Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Tragic state of Cities

If there’s anything productive to come from his recent Twitter storm, President Trump’s recent crude attacks on Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings have succeeded in bring necessary attention to the increasingly tragic state of our cities. Baltimore’s continued woes, after numerous attempts to position itself as a “comeback city,” illustrates all too poignantly the deep-seated decay in many of our great urban areas.

Baltimore represents an extreme case, but sadly it is not alone. Last year our three largest urban centers — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — lost people while millennial migration accelerated both to the suburbs and smaller, generally less dense cities. These demographic trends, as well as growing blight, poor schools, decaying infrastructure and, worst of all, expanding homelessness are not merely the result of “racism” or Donald Trump, but have all been exacerbated by policy agendas that are turning many great cities into loony towns.

Politics run amok

Take tech rich San Francisco, where decades of tolerance for even extreme deviant behavior has helped create a city with more drug addicts than high school students, and so much feces on the street that one website has created a “poop map.” In Southern California’s far more proletarian city of Los Angeles, we have a downtown filled with overbuilt, overpriced apartments and is, like Baltimore, being overrun with rats. A UN official last year compared conditions on the city’s Skid Row to those of Syrian refugee camps.

One would think such nasty problems would spark something of a political rebellion, as seen in previous decades with the rise of successful, pragmatic mayors — Bob Lanier and Bill White in Houston, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York, and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles. But so far, at least, many of today’s big city mayors seem more interested in bolstering their “resistance” bona fides than governing effectively.

Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, for example, speaks enthusiastically about his own “green new deal” and turning the city into a transit Valhalla even as blight and homelessness expand inexorably. The mayor is less rhapsodic about practical things that people actually need, such as decent roads, reliable water supply or electricity.

Economic growth generally is not much of a priority for the woke urban political class. In New York, Rep. Ocasio Alexandria Cortez’s allies succeeded in driving Amazon’s new headquarters out of her district. Meanwhile her socialist comrades in Seattle have helped persuade the on-line giant to relocate more of its employees out to a massive new building in the suburb of Bellevue while the Emerald City hosts a rising homeless population.

The demographics of ultra-progressivism

Ironically, this far-left trend partially can be traced to the post-2000 urban resurgence, sparked by the now unappreciated pragmatic mayors who made cities safer and more business friendly. Safe streets and thriving businesses lured large numbers of young people, many well-educated and mostly liberal, to the urban core in numbers not seen for generations.

Yet since the 1970s the middle class in cities has been in a precipitous decline while poverty has remained stubbornly high. Philadelphia’s central core, for example, rebounded between 2000 and 2014, but for every one district that gained in income, two suffered income declines. In 1970, half of Chicago was middle class; today, according to a new University of Illinois study, that number is down to 16 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of poor people has risen from 42 to 62 percent.

The most attractive blue cities — led by New York, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and Boston — now suffer, according to Pew research, the largest gaps between the bottom and top quintiles of all U.S. cities.

The post-2000 urban success increased housing prices but failed to create a new stable urban middle class. Most young urbanites don’t stay long enough to build long-term communities; once they hit the family formation period in their thirties, they still largely depart for the suburbs. As the Atlantic recently noted the number of babies born in Manhattan this decade dropped nearly 15 percent; already home to a majority of single households, the nation’s premier urban center could see its infant population cut in half in 30 years.

Remaking urban politics

The new demographics have hollowed out the political middle in most cities.

The old urban middle class leaned Democratic, but they were largely interested in practical outcomes — like paved roads, fixed lights, and access to jobs. Their departure, and replacement by temporary hipster populations, has helped insulate city governments from constituents who would be most adamant about reforming usually failed school districts or demanding improvements in public infrastructure or maintaining public order.

Electoral engagement has faded in most cities, with turnout for mayor averaging 15 percent for mayoral races in our most populous cities. In Los Angeles, the 2013 turnout that elected progressive Eric Garcetti was roughly one-third of that in the city’s 1970 mayoral election. Garcetti’s 2017 re-election boasted a similarly low turnout.

The prime beneficiaries of these changes have been the well-organized. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s primary victory rested on 16,000 votes out of a total Democratic registration of almost 215,000. She won not by sweeping the proletarian or minority masses, but marshalling the votes of white young educated hipsters. These voters are driving the rise of far-left socialists in other cities, including Denver, who seek to replace not Republicans but more traditional liberal Democrats.

Can this be turned around?

The new urban politics threatens the future of family neighborhoods, local entrepreneurial ventures as well as an apolitical, exuberant diversity. Immigrants and aspiring minorities want good schools, safe streets and less onerous regulation. Resolutions on sanctuary cities, condemnations of Trump tweets, social justice demands and boasts about combating climate change do little to improve tangibly reality that cities like Baltimore or even superstars like San Francisco, Washington, and New York.

Only when grassroots people and concerned businesses decide to challenge the urban status quo and the virtue-signaling political class can decay and the relentless bifurcation of our cities be reversed. After all, large and powerful companies, like Amazon, can always pack up and migrate to less insane political environments. But those with a strong stake in the local economy and neighborhoods have fewer options. It will be up to them, to restore our cities’ historic role as places for both families and middle-class economic aspiration.

Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (

Friday, August 2, 2019

WHITE ELEPHANT Maintenance Shed Plans are now online

See bigger size image HERE

Stop the White Elephant.  Sign the Petition HERE

The project is HUGE for our tiny park  
It is twice the size of neighboring homes and THREE TIMES the size of a similar facility at McInnis Park completed in 2018. McInnis Park is 26 times the size of Marinwood Park and employs triple the staff.

The Project VIOLATES the Miller Creek Watershed
The project violates the Miller Creek Stream conservation setback of 120' feet as required by Marin County.  The unusual side entrance requires a 15' corridor in the center of the building wasting 1/3 of the space.   It will require trucks to turn around in the meadow several hundred feet to the East.  Open space and recreation area will be needlessly destroyed by this inefficient design.  

The Project is Ridiculously EXPENSIVE
The initial estimate for this project was for $ 50K for a customized prefab unit as is the standard for maintenance facilities everywhere.  Once the Marinwood CSD hired former CSD Director, Bill Hansell as architect, the project ballooned in size and scope.  Already the CSD has spent an estimated $35 k in "consulting fees" for Mr. Hansell, the custom project is estimated to cost at least ten times initial estimate due to the custom architectural features insisted by Mr Hansell. The project will cost MORE than ANY PROJECT that the Marinwood CSD has undertaken since completing the park.   

And as of February 2019 according to the financal audit, the Marinwood CSD is FIVE MILLION DOLLARS in debt.

This is the most outrageous and expensive project in Marinwood CSD History.

Fortunately, we can still have a new Maintenance facility for far less if we scale back the project to a simple garage/workshop like McInnis Park. 

Let's spend our money improving Marinwood Park for seniors and children, refurbishing the trails  refinishing the pool, improving programs and paying our staff instead.

Sometimes ambition makes us blind to the reality we face.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sheik of Araby—The Washboard Resonators

The NIMBY Principle

Nowhere in America is the battle over single-family zoning more bitterly contested than the affluent suburbs of California's cities. Mike Blake/Reuters

The NIMBY Principle

The advocacy group Livable California has led the resistance to the state’s biggest housing proposals. What's their appeal for “local control” really about?

Susan Kirsch’s backyard is, predictably, beautiful. Past the sunny wooden patio, tomatoes, blueberries, and poppies blossom between rugged pathways. A birdbath draws sparrows to the center; a lemon tree drapes over the back fence.

But all is not perfect. Next door, her neighbors recently added a detached room, which peeks over the side fence and cuts off part of Kirsch’s view of Marin County’s rolling hills.

“It broke my heart,” she told me. “But at least it was only one story.”

In California, the debate between NIMBYs and YIMBYs—that’s Not In My Backyard and Yes In My Backyard, respectively—doesn’t usually involve actual backyards. It’s about housing: By one estimate, the state is short 3.5 million homes to accommodate current and projected demand. In cities like San Francisco, this gap has raised rents to some of the highest in the nation, fueling a homelessness problem that the United Nations recently labeled a human rights violation.

The scale of this problem has fractured the voters of this largely progressive region, pushing Californians of varying political stripes into rival camps that don’t neatly subdivide along the usual left-right lines. Struggles between homeowners and newcomers over development are fixtures of neighborhood-level politics nationwide, but the Bay Area’s version of this narrative might be the most bitterly contested in the U.S., fueled by a uniquely Californian cocktail of economic and cultural factors.

This particular backyard holds some clues about why that is, and in particular, what motivates a certain powerful segment of older, relatively liberal, home-owning Californians. Among urbanists who promote density-boosting zoning reforms, “NIMBY” is usually a pejorative. While Kirsch doesn’t appreciate the negative connotations, to her, the term can imply something good.

“It’s about people being stewards of what they love and care about,” she told me over coffee at her home in Mill Valley, an enclave north of San Francisco surrounded by natural preserves. “It’s care-giving, not excluding care for others.”

In early 2018, at age 74, Kirsch founded Livable California, a nonprofit that advocates for slow growth and local control over urban development issues. With Kirsch at the helm, the group has rallied suburbanites around the state against two high-profile housing bills that proposed to open up some communities to denser development. Their opposition helped kill both: The first bill, SB 827, was quickly defeated in committee; the second one, SB 50, was shelved until 2020.

The rhetoric around the bills has been heated. Residents who oppose the zoning changes (which would, by and large, allow just a few extra stories of residential development) have been made out as a bunch of narrowly self-interested geriatrics, unconcerned with the economic plight of younger adults. “It has begun to feel like the politics of an older generation saying, ‘Fuck you, I got mine,’” Henry Grabar wrote in Slate in May. Meanwhile, at least in the Bay Area, where the YIMBY movement took root, pro-housing activists are often made out by their foes as self-entitled Millennials whose political leaders are bankrolled by the real estate industry. “That was their message: ‘I don’t care about preservation or you people with those old Victorians. It’s our time now and you should die. You are in the way,’” is how one San Francisco preservationist summed up the YIMBY sentimentfrom a recent community meeting.
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But this narrative of class and generational combat is incomplete. Lower-income renters and homeowners are in this conversation, too, and their allegiance is somewhat torn. Some tenants rights groups buy the logic that an increased housing supply would benefit them, but at least as many view the prospect of high-volume, market-rate housing as a threat to already gentrifying neighborhoods.

Indeed, the NIMBY-YIMBY binary often reduces each sides’ arguments to cartoons, with neither camp spending much effort to understand the hopes and fears of their adversaries. Both factions are intensely community-minded and profess to love their cities and neighborhoods. Yet each seems convinced that the other represents an attack on their respective futures.

Is there any way to try to bridge this divide and find some common ground? One approach might be look deeper into the ostensible NIMBY instinct—to see if the forces that drive these passionate defenders of the neighborhood status quo are richer than pure self-interest and fear of outsiders.

It turns out, yes, they are. But also, there’s some of that stuff, too.


Wendy Sarkissian, a Life Fellow at the Planning Institute of Australia, has worked as a social planning consultant and academic since 1969. The co-author of the book Housing As If People Mattered, Sarkissian has theorized extensively on the psychology of NIMBYism, which is related to what academics term as “place attachment.” People latch onto their surrounding environments for psychological refuge and safety, and perceived threats can summon an instinct towards defense, she told me: “We are nothing if we’re not animals, after all. We seem to be hardwired for this.”

But emotions are hard to talk about, and to guard beloved homes and communities from change that’s outside our control, we often adopt complex rationales, Sarkissian notes. Neighborhood skirmishes over a new grocery store’s traffic impacts, or concerns about surface runoff, can elide deeply felt connections to a place.

Glenn Albrecht, the Australian philosopher who coined the term “solastalgia”—the psychological pain created by environmental destruction—agrees. “I’m at the point where I think these little battles are genuine expressions of people trying to maintain their connections to life and things,” he told me.

Long before launching Livable California, Kirsch proved an effective channeler of the pro-suburban animus. SB 375, a landmark piece of California legislation from 2008 that asked regional authorities to set emissions reductions goals and plan for transit and housing that requires less car travel, marked the start of much of her activism. She may drive a Prius and support the Sierra Club, but a future where people are smushed into denser neighborhoods and deprived of personal vehicles sounds to Kirsch like the stuff of a developing nation. “That’s a really horrifying thought to me: that most peoples’ greatest asset would be a bicycle,” she said. “That’s a diminishment of the American dream.”

And she objects to the way California’s climate policies have reemerged at the local level. In 2007, Kirsch organized neighbors to kill plans for a mixed-use housing development on a major commercial thoroughfare in Mill Valley. Then she co-founded a slow-growth advocacy group for her town, and later the countywide Citizen Marin, which battled more high-density projects and regional urban plans. In 2016, Kirsch attempted to unseat a Marin County commissioner, running on a platform of slow growth, fiscal restraint, and keeping Marin politics tightly focused on Marin. “Climate change is a serious problem, and we need to get a handle on it,” she said in her announcement for candidacy. “But we need to get a handle by focusing on local control: local solutions for local issues.” She lost the race, but with a respectable 42 percent of the vote.Livable California founder Susan Kirsch in her Marin County kitchen. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Kirsch’s own home is modest. It’s a World War II-era, single-story three-bedroom bungalow with a snug kitchen and a living room large enough for a couch, a coffee table, and not a whole lot more. She raised her two children here; now divorced, she lives alone, save for the Airbnb guests who sometimes book a guest suite. Her Mill Valley street is full of these little houses, each now worth around $1.5 million.

Kirsch grew up on a farm in Minnesota, earned degrees in English and speech communication, and worked as an educator in Cleveland and Oregon before landing in Marin County 40 years ago. Long known as a bastion of 1960s-style communitarianism, the county is 80 percent undeveloped; its forested hills and craggy shoreline are largely intact thanks to a century of determined conservationism. Limits on developable land, strict local zoning laws, and the growth of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge has meant that housing demand has long outstripped supply.

In early 2018, momentum in the California senate was building behind SB 827, a bill authored by Senator Scott Wiener that would “upzone” certain neighborhoods. If they were near frequent transit service, parcels reserved for single-family homes would be unlocked for higher-density development. To Kirsch, the bill felt like yet another dictum from state authorities telling her community how to behave. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the streets were full of homeless people, and her county was barely taking care of its existing public housing. More market-rate apartments weren’t going to solve their problems. And with a central shopping crossroads just around the corner, her own home was in upzone territory.

After meeting up at a greasy spoon in San Francisco to discuss strategies, Kirsch and a group of friends from around the Bay Area launched a movement that quickly went statewide.

Over the next year, Livable California rallied residents to testify in Sacramento, write letters to their representatives, and spread the word against the bill through maps and images that showed leafy suburban blocks overshadowed by high-rise apartments and crowded with parked cars. Kirsch penned a raft of op-eds in her own local paper, as she has been doing for years. “We voted for local representatives to thoughtfully plan a community that reflects our values,” she wrote in the Marin Journal. “A one-size-fits-all mandate violates democratic principles, forcing us to pay for unregulated private development in the service of billion-dollar corporations.”

After SB 827 died in its first committee hearing, in large part because it didn’t go far enough to protect gentrifying neighborhoods, Wiener revised it and put forth SB 50 in 2019. In some respects, this bill targeted affluent neighborhoods even more narrowly by proposing to upzone “jobs-rich” areas, too; even if they were far from regular transit service, single-family parcels close to big employment centers would be eligible for an extra story or two, too. Livable California campaigned harder, showing up to lobby in Sacramento, speaking out at community meetings in Palo Alto, Orinda, Cupertino, and San Carlo, and protesting Wiener’s public appearances. It joined forces with a like-minded group in Southern California called the Coalition to Preserve L.A., which released a video called “Will SB 50 Kill Your Neighborhood?,” claiming that luxury condos were going to raze entire blocks. Critically, the group connected suburban homeowners from San Diego to Marin with mayors and city council members, who in turn voiced their own dissent.California’s YIMBYs now find themselves is a difficult position: They’ve whacked a hornet’s nest full of some of the nation’s most powerful voters.

It’s hard to escape the fact that most of the communities that glommed onto Livable California represent older, whiter, and more affluent homeowners from some of the most desirable enclaves in California. That is a perception that the group itself is aware of: In an internal email that was recently picked up and tweeted by a Wiener staffer, one Livable California member wrote that “housing activists ... are deeply suspicious of ‘white suburban NIMBYs’ and the objectives of Livable California.”

Kirsch recognizes these less-than-ideal optics, as well as the link between old, racist redlining practices and contemporary zoning codes. But she insists that Livable California’s only interest is keeping neighborhoods intact. As proof, she points to the pro-tenant groupsthat have aligned with the group to defeat SB 50 and its kin, out of fears of gentrification and displacement. And she talks about “activating” her fellow retirees, awakening them to what they can still achieve for the greater good. “I’m really more in favor of advancing, or whatever the opposite is of retiring,” Kirsch said.

Critics might object to this framing, but California’s suburban defenders can indeed be said to be fueled by a kind of altruism, at least for one another and for future residents who share their values. Indeed, the upzoning bills show that Livable California’s resistance is not entirely about protecting narrow economic interests: Kirsch and her neighbors would make great money selling their lots to a developer looking to build a few midrises.

But they’re not. Established residents often see themselves as long-term shareholders in their community, said Clayton Nall, a political scientist at Stanford who has studied grassroots community organizing. As such, they feel a responsibility for protecting the community against perceived threats, which might include pollution, crime, and the undesirable effects of over-development. Indeed, back in the 1960s and ’70s, NIMBYs were the people fighting highways and oil refineries in their backyards, not fourplexes. In battling upzoning, some NIMBYs are animated by the fear of a takeover of their neighborhoods by commercial interests.

“The possibility that their property interests will then be defined by corporate actors like landlords is frightening to them,” Nall said. “And it complicates their effort to protect their common interest as homeowners defending a shared way of living in their particular neighborhoods.” In other words, the distant landlords of a multi-unit building may not see the local value, of, say, tending lovely front-yard gardens.

The greed of developers and the overreach of government actors certainly come up a lot with Kirsch; to her, both seem to be strong-arming communities into cookie-cutter, “smart growth” developments. Kirsch ties these forces to the decline of homeownership since the 2008 economic crash, and the banks and investors that took over many of those foreclosures. With fewer properties in individual hands, ”the strength of a voting public is further and further diminished,” she said. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, the tech companies whose massive success has fueled demand for housing aren’t fairly redistributing their profits. The real California housing crisis, she believes, is the runaway growth of that industry, not this handful of older homeowners trying to save their bungalow neighborhoods.

This last element of Kirsch’s thinking finds some enthusiastic and perhaps unlikely cosponsors. Richard Walker, the David Harvey-trained Marxist geographer, professor emeritus of economic geography at UC Berkeley, and longtime observer of the dark side of the Bay Area’s tech boom, says that California’s YIMBYs get the economics of the housing crisis wrong by focusing myopically on the “supply” side of the equation. When demand for housing is driven solely by the most affluent renters and buyers in a marketplace, home prices and rents are bound to run away to astronomical heights, Walker explains; this is exactly what has happened as Apple, Google, and Facebook have gotten away with paying so little in taxes and employing vast numbers of well-paid employees. “That’s who the developers want to accommodate, and it leaves working people out of the equation,” he said.

Walker is skeptical that giving developers more room to play is likely to fix the housing crisis. Instead, taxing and regulating the tech industry so that more of its profits would find their way into the pockets of the working class would go a lot further, he thinks. Restrengthening unions to set wages higher and put more housing within reach is another solution. “When was the last time a massive amount of working-class housing was built?” Walker asked. “Post-World War II, because it was the most equal time since before the Civil War.”

There are definitely progressive leaders making variations on this argument; Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign platform emphasizes raising taxes on the most affluent, regulating tech, and bolstering organized labor. But with the NIMBY-vs.-YIMBY dynamic overshadowing everything else in housing politics, a mess of ideas and principles are getting glopped into two seemingly opposed buckets. The Trump White House also wants zoning reform, of some sort, which makes liberal-leaning YIMBYs pretty uncomfortable. Meanwhile, conservatives and Marxists ally themselves against legislation like SB 50. Something about the logic of upzoning must be murky if so many divergent thinkers can interpret it as a win or loss.


One big problem with SB 50, Nall believes, is that its beneficiaries aren’t clear, other than the real estate developers who back it, and, perhaps, the young white-collar renters who might easily afford to move to Austin instead. Housing isn’t a pure supply-and-demand problem; location is a huge factor. Some say that the amount of demand to live in the Bay is literally insatiable, and that costs will never come down naturally. And the jury is out on whether “trickle-down housing”—also known as filtering—brings down rents. You could fill a basketball court with the economists and policy wonks who are arguing about this right now.

This is not to say that upzoning isn’t called for, along with (say) tenant protection laws and funds for low-income housing. It’s gaining traction nationally as one tool that can close housing gaps: Minneapolis has a new plan to allow for denser development citywide, and Oregon passed a bill that allows duplexes and triplexes to replace detached houses in urban areas across the state. The champions of these plans were successful, in part because they found ways to unite communities around shared values that went beyond attachments to their own blocks. Oregon’s bill is built on the state’s long history of conservation-minded urban growth management; in Minneapolis, upzoning proponents highlighted the racist origins of zoning codes and the importance of working to erase them.

In contrast, it seems California’s upzoning advocates have struggled to show how such unlocking more market-rate (read: expensive) apartments in suburban neighborhoods would help those with the biggest housing challenges. While Kirsch applauds their commitment to civic engagement, YIMBYs also strike her as whiny. “Few of us have had housing just handed to us at the level that we might havewanted,” Kirsch told me. (She compares them to her CEO daughter, who bought a house in Oakland, with financial help from mom.) California’s YIMBYs now find themselves in a difficult position: They’ve whacked a hornet’s nest full of some of the nation’s most powerful voters.

Bu the zoning reformers have succeeded in introducing a big, bold idea for addressing a crisis that demands all kinds of different solutions. Livable California, on the other hand, is short on fixes. Part of its stated mission is to “empower communities to take action to support local community planning and decision-making with the goal of an equitable and sustainable future for California.” Yet its website offers no examples of how else to accommodate Californians who would also like to live, “livably.” Instead, it’s full of links to articles and materials opposing various state housing bills.

One could not be blamed for noticing that such politics serve to protect the single-family status quo. And this is where the NIMBY principle draws its clearest line: Fundamentally, it begins with saying no.

That’s why so many housing activists view Livable California and its platform in such cynical terms. The group may share a few strands of DNA with Marxist critiques and use the language of citizen empowerment, but to critics like Nall, it is a force of elitism. Proposition 13, California’s property tax freeze of the 1970s, and the appreciation of urban land in coastal communities created what he terms a “bizarre middle-class aristocracy” that’s based almost solely on homeownership. “Single-family zoning has a lot of parallels to aristocratic land-holding systems,” Nall told me. “It’s, ‘Protect our regime from these predatory outside capitalists who don’t have the noblesse oblige that we have for our communities.’”

Kirsch strongly disagrees with this line of thinking; to her, rejecting state intervention is a way to lift up local power, which can still shepherd development, slowly and incrementally. Communities like Mill Valley have taken steps that open doors, Kirsch said—including allowing backyard “granny flats” and creating a new development impact fee to fund affordable housing. She approvingly cites other kinds of housing efforts, too: “Bigger cities are looking at additional options like commercial linkage fees, employer head taxes, 100 percent affordable housing projects, and vacancy taxes, to name a few,” she wrote me in an email.

Of course, “local control” has often served to keep resources away from those suffering most acutely under California’s housing crisis. For two timely examples in the Bay Area, see the dueling GoFundMe pages over a proposed San Francisco homeless shelter, or the large mixed-use development in San Bruno, with 15 percent affordable units, that was killed by a single city councilmember objected to potential traffic impacts. Better citizen engagement processes would address the root of these conflicts, Kirsch believes, by getting a wider representation of people to influence decisions and connect on an empathic level. “It’s about engaging in conversations before jumping to conclusions about what to do,” she said. “You can’t come in with the solution too quickly.”
Here, I think, lies the great YIMBY-NIMBY divide: a matter of intention versus outcome. While some selfish or bigoted actors may be sheltering their property values behind calls for “local control,” the desire to protect local communities, by using slow and incremental processes, is legitimate. But the single-family zoning codes that NIMBYs champion aren’t working for California circa 2019, and nor are they biblical. YIMBYs are justly impatient for progress, and they’re appealing to democratic processes for change, too. Perhaps both sides of the housing debate would be served by not assuming the worst in the other.

In any case, Kirsch is no longer Livable California’s acting leader. She stepped down in June. Now, the group hopes to file a state ballot initiative that would curtail the state’s ability to pass legislation that would alter local zoning codes. That isn’t quite Kirsch’s style: She feels her strength is in educating people at the grassroots level.
Meanwhile, she wonders if the triumph of the California suburbs may be short-lived. The bills in Oregon and Minneapolis surprised Kirsch, especially since they succeeded in two places in which she once lived. She thought leaders there would know better than to give in to development pressures. “Maybe I’m out of step with my own roots and history and about what a better way is,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be California next. All I can say is, it’s troubling to me.”

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Monday, July 29, 2019

The Return to Serfdom

The Return to Serfdom


July 25, 2019 12:29 PM

A steel worker returns to work at U.S. Steel Granite City Works in Granite City, Ill. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

I’m not a free-market fundamentalist. To me, the beauty of liberal capitalism lies in its performance: More people live well, and live longer, than ever before. Millions of working-class people have moved from poverty to become homeowners and have seen their offspring rise into the middle class or higher.

Today this egalitarian capitalist progress is showing signs of fading, not only in the United States but also in Europe, Australia, and increasingly East Asia. This marks a drastic reversal from the conditions that prevailed after World War II, when the incomes of those in the lower quintile surged by roughly 40 percent, while the gains in those in the top quintile grew a modest 8 percent, and the top 5 percent saw their incomes drop slightly. Social mobility since the 1990s has declined dramatically, not only in the United States but also throughout Europe, including Sweden. Despite the European Union’s vaunted welfare state, the middle class has shrunk in more than two-thirds of the countries there.

Less recognized in the media have been the fortunes of China’s working class. Overall, 500 million Chinese, close to 40 percent of the population, remain poor, living on less than $5.50 a day; in 2010 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the Chinese middle class constituted only 12 percent of the population. Rather than replicating the middle-class growth of post–World War II America and Europe, notes researcher Nan Chen, “China appears to have skipped that stage altogether and headed straight for a model of extraordinary productivity but disproportionately distributed wealth like the contemporary United States.”

The working-class future may be further clouded by the loss of what were once respectable, upwardly mobile jobs — postal workers, switchboard operators, manufacturing laborers, computer operators, bank tellers, and travel agents. For the 90 million Americans who work in these kinds of jobs, and their equivalents elsewhere, the future could be bleak.

Even if they find jobs, the decline of private trade unions has weakened the political clout that workers once enjoyed. In virtually all advanced countries, rates of unionization have dropped; since 1985, the portion of unionized workers among all the higher-income countries dropped from 30 to below 20 percent. There are unions in China, but membership is essentially worthless, because they have little power and must conform to the party’s priorities.

Many working-class people have descended into what has been described as the “precariat,” a group of workers who have limited control over the length of their workday and often live on barely subsistence wages. Research reveals that 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States and the EU-15 (the 15 member states of the EU as of April 2004), or up to 162 million individuals, does such work.

Conditions for these workers represent a throwback to earlier times. In ultra-expensive places such as Silicon Valley, many conditional workers live in their cars. The typical Uber driver is not the one seen in ads, the middle-class driver picking up extra cash for a family vacation or to pay for a fancy date; most depend on their “gigs” for their livelihood. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line. These workers often face a dismal future as they age; only one-third of independent contractors in the U.K., for example, have any sort of pension savings for their retirement.

Critically, the traditional bulwarks of working-class community — religious institutions, neighborhood and social groups, unions, and extended family — are all weakening. Marriages among the upper classes may be getting more stable and less likely to dissolve but take place later, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz has noted. But the situation is different among the middle and working classes; overall, as many as one-third of the births in the U.S. take place outside matrimony.

In some heavily minority urban areas, the rate of children born to unmarried mothers reaches an astronomical 80 percent, but this is becoming commonplace in once-traditional working-class-white areas as well. The rate of single parenting is the most significant predictor of social immobility, according to a study led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty. Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan has found a similar pattern in Europe.

Economic collapse is a clear contributor to this phenomenon. A detailed 2017 study by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson shows that towns and counties that lose manufacturing jobs also see marriage rates decline, while the share of children living in single-parent homes and the rate of births to unmarried parents rise. As in the 19th century, working-class people face mounting health problems and issues of substance abuse, particularly in old industrial areas such as Scotland. In the United States among low-educated, middle-aged whites, mortality rates are increasing, mostly as a result of what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair.”

Even in Asia, there are signs of social collapse. According to a recent survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, half of all Korean households have experienced some form of family crisis, many involving debt, job loss, or issues relating to child or elder care. Similar strains can be seen in Japan, with a rising “misery index” of divorces, single mothers, and spousal and child abuse — all of which exacerbate the country’s disastrous demographic decline and growing class division.

In “classless” China, a massive class of migrant workers — over 280 million — inhabit a netherworld of substandard housing, unsteady work, and miserable environmental conditions, all after leaving their offspring behind in villages. These new serfs vastly outnumber the Westernized, highly educated Chinese whom most Westerners encounter.

Researcher Li Sun at the University of Leeds estimates that there are 60 million “left-behind children” and another 58 million “left-behind elderly” in China. Cut off from their families and the company of women, migrant workers suffer rates of venereal disease far higher than the national norms. Scott Rozelle, a professor at Stanford, found that most kids left behind in the rural villages are sick or malnourished and that up to two-thirds struggle with combinations of anemia, worms, and uncorrected myopia, which set them back at school. More than half the toddlers, he predicts, are so cognitively delayed that their IQs will never exceed 90 — portending a future akin to that of gammas and epsilons in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In the West, the deterioration of working-class conditions has already sparked what could be described as “peasant rebellions.” Reacting to the arrogance and disdain of the globalized urban upper crust, these voters drove the election of Donald Trump, the support for Brexit, and the rise of populist parties across Europe.

In France, a clear majority regards globalization as a threat, but most executives, many trained at elite schools, see it as an “opportunity.” Protests of the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) against higher gas taxes in the winter of 2018–19 demonstrated the depth of this anger; the movement may have started in small towns and industrial cities, but it also won over the Paris suburbs, home to roughly 80 percent of the capital region’s population.

Like the revolutionaries of 1789, those in the contemporary French third estate (the commoners) have been stirred by the hypocrisy of their betters. In pre-revolutionary times, French aristocrats and top clerics preached Christian modesty while indulging in gluttony, sexual adventurism, and lavish spending. Today they call for working- and middle-class abstemiousness while they live large and exempt themselves by paying their modern version of “green” indulgences through carbon credits and other virtue-signaling devices.

We may be, as Tocqueville wrote in the 1840s, “sleeping on a volcano” destined to explode. The imposition of the Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — which would effectively mandate the end of many industries, from fossil fuels to aerospace to cattle ranching — would likely spark a mass rebellion in middle America. The “green” policies so appealing to a Silicon Valley billionaire, an investment banker, or a grant-seeking scientific researcher seem more like class warfare to residents of Youngstown, Ohio, the Ruhr in Germany, or, increasingly, China’s blue-collar cities.

China, with a history replete with violent peasant rebellions, could be the most important flash point. Workers increasingly stage strikes and protests. Communist officials have been put in the awkward position of cracking down at universities on Marxist study groups whose working-class advocacy conflicts with the policies imposed by the nominally socialist government.

In China, a rebellion would probably replace one form of authoritarian rule for another. In the West, it could undermine stable democracies. We may be seeing a reprise of what historian Eric Weitz describes as the “proletarianization” of the German middle class, which set the stage for the rise of National Socialism.

The rise of right-wing, even neo-fascist movements in Europe parallels the historic tragedies of the Fascist era, but, equally important, the liberal order is also threatened by an increasingly militant, radical leftist upsurge. In France the former Trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon won the under-24 vote, beating the “youthful” Emmanuel Macron by almost two to one among this age group. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of modern capitalism, Labour, under the neo-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn, won more than 60 percent of voters under 40, compared with just 23 percent for the Conservatives. Similar trends are evident in Germany and the rest of Western Europe, where the Green parties, with a program of draconian social engineering, enjoy wide youth support.

Socialism is on the rise even in the United States. A 2016 poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that 44 percent of American Millennials favored socialism, while another 14 percent chose fascism or Communism. By 2024, these Millennials will be by far the biggest voting bloc.

Ultimately societies, notably democratic ones, need to instill hope among the majority for a brighter future. But our dominant classes increasingly see little need for the masses. As one Silicon Valley venture capitalist told me at a California environmental conference, the future won’t have much need for people; we’ll have robots and an elite class, which naturally will include his children.

Yet people are not fungible or easily replaced. The “great question” that “hovers” over society, suggests Kentucky-based poet and novelist Wendell Berry, lies fundamentally in “the question of what are people for.” In embracing the “absolute premium of labor-saving measures” and loyally serving the needs of the least needful, we are undermining the social basis of both democracy and capitalism, creating an expanding market for ever more dependence on the state while undermining the dignity of large parts of our populations.

JOEL KOTKIN teaches as a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University (Orange, CA) and is the executive editor of the widely-read website He is the author of seven previous books, and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast and

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Whole Band



[160] IN a certain village there lived ten cloth merchants, who always went about together. Once upon a time they had travelled far afield, and were returning home with a great deal of money which they had obtained by selling their wares. Now there happened to be a dense forest near their village, and this they reached early one morning. In it there lived three notorious robbers, of whose existence the traders had never heard, and while they were still in the middle of it the robbers stood before them, with swords and cudgels in their hands, and ordered them to lay down all they had. The traders had no weapons with them, and so, though they were many more in number, they had to submit themselves to the robbers, who took away everything from them, even the very clothes they wore, and gave to each only a small loin-cloth a span in breadth and a cubit in length.
The idea that they had conquered ten men and plundered all their property, now took possession of the robbers' minds. They seated themselves like three monarchs before the men they had plundered, and ordered them to dance to them before returning home. The merchants now [161] mourned their fate. They had lost all they had, except their loin-cloth, and still the robbers were not satisfied, but ordered them to dance.
There was, among the ten merchants, one who was very clever. He pondered over the calamity that had come upon him and his friends, the dance they would have to perform, and the magnificent manner in which the three robbers had seated themselves on the grass. At the same time he observed that these last had placed their weapons on the ground, in the assurance of having thoroughly cowed the traders, who were now commencing to dance. So he took the lead in the dance, and, as a song is always sung by the leader on such occasions, to which the rest keep time with hands and feet, he thus began to sing:
"We are enty men,
They are erith men:
If each erith man,
Surround eno men
Eno man remains.
Tâ, tai, tôm, tadingana."
The robbers were all uneducated, and thought that the leader was merely singing a song as usual. So it was in one sense; for the leader commenced from a distance, and had sung the song over twice before he and his companions commenced to approach the robbers. They had understood his [162] meaning, because they had been trained in trade.
When two traders discuss the price of an article in the presence of a purchaser, they use a riddling sort of language.
"What is the price of this cloth?" one trader will ask another.
"Enty rupees," another will reply, meaning "ten rupees."
Thus, there is no possibility of the purchaser knowing what is meant unless he be acquainted with trade language. By the rules of this secret language erith means "three," enty means "ten," and eno means "one." So the leader by his song meant to hint to his fellow-traders that they were ten men, the robbers only three, that if three pounced upon each of the robbers, nine of them could hold them down, while the remaining one bound the robbers' hands and feet.
The three thieves, glorying in their [163] victory, and little understanding the meaning of the song and the intentions of the dancers, were proudly seated chewing betel and tobacco. Meanwhile the song was sung a third time. Tâ tai tôm  had left the lips of the singer; and, before tadingana  was out of them, the traders separated into parties of three, and each party pounced upon a thief. The remaining one—the leader himself—tore up into long narrow strips a large piece of cloth, six cubits long, and tied the hands and feet of the robbers. These were entirely humbled now, and rolled on the ground like three bags of rice!
The ten traders now took back all their property, and armed themselves with the swords and cudgels of their enemies; and when they reached their village, they often amused their friends and relatives by relating their adventure.