog is unknowable from tea leaves. Our desire to *overknow*, *overinterpret* and *overthink* is apparent here.  These leaves are supposedly signs and portents rather than literal images, but instead, it’s a literal image: it’s a dog, it’s coming, it’s important, and that’s all you get to know right now. Anything else you say at this point is likely embellishment or projection. Period.  Our thirst for knowing more than we can know is what gets us into trouble as we fill in details we can’t possibly know. Sybll is very, very susceptible to this because it’s her trade to know what’s coming, and nobody is going to do backflips over “A dog is coming.” (And our world requires backflip-level revelations from professionals.) 


The grim Google Search

So the question becomes: are we better off with Sybll than we are without her? What’s the point of trying to divine the future if we can’t?  Dumbledore, who is pretty wise, thinks he’s better off with her; I don’t think he’s made space for her at Hogwarts merely to protect her. 

Perhaps the best way to see Trelawney’s value is in contrast with Dolores Umbridge when she arrives. Brilliantly embodied by actor Imelda Staunton,  Umbridge is a public manager of the very worst kind.  Now, in fairness, some of my best students over the years  have been public management students who honestly believe in good government. But for all of those, there are pettifogging little bureaucrats who, like Umbridge, never grew up from being the nasty little tattletales they were when they were little children and who, once they get a taste of power, become even nastier martinets taking power and control over other people wherever they can. 

And that’s the rub. For Umbridge, knowledge is only useful insofar as it is *controlled*.  Umbridge epitomizes the idea that “nobody will give you the education you need to overthrow them.” She simply refuses to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because doing so might empower students as individuals, thereby suggesting that the government doesn’t have all threats handled, and if all threats aren’t handled, what’s the point of the government?  And what’s the point of her power over others—the thing Umbridge cherishes most—then? 

There are two Hogwarts faculty members that Umbridge has her knives out for: Hagrid and Trelawney.  Part of the reason she hates Hagrid is that she’s a racist, but Hagrid and Trelawney have a lot in common.  In particular, Hagrid doesn’t understand his gifts the way Trelawney doesn’t really understand hers. In his case, Hagrid is such a simple, good soul, and so unusual, that he doesn’t realize his gifts are actual gifts that other people don’t have: Hagrid has a facility with animals and monsters that come naturally to him because of who he is.  Now, he’s a pretty good class instructor except for boneheads like Malfoy, but the truth is, most of what Hagrid knows is uncontrollable and thus, not sufficiently instrumental for the managerial mind. 

That is, you can’t wrap into neat little statements about course objectives: 

—handle a hippogriff without getting your face ripped off; 

—learn to fly with a hippogriff and have a fabulous time exploring Hogwarts from the air. 

Those are magical experiences that students can only dream of—transformative experiences. But they aren’t reproducible in the modernist, managerial sense.  And thus, Umbridge hates it. 

Just like Umbridge hates Trelawney, for the same reasons. Umbridge is the most obvious in her desire to treat Trelawney like a cosmic vending machine, obnoxiously so, and Trelawney tries, in vain, to satisfy the rapacious need that Umbridge has for instrumental knowledge.  She can’t, of course, and Umbridge knows that more than anybody. She never asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to (demonstrated in the brilliant scene between Umbridge and Snape. Umbridge:  “So you originally sought the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, but you were unsuccessful in this attempt.” Snape: “Obviously.”) She’s just interacting with Trelawney in order to get “the documentation she needs” to get rid of Trelawney. There is no room in Umbridge’s world for the unpredictable, the visionary, or the imperfect because those might emancipate instead of control, and Umbridge only wants knowledge insofar as it secures her control. 

So whither planning?  Umbridge-style: it’s good to make the trains run on time in a managerial way,  but not if it involves horrible treatment of workers or the environment, or other important things.  Trelawney style: the future is largely unknowable except through vision and imagination, and it’s important not to conflate imagination with knowledge. And it is also important not to demand knowledge where imagination, disciplined by context and the past, serves us better. Imagination requires humility that knowledge does not, and humility is not something professionalized activities accommodate well. 

But future vision might be, like the black dog, just what it is, with all the rest that has to be taken on faith.