Martha Nussbaum’s beautiful description of Iris Marion Young as a mentor

Iris Marion Young left us far too young, after struggling with cancer. I’ve just been re-reading Responsibility for Justice, and I went to look at the intro written by Martha Nussbaum. Maybe I had read it before and simply forgotten about it, but this time out, it struck me. It’s a portrait of generous and supportive mentor in scholarship:

When I heard that Iris was coming to the University of Chicago, then, I already felt very happy for our graduate students, and it was indeed a happy era. Iris was in political science and I
in philosophy, but we worked with a lot of the same students,
and I came to know on a daily basis Iris’s wonderful capacity
for intellectual empathy. Many students wrote on topics Iris herself had written, but there were also many who cam to Iris just because she was Iris, whether or not they thought she knew
something about their topic. One woman was working on the
“capabilities approach” in the area of environmental policy-making. I went to the prospectus exam wondering whether Irish would really encourage such a project, which focused on a body of work in philosophy and economics that was rather distant from from Iris’s own work, though a major part of my own. I just didn’t know whether she would get inside it. I needn’t have asked the question. Iris was totally inside the nature of the project, had her usual rigorous objections and suggestions, but also her characteristic maternal warmth that let the student know she was going to be all right. Iris was a mother in the best sense, fostering development toward high ideals while conveying a sense of ultimate safety and support, something like unconditional love if that can exist in the relationship between professor and graduate student.

Nobody does anything for rural America because there isn’t much that can be done (Mankiw–Romer–Weil) outside of welfare state measures

There have been 100 gillion posts writing about Trump’s victory as a function of the “disaffected white rural voter” and lots of airing of their grievances. I’m not sure how much I buy that, but the material from Katherine Cramer’s very nice book, on angry Wisconsin voters, I’m sure holds true. It’s very good research. Here is a WashPo interview with Cramer as well, where she talks about both “rural identity” and “economic anxiety” as being combined to make people resentful.

But let’s get some straight talk out of the way first.

No doubt people vote for complicated reasons, and we’ve also heard from the foot-stamping “I voted for Trump and I’m not not not not a racist, sexist, Islamaphobe!” Yes, but you voted for one, and undoubtedly in the Trump coalition there are also old-fashioned, sheet-wearing racists. They are having parades. But sure, it’s likely that single-issue voters (security, abortion, anti-tax warriors, etc) joined in who don’t have sheets and hoods in their closets right along with those who prefer to watch television rather than burn crosses but don’t *really* mind that crosses get burned as long as they maintain their place in the racial hierarchy.

My feelings on “But what are we doing for the poor white rural people?” commentary that has started up after the electoral college once again asserted it odd geographic equity rather than actual parliamentarian function on US federal politics comes here from Kali Holloway: Stop Asking Me To Empathize with the White Working Class. Now, you can ask me to do anything you want me to do, including empathize, but I may or may not do what you ask, and it’s another thing entirely about whether my empathy translates into being able to do anything productive about another’s plight.

In particular, Holloway’s notes on how nobody seems to care about black or latino poverty are spot on, right along here:

Please miss me with all this nonsense. I’m not even going to get into how this is based on an easily refutable economic lie, especially since others have already spent precious time they’ll never get back breaking this down. But even if it was true—and I am well aware of what’s plaguing the white working class, from substance abuse to suicide to a loss of manufacturing jobs—I refuse to take part in the endless privileging of white pain above all others. (Martin Gilens, who has studied this stuff going way back, notes that when the media face of poverty is white, this country suddenly gets a lot more compassionate.) Latinos and African Americans remain worse off than the white working class—which is still the “largest demographic bloc in the workforce”—by pretty much every measurable outcome, from home ownership to life expectancy. Where are these appeals for us when we protest or riot against the systemic inequality we live with? Where are all the calls to recognize and understand our anger?

For hundreds of years, white people have controlled everything in this country: the executive office, Congress, the Supreme Court, the criminal justice system, Wall Street, the lending institutions, the history textbook industry, the false narrative that America cares about liberty and justice for all. But I need to understand white feelings of marginalization because a black man was in the White House for eight years? Because political correctness—a general plea for white people not to be as awful as they have been in the past— asked that white people put more effort into being decent than they felt up to? Because white folks didn’t like that feeling when politicians aren’t singularly focused on the hard times and struggles of their communities? Audre Lorde said (I wonder if that woman ever got sick of being right), “oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.” For a people who have shamed black folks for supposedly always wanting a hand out, for being a problem of the entitlement state, I have never seen people who so firmly believe they are owed something.

Let me pass along some advice black folks have been given for a long time: stop being so angry and seeing yourself as a victim, and try pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s really all I have for you right now, this re-gifting of wisdom.

This ties in nicely with the Cramer piece about rural “identity” and economic anxiety. One of the key points of the WashPo piece is here:

According to her research, white voters feel the American Dream is drifting out of reach for them, and they are angry because they believe minorities and immigrants have butted in line.

This is important, and it doesn’t get picked up anywhere in the rest of the post, as it strikes me a really, really important to navigating the politics of resentment.

First off, there’s a line? Where? We’ve been in Chicago-school, trickle down, rising-tides-lifts-all-boats mode of macro thinking for so long that there is a line for a trickle? Are we so brainwashed that we don’t even consider the possibility that trickle-down does not happen, at all, or very little? That Marx was right about something–that capitalism concentrates wealth rather than distributing it–and that if Marx was right rather than the Chicago school, wealth will concentrate both among individuals and, by necessity, in specific regions?

Rural voters, like everybody else, want opportunity, and when sold the “trickle-down” economics argument of capitalism, the idea that “it’s their turn” makes sense, and it makes sense when their turn never seems to come, they think that immigrants and women and Black people have budged in the line in front of them.

But nobody need get in line ahead of you if Marx is right about about how capitalism works and neoclassical folks are wrong. If Marx is right, people can just keep getting poorer together while other folks just keep getting richer together.

In bareknuckles capitalism, the welfare state is seen as something antithetical to markets rather than what prior generations of smarties, like Karl Polyani and Ralph Milliband said it was: a brokered deal between capital and labor so that the latter does not revolt. Milliband, in particular, noted the welfare state is the grease that spins the wheels of capitalism. By taking a little wealth off the top and redistributing it at the bottom, the welfare state enabled a system whereby people had enough to be invested in the stability of the system so that the democratic mob didn’t go after the economically privileged few, and by extension, that redistribution has spatial consequences.

If Marx was right and Polyani/Milliband were right, then there are three options for moving money into rural America, and they don’t come from bareknuckles capitalism. They come from the state and a willingness to either a) pay rural individuals to stay where they are through welfare payments or b) bribe industries to locate there or c) make it impossible for industries to go where they prefer.

I *think* the average “Trump is gonna get me a better life” thinking assumes (c) is possible. That assumes that nation-states structure global trade rather than the other way around, and I’m not sure I buy that. But hey, I’m willing to try it. It also means a slowdown in economic growth because some activities are just not going to pencil if you force them to stay in the US. I’m not worried about that, but it is worth noting. Every time a plant locates oversees there’s a sense that it could have, and perhaps should have, located here. But there is the possibility that it wouldn’t have lived at all had capital not had the bigger locational choice set.

Otherwise, (b) is a short-term strategy, and there’s little that rural areas can do about it. Think about the auto industry: has there been an industry more thoroughly bribed to stay put than that one? The result has been, like every other industry, increased capitalization vis-a-vis labor.

From what I can tell, “Rural Identity” means homogeneity (“Shared values”), isolation, and small scale. That’s another problem. Capitalism rewards innovation which does not necessarily emerge from homogeneity or isolation; if the work of regional economic geographers is to be believed, innovation is far more likely to occur where there is heterogeneity, scale, and connectivity. This is not an indictment of rural life. It’s a math problem that explains even if Trump Co is able to engage in trade protectionism, anything but resource extraction industries are likely to locate on the metropolitan fringe in the US rather than in small town America.

Mankiw-Romer-Weil is an extension of the Solow growth model. Their extension explains why capital doesn’t immediately relocate to the poorest nations out there. The extension hinges on the notion of human capital: that is, physical capital requires human capital (I hate the term, but it is what it is) to be productive, and it’s possible that while poor nations may have an abundance of cheap land, and productive land at that, they are also likely to have comparatively lower levels of human capital due to education, health, or other differences.

Makiw-Romer-Weil does not just apply to nation states, and it doesn’t do to put blinders on vis-a-vis the real locational disadvantages rural areas have in capitalism.

Rural workers are likely to be less productive than urban workers not because of anything related to the individual but to the context. Think about it this way: in a small, homogeneous location, an industry needs workers to do activity X. Now some people are good at Activity X; others are less good at X, and they are somewhat better at Activity Q. But a small community is only really likely to able to support one activity, and X gives them the nod. Then X is paired with a few folks good at X and others that are much better at Q, so that on average, worker productivity is somewhat lower than if the employer could get his or her labor needs met with all X all-stars (the way they might in a city where there are way more people from which to draw people with X abilities. Oh, and the Q people are better off, in terms of productivity, moving to join up with other Q people (which, in turn, helps the capital owners of Q). IOW, large human settlements enable specialization and scale that rewards labor productivity disproportionately.

Combine that with the market connectivity of major metros and you have a problem.

So rural identity hinges on isolation, small towns, and staying put in an economic system that rewards connectivity, scale, and mobility. I don’t know what you do about that unless you a) have local innovation in artisanal industries or b) return to some welfare state redistributing activities.

One last bit on the WashPo article, just to make myself feel better:

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

Ok, that’s legit. Hard physical work is hard work. I respect that. But um, where were you, hard-working logger, when I was home Saturday nights studying until my eyeballs bled so that I could pass vector calculus and Jay Sa’Adu’s nonlinear optimization class? Having a few beers with your buddies at the local? Sounds easy to me.

So I guess if this election really was about rural America flexing its political muscles, we’ll see. As I’ve noted before, rural America has disproportionate representation in every scale of US government, from Congress to the electoral college to state assemblies. Why they feel so disenfranchised is a bit beyond me, except for the fact that they are economically disconnected for all the reasons I just noted. I suppose it’s possible that Trump and Co will reinstate Spleenhamland…but not if everybody keeps buying the whole trickle-down idea.

My remarks @theACSP @FWIG_ACSP on protecting those with difference, fighting for what is decent

Hi everybody—I was planning to weasel out of saying anything because these speeches are always boring, but the other week, I was at a Denny’s in Santa Ana, CA—it’s in Orange County—and there were these guys sitting there, wearing tank tops with “Make America Great Again” on the front, and they had swastika tats on their arms. They were just sitting there, eating pancakes and drinking coffee, and nobody was reacting or really even noticing, like somehow, the swastika, one of the most reprehensible political symbols in history, right up there with confederate flag, is ok to have displayed out there among decent people.

Now, I don’t know if Donald Trump is a symptom or a cause; certainly, we have been in a backlash for some time now—the Planning Advisory Board attempts to erase all language about racial justice from our standards was just one instance of how the backlash came to planning long before Donald Trump became the curse of our electoral process and television sets.

I feel like I am watching white America have a giant temper tantrum, like a little kid throwing himself on the floor and bashing his fists around, all because he’s realized that he’s not as important as he thought he was.

That is a somewhat amusing image except that the rage of the powerful is so very dangerous to the vulnerable. This rage kills innocent people, and then blames the victim and exonerates itself again and again and again. Well, he was a thug; he was a big strong scary kid; she was mentally ill; he had a toy that looked like a gun; if the other kids pick on him, maybe he’ll stop being so effeminate and learn to be a man….and on and on, with one excuse after another for why innocent people suffer at the hands of power.

I was reading the other day that children born with noncomforming gender-sex alignment have the same suicide rate as children who have survived torture. If that statistic is true, it should chasten us…make it clear that we must do better in loving and nurturing difference.

And yet instead, we have the largest law enforcement organization endorsing the same presidential ticket as the Klu Klux Klan.

That is messed up, and we can’t let these people win. Not on election day, and not on any other day after that, either. Being a feminist in the 21st century means fighting for immigrants, fighting for Black Lives. fighting against US imperialism, fighting for transgendered people.

Now I am old—I know this because I am getting awards, and that’s some straight up indisputable evidence right there that you’re old. I’m not sure how much use to any fight I am to anybody any more, but I am still a feminist and to me that means fighting until we are all, every single one of us, safe and free.

It has been my honor to serve FWIG. I hope that I am a credit to all of you, particularly Sandi Rosenbloom, Cheryl Contant, Lisa Bates, Anna Hardman, and Gen Guiliano, who have helped me along the way become a better feminist. Thank you for your attention today.

The argument for density first in the US

Earlier this week, I caused some trouble by pointing out that I think it’s possible to overemphasize cities, and in particular, regional form changes, as a climate strategy. The consequence of doing so, I argue, is a tendency to ignore broader-based policies like Pigouvian taxation that would make motorists think twice, right now, before getting in a car. This is the argument I actually believe; we’re putting a lot of stock in our ability to reshape regions and yet fuel prices stay comparatively low. We’re building lots of nice infill developments, but fringe areas are still growing in some regions, and while VMT is not growing, it’s not sliding as fast we’d like. An uptick in what people pay at the pump would noodge them in the right direction: towards transit or another mode if it’s there, and towards fuel economy if isn’t.

I had some pushback (mostly by smartest boy urbanists) who note that there are no carbon taxes anywhere in the US, and they are right about that, and that gasoline taxes are unpopular. And they are right about that. But just because a more effective policy is not popular does not reduce its effectiveness, and doing something popular but less effective and longer-term may be a very poor substitute. That may be particularly so in this case where the unpopular strategy, petrol taxation, is really an important part of making the regional form and human settlement density strategy happen–see the work of Shlomo Angel on urban footprint.

But nobody has raised the possibility that density and infill redevelopment might be the key that unlocks the political acceptance of higher fuel prices at the pump. If there is a high-functioning transit system in place with lots of great condos and attractive places to live near them, and you have planners and urbanists singing the praises of this lifestyle (aka doing the social marketing), it may be much easier to get people to accept higher prices on the fringe (in terms of development penalties or gas prices) than trying to get them to accept those first, before they see the possible alternatives. That means quite a bit of slack for some time: transit is likely to underperform while you supply spaces that nobody is ready to use yet, but must be there so that people see the option. You’d have to build up quite a bit in the areas slotted for infill because the central-area land prices are high and changing the relative prices between central locations and farther out is a steep problem granted where the coastal US is in terms of supply.

Shlomo Angel’s geographic models are not causal. There is a correlation, and a robust one, between petrol tax and the spread of human settlement. But it might be that petrol taxation–>urban form effects might work the other way around, or urban form—>petrol taxation.

It’s also dangerous to assume local land use changes amount to altered regional forms

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Changes in land use do necessarily amount to a change in regional form. I don’t think there are any downsides to trying land use strategies, but there are downsides to overestimating the climate effects of the strategy.

So I ruffled some feathers yesterday with my post, with twitter smarties telling me what’s what and calling the argument ridiculous and summarizing my post: “local land use change too hard! federal/state carbon taxes easy!”

Here’s a more accurate summary: “federal/state carbon taxes broad-based and potentially immediate! Regional form long-term and harder than people think!”

And so by emphasizing the latter and giving up on or underemphasizing the former, we are screwing up by not holding policy-makers at all levels accountable for both! Federal and state officials have punted the political hot potato of climate policy to cities, and I think we’ve allowed it–in fact, we have encouraged it by overemphasizing what cities might be able to accomplish. Cities are engines for change, we urbanists love to say. And they are. But cities and regions exist in larger policy contexts we should not ignore.

That’s enough exclamation points for now.

That said, the first tweet has an assumption in it that embodies a problem for me: the connections between local land use and regional form feels intuitively straightforward. What settlement density as a climate policy relies on, to make big changes, is regional form–aggregate changes that alter the commuting environment so that people get out of their cars.

It should be the case that higher permitted densities built parcel-by-parcel, development-by-development should accumulate into better regional form over time. After all, development-by-development is how we got sprawl, right?

Sort of.

As the research on sprawl matured, it became evident that sprawl was a bunch of different things: yes, tract housing and bad subdivisions were one set, but there were other things, as well: changing employment geographies and regional fragmentation were others, and the connections between them and single-use or restricted density zoning are more difficult to suss than intuition allows. Sure, single-use zoning isn’t helping. But how much of all this do local land use changes undo now that a great deal has been done?

To me, the move from the parcel or development level to the regional level is empirically and theoretically a lot like the move from micro to macro in economics. We know all these marginal decisions accumulate to trends in demand, etc, but even though we know this, the connections have been slow in emerging and damned hard to predict, let alone create policy for because the number of variables and units of analysis start to proliferate past what we can reliably measure or model. Or, necessarily, perceive.

Benjamin Ross chided me on Twitter and said, Hey, I wrote a book on this (He did, and it’s here, and you should buy and read it) and I’ve not read it yet (I bought it!), so maybe Benjamin has the handle on it we need, and I’m just behind. Jeffrey Sellers and team has some nice empirical research on regional political fragmentation, but they don’t get to the parcel level. Marc Schlossberg at the University of Washington has some very cool measurement approaches, but it’s a grounded approach and doesn’t systematically lay out a theory for how the parts accumulate into a whole.

The question becomes: Is US urban development not so path dependent that we can overcome aggregate phenomenon like existing regional form (and thus commuting patterns, and thus fuel use, and thus climate change) with better local land use choices (parcel-by-parcel)?

It’s a good question, and from my perspective, we don’t really have much to lose by trying it. Absolutely, let’s all change zoning right now. Or get rid of it and rely on nuisance law. I’m in! Big fan of graduated zoning that unbundles land from structures, and of Henry George, right here am I.

But I do think we do have a lot to lose by emphasizing this strategy and not much else.

Why?

1) We won’t all try it. Regional governance, despite years of discussing it, is weak and usually advisory, with jurisdictions internal to the region usually being adversarial towards each other and towards the regional governance body. Does it do the fight against sprawl any good if four out of ten jurisdictions change their zoning and growth controls and the other four raise their middle fingers and do not, thus taking as much of the dumb subdivisons as possible? Perhaps it’s marginally better than all 10 of the jurisdictions having bad zoning practices, but are four enough to move the dial? I suppose they could be if the four included the biggest jurisdictions like the city of Los Angeles. Even then, the potential for leakage on the policy is itself a reason to worry that it won’t work.

This is not an issue with single-jurisdiction regions, and those might do great. Horray! How much fuel consumption do those account for?

2) How much urbanization remains to be done in the US? We are at 81 percent now. This is a serious question. If the US changes its immigration policy towards greater inclusion, the answer could be “a lot.” If Milennials start forming households soon, the answer could be “quite a bit” in raw numbers but not percentages and who cares about percentages if the raw numbers stack up because percentages don’t consume fuel and people do. If Millenials in the US go the way of Europe and Australia, the answer could be “eh.”

The first is something we might force if we figured out how. That’s not shaping up to be a short, easy process, either. But if we sort it, all to the good.

For places with rapid urbanization, hey, no contest. Pick smart land use and growth regimes. But for the US?

Two strikes me as an exogenous change that we really don’t control. Redistributing people from the urban fringe works exactly how if we don’t have policies that pinch them in some way for being out there right along with our infill developments if we can’t secure infill developments fast enough to change the relative prices? In shrinking regions, we might have the right combo of relative prices, so ha! Shrinking towards density is a great idea. But let’s not act like shrinking is any less about distributing spoils than other issues in politics, facing the same fragmented political landscape that land use changes currently do.

I come back, again and again, to the good empirical work done by Shlomo Angel’s team at NYU. They have a nice book out on their work examining human settlement across the globe, and they have a lot to say about densifying.

Now, models with the limited number of units that cities provide are always a problem. But Angel is a competent empiricist. They caveat what they need to.

In this and prior research, the one variable that always comes out as significant and negatively related to the size of the urban footprint is always petrol taxation. It’s not zoning regimes, it’s not land use law, it’s not planning. It’s petrol taxation. Now Angel et al still have lots of ideas for how to manage land use towards density. But that petrol taxation variable is a big deal.

I’m not saying that carbon and petrol taxation are easy fights. I’m saying they are fights worth having.

I’m also saying that by turning away from those fights in favor of land use, we have created a policy environment for squirmish after squirmish after squirmish, and on and on in the fragmented political environment of US regions where winning the squirmish one part of the region can be readily undermined elsewhere in the region.

And these squirmishes are harder than they should be because the people involved in them do not face policy environments that make their preferred lifestyles more expensive than they are right now.

Tomorrow I have to teach, but on Thursday, I will make the opposite argument for why, in the US at least, we should try to supply density before we try to change carbon taxes or petrol taxes. I’m not sure I buy it, it’s worth talking about.

Maybe density hawks should look in the mirror a little when it comes to our mess of a climate policy

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: I am an old lady and have been in the universe of “hey, let’s curb car use for the environment” for roughly 30 years of my professional life. The city shaping strategies embraced among planners, designers and urbanists are an important way forward. But these strategies are also slow and incremental compared to immediate interventions like carbon taxes or, analogously, a price floor on fuels like gasoline. By being so loud about city shaping, and so quiet about more draconian and immediate measures like price floors on gasoline or gas taxes, city shapers have their own dirty hands when it comes to undermining action on climate change–that is, by offering policy-makers what seemed an easy-out means to shift policy action onto cities instead of on federal and state government. City shaping became a policy means to look like we were doing something when really, we were moving slowly. So while David Roberts and other urbanists want to yell at individual homeowners as selfish NIMBYs endangering the planet, they might want to take a minute to reflect how they, themselves, have contributed to the climate policy mess we live in–and to change their advocacy accordingly.

Brilliant student and friend Shane Phillips (whose blog you should be reading if you are not) shared via Fboo this piece from David Roberts at Vox , in which Roberts does a take down of Leonardo DiCaprio as a phoney-baloney climate hawk because DiCaprio supposedly endorsed the dreaded Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (learn more about it here, and because I am too lazy to do more linking, do a Google search to find the myriad criticisms out there of it; there’s plenty.) It turns out, DiCaprio had not endorsed the measure. Instead, DiCaprio appears to have had endorsed the idea of preservation in general, as do many people, including yours truly. Roberts had to caveat the statements about DiCaprio but left up his language about how people who oppose infill growth are climate deniers:

But if you live in a vibrant, growing area that’s creating jobs, where people want to move and live, and you are fighting that growth by advocating for policies that constrain it — because you love your view and your on-street parking, because of the “character of the neighborhood,” because you don’t want “those people” coming to your neighborhood on transit, because you’ve lucked into suburban idyll with all the urban amenities, because your home value rises the more housing supply constricts, because you’ve been led to believe that capping housing supply counteracts rather than accelerates gentrification — then no, sorry, you are not a climate hawk. You might even be some kind of, I don’t know, denier

.

Yeah, those homeowners are some bad people. It’s all about protecting their on-street parking and views, not about protecting the single major asset they own in hopes they won’t have to eat cat food during their retirement or give their kids a start in life. Selfish bastards. THEY are the ones keeping the backbone of America–the working class–living on the urban fringe, not corporate development that, when granted infill approvals, plunks down one luxury tower with insanely high building association fees after another and who, when given density bonuses up the wazoo, flounce around like they are living in A SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE if they are asked to provide a little low-income housing. Those guys there? They are just optimizing their value and profits. That’s teh Market. Just developers doing what Business Mens do. But individual homeowners who optimize on their assets? They are the worst.

(Ever notice that you don’t generally see big developers necessarily advocating for broad land use changes, despite being packed on many a city council and zoning board? Instead, they seek variances for their own individual projects. That’s because they, too, get a nice rent boost from the constrained housing supply when their projects luck into variances and other developers are kept out. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if we are going to yell at homeowners for gaming the system, we should probably note there is plenty of sauce to go around when it comes to urban players not sacrificing their own financial best interests for “society” or “the environment.”)

I’ve written before about my impatience with this way of framing homeowners as the villains here. On the one hand, movements need true believers like Roberts to advocate for change. If it hadn’t been for shrill public health people banging on about the evils of smoking, I doubt we would have had the culture shift to much healthier lifestyles we did around smoking. That’s all good. On the other hand, cities and smoking are not terribly analogous, and I think we’ve more than hit a strong backlash against changing urban neighborhoods, not to mention the very, very successful backlash on climate policy. I suppose powering through that with strong advocacy might work.

But people are smart, and they can see through thin justifications pretty fast. Oh, so your downtown luxury tower is saving the planet, taking cars off the road, is it? Why does it have seven floors of parking, then? And so on, and so forth.

For all Roberts’ confidence and general soundness, he contributes to this sort of thing by saying misleading things in his desire to be emphatic and produce Vox-style prose:

All the biggest, fastest ways to reduce carbon emissions are on the demand side; switching out supply for cleaner options, whether it’s solar power plants or electric cars, always takes longer. And there is no demand-side solution more potent than density.

To borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, wrong. This is wrong in a whole host of ways, depending on what he means by “potent.” Yes, absolutely, every urban model we have shows that density could yield us big emissions reductions. But those big gains are likely long-term gains, and there are plenty of short-term, broad-based demand-side strategies that promise to be both potent and immediate, like carbon taxation and its variants. Roberts writes about these and knows full well they are a big deal. He writes about carbon taxes beautifully in this other Vox piece. But in his desire to scold density limiters, he doesn’t mention the imperative of those immediate, short-term demandside policies. And that failure is a big problem, particularly when he is claiming that the best thing we can do is densify.

Why? Because changing urban form is at best a medium-term and at worst a long-term intervention, and time matters in climate solutions. And as we tell ourselves that “density will save us”, we are not doing some of those short-term demand reduction strategies, many of which could be damn potent if we put some teeth into them, that would get us well on our way to saving ourselves while we try to get infill development to amount to a hill of beans in the density and emissions-reductions department.

Density is not just a demand-side solution, as Roberts implies. Density is a supply variable, too (just about every variable in this type of construct has a dual). So Roberts simultaneously is bemoaning our inabilty to supply density “because politics” at the same time he tells us that density is the most potent demand-side reductions strategy for fuel use. So he’s stuck; are we really going to buy the idea that reshaping existing US metro regions will take less time to amount to sizable climate emissions reductions than fleet turnover? I have trouble with that assumption.

Yes, we would be able to make big gains in carbon emissions if we densified people off the road and into smaller housing units. The issue with climate emissions is not just how far you drive. We’d love to reduce driving for a million reasons besides emissions: crash deaths, time lost, etc etc. Fuel economy would be a great way to change the amount of emissions–carbon emitted is a very predictable function of fuel consumed. We could be improving fuel economy immediately even with revenue neutral price floors on gasoline (tax gas at a high level, give tax payers back their payments at tax-time. An imperfect solution for low-income drivers, but still workable, just as with the considerations to impoverished residents granted under Washington’s 732 carbon tax.)

Even with a revenue neutral price floor on gasoline, you have people immediately doing exactly what you want them doing while we are waiting for cities reshape: 1) think about whether it’s worth the cost to take the car out of the garage, and 2) choose more fuel efficiency at the time of car purchase. The US fleet is shamefully inefficient granted our wealth and technological capabilities, and while it takes time for a fleet to turn, we can get people to use their cars more efficiently and more thriftily now. (BTW, Obama was right: keep your damn tires properly inflated, for Lord’s sake.)

Again, short-term demand-side policies are not substitutes for city shaping policies. But neither are city-shaping policies substitutes for short-term regulation.

So what? It’s not like Roberts is against carbon taxes. Nope, but by falling into the trap of single-issue focus in his post here, he supplies the “density, density over all” narrative that has enabled the policy cherry-picking which has led us to where we are: we have many, many state and federal programs that give a strong thumb’s up (or in the case of California, legal requirements) that cities should reshape themselves, while short-term policies to use less gasoline…never happen. I have watched one federal administration come and go, making a big dealio about city re-shaping policies…with utter silence on Pigouvian gasoline taxes. With candidates running on gas tax holidays, no less. SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH. President Obama became my hero when he stood up to that nonsense for the terrible idea that it is.

Oh, but you say, the gasoline tax is a political nonstarter! Whereas we can make real gains with infill development because it’s so awesome.

The reason why gasoline taxes or price floors are politically contentious is that people would *feel them*. The reason why, for years, infill development and city reshaping policies were not politically hard is that many people didn’t really think it would involve them at all. Opponents to Agenda 21 were easily dismissed as cranks. Somebody else would live in an apartment somewhere else and take transit, and I could keep doing what I am doing. Whereas…raising gas prices means I, personally, have to start thinking now about my choices and perhaps sacrificing something I like.

With all our dialogues about how “seniors will want density” and “Milennials want density” and “OMG there is a yuuuuuuuuuge market for walkable bikable livable thisable thatable urban nabes!” we’ve created a narrative that suggests that those *other* people will save us with their natural-born preferences instead of the rest of us *also* having to leave the car in the garage to stay at home and read a book instead of drive here and there whenever we feel like it without thinking about the costs of that decision. We density advocates have been quick and ready to condemn “technology will save us” thinking as a wishful distraction; we have never had the self-reflection to think our own marketing and branding for density could have a similar wishful thinking aspect to them when it came to letting people cherrypick approaches that delayed and deferred action “until later” and “not in my backyard” rather than going for immediate, broad-based changes.

In other words, we have relied politically on people’s supposition density wouldn’t happen in their backyards to push our policy agenda further than we might have gotten with broad-based fights over penalizing fuel use…and now are surprised that that NIMBYism rears its head once the density agenda moves from abstract concepts to real-world implementation?

What the NII should teach us is that the days of assuming that infill development is politically easy are well and truly over. By being unwilling or unpredictable allies in the fight for gas taxes or carbon taxes, density advocates chose the political battles that the NII and local opposition everywhere now manifests. But infill projects in action bring home the sacrifices that infill entails: the loss of parking, the loss of views, the changing neighborhoods, etc etc. And people will find ways to fight what they don’t like. It’s the nature of democratic politics.

My reservations about Measure M (I’m so sorry, I feel bad, but I have them. I wish I didn’t. But I do.)

I am, in general, a supporter of public transit, and I have, in general, supported Metro-sponsored transit sales taxes before. Measure M is making me crazy. I moderated a terrific panel at USC yesterday with a public finance expert, Mark Phillips, a political scientist, Jeff Sellers, a representative from Metro to make sure we got the agency intel, Stephanie Wiggins, and Executive Director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, Damien Goodmon. They were terrific, and I will post the link to the session when it’s online.

So what is Measure M? Here’s is Metro’s informational page on it., where you see how they split the money by mode, what the planned projects are, the increment the tax will cost (about $25 per household). My problems:

1) $25 per household is misleading, and how much wage increase did people get to cover that last year?
2) Too much rail in dumb spots and underfunding/delaying good rail projects for political concessions
3) Deadweight losses at 10 percent are about 4 times the out-of-pocket costs of the tax, and again, wage growth versus housing cost growth; and
4) This is the last increment we are likely to get any time soon…is this how we want to use that increment?
5) I’d really like an answer on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative before we commit these funds.
6) Metro will be back if this one fails, no matter what they say.


Edited to note: Twitter smarties Erik Griswold @erikgriswold and John Llyod (@boyonabike62)note that Measure M funding can’t go to the Ontario airport LRT as it is out of county. Dang it, and I was having fun mocking it. But that does not help with me with my Vermont grump. I should note that I think LRT is overemphasized in the project list more generally, but that itself wouldn’t get me to vote no. My big one is the NII one.

1)….about that $25 per household
$25 dollars per household, no big deal, right? But let’s keep in mind that’s on top of the existing percentage, which is high. Because California’s sales tax laws are pretty well-crafted, our resident tax economist Mark Philips estimated for the panel that about a third of income is spent on items subject to the tax, so we are, with this measure, essentially taking a total of 10 percent of that third. If I am right there, that’s a decent chunk, and yes, we are already paying the prior 9 pennies/dollar, but Measure R *was* going to sunset, which gives some of it back to us…but not if Measure M passes. That makes R permanent for all practical purposes , and the Measure M hike will be permanent. It is a big increase dressed up like a small increase, and while sales taxes are paid a little at time, it’s already costly to live in Southern California without digging into everybody’s pockets even more.

Just about all the evidence from the empirical research on sales taxes shows them to be shifted onto consumers.

I’d just like to see another couple years of strong regional wage growth before I think we should take another increment of it.

2) LRT where BRT should be, BRT where LRT should be
That said, it might be worth it if we loved the projects, and there are some very good projects on the list.

There are, however, also places that show planning by politics, and while planning is always political, it’s possible that the sausage-making process winds up creating stinkers now and then that should be sent back to the drawing board. Political science faculty \ Jeff Sellers served on the panel, and he pointed out that politically forged project lists at the ballot box may, or may not, reflect good mobility priorities. Everybody hates pork, but pork is the grease that spins the wheels. It’s interesting to me that pork has moved to the regional level now that at the federal level all the discretionary money gets programmed so fast. That said, there is smart pork and dumb pork, and then there is who is given prunes so that others can have pork.** I’m unhappy with one of the prunes, in particular.

Fabulous panelist Damien Goodmon, Executive Director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, noted one of the worst (this is so bad, even Metro’s wonderful reps did not have much to say on it.) A dedicated BRT on Vermont is not a real solution. Vermont is one of the most congested corridors near LA’s downtown, and USC is either the largest or the second largest employer in LA County. Yes, it’s already served by the Expo Line, but it would be nice to have a stop somewhere along the northwest side of campus, too, where travelers coming from the westside on the purple line could transfer at Wilshire and Vermont. But with LRT on Vermont, you get both the close-to-DTLA bump, the big employer bump, and the connectivity to exisitng lines bump (Purple Line and Exp Line).

But no, a BRT in the project.

However, that bustling hub of regional importance, the Ontario airport, has an LRT project tucked in. Now, I thought we were doing all these infill projects to avoid sprawl, and LRT out in Ontario strikes me as an obvious way of boosting a regional center way out on the suburban fringe, which strikes me as sprawl-inducing of the first order. (oh noes, rail never causes sprawl! Except when it does.) In fairness, the LAX expansion plans have generally included upping the traffic out of other regional airports, including Ontario. But: didn’t we just promise ourselves the shiny high speed rail system so that we didn’t have to boost all that air travel? Ok, I know: it’s possible we could use both. But that’s one problem of planning spread across fragmented political jurisdictions. CAHSRA can promise one set of things while LAX and Ontario pursue another set of things, and while statewide transportation plans are required, they aren’t really binding and nobody really pays attention to them when there is money on the table.

BRT shouldn’t be used as a political sot. It should be used where semi-rapid transit would be a nice idea. I do think you can get really good operating improvements with it. But not on corridors already so congested that the dedicated lane is going to clutter with drivers tempted to jump in. And beyond that, the “having it both ways with BRT” transit advocacy. When transit advocates want rail, BRT gets downplayed and problematized as “only semirapid” transit, but well, it’s good enough for the people along Vermont. It’s not good enough for West Hollywood, but it’s good enough along Vermont. It would be somewhat of an improvement. But not enough; like Wilshire, Vermont is an obvious rail corridor south at least to Expo under current conditions. It would probably work nicely south of Expo, too, buy much of the commercial density is north of that. That said, building south of Expo might be a chance to boost up some of the commercial activity for south LA. So LRT is absolutely vital and the best and worth every penny when it comes to voter-rich suburbs, but BRT is a “viable improvement” in the actual urban core of the region.

This rankles.


3) ….about that $25, it doesn’t count the deadweight loss associated with going up to 10 percent, which is a big threshold in the empirical literature on sales taxes

Deadweight losses occur because a tax stops people from doing something they might have done had there been no tax. Mark Phillips has a great example he shared with me from his class: if we tax move tickets so high nobody goes to the movies anymore, nobody would be out any money, but people will probably miss going to the movies. That second is the deadweight loss.

The empirical evidence on deadweight losses suggest they grow, in an nonlinear way, as the tax rate gets higher. When Prop A and C were passed, we were at a lower threshold overall rate. At 10 percent, we are generally talking about deadweight losses at about 4 times the amount of out-of-pocket costs (again, quoting Dr. Phillips, but that jibes with what I’ve read.)

Now, with good, strong wage growth, this effect may not dominate. But it would be nice to see a stronger showing there, esp vis-a-vis housing cost inflation in the region. Alternatively, we could try to tell ourselves that this wonderful set of plans in Measure M would make it so that people could ditch their cars and that would be a big, big savings. That is a very sound argument, and I am generally sympathetic to it, except for the futureness of the car savings and the presentness of the costs to LA residents. Give me another couple years of good regional growth, and I would feel better about the nowness of the cost stream.

4) Because of #3, I think this is the last increment on the local option sales tax that we are going to get, and do we really want to use it this way?

Not on our schools, not on an earthquake rebuilding fund…not on any of those things? I actually don’t know that I would rather use it for something else. It’s just got me a little worried.

5) I’d really like an answer on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative before we commit these funds.

This is not Metro’s fault. They try to place these measures during presidential election years because those years give us good voter turn-out, and that’s worked to Metro’s favor in general. I get it, I do.

But NII ballot-hopped to the March ballot, and damn it, regardless of what its proponents say it will do, it is unpredictable whether it will pass, and if it does, what it will do. As I have noted, supply-side housing people say that the NII will stop development and worsen housing supply constraints, thereby worsening LA’s affordability crisis. I believe them. NII proponents say that will not happen; they say it will just prevent developers (not naming any names here, but his name rhymes with Effry Almer) from putting up monstrosities. They don’t want to stop housing; they just want to stop behemoths from being planted on them. Who to believe? Both. (It’s possible, btw, that if the NII succeeds, it will make the westside unavailable for development so that the money people will have to start looking at places along the Blue Line, for instance. That wouldn’t be terrible.)

Anyway, to the degree that the NII might delay land use changes even more in LA, it’s a problem looming on the horizon for Metro. What Measure M does is increase transit supply. That’s a good thing…but only if there is demand, and the NII could well make it hard to redistribute housing geographically in the region to support transit. That means, if both Measure M and NII pass, we would be committing billions to supplying a system permanently hamstrung on the demand side.

I’d be a lot easier in my mind voting on M if I knew for sure the NII had failed, or, if it passes, how it was functioning in practice in LA development.

6) Metro will be back if this fails this time out, no matter what they say.

Phil Washington, Metro CEO, has said Metro won’t be doing this again if this doesn’t pass. #blesshisheart. It’s a hassle for Metro, and I get why he’d see things that way: it’s an expensive, time-consuming process to keep doing these project lists and negotiations.

However, Mr. Washington will ride off into the sunset in a few years. Like all public managers of high profile agencies, he will pass as they all pass. In Mr. Washington’s case, I suspect his will be to another high-ranking, plum position because he seems good at his job. But he, as all others before, will not be CEO forever. And with billions out there in the LA County tax base, Metro will come back if this one fails. It would be silly of them not to.

Then I would have my answer on NII, and I would know what regional growth is shaping up to.

I honestly do not know how I am voting on this one. I’m sad, too, because normally I can count on myself to say yes on these things.

*I should note that I vastly prefer prunes to pork, but I don’t think most people do.