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.”

What works as convincing measures of downward raiding or upward stretching in housing markets?

We’ve had some recent calls from the urban inter webs not to disparage market-rate housing, which, shrug, I suppose. To me, standing up for market-rate housing is a little like trying to make sure everybody knows the homecoming queen is nice as well as as pretty. Or that Dan Brown writes marketable books. We know that–it’s been demonstrated in markets. Markets don’t need to justify market-rate and above supply–the private and social values are established in the trade–see Pareto–unless there are externalities to the consumption or production, which can be discussed as such. I doubt anybody really dislikes market-rate housing except that it is all that gets built, and lots of people do not like development near them of any kind, period.

Ok, cue: all the boy urbanists on Twitter WHO NEED TO EXPLAIN TO LISA TEH MARKET IT’S THE MARKET LISA.
HERE’S WHATCHA NEED TO KNOW, L’IL GIRL. Now that we have this out of the way, we can go on, and y’all can explain economics to me again today because if there is one thing Lisa needs, it’s armchair economists to explain things because I only work in a building with eleventy dozen real economists who tend not to agree on all the things that Twitter wants to ‘splain to me.

Kurt Paulsen and I got into a relatively detailed discussion of my quip about the UI map released from CityLab where I noted that zoning and California regs, usually the favorite whipping boy of everybody everywhere…can’t explain pretty big portions of the map.

To wit, I am not suggesting that zoning is not a binding constraint in some locations. But there are parts of that map where there are big deficits in affordable units in locales where land is basically free. Zoning cannot be a constraint in those locales. Something else is going on, and that something else is probably that people are too poor and there is insufficient density for there to be a multifamily market at all.

Now, I am having trouble in general because counties do not zone, and they do not generally have restrictive building regs. So this map is already a problem for asssigning causation in that direction. There are undoubtedly places where you can use county proxies for zoning because a sufficient amount of the county is covered by a city which actually does zone. But there are other places where that assumption is not going to serve you well, where assuming that exclusionary regulations cover the entire geography is going to be really misleading.

I’m not convinced by that all the arguments that came my way last night via Twitter that zoning is hamstringing the productivity in urban areas so that people in the countryside are suffering. Cities may boost national productivity numbers, but that is a function of aggregation, not necessarily of strong economic spillovers. It might be that lack of growth in cities ultimately dampens demand for whatever Iowa supplies to cities, but the regional distribution of economic growth over the past four decades suggests that whatever economic spillovers there might be are weak.

But then the Iowans could move to the city if the housing were not so expensive. And that’s true….and yet they have had fewer constraints on migration than people internationally have, and yet there they are, still in Iowa, while I have crazy people telling me we need a wall (even though we already got one) because California and New York are too full of immigrants. People should be able to move to where the jobs are, sure, but I also think David Imbroscio has a point: people should be able to stay home and live a decent life, too.

Anyhoodily…my question today concerns downward-raiding. The market is supplying units at specific price points, and when there is a chronic undersupply of housing at all price points, the argument goes, then people at higher incomes will downward-raid. I’ve been brooding on this term ever since Kurt used it. Downward-raiding means that people buy or rent below what they could technically afford, making those units unavailable for people at lower incomes who might have the use of them were they not tied up with relatively higher income occupants. This happens all the way down the chain so that those at the lowest income levels wind up spending way more than they can afford to get housing.

Again, fine in theory, but the assumption here is that there is income distribution in cities and that it is smooth in some way…so in theory, I should be able to show downward stretching by pointing to an increase in households who are paying less than the longstanding rule of “30 percent of income for housing.” The only problem is that nobody actually seems to believe in the 30 percent rule. Here is a nice piece from Bloomberg that quotes one of my favorite VT peeps, David Bieri on why the 30 percent benchmark is a problem.

Ok but without that benchmark, how can we build any empirical story around downward raiding or upward stretching at all?

Lallygagging and learning to learn as a teacher of PhD students

My advisor, Randy Crane at UCLA, has a special gift with PhD students. He was somebody who suggested to me early on that you, as a teacher, have different affinities with students, and as a general rule I think this is true, but with some exceptions. David Sloane, as an exception, is good with students at every level: great with undergraduates, good with master’s students, wonderful with PhD students, and terrific with young scholars.

I struggled for years with undergraduates. I like them a lot, but I have been thinking about cities and justice for so damn long it’s hard for me to control my language and keep it approachable. I find them asking questions like “What’s pluralism?” Gaahhhhhhh that is something that they shouldn’t have to ask. I do better with undergraduates now than ever before, now that I have crafted classes that really reflect what I think is important and that I can be passionate about.

I’ve always gotten on master’s students, I suppose because I spent a number of years doing what they want to do professionally.

Young scholars I think generally see me as a bit of an Uncle Galahad Threepwood character, only tubby, which is fine by me. Galahad had many fine qualities as a older friend. In that world, I never have to do much, only encourage people to use their time well, try to have fun, try not to worry in an environment where it is impossible not to because of the neoliberal evils of the contemporary corporate mania in higher education. (It has so far not occurred to people that corporations are already better at being corporations than those of us who were never designed to be them, and it’s probably a losing strategy to imitate them when one is not a corporation. But what do I know?)

PhD students are a bit of a mystery to me. How do you teach research, particularly in an interdisciplinary environment? There is an alchemy in all teaching, an art of understanding what a student is struggling towards and how best to support them in getting there, and that becomes doubly difficult with PhD students simply because they are struggling to develop a project that is theirs and doesn’t exist yet. In a disciplinary environment, it’s possible to judge how well students have fundamentals down. As I am found of saying to students, for an interdisciplinary PhD, people have to “build the house you are going to live in.” It’s hard to know how to help them do that: you don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know where they are going, not really, not yet. It’s a process of combining theory and methods that work to define a way of looking at problems, and while there are archetypes, each student has to roll his own. And then the process of defining a research project, the first project, heats up, and that’s hard, too. Helping students structure their own work–learning to set their own parameters–is mystifying to me. How does it happen? I’m always surprised when I myself get anything done.

Randy was much more likely to just to say ‘no, you aren’t doing that’ to me than I have proven to be with my own students, and it’s not because I think my own mentors have been wrong to say no (I was a horrible student and protege I wouldn’t wish on anybody, and mentors usually had ample good reasons for saying no to my various wild hairs.) Come to think of it, David is, too, much more likely to say no than I am.

It can be a very good and important thing to say no: one of my problems as a teacher for PhD students is that I can see lots of possibilities for subjects, and those possibilities may or may not be worth doing just because nobody has done them before. I tend, however, to fear making both Type 1 and Type 2 errors than my mentors have been. Is it maleness that grants them this confidence or their experience? Perhaps both, or neither. Either way, I struggle.

Part of it is, simply, that my tendency to ignore limits is profitable at times. Don’t know how to analyze something? Invent the method. Find the thing. You find things that people think aren’t findable when you don’t consider no as an aswer.

Do the rest of you out there mentoring PhD students understand where researchable ideas come from? For me, it’s reading and walking around and reading and walking around and reading and writing, throwing writing away, and reading and walking around and on and on. Read, rinse, and repeat. I don’t know how scholars who do not read manage to do anything, but they exist. I’ve seen them. And they flourish like the green bay tree.

Then there are the scholars whose approach to mentoring PhD students is along the lines of “I’m so awesome, they will learn simply by being around me via my reflected glory.” And…honestly, sometimes that actually freaking works. How? The hell if I know. If I ever got to point I started believing my own press releases like that, I’d need to quit and go watch sheep in Nepal or become a shut-in or something. Gah. But it does totally work for some, I swear. I think it’s because those types usually are surrounded by people willing to fill in around the cracks, and while the student is worshipping at the feet of the star, the good citizens are there, telling them to work on their structure, fix their definitions, read more…teaching them nuts and bolts. I am not being negative here: inspiration is a part of leadership and leadership is part of teaching, just as much as helping somebody learn to copyedit their own writing. Great committees are teams, with people supplying different things that help a young scholar get where they need to go.

I would never have graduated from UCLA without Lois Takahashi and Abel Valenzuela, and neither served on my committees. They were cheerleaders, friends, consiglieri.

Everybody has to learn to focus, dig deep, and set limits. I am not much of a limit-setter, on myself and anybody else, and I have relied on mentors to do some of that for me. As a result, my attempts to be firm with others usually sounds something like this:

Now, in the academy, one absolutely needs lollygagging, and the game is hardly simple.

But getting something done is, often, a miracle.

This week’s visualization: Deaths in Police Custody, California, 1981 to 2015

DeathsCustody ai 79 1 RGB GPU Preview

So I made this in R and prettied it up a bit in Illustrator, which of course changed its interface again to do a bunch of things that just make it confusing as all hell to output graphics. So this is a screen shot instead of a jpeg. Why? Because for reasons beyond me, Illustrator has either moved or eliminated its save for the web options. Argh.

There are some things here that I think attest to latent variable influences of mental health and race, but I will let people interpret what they see. It’s associations of categorical data–and the categories have some problems. I am frankly ashamed of the number of groups I had to put under “Asian and Pacific Islander” as the data keep track by ethnicity. So there is a lot of diversity hidden in that category–I may go back and explode that category into its own graphic. But…for Latino…there is an equal amount of ethnic diversity, too, I am sure, but in the database itself, it’s all “Hispanic.”

In any case, this will give my class something to discuss today.