Tax Fraud and the Trump Organization

I’ve been trying to find time to read the entirety of the Times investigation of the chicanery that Fred Trump and his children pursued to shield Fred’s estate from taxation.

It’s obviously a remarkable thing to see the nation’s leading paper put it out in black and white that the President of the United States is a potentially criminal tax cheat. I’m not sure it’s surprising, though.

This is in some ways a fitting cap to decades of financialization of urban housing–of turning the provision of space for dwelling and commerce into a financial transaction in which housing people and businesses is largely incidental–and of public policy that engineers results by embedding massive financial incentives in the tax code instead of directly allocating resources to necessary projects. The result is apartments unaffordable to anyone except their absent owners and storefronts vacant because collecting their rents is unprofitable.

Of course, breaking tax laws is not OK. Tax evasion means that governments at all scales lack the resources they need to solve problems. But observance of tax laws as designed often produces similar results.

Update: Here’s Amy Plitt noting how one aspect of the Trump family tax avoidance illuminates problems with rent control. Landlords are able to raise rents on stabilized apartments only if they can demonstrate making significant capital improvements to the property. Fred Trump was able to both raise rents and avoid gift taxes in transferring wealth to his children by making them partners of a corporation that sold boilers and other maintenance supplies to Fred Trump’s buildings, after buying them at rates negotiated by Fred Trump, and then selling  them to Fred Trump at a significant markup. All of this was enabled by an “honor system” approach to enforcing legal restrictions on landlords, which still plagues the city, as Plitt notes:

While the Trump family’s abuse of the MCI provision is egregious, it’s hardly unique, which is why tenant advocates have long argued that it must be reformed, or abolished altogether. “We see really dramatic rent increases through MCIs, and they’re full of fraud,” says Cea Weaver, the policy director of New York Communities for Change. Landlords are allowed to raise the rent by up to six percent per year, depending on the scope and extent of the repairs, which can lead to hikes of hundreds of dollars. “[It’s a] one-time cost for the landlord but a permanent increase for the tenants,” Weaver explains.

The system is also easy to abuse: Increases based on MCIs are overseen by the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), which Weaver says is “horribly underfunded” and doesn’t always thoroughly vet applications. And according to DHCR’s own fact sheet, the only proof that a landlord needs in order to get an MCI comes from the landlords and contractors themselves, which can easily be falsified.

Police Torture and Late 20th Century Chicago

I was born in central Massachusetts, and finished high school there, but it’s fair to say I grew up in Chicago. I went to college in the suburbs, and lived in West Town during the early-middle stages of that area’s gentrification. I worked jobs of little consequence, met my wife, and dabbled a bit in political activism before making a real Life Decision to go to graduate school. The main organization I worked for was the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. CEDP called out the corrupt and racist enforcement of capital punishment in Illinois, chiefly through amplifying the stories of the Death Row 10: a group of black Chicago men (which grew in number to at least 13) sentenced to death on the basis of confessions extracted by torture. These men launched the anti-capital punishment movement by sharing their stories behind bars–stories with the common elements of beatings, electric shocks, suffocation, and mock executions–and then trying to find allies outside of the system to spread the word and try to push the system toward  justice.

Slowly, at first, and then quickly, the stories of the Death Row Ten created a legitimacy crisis for capital punishment in the state. Governor George Ryan, a Republican, took action. Perhaps he felt he had little to lose, as he would shortly head to federal prison for corruption. Whatever his motives, Ryan pardoned four of the Death Row Ten and commuted every death sentence in Illinois to life imprisonment before leaving office in 2003.

The man most responsible for the tortured confessions and the years of lives lost to incarceration, Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge, died on Wednesday.

Chicago has never had a full reckoning with what Burge did under color of law and in the name of the people of Chicago. Although the city has paid reparations of $5.5 million to 57 of Burge’s victims, and Burge was convicted of obstructing justice in Death Row Ten member Madison Hobley’s civil suit, he was never criminally convicted. As Flint Taylor, an attorney who represented several of Burge’s victims through the People’s Law Office, wrote in The Nation in 2013, the city, Cook County prosecutors, and the Chicago Police Department, faced with an unprecedented insurgency against the code of silence, were saved by a special prosecutor’s investigation which yielded no indictments against current or former police. Perhaps the most stunning result of the civil suits against Burge and the city was the 2011 finding by a federal judge that Richard M. Daley, who had served as Cook County’s chief prosecutor during the prime years of Burge’s terror and send many of his victims to prison before serving as Mayor for 22 years, was responsible for covering up Burge’s crimes (in one 1982 case, States Attorney Daley was advised in writing by the county jail’s chief physician that arrested murder suspect Andrew Taylor showed signs of torture, including burns from being pushed into a radiator. Daley took no action, and Wilson was convicted and condemned before his conviction was overturned in 1987). The city paid a $6 million settlement to prevent Daley from having to give a sworn deposition in the suit.

The Fraternal Order of Police has defended Burge throughout, leaning on whatever uncertainty they can imply from the lack of a criminal conviction:


I still vividly remember picketing at Cook County Jail at 26th and California before a procedural hearing for Madison Hobley, who was ultimately pardoned by George Ryan, and whose civil suit led to Burge’s conviction for perjury and obstruction. I remember specifically being heckled by several plainclothes police (yes, it is 100% that obvious in Chicago) walking in to court: “Oh yeah, everybody’s innocent.” It wasn’t said with any particular malice or anger, just the confidence that if the CPD offered up a suspect as guilty, it was good enough and it would stand.

It’s hard to judge that confidence misplaced. Burge collected a $30,000 pension for years after being fired (for one case of abusing a suspect, not a systemic campaign of torture). Richard M. Daley’s sins of omission were bailed out by the taxpayers, and he was never made to answer in court. In the meantime, Daley rolled to reelection after reelection by emphasizing the changes he was bringing to the city: the revitalization of formerly decrepit areas, new ballparks and arenas, a reversal of population decline. One of the harsh realities I’ve had to reflect on about living in Chicago during that time is that the presence of more people like me–college educated, (semi-)professional, white–in West Town was, whether I liked it or not, testimony for Daleyism. The Mayor’s mushmouthed boosterism was, of course, paired with the premise that the police defended the Mayor’s city, defended me, from dangerous others. I sat at many bars; others sat behind them.

I arrived in Chicago after Jon Burge had been fired in 1993. But not too long after. Yet, I moved into a different city than the one inhabited by the Death Row Ten, or even than Mario Flores, who was sentenced to death for a 1984 gang killing less than a mile from my first apartment in the city, despite the state presenting no physical evidence and enticing testimony implicating Flores by offering witnesses leniency on unrelated crimes, and Flores’s public defender failing to call exculpatory witnesses (Ryan commuted Flores’s sentence to 40 years). It wasn’t just the passage of years, it was the practice of politics that welcomed me with open arms and treated others, out of my sight, with fists. Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel rode the tiger of policing politics successfully for six and two respective terms in office. Throughout, the city of Chicago continued to pay settlement upon settlement to victims of police rather than confront a systemic culture of abuse.

Even NPR initially headlined Burge’s obituary describing him as “Accused of Torture.”

While it might make for a more cumbersome headline, a later correction on Twitter got it a little closer to the truth:

Today, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke stands trial for murder in the shooting of black teenager Lauquan McDonald, after the department nearly succeeded in suppressing police camera footage of the shooting. By my impressions, most people casually refer to it as the McDonald trial. I see the wisdom and compassion in remembering the victim, but it strikes me, too, that after the state’s conclusion of its case today, McDonald may ultimately be the one on trial. There is one black juror.

John Conroy covered police abuse in the Chicago Reader for years, even and especially when others wouldn’t. Support your local independent alt-weekly if you still have one.

Home Rule Politics in New York

Sam Roberts’s recent New York Times article on the fractious relationship between New York City and the state government in Albany points to a host of issues I have studied, including how home rule doctrines have evolved through a series of tense political moments, shaping the character of municipal government.  What’s compelling about Roberts’s reporting is that he doesn’t fall back on abstract platitudes about local control or the best scale for government; Albany’s efforts to restrict the home rule powers of New York City were always about specific actions undertaken (or not) by municipal government, and the political and economic consequences of those actions. In the nineteenth century, Albany sought to control patronage politics in the city. Today, real estate developers fund coalitions in the state house to thwart rent controls and other restrictions on the market and hamstring the city’s power to tax its wealthiest residents to improve housing, transit, or public health.


Talking Affordable Housing Without Talking Fair Housing is Bad Faith

Emily Badger recently writes in the New York Times of a renewed rhetorical commitment by HUD Secretary Ben Carson to address the crisis in affordable housing. However, she’s rightly skeptical of the practicability of Carson’s market-based solution to enlarge the supply of housing:

He is probably right. But the kind of housing he describes is impractical, illegal or too costly to build in much of the United States today, in suburbs and big cities alike. Blocking it are: zoning rules that allow only single-family homes; laws that dictate the size of yards; elaborate permits that drive up development costs; and rules that grant neighbors a veto over what is built.

In a recent interview, Carson suggested that such exclusionary zoning laws could disqualify local communities from receiving federal housing assistance.

The problem with Carson’s remarks is that his own department’s actions show them to be hot air; Carson has overseen HUD’s withdrawal from enforcing fair housing laws. Kriston Capps writes in Citylab that civil rights groups have been hammering Carson and HUD for decisions made this summer to open reconsideration of two agency rules, disparate impact and “affirmatively furthering,” that would radically diminish HUD’s scope of action. The first rule change targets policy that establishes a disparate impact on a protected group, rather than proof of discriminatory intent, as the standard to declare a violation of fair housing laws.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that housing practices that disproportionately negatively affect minorities are prohibited, even when discrimination is not the explicit, stated goal of those practices. That’s the disparate impact standard, and it informs everything from renting to lending to building. A policy that concentrates low income housing vouchers in poor, minority neighborhoods, for example, is every bit as discriminatory as a whites-only listing—per a disparate impact reading of the Fair Housing Act.

Capps has covered this extensively in the last several years and I’ve made use of his reporting in several posts on the issue of fair housing. Essentially, if HUD guts disparate impact standards, it will be impossible for civil rights organizations to prevent discriminatory action by local housing authorities. This is crucial because, although the racialization of poverty in many metro areas is clear, localities can plausibly hide behind class-exclusionary zoning, which is perfectly legal, to limit and isolate mixed income housing development and subsidized housing.

Disparate impact standards were upheld as constitutional in Supreme Court decision upholding a Dallas-area fair housing advocacy group’s suit charging a suburban government acted illegally by concentrating subsidized housing in one part of town. This town, McKinney, was notorious for police violence against black teens in the breaking up of a pool party in a private development. I wrote about how the incident reflected spatial segregation as an embedded part of the community’s culture, an “emotional economy” of white privilege that local government had protected (Olga Khazan’s recent follow-up visit to McKinney shows that despite national media attention, underlying dynamics have changed little).

The “affirmatively furthering” rule dates back to HUD’s founding mandate, but, prior to the Obama Administration’s decision to enforce it, was largely observed in the breach. Stated simply, the principle requires jurisdictions receiving federal funding to take active measures to promote fair housing in their borders. Crucially, as Capps notes, this is not the same thing as incentivizing communities to build more housing: 

While the issues of affordable housing and fair housing are deeply interwoven, they aren’t the same thing. Even if HUD uses the power of the purse to incentivize density and growth, that’s not the same as desegregation. An alternative rule like the one Carson has in mind does nothing to ensure that Houston rebuilds more equitably with Hurricane Harvey recovery funds, for example. A zoning bonus won’t make Houston build low-income housing in neighborhoods of opportunity.

If a town or city can decline an incentive to build a large mixed-income housing development to appease its affluent NIMBY voters (usually a whiter, wealthier homeowning constituency) while suffering no handicap in its ability to receive federal funds (not just for housing), the local political choice is clear. As Badger lays out, this constituency, motivated both by property value and racial exclusion (I’d argue those are historically inseparable) has developed a hammerlock on local development politics that thwarts both inclusion and expansion.

Those messages, from officials in both parties, have been overpowered by the reality that the federal government can do little about fundamentally local laws, and by the bipartisan will of homeowners.

So, while Carson’s seeming sudden embrace of land use reform looks like a confusing coming out as YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), the reality is that a federal plan to encourage voluntary building by incentives is pretty much a plan to talk pretty while doing jack squat and evading responsibility for housing integration.

Again, someone tell David Brooks how localism works.

This Isn’t How Localism Works

David Brooks in the New York Times recently lauded a shift away from federal action toward what he calls a “localist revolution.”

For Brooks, this is entirely positive. Though he seldom touts it, he is a conservative, and part of a movement intrinsically hostile to federal intervention since the era of Civil Rights. Since that time, of course, the rationale has evolved. While white southerners cast the feds as radical interlopers threatening to destroy the very foundation of society, for Brooks, the preferred argument today is that the feds are too conservative, bureaucratic, and slow.

Of course, Brooks’s analysis works (to the extent it does) only because he ignores a number of elephants in the room–that number being precisely fifty. While municipal governments are often keen to embrace labor, employment, civil rights, and environmental policies that reflect local needs and serve local constituencies, state governments, influenced by a growing number of right-wing think tanks, have more and more aggressively engaged in preemption.

So, when Brooks repeatedly lumps together all non-federal levels of government as exemplars of localism (“Localism is the belief that power should be wielded as much as possible at the neighborhood, city and state levels”), he couldn’t be more wrong.

The National League of Cities has issued this report, updated for 2018. It sheds some light on what David Brooks is missing. If you don’t feel like reading it, they have a chart:

Image National League of Cities

This column is remarkable on a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence level for how wrong it is. I initially thought to prepare an FJM treatment, but it was too much. So instead I’ll make three points. First, Brooks has a naivete about political media that would be almost charming if the stakes weren’t so high. Second, Brooks misconstrues the direction of federal policy with regard to devolution so completely that he can’t possibly be arguing in good faith. And, finally, when Brooks shifts from touting the ideal of localism to laying out the kind of actual policy measures he hopes localism will produce, his column devolves to incoherence.

Here’s Brooks on the media:

[Localism] is thriving because while national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, local politics by and large does not.

This is, actually, not a good thing, as it reflects a lack of attention from media to local and state affairs. Just this week, Tronc paid off its disgraced former chairman Michael Ferro, making good on a three-year, $5 million annual consulting contract (the carrot offered Ferro to resign when women made credible sexual assault allegations against him) with one lump sum payment, putting the organization nearly $15 million in the hole, a self-inflicted wound the company elected to heal by announcing massive staff layoffs at the New York Daily News. Similar spite-driven layoffs and lockouts have plagued alt-weeklies and other local publications, which have become (unfortunately) the stopgap for coverage of local affairs. And, indulging Brooks’s insistence on lumping antagonistic state and municipal governments together in his “everyone but the feds” definition of localism, coverage of state affairs may be even worse.

It is thriving because we’re in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.

It’s a mystery where this degraded social trust came from, isn’t it? And, not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out that, partly due to Michigan’s anti-city Emergency Management law, for example, people in Flint can’t count on anyone to get them clean drinking water, while their attorney general has been more interested in suing the federal EPA than in cooperating with it.

This helps us move on to point two, the political character of localism.

Since it will probably be the coming wave, I thought it might be useful to make a few notes on localism:

[narrator: these notes will not be useful.]

Localism is truly a revolution. It literally means flipping the power structure. For the past several decades, money, talent and power have flowed to the centers of national power. Politicians tried to ascend to national office as they advanced their careers. Smart young people flocked to national universities, and then to New York and D.C. The federal government assumed greater and greater control of American life.

No. This is entirely wrong, and what’s more, for Brooks to argue this shows how full of shit he is, because the devolution of policymaking and regulation of the environment, labor standards, social welfare, energy, education, and everything else since the Nixon administration proclaimed a New Federalism has been a huge victory for the conservative movement. What’s more, devolution and New Federalism are especially on-brand for Brooks, whose “reasonable conservative” schtick requires something more intellectually defensible than “tax cuts for the richest people in human history” or “go bomb brown people” or “how about fewer people get to vote,” the other policy cores of conservatism. If power had actually been flowing to Washington for decades, it would reflect quite poorly on the competence of people like David Brooks.

Fortunately, for Brooks, though perhaps unfortunately for the rest of us, this is just bullshit.

Brooks wants to perpetuate a victim narrative featuring the feds as villains, which requires him to ignore things like funding social programs through block grants, the Supreme Court’s efforts to wreck the Affordable Care Act, the rise of well-funded groups of state elected officials dedicated to suing the federal government, and the creation of a massive policy-entrepreneurial infrastructure through think-tanks and ALEC to thwart social and economic liberalism through state legislation. Many of the “smart young people” heading to New York and DC are in fact dedicating themselves to this devolution.

Brooks doubles down on this fictitious opposition because he wants to argue that there is a qualitative and moral difference between solving social problems through federal or local authority.

Localism is not federal power wielded on a smaller scale. It’s a different kind of power. The first difference is epistemological. The federal policymaker asks, “What can we do about homelessness?” The local person asks Fred or Mary what they need in order to have a home. These different questions yield different results.

This is true in a wholly banal sense, but falls apart completely on closer scrutiny. Both the federal and the local policymakers here are actually exploring possible action to reduce homelessness.

However, in most cases, the local policymaker is not asking homeless individuals what they need. The fundamental problem of localism is that most localities are able to use their powers defensively to exclude “undesirable” populations like the homeless. For 95% of local jurisdiction, homeless policy means “how can I convince Fred and Mary to leave town.”

The jurisdictions (large cities, mostly) who receive the homeless must therefore look beyond their own borders to solve problems that exceed their capacity, and that mostly means seeking to implement federally supported affordable housing policies.

If you’re still on board, we can skip ahead and ask what Brooks’s local solutions might look like.

There’s a legacy system, like a public school, a grocery store or an investment fund. Somebody breaks free from the system and creates an innovative alternative, like a charter school, an organic farm market or a crowdsource campaign.

Now here we arrive at the core of Brooks’s affection for the local. Policy “innovations” that all happen to reflect Brooks’s hostility to the public sector and enthusiasm for austerity. Note well that these paired alternatives reflect a “legacy” system that was set up to serve a broad public at a standard (observed in the breach to be sure) of inclusivity, and an “innovation” that serves a narrow base or rejects public responsibility entirely. Note, too, that state legislatures are involved here. These are the kinds of local initiatives that, strangely enough, don’t get preempted.

As Leo Linbeck of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism describes, the new innovators “announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch.” There’s a conversation between the legacy system and the innovator, as the former learns from and adapts to the alternative. Change happens through the conversation between old and new.

Or, change happens when the state legislature decides that funding your pension is less important than a tax cut and you get told to go pound sand. Or when your city responds to a massive hurricane by privatizing the entire school system. Or when Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg decide to throw a lot of money around to influence policy debates they really know nothing about, and cash-strapped cities agree in desperation to go along. Or when affluent whites want to avoid school desegregation. These are not conversations, except in the sense that ransom notes are conversations. And, while although I’m no New York Times pundit, I’m having a hard time understanding how change driven by Wall Street and Silicon Valley money squares with any sane understanding of localism.

There is a different division of labor for making change. As impact investor Deborah Frieze put it in a 2015 TEDx talk, change is led by Walk Outs. These are people who leave the legacy system and pioneer new alternatives. Then there are Illuminators. These are people who analyze and bring attention to the change that is now available.

Please make this stop. Unless you want to talk about these walkouts.

I’d highlight two other social roles. Elders are the city mothers and fathers who hold sway in the town because of their established positions. The Elders support the Walk Outs, make room for them and reform old systems. Then there are Network Entrepreneurs. They link the Walk Outs, who tend to be lonely, overworked and short-staffed. They help the Walk Outs build a support system and a way to exchange knowledge and care.

These terms are pulled from Professor I. Madeitup’s recent article in the Uranus Review of Urban Studies. Pause, too, for a minute and try to put these Ted Terms in a real-world context, like the charter school movement. Does Brooks expect anyone to believe that it’s the side that’s got hedge fund and tech money pouring into it that’s short-staffed?

Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years.

Never mind what we  just read about disruption and innovation. Localism is all about tradition and continuity and personalism. Here, perhaps we ought to pause to reflect on how in many places, “personalistic” governing means local housing authorities decline to enforce fair housing laws, meaning bigotry and prejudice can more easily affect who can rent where. And localism without civil rights enforcement means that “intimate” details like who you sleep with can affect your basic rights. Odd, LBGT civil rights protections are frequently preempted by state legislatures.

Localism stands for the idea that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems.

Of course not, which is why the American Legislative Exchange Council crafts templates for reactionary legislation tailored to the requirements of 50 state constitutions.

Instead, it brings conservatives and liberals together around the thought that people are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.

OK. Here’s where David Brooks is showing himself to be even more completely full of shit. He’s made an entire career out of callow sociological observation about how people use geography to sort themselves according to political and cultural preferences (Brooks generally ignores how money factors into this sorting, but that’s par for the course). Now, however, when it comes time to face the implications of this for local government and politics, he is reduced to platitudes. He can’t face that the residents of affluent, white suburbs embrace anti-urban reaction. He can’t face the fact that the practice of localism amounts to resource-hoarding and exclusion. He can’t face the fact that suburban-rural coalitions of conservatives, in league with national policy entrepreneurs, are dedicated to hamstringing municipal governments and denying them the tools to deal with local problems.

What’s really going on, then? What Brooks and other conservatives are desperate to do is to find a way to champion and enact reactionary austerity and market orthodoxy in a climate where neither the White House nor Congress offer an appealing moral authority.

Charters and Resegregation

Colorlines reports on a new study by The Hechinger Report, The Investigative Fund, and NBC News, which finds that a significant number of charter schools serve student populations that are significantly whiter than their districts. The full report, authored by Emmanuel Felton, looks at the particularly egregious example of Lake Oconee Academy, a k-12 charter school built explicitly to promote a retiree-oriented community to affluent families with young children, giving priority in enrollment to students of that area, and exacerbating racial segregation and educational inequality in a Georgia school district.

Read the whole report. I’ll just note that Lake Oconee Academy enrolls about a thousand students and has a student-piano ratio of about 40:1.

Historically, it is well worth noting, as Nancy MacLean does in her acclaimed (and controversial) book Democracy in Chains, that calls for school privatization and “choice” plans decoupling public school funding from publicly operated schools originated in the state of Virginia’s response to Brown v. Board of Education. Inspired by libertarian political economist James Buchanan, Virginia closed its public schools and offered vouchers so that the state and its subsidiary school districts would not technically be guilty of operating segregated schools.

This option proved politically impossible to maintain, as historian Matthew Lassiter argued, because affluent white suburbanites in Atlanta and other parts of the urbanizing south of the early 1960s felt entitled to quality schools and expected state officials to take action to reopen schools. Of course, they also expected that action in compliance with desegregation orders would be minimal, and advocated for “neighborhood schools” doctrines that ensured that affluent communities would be shielded from meaningful integration by the high price of homes (political theorist Clarissa Rile Hayward aptly describes this as “tuition”).

The case of Lake Oconee Academy suggests this dynamic will continue to play out in obvious and subtle ways. The homes in the school’s preferred attendance area are significantly more expensive than in the rest of the county, and likely to command an even higher premium based on the presumption that buying in the gated subdivision entitles the buyer to better schools. The Academy also requires Lands End uniforms, does not offer bus transportation, and gives priority in admission to the children of teachers and board members and the siblings of current students.

These policies are instrumental in maintaining a disproportionately white student population, and it’s not as though this was ever a mystery, as Felton writes of the school’s founding:

In December of 2006, the school board called a special meeting. The sole item on the agenda was the charter school, and the board voted four to one to approve it. Roi Johnson, longtime pastor of New Springfield Baptist Church in the small town of Siloam, says he stood up and declared, “What you’re doing is resegregating the schools intentionally.”

Subways are the Life of Big Cities

Jonathan Mahler’s article in the New York Times Magazine is a great read, and speaks beyond New York to the problems facing virtually all metropolitan transit systems in the United States. Simply put, political leaders at the state, local and federal levels in this country do not conceive of mass transit as an essential component of economic and social life:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

Yet, the subway in New York is plagued by archaic machinery, understaffing, and political maneuvering that prevents addressing its problems, abetted by a political culture that hypes ride sharing and other private (and inadequate) substitutes for the mobility needs of millions of New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should scroll through to look at the photos of actual in-use controls for the nation’s largest subway system. They barely qualify as Steampunk.

It’s possible to disagree with some of Mahler’s prescriptive conclusions. In particular, he suggests that the solution to MTA’s funding problems is for the agency to aggressively leverage its expansion plans to entice developers in currently underserved areas to share the profits of speculative investment; if subway expansion can make outlying landowners rich by enabling more profitable development on their land, they can return the favor to MTA. Historically, of course, this has been the model of transit-enabled graft and profiteering and, in the case of 1920s Los Angeles, wholly inadequate to secure the long-term viability of transit systems.

Indeed, New York’s problem is certainly not that the city lacks a pool of wealth sufficient to operate a world class subway system. The problem is that the owners of that wealth refuse to accept an obligation to contribute sufficiently to a public good without being rewarded.

Fulton County Sues Opioid Manufacturers

Charging that the distribution of opioid painkillers is delivering profits to the pharmaceutical industry and public health and criminal justice costs to local governments, Fulton County (GA) recently announced that it is suing a group of companies in the industry.

As federal aid to local governments has declined, and states have become stingier allocating limited block grant funds for social services, someone has to pay for the costs of overdose deaths, treatment, and jail. Under the principles established by the state settlements with tobacco companies, it should be those who profit. This is a fine example of the way that localities can use their power to push for equity (until, of course, state legislatures pass preemption laws to make such suits illegal).

Archives, Knowledge, and Information

Two things from my social feeds this week:

First, James Somers’ “Keepers of the Secrets” in the Village Voice reflects provocatively on the value of archival materials that fall between the cracks of digital search algorithms, accessible only by physical presence. NYPL archivist Thomas Lannon serves as the story’s central figure, displaying both a vast knowledge of the contents of box after box of documents, but also an equanimity about the significance of any one in particular:

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

That humility reflects that research in the archives is ideally a symbiosis of archivist and historian. One makes materials accessible, and the other brings contextual knowledge to find meaning in them, relating them to other documents, other narratives, other questions:

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

What I liked best about Somers’s article was the way that, without having to state it directly, he showed the poverty of our present conception of knowledge as mere information. What can be Googled isn’t all that matters.

The information age, unfortunately, has not left archival practices alone. While the volume of paper finding its way to archives after its bureaucratic utility is exhausted has grown, the development of archival best practices for rendering that paper accessible to researchers has purged most qualitative or critical analysis from the work:

A 2005 paper titled “More Progress, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large…. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

As a former practicing historian, I recall a great frustration when my research “productivity” was evaluated by quantitative social scientists whose working assumption was that “data” is standardized and available, awaiting analysis. Maybe not everybody gets this work.

Of course, researchers can do great things make the knowledge in archives accessible in the digital stream of information. My second read to pass along is a great example, the project by Jeremy Lechtzin and Brandon Liu (described here) to digitize and geocode photos, taken for tax assessment purposes, of virtually every building on every block in New York City in the 1980s. It’s easy to say that the city’s changed since the 1980s; this kind of work, by starting with archives to make information, helps you to see it too.