Everybody is moving on and I am still here, doing what I do

Commencement is always a bittersweet time; graduation day is the easiest part of my job. Show up; wear silly hat; sit on stage; look happy; take pictures; hug anybody who doesn’t run away with sufficient alacrity.

But graduation also means that many of the students I’ve enjoyed getting to know move on, as they do, naturally. Nonetheless, I have always had this weird feeling as a professor, watching it all happen: they come, they light up the place, they go. And, of course, next year there be will more, and they will be wonderful in their own ways, but they will not be these students, right here, the ones who made me care about them, and who then left. There’s no escaping a feeling of being stationary as a professor, or as a teacher I suppose, where you do what you can for people at this stage in their lives, and then they go on to new things, while you stay, keeping on keeping on.

I am also watching my cohort of graduate students, my contemporaries, move on; I’m having those awkward conversations with people feeling me out, trying to measure their progress against mine: have I have submitted my file for promotion? Have I done this? That? This other thing? The answer is: “probably not.”

In addition, there are those who are moving into administration, important jobs, all of which sound like rather a lot of ghastly meetings. Trying to move into something like that simply to feel like I am moving strikes me as a very, very bad idea. Shouldn’t you be called into something like that?

I could also move universities, but precious few seem to have better programs than my beloved USC; there are snootier universities, sure, but I really doubt there are better faculty, and I’m not sufficiently into status hierarchies to move (even if anybody wanted me, and so far, they seem to be fine despite the absence of Lisa in their spheres). Thus that, too, would feel like moving just to move.

My book project is taking forever, and I hate that, but I also don’t. It’s a big, ambitious piece of work, and it deserves my patience, even if the struggle to get the ideas right feels like a modest, almost monastically boring, application of everyday craft, not the big, difficult battles I have enjoyed fighting in years prior.

I’m re-reading City of God right now. It took Augustine 15 years to write it. I’ve decided to translate the key books discussing cities and politics for my own learning. That will probably take ME 15 years.

The question becomes: what do I next? Do I fade off into contented academic pottering like my Augustine work? Or is there something else? I toyed with the idea of going after a journal editorship, but after chatting with a few folks, I decided I wouldn’t be much good at that.

I was also thinking of going back and getting another PhD. Agent Spencer on Criminal Minds had 3 by the time he was 22. I’m behind!

Today’s agenda is painting, weeding, reading, taking a dog in for her dental. And I’m grateful for it.

Avocado toast and housing are expensive for the same reason (land economics)

So there has been a little tempest in flying around the internets where a silly Australian millionaire/billionaire/gillionaire named something said something stupid, blaming Millennials’ lack of self-discipline and frugality for their difficulty getting into the home ownership market. Here’s a quote from the LA Times:

“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” real estate mogul Tim Gurner said on the Australian version of “60 Minutes.”

The results on Twitter are predictably funny and bitter, and there have been quite a few stories, like the one shared from the Times above, that talk about the barriers to home ownership and the challenges that Millenials face in trying to buy a home, including staggering levels of student loan debt, stricter financial rules that require 20 percent down, the difficulty of amassing that kind of money when house prices are what they are, and job scarcity among Millenials. It’s shocking that that three-year, unpaid internship doesn’t get you all the money you need to put 20 percent down on a $350,000 home.

My little addition here is simply to note that $4 coffees are $4 coffees and smashed avocado is $19 in some of these restaurants for the same reason that housing prices are obscene: land prices. Yes, restaurants have a high mark-up on vegetarian options like avocado toast, but very little is priced at cost in restaurants: most deserts don’t pay for themselves, for example, but are kept on the menu to compete with other establishments*, and booze gets the biggest margin.

But everything gets more expensive when land prices get high. Land prices factor into everything in cities, from the wages you have to pay to keep wait staff slinging $4 coffees and $19 avocado toasts to the floor space you have to rent or buy to store and serve the coffee and toast in. Everything, from buying gas to boxes of cereal to eat at home rather than going out to eat, costs more at the same time that housing costs more. So while we can blame people’s consumption patterns (if we want to be jerks)–going out is more expensive–food consumed at home is going to be more expensive in cities, and punishingly expensive in cities where land prices are high, too.

Oh, and the home garden you might have to defray costs carries a $325 opportunity cost per square foot.

Just saying.

Now I want avocado toast.

I do think people are somewhat wrong to get too shirty pointing out that at least some Boomer wealth will be inherited into Gen X. When that happens, to how many that will make a meaningful difference, or whether it will happen in such a way to be useful to them as homebuyers are separate questions, but wealth doesn’t vanish and intergenerational transfers are real and important.

Here’s some funny Millennial tweets to make you smile. The kids are all right.

* California restaurants are dead unimaginative when it comes to desserts, and I suspect it has to do with everybody’s carb phobia. Thus most won’t shell out for a desert chef. Everything, everything on the menu is dead simple: ice creams or gelatos (machine made, put enough fat content into it and derive a clever flavor), bread pudding (recycle stale bread and a four year-old could make it), pudding (a 10 year-old could make that) and you’ve pretty much exhausted the lot.

Measure C, Vision Zero, and “shut up, bitch” urban politics

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Being disinterested in police conduct towards communities of color in Los Angeles is a coalition-breaker, and lefties need to start paying attention and act accordingly.

The burdens of democracy have been pretty heavy on Angelenos here late, with November, one protest march after another, the election in March (covering the now infamous Measure S) and now another city election today.

Up for grabs is City Council seat in District 1 (Gil Cedilo, incumbent, versus Joe Bray-Ali) in DTLA and large swaths surrounding, and District 7, (relatively low-density, suburban district in the San Fernando Valley, nestled up against the Tujunga Canyons. We also have some school district elections district 4 (Topanga Canyon, Westchester, Palisades, Marina, Encino, etc) and district 7 (Pacoima, Reseda, Van Nuys, Sylmar, etc).

The only thing on the ballot for me today will be Measure C. Measure C is an ersatz attempt at police reform in Los Angeles. The LA Times Editorial Board, with whom I have my arguments, lays out the problems correctly in this op-ed, and they picked a a great catch line:

There is precious little evidence that there is anything wrong with the current discipline process, other than that officers and their union don’t like it.

That’s a really good piece of writing right there, a lesson on its own in sentence construction and impact.

Taking advantage of greater citizen awareness of police shooting via the Black Lives Matter activism to slip this one in strikes me as pretty nasty, even for LA politics.

The general apathy among white urbanists about police reform is, however, a huge problem for the urban policy agenda, and it came back to bite us recently with debates about adopting Vision Zero. Vision Zero is not like Measure C in its intent: Vision Zero is a well-intended, good-hearted, and potentially very effective way to address traffic deaths that results when cars hit pedestrians. Understandably, LA’s urbanists seem to be generally supportive of Vision Zero because people should be able to walk around LA without getting killed. I think we can all agree on this. If we were to make biking and walking safe in Los Angeles, we would be much, much better off, from the possibility that greater safety might induce more people to engage in active, healthy transport to reducing traffic death and injury.

The question is how do we implement Vision Zero, LA-style?

And friends, the question for progressives is always how. Because if Vision Zero hands more resources to the LAPD or empowers them to stop more motorists, we have a potential problem, and that problem concerns the fact that the LAPD, the LA County’s sheriff’s office, and myriad small police forces throughout the southland have got bad relations with communitiews of color, to say the least.

Vision Zero created some conflict in the District 1 during the campaign for candidate, Joe Bray-Ali, who is strong advocate for bicyclists and pedestrians in Los Angeles. He is, from what I can see, a troubled politician with a very good policy agenda. Some trolling activities in his past, where he wanted to start some online debates with racists and other gross people, came back to haunt him big time. In general, I am sympathetic here; if anybody were to look at my online activities, it would involve lots of pictures of little free libraries, sex offender registry policy sites, pro-gun forums, etc–and it’s all for research. The difference is that I don’t post on them; Bray-Ali’s desire to troll itself suggests a willingness to do something that is not terribly productive politically: pick fights online.

This is relatively small potatoes, for all the pearl clutching around it. I could care less about this. I could also care less about his tax issues. I’m not crazy about the way he talks about his extra-marital affairs (because that is indicative), but the affairs themselves are between him and his wife and his conscience and the other folks involved. I don’t like it, but it’s not my lookout.

Impossible to dismiss was Bray-Ali’s long-time conduct in discussing Vision Zero, on Facebook and elsewhere. Hillel Aron covered the controversy very well for LA Weekly, but gets the takeaway wrong.

Here is Aron’s summary of one part of the conflict:

Years ago, Bray-Ali was known as one of the city’s more outspoken, combative bicycle activists. His blog posts and verbal jousting in comments sections were aggressive, perhaps verging on bullying. He represented one faction of the bike-activist community, the one you might call the “bike-lane fundamentalists,” who never met a bicycle safety or pedestrian safety improvement they didn’t like. In recent years, another side has emerged, one you might call the “yes, but” side, whose adherents believe that you should build bike lanes and other infrastructure that make streets safe, but who also have concerns about side effects — namely, that bike lanes can drive gentrification and that policies that crack down on unsafe driving can lead to racial profiling.

“There are certainly factions,” says Joe Linton, the editor of Streetsblog L.A. “I’d say for the last five, seven years there’s been a tension, for sure. And I think it’s a healthy one.”

One such argument broke out in the comments section of the Figueroa for All Facebook group in October 2015, over the “Vision Zero” initiative, which aims to end all traffic deaths in Los Angeles, in part by cracking down on unsafe driving. Streetsblog L.A. editor Sahra Sulaiman was among those who voiced concerns that this initiative could lead to racial profiling. Bray-Ali called this view “nit-pickingly myopic.” Sulaiman pushed back; Bray-Ali called Sulaiman and L.A. County Bike Coalition executive director Tamika Butler “concern trolls.” That was typical for Bray-Ali; he had little patience for sensitivity or consensus-building, at least when it came to his agenda.

“Concern troll” is a smartest boy urbanist term for “shut up, bitch.” And urban lefties can’t be doing this stuff anymore, not if they want support from communities of color. And they need that support. Asking people of color to support your bike lanes while discounting police violence and mass incarceration is so entitled…it’s like a black hole of entitlement…the entitlement is so dense it sucks everything else into it.

We cannot ask people to ignore their own oppression while we ask for their political support.

I don’t know Mr. Bray-Ali, but I have met Tamika Butler, and I have followed Sahra Sulaiman’s writing for some time. Tamika ran circles around me in a panel we were on once. Do you know how hard that is? I gave up. She had more important stuff to say than I did, so I sat back and enjoyed watching her go. Sulaiman writes beautifully about LA’s urban politics. She is one of a growing number of women writing very well about Los Angeles who (unfortunately) have to deal with smartest boy urbanists like Joe Bray-Ali issuing “Shut up, bitch” edicts because, as we know, ain’t nothing more righteously indignant than a smartest boy urbanist when confronted with the possibility that he doesn’t have all the goddamn answers.

Instead of learning, Bray-Ali went after Sulaiman again on Twitter again recently. Gahhhhhh.

Butler and Sulaiman are two very, very smart people. The last thing any political leader should do is to try to silence them. A good politician…a smart one..tries to get them on his goddamn task force. Moves them from the marginal to the center. They know stuff you don’t.

Mr. Linton may be right in that the tension between the fundamentalists and the “yes, but” folks may be “healthy”, but it is only healthy to the degree that white urbanists learn to think differently. The reason there is a “tension” is because white urbanists have been too lazy and/or too entitled to work on crafting a Vision Zero approach that really works for everybody, one that addresses the effects on socially and politically vulnerable people when we expose them to the police more than we already do. I get it: That shit is some hard work. It’s easier to yell “concern troll” while the boy urbanist peanut gallery congratulates you on your “powerful voice” and “never backs down” cowboy brio.

Vision Zero-type ideas can work in LA, but only if we do the work to build in strategies about police conduct and governance right along with making the city right for bicyclists.

I do take issue with Hillel Aron’s conclusion:

Maybe the lesson is simply: Being an asshole online is just as bad as being an asshole in real life. So don’t be an asshole. Especially if you run for office.

Again, some excellent writing, but if being an asshole were a disqualification for public office, we’d have had 12 presidents by now instead of 45. Assholes, like bitches, can get stuff done.

I don’t want LA urbanists to walk away from the Bray-Ali campaign thinking he struggled just because he had baggage or bad judgment (both true.) The problem he personifies here goes way deeper. The lesson is this (I shall repeat it a few times until it sinks in):

We have to support people of color if we’d like them to support us.

We have to support people of color if we’d like them to support us.

We have to support people of color if we’d like them to support us.

We have to support people of color if we’d like them to support us.

We have to support people of color if we’d like them to support us.

Not being an asshole also helps, too, tho.

A referendum removing parking regulations would be a true test of LA’s urbanism(s)

LA’s urban crowd (this is not a pejorative) have done some victory laps here late, suggesting that their vision for LA has finally come to the fore, after Measure S did not get much traction at the voting booth. Feeling good that things on your policy agenda passed, and vice versa for bad ideas, is not a bad thing. It’s just hard for me to believe that voting behavior is that readily interpreted; S had a lot of moving parts to it, and it’s hard to know why people vote the way they do even on relatively straightforward referenda. Don’t get me wrong: S going away was not a bad thing at all for LA development, and in sum the good of passing Measure M last fall probably, on balance, outweighs the ills in it.

But that still doesn’t mean urbanists have a majority supporting a specific policy agenda. It’s possible, for example, that the no voters didn’t want the armageddon described among opponents to S, and that they do want trains, as supplied by M, but they do not necessarily want much else to change about Los Angeles development or neighborhoods. Measure M, in particular, spreads a ton of money around for roads, too, even if the shiniest part of the measure were the trains. (Yes, I’m still not thrilled with it, even though people argued me around to voting for it.)

What would actually test the vision? I think a referenda that eliminates parking minimums would be a strong test. It would also, if it passed, go a long ways in advancing the goal of increasing infill housing supply. My suspicion is that parking requirements are a bigger barrier to supplying new units than zoning is, generally, though this impression has not been subjected to any real empirical testing. Politically it’s a lot easier to connect zoning to high prices, and LA needs a systematic plan for up-zoning, which is one reason why we need updated general plans.

If nothing else, the ensuing debate would enable a discussion about why minimum parking requirements are so bad–the kind of debate we had early on with Measure S before it devolved into a screaming match.

Why are there so many new student-organized conferences?

I’ve been approached on multiple fronts by new, student-run conferences; I was chatting about this with another established scholar who took a rather dim view: do you really have time to be running about organizing conferences when you are a graduate student? Shouldn’t you be doing something else, like focusing on your own work?

My opinion is somewhat different: I’m not sure it really hurts graduate students to be organizing their own conferences, at all. Granted all the other, largely unedifying scutwork professors make graduate students do, from grading (which only teaches you to despair for future generations) to doing reference lists for the big cheese’s books and such. Virtually nobody laments that sort of time-wasting in the apprenticeship process, and while organizing conferences is a much, much bigger, more time-consuming endeavor, I could it see being something that the students themselves find to be both gratifying and professionally useful. You do network (although, if you are doing this without an advisor looking over your shoulder, you may doing all sorts of things that rub people the wrong way in the academy, as the academy is a strange place where the norms are not evident unless you grew up in a WASPy family of academics somewhere or are simply, naturally gifted at the social life of the academy.)

What actually worries me more than students potentially using their time badly is simply why they feel the need to go outside ACSP. We have, for example, Spaces of Struggle: A Mini-Conference on Radical Planning that links into the big conference, Associated Schools of Collegiate Planning. Now, I do like the idea of more radical faculty setting aside a space for themselves, but I worry a little about the timing. It is an absolute stretch for many people to be able to go to 3 days of conference, granted hotel fees, and for parents virtually any conference travel is out of the question unless we get smarter about adding daycare to conferences (yo, ACSP, remember when FWIG asked you to have the hosting university list local childcare options right along with restaurants?). Perhaps different people will attend Spaces of Struggle and forgo ACSP, but that would make me a little sad, as ACSP needs all the brains and radicals that it can get. I understand wanting to set aside time and space for more radical discussion, but the last thing ACSP needs is for it to become even more dominated by the “huh? Gentrification isn’t a planning problem, it’s just the market” types. I’m old, I can’t deliver every wedgie these people need.

And that does bring to me to one potential answer to why students are organizing their own conferences: they just don’t get what they want from the bigger conference. I have grumped for years that we don’t do a good job with ACSP, and these two things are exceptionally problematic for young scholars. The first is, simply, that we rush through too many presentations. I know: if we didn’t have that many presentations, we would lose attendees and revenue. That is too bad, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. By rushing through so many presentations, nobody really gets to explore the details of the work, and the details of scholarship are what makes it rigorous or not. That means scholars don’t get the feedback on details that they need until they send the paper for review, which means the paper either goes through round after round after round of reviewing, and if reviewers don’t have your back, then that vetting never gets done. It’s not good for scholarship, and it’s not good for young scholars, specifically.

Now, I have seen people give presentation after presentation on work that isn’t really done, year after year. I think it would be better to limit that somewhat to focus on papers that really have a draft done. If you haven’t turned in your paper, you don’t present, giving everybody else the time to present. I don’t know that we should regulate thism but it should be a point of honor.

At the risk of Monday-morning quarterbacking even more (as I have never had to plan the schedule or the tracks), students wind up being on too many all-student panels offered during garbage time (Sunday mornings). Students should be put on panels with big dogs, and we should expect big dogs to show up during less than desirable times to attract attendees. I myself have refused to come for garbage time presentations, but I was wrong to do that (I was an assistant professor, however, and I had very, very limited travel funding available from Virginia Tech. I had to save my travel money for better opportunities.)

Finally, we don’t use discussants as well or as much as we probably should at ACSP. If you aren’t going to get feedback from the audience because you’ve had to race through your material, then a good, conscientious discussant is the only real chance you have of getting feedback. David Sawicki, Robert Lake, and Brian Taylor have been excellent discussants, although Sawicki scared the daylights out of me as a graduate student, and I think it would get more out of the sessions we presented if that ethic were taken somewhat more seriously.

When I began, there was quite a lot of grumbling about including students in conferences at all; after all, they don’t really know how to do research, and thus they are likely to give a bad presentation, and that could really harm them. That is on the advisor and home program, I think. At USC, you give your presentation to the faculty before you to the conference, so we can help students avoiding having their fannies hang out. I also find money that my students can use to go before they have to present, so they can get a sense of the conference.

Now, btw, I am generally willing to serve as a discussant if your track needs one. I don’t know if I am going anywhere this fall–I am hoping to get a lot of work done on the book, and I would rather stay home–but I always say yes if I am going.

Christopher Hitchens on standing up to populists with bad ideas

We have entered a trying time in American politics, for obvious reasons, but for me, nothing quite equals the joys of having a) an engineering professor probably making upwards of $250K a year lecture one and all on elitism in public policy and coastal elites (uh-huh, don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the elite under the tree) or b) having to deal with the endless attempts to show me how nuanced and totally-not-at-all-raciss Trump voters are. My favorite writing on the latter has been this bit from MediaMatters.org, shared by the brilliant Lisa Bates and penned by Eric Boehlert:

At this point, if you’re a Donald Trump supporter — and especially if you’re one from a mostly white town inside a red state — and a Beltway reporter hasn’t interviewed you as part of a Trump supporter update story, you need to get out more often.

Oh, how I wish I had written that—one has to love the bon mot. And yes, I am using French phrasing just to show off my language skills and to establish my eeeeeleeeet street cred.

I’ve read plenty of this new poverty porn and it amounts to “let’s listen to poorly informed voters talk in a poorly informed way about Donald Trump, whether it’s plain celebrity politics or big-daddy appeal or simple party loyalty or whatever. (After all, one of the points of political parties is to offset rational ignorance but yet allow people to shortcut to votes based on general values espoused rather than having to keep up on issues themselves).

None the new poverty reporting has resonated for me more than this quote in the New Yorker from Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy. This novel has been a huge deal in Europe, and I ordered it and read it in French earlier this spring. (IN FRENCH OMG ELITE ALERT ELITE ALERT get this woman some pork rinds) If you haven’t read the reviews, it is a “novel”–EH, that he says is true**–of things that happened to Mr. Louis growing up queer in an impoverished province of France, a province now where Marine Le Pen is very popular. This quote captured the trends I see pretty well:

For Louis, the tide of populism sweeping Europe and the United States is a consequence of what he, citing the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, calls “the principle of the conservation of violence.” “When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life,” Louis told an interviewer, referring to the indignities of poverty, “you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means.”

It’s not nuanced, however natural it may be, and I don’t need Nicholas Kristoff walking around like a barker at a carnival show talking to people mad about “Obummer phones” or “them immigrants” to show me how really nooooanced it all is.

I was just re-reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian yesterday, and I saw that I underlined this quote the first time through. It strikes me as extremely wise, and very apt:

One must avoid snobbery and misanthropy. But one must all be unafraid to criticize those who reach for the lowest common denominator, and who sometimes succeed in finding it. This criticism would be effortless if there no “people” waiting for just such an appeal. Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience, that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. And the fact that kings and bishops and billionaires often have more say than most in forming the appetites and emotions of the crowd is not irrelevant, either.”

**What are we doing with this “true novel based on my life” stuff between Knausgaard and others? We had a perfectly good word for it–memoir–and I don’t understand the difference between “novel where these events happened in my life” and a “memoir.”