On Dr. Carson’s Confirmation Hearings

Last Thursday’s hearing on Dr. Ben Carson’s nomination as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development was noteworthy for several reasons.

Perhaps foremost, the question of Dr. Carson’s qualifications to serve in that post were almost completely ignored. Although a letter delivered to the chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs included the signatures of a raft of prominent, and some eminent, urban studies scholars (historians, sociologists, political scientists, demographers, and anthropologists all strongly represented), and challenged Carson’s qualifications to oversee an agency of HUD’s scope without administrative experience or expertise in either housing or urban development, the issue was virtually ignored in the committee’s deliberations. Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) joked that if Carson could handle brain surgery, running HUD would logically be easy. Carson pledged a “listening tour” and to unleash the power of private enterprise to solve housing and development problems. This will be a neat trick in a housing market where, as Jason DeParle notes,

The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay, whether the builder is greedy or not. That’s partly because restrictive zoning and overzealous building codes drive up the price. But it’s mostly because of the inherent cost of the basics: land, interest, materials, utilities. As a rule of thumb nationwide, even an efficient nonprofit developer can’t build an apartment affordable to a household making less than about $32,000 a year. That leaves out nearly a third of American households.

Carson, true to form, offered few specifics about his policy goals, suggesting primarily that if people earned more money they would no longer need HUD support to afford housing. While such a statement is true by virtue of its tautological nature, Carson’s focus on increasing wages and earning is notable for contradicting most of Carson’s declared policy positions. He’s spoken against raising the minimum wage, declared that social welfare payments create “dependency,” and suggested that the free market will raise wages if millions of low-wage workers simply make themselves more valuable to capitalism. It’s also striking that Carson’s attention to contributing factors to poverty varied in inverse proportion to HUD’s mandate to act on them. Indeed, while Carson seemed to recognize the interconnections between housing policy and other social problems, as Kriston Capps argues at Citylab, he seemed to have no particular ideas about what HUD might do about them, particularly given his opposition to HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which is central to housing desegregation and helping low-income and minority Americans live in areas with greater social resources and educational opportunities, as I’ve written here before (and Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz demonstrate here).

Specific questions raised by Catherine Cortez Masto and Sherrod Brown about HUD’s role in preventing a new foreclosure crisis and in serving the one in four renters who pay more than half of their income for housing were brushed aside without concern proposed action.

Things got a bit more entertaining when Elizabeth Warren pressed Carson on his ability and inclination to regulate potential conflicts of interest between HUD policy and government officials in an administration flush with real estate developers. Such concerns would apply of course to the Trump Organization’s widespread, and largely undisclosed, real estate holdings, which will remain under the control of Trump’s sons in a conflict resolution scheme that strains credulity, and to the extensive investments (pending divestment) of Jared Kushner in low-income housing. It’s only fair to state that as yet there is no evidence of a direct conflict of interest. Yet Carson seemed to be wholly unaware of the potential for one.

Perhaps many people were shocked, given the attention to Trump’s potential self-dealing through the presidency, that Carson wouldn’t make this pledge. But I think that the exchange was revealing in ways that neither participant likely intended. First, Carson suggested that he would not block a program that would benefit the public if particular individuals would make “ten dollars.” Warren reminded Carson that the more likely order of magnitude of such gains would be in the tens of millions. Carson seemed to have no idea what’s at stake in the agency that he’s being tagged to run. However, Warren’s focus on Trump’s potential to engage in self-dealing through HUD, while politically salient to the legitimacy of a President-Elect who has given no indication of grasping a distinction between the national interest and his own, also reveals a troubling acceptance of a status quo at HUD where the agency’s nominal mission of ensuring adequate housing on a non-discriminatory basis has been subordinated to the distribution of financial benefits to highly capitalized and politically connected developers. Indeed, the problem of corruption is intimately connected to deep historical shifts in HUD’s mission and political status that Jake Blumgart describes in n+1.

There’s been a dialectical relationship between HUD’s emergent capture by development interests and corruption, which has had the consequence of crippling the agency’s capacity to provide housing. As Jason DeParle writes, the period 1970-1990 saw a one million unit surplus of affordable housing relative to poor families change to a five million unit deficit. As urban historian Thomas Sugrue writes, the political weakness of HUD’s housing provision and desegregation missions left plenty of space for graft:

In the early 1970s, its program to expand Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages to underserved urban areas was hijacked by real estate speculators and politically connected developers, who sold shabby houses to desperate buyers at above-market prices, backed by inflated appraisals. When buyers defaulted on their mortgages (especially as interest rates spiked), taxpayers covered the loss. HUD was unwilling to come down hard on predatory lenders or to stiffen regulations.

Pierce was the perfect agent for Reagan’s mission to gut HUD. He oversaw dramatic cuts in the agency’s already meager budget. Federal support for low-income-housing subsidies plunged from $26 billion to $8 billion. More than that, Pierce undercut HUD’s civil rights mission: Housing was nearly as segregated at the end of the 1980s as it had been at the decade’s start. Urban housing conditions deteriorated, the construction of affordable housing slowed to a trickle, and urban poverty deepened.

HUD, however, still channeled money to private housing developers and contractors. And under Pierce, the vultures circled…. Pierce’s staff turned over with alarming frequency. Seven assistant secretaries for housing came and went, and the agency became a patronage mill for inexperienced Republican hacks.

In the current climate of austerity, where HUD, like other agencies, doesn’t spend funds so much as administer tax incentives in the hopes of encouraging someone to provide housing for lower-income households, the prior problem of graft has largely been replaced by the capital barriers of entry to the large-scale development game. In 2012, an industry journal for rental housing operators described how Jared Kushner was able to develop a multifamily rental housing empire by

stealthily target[ing] complex off-market mega-deals for properties that aren’t exactly jet-set destinations. The company aims for distress-ridden class-B apartment communities in second-tier cities such as Toledo and Baltimore…. That pair of strategic strikes has helped expand the diversified company’s rental housing portfolio by more than 11,000 units during the past year or so.

These deals often involve taking over and refinancing the debt of current landlords (not building more housing), and doing so before properties hit the open market. Although there is nothing to suggest that Kushner’s organization has behaved unethically or illegally in such deals, they are dependent upon a matrix of connection and access to credit:

old and new relationships with owners, investors, lenders, intermediaries and others help Kushner source off-market opportunities–and close quickly at favorable financing terms. Kushner is contractually prohibited from discussing details of the Baltimore portfolio investment, but confirms that this opportunity came to the team off-market via relationships.

Beyond operational and deal-sourcing capabilities, Kushner’s ties to deep-pocketed institutional capital managers help leverage its banking relationships.

That institutional backing and the financial “horsepower” it brings is critical in securing debt at the best rates and terms, observes Jordan Ray, managing director with Mission Capital Advisors, which arranges financing for investors and sells distressed debt on behalf of lenders. Hefty equity resources also allow these joint ventures to close value-add and opportunistic deals more quickly than lesser-heeled suitors–another key factor winning deals in today’s highly competitive environment, Ray adds.

The importance of business relationships, large-scale finance, and information to large-scale activity in the multifamily rental housing industry mean that HUD’s work must necessarily guard against conflicts of interest because being a player in that market requires companies to cultivate influence.

And it also means that HUD’s leadership will face potentially difficult conflicts between its mission of encouraging a sufficient supply of affordable housing and profit-oriented decisions by large investors as landlords. As Prashant Gopal recently wrote in Bloomberg,  private equity funds like Blackstone have moved aggressively to buy rental properties since the 2008 mortgage bust (to the tune of $25 billion and 150,000 single family houses), moving aggressively to the scene of the worst carnage of the foreclosure crisis.

Blackstone built its rental-home business with an advantage few if any other buyers could match: billions of dollars in credit from large banks. Its Invitation Homes subsidiary quickly became the largest single-family home landlord in the U.S., with 50,000 properties. Altogether, hedge funds, private-equity firms and real estate investment trusts have raised about $20 billion to purchase as many as 200,000 homes to rent. The buying — often by employees who brought stacks of certified checks to foreclosure auctions on courthouse steps — helped turned down-and-out markets such as Arizona, California, Florida and Georgia into booming ones as the firms outbid local investors and drained markets of foreclosures.

Blackstone also developed new securitization instruments for trading on the future of rental income:

Two years earlier, Blackstone had fueled its own vast purchases by pioneering a new kind of bond in which investors are paid out of rental streams — a variation on the mortgage-backed securities that made so much money for Wall Street before blowing up. Moody’s rated the biggest portion of Blackstone’s first bond AAA and the firm was able to borrow $479 million at 1.9 percent, less than half the typical 30-year mortgage rate.

When rental income is securitized, and when the collection of rents is moved from the family in the adjacent duplex unit to a Wall Street board room, the stakes change considerably. When Wall Street is America’s landlord, rents rise, and tenants who jeopardize revenue flows with delinquency swiftly find themselves on the streets, as Gopal writes in a different article:

On a chilly December afternoon in Atlanta, a judge told Reiton Allen that he had seven days to leave his house or the marshals would kick his belongings to the curb. In the packed courtroom, the truck driver, his beard flecked with gray, stood up, cast his eyes downward and clutched his black baseball cap.

The 44-year-old father of two had rented a single-family house from a company called HavenBrook Homes, which is controlled by one of the world’s biggest money managers, Pacific Investment Management Co. Here in Fulton County, Georgia, such large institutional investors are up to twice as likely to file eviction notices as smaller owners, according to a new Atlanta Federal Reserve study.

Among these investors?

Colony Starwood Homes initiated proceedings on a third of its properties, the most of any large real estate firm. Tom Barrack, chairman of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, and the company he founded, Colony Capital, are the largest shareholders of Colony Starwood, which declined to comment.

Indeed, it’s more the case than ever that the rental housing market that is so central to HUD’s core mission is constructed around the needs of investors rather than tenants. This connects to two theses of Harvard sociologist and MacArthur prize winner Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted (reviewed here by Jason DeParle): Evictions create dire impoverishment, and evictions happen because they are profitable.

In discussing his research, Desmond posed a framework for understanding housing as central to opportunity: to education, to earning potential, to family stability, to all of the factors Carson identified as more important contributors to poverty, as though to argue that HUD’s efforts to fight them would be futile. Per Desmond:

Do we believe housing is a right? Do we believe that access to decent, affordable housing is part of what it means to live in this country? I think we have to say yes. The reason is very simple: Without stable housing everything else falls apart. We’ve reaffirmed the right to basic education, access to food, and security in old age because we know that, without those things, it is impossible to live a full and flourishing life [ed.: wait a few months].

This concern was addressed in a 2014 letter to HUD from the National Consumer Law Center and other organizations, which warned that this pattern threatened to create a financial bubble while raising rents and crowding families out of a single-family home market increasingly dominated by highly capitalized rental property operators.

Senator Sherrod Brown pointedly recommended in his questioning that Carson and his staff read Evicted prior to taking office. Sherrod Brown nonetheless voted, as did Elizabeth Warren, to pass Carson’s nomination on the full senate. It’s a shame neither of them demanded a book report from Dr. Carson first.

 

UPDATE:  Since Dr. Carson’s committee hearings, the Trump administration released its preliminary budget proposal. Reports indicate the strong influence of the Heritage Foundation on the proposal, which strongly suggests that Carson will be taking over an agency with a substantially smaller overall budget, and a dramatically circumscribed sphere of action. HUD’s budget would be cut by $4.3 billion for 2017, from current levels of $38.8 billion, and nearly $293 billion over 10 years. The plan would end the Community Development Block Grant, devolve affordable housing programs to the states, reduce Federal expenditures for subsidized housing (which will be spent at the discretion of state governments anyway) by ten percent annually for ten years, and eliminate the Federal Housing Administration.

Affordable housing will be built or rehabbed to the extent that it’s profitable for large private developers or politically tenable in state legislatures.

The Trump budget outline also directs the Justice Department to reduce the use of disparate impact analysis, which would effectively end enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.

Buckle up.

FJM: Merrie Spaeth

A month ago I cashed in some airline miles that will never be sufficient to earn a flight on a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. So far as purchases made with otherwise valueless scrip, it’s been worthwhile. The news reporting, while filtered through the perspective of the .1%, is solid. The occasional interesting feature comes in on Saturday. And, every day, the editorial page offers a glimpse into the mindset of the American wingnut at the dawning of the age of Trump. The great educational value of reading the WSJ editorial pages is that they offer an object lesson in the fundamental fact that the barrel has no bottom to scrape where movement conservatism, reactionary populism, or revanchist oligarchy are concerned.

Today’s section offers a cheap attack on John Lewis’s congressional achievements from columnist Jason L.(the L is for “what’s John Lewis done for me LATELY?”) Riley, an editorial explaining that things will be better when industrial poultry farms dispose of their waste on the honor system, and Holman Jenkins, Jr.’s suggestion that the government ethics officials raising hue and cry about Donald Trump’s unresolved conflicts of interest are “aphids,” in which he makes a one-to-one comparison between the prospect of Trump’s children “parad[ing] around in semi-regal fashion, signing deals that wouldn’t otherwise come their way if their father wasn’t president?” and the marketing of Billy Beer.

This is a murderer’s row of cant, ideology, and willful ignorance, but these articles are tied for the silver medal behind Merrie Spaeth, who advises Republicans “How to Overcome the Tyranny of the Anecdote.” Although one might question how, exactly, anecdotes can exercise tyranny, and therefore disregard the article upon reading the headline, I, for some reason, read on. Since I did, you have to as well. So, without further ado, is an FJM.

While Republicans debate whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act outright or piecemeal, here are a few people they should meet: Paula, 52, a breast-cancer survivor; Namir, 35, with a rare tumor; Cameron, 44, who suffers from Parkinson’s; and Jason, 36, fighting a blood infection.

Wow, these people all have the kind of serious-and-expensive-but-unpredictable health conditions that constitute the very purpose of health insurance. Maybe their stories will support insight into the best policy decisions.

They all received lifesaving treatment through Obamacare; they, and others, will literally interpose their bodies in front of any attempt to reform or repeal it.

First off, that’s not what “literally” means, unless you are suggesting that Paula, Namir, Cameron, and Jason stage a sit-down strike in the halls of Congress to obstruct the coming reconciliation bill. Otherwise, they will “figuratively” or “symbolically” offer their bodily health as part of a rhetorical defense of the ACA. Second, I guess living is pretty important to these people! We’ll come back to that point in a bit.

It isn’t only health care. The cabinet nominees named by President-elect Trump have pledged to trim the thicket of regulations and executive actions that has accumulated during the past eight years. So get ready to meet a new cast of characters whose stories suggest that “making America great again” will result in dirty air, polluted water, starving children and general death and destruction–all the fault of heartless Republicans.

You forgot “fracking-related earthquakes.” And obviously the idea that people across America today suffer ill health and premature death from tainted drinking water is ridiculous. And no one is seeking to directly deprive poor households of funds to buy food. And, overriding clean air regulations couldn’t possibly harm people, who don’t need to breathe air constantly during every moment of their lives. These characters can really spin a yarn about environmental health and food, can’t they? What’s to be done? Consider the impacts of policy on human lives?

The Trump administration and the GOP have to be prepared for the communication strategy their opponents are already employing, with the media’s help: the bombardment of emotionally laden anecdotes.

People do have a strong emotional attachment to life and bodily health. I wonder why that’s such catnip to the media? It’s also truly unfortunate that only liberals and Democrats are successfully able to use this strategy of appeal to emotion through anecdote.

Already Republicans are making the same mistake they always do, which is to rest their case on impersonal facts and figures.

So, were these “Death Panel” astroturf town hall ambushes in 2009 “facts” or “figures“? And, oddly enough, the Congressional GOP has passed rules specifically excluding ACA repeal from requirements that the Congressional Budget Office analyze the 40-year spending impact of legislation. I guess they’re taking Merrie’s advice already and ditching those boring facts and figures. [Note: Politifact argues that the rules as adopted don’t bar the CBO from evaluating repeal, but, given that they require a 40-year horizon analysis for any legislation that might increase Federal spending by $5 billion at any time  during that period, the rule seems designed to bury spending bills in analysis while making the CBO too busy to do any non-required analysis on ACA].

Facts are the background noise of debate and analysis anecdotes are a message’s most powerful anchors. In the battle for public opinion, personal stories win. So what if Obamacare is woefully undersubscribed because it’s a bad deal for young, healthy people….

Oddly enough, Namir and Jason are both under 40 and before their respective tumor and blood infection, probably thought of themselves as healthy. One of the virtues of anecdotes is that they illustrate the way that actual human beings exist in society, and particularly the way that “young, healthy people” can become “young, sick people with very large medical expenses and urgent care needs” in short order.

or if millions have watched their deductibles skyrocket and choices narrow. Do you really want Paula, Namir, Cameron, and Jason to die?

Note: Spaeth is suggesting that you should prefer that these four people, and thousands like them, should die, to the prospect of higher insurance deductibles. I’d discuss the way that deductible increases are related to the ACA’s requirements that insurance companies actually pay claims and offer coverage, but perhaps that would be overly reliant on the old facts and figures. I’d also note that an uninsured person has a “deductible” of “infinity.”

A case study in the war between anecdotes and facts is the portrayal of black men shot by police officers.

Christ, these people can’t stop themselves, can they?

Individuals like Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown have become icons, treated as if their stories are beyond debate.

When someone seeks to squelch controversy over police shootings, and selectively excludes cases like Walter Scott or Philando Castile, that’s a tell.

This is the emotion Hillary Clinton capitalized on when she accused police of “implicit bias,” a problem she claimed was “systemic.” President Obama used the international platform of a speech in Poland to note that blacks are arrested at twice the rate of whites.

If one wants to decry the use of anecdotes over “facts” then it’s an odd move to disregard a gigantic body of social science research–initiated at Harvard University no less–both qualitative and ethnographic and quantitative and experimental, suggesting that implicit bias is indeed systemic. Hell, take Nerdy Suge Knight’s word for it:

Now the facts:

Uh huh….

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who has won a slew of honors for his research

Appeal to authority (Harvard social scientist version) is valid for some instances, but not others.

made news with a report, “An empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” He found that in Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, police were 23.8% less likely to shoot at blacks than at whites–a statistically insignificant [ed-I assume this is a typo where Spaeth meant “significant.” I’m charitable that way.] difference even Mr. Fryer called “surprising.”

Nitpicking here as a former academic: every researcher calls their findings “surprising” because that is academic code for “interesting” or “pay attention.” In Fryer’s case, it worked, because he instantly became the right wing’s favorite black social scientist as the likes of Rush Limbaugh reported “proof” that the cops aren’t racist.

Here’s the problem. Although Fryer has since been open about acknowledging the limits of his study and the gap between its most sensational coverage in the press and the policy conclusions that ought to be drawn from it, almost everyone, including Spaeth, is grossly misinterpreting the study, which, to be clear, was a working paper, rather than a peer-reviewed publication, and which has been criticized by other scholars, including those at Harvard.

The key is that the findings are based in a particular “universe” of individual incidents, in this case, Houston police encounters with racially identified persons. Although a higher proportion of encounters with white individuals escalated to shooting compared to encounters with black individuals, this tells us nothing about the likelihood of a random white or black Houstonian being contacted by police officers. A more reliable conclusion might be “black Houstonians are more likely to be pulled over for the slightest reason, while white Houstonians must need to be flagrantly breaking the law to make the acquaintance of a cop, which makes it more likely the encounter will escalate.” This is a problem with the universe of the data, that Fryer acknowledges. The Department of Justice’s report on Chicago’s police and the systematic abuse of civil rights by the CPD presents a decidedly different, and contextual, portrait of the relationship of race and police violence.

Honestly, I’ve had enough of Spaeth’s abuse of social science, so I’m going to skip ahead a bit.

The problem is that nobody cares about [statistics chosen selectively, almost like anecdotes] when you’ve got a tragic situation like that of Keith Lamont Scott, captured on cellphone video in Charlotte, North Carolina, while his wife yells that he suffers from a traumatic brain condition.

Watch the video if you have the stomach. Then ask yourself if you’re comforted by a statistical argument that police aren’t biased, and what about all the times police don’t shoot people?

What to do? Don’t assume these shootings are all justified, or that groups like Black Lives Matter should be dismissed for telling the stories. Some stories are true.

This feels like a head fake. Where’s the big “but?”

Instead of expressing regrets and retreating to statistics and studies,

Again, these being the noted redoubt of conservative politics. Carry on.

Republicans need to deploy anecdotes of their own. There were 762 homicides in Chicago last year, a 57% increase over 2015, and 3,550 shootings. Anecdotes put names and faces on these figures. Fifteen-year-old Javon Wilson, a grandson of Rep. Danny Davis, was fatally shot in an argument over a pair of shoes. Gang members allegedly shot and killed Nykea Aldridge, a 32 year-old cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, as she pushed a baby stroller.

Chicago. Javon. Nykea. Dwyane. Sneaker-related killings. Gang members. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention since Goldwater, this is using “anecdotes” to invoke “black on black crime” to “change the subject” on police violence. This is where I get off the train. I tried. There’s some stuff about job creators and how welfare reform really didn’t literally starve children. If you are a “facts” and “analysis” person you can read here for more. Or you can read an anecdote about welfare from Paul Ryan that’s both fabricated and plagiarized.

Oh, what’s this?

Ms. Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations.

Hell, had they put the bio blurb at the beginning, we could have all saved some time. Reagan was never one to embroider an anecdote to influence public policy or exaggerate his role in historic events or pander to the insecurities of Americans for political gain.

FOLLOW-UP: Research on Racial Resentment and Approval of Social Policy

In my last post, I argued that understanding Tom Price’s likely actions as the Secretary of Health and Human Services requires understanding the fierce and racially fraught metropolitics of greater Atlanta, where tax and service politics of all sorts, but particularly those surrounding medical care for the region’s poor (who are much more likely than the whole population to be Black). The long and short of it is that the region’s wealthy homeowners (who are much more likely than the whole population to be white) have developed a consistent grievance politics around the premise that Fulton County’s social services under Black political leadership take from deserving white homeowners to give to the undeserving (implicitly Black) poor.

I’ve made this argument inductively from archival research on movements for suburban secession in Atlanta since the 1960s. With varying degrees of overtness, one core premise–that catastrophe would result from Black Atlantans exercising political control over whites’ property–has animated white homeowner politics in Atlanta. This of course simplifies the story, but I emphasize that core idea because it’s easy to get lost in arguments about quality of life, fiscal responsibility, or local control that circulate in the political discourse but are dependent on the core idea.

Interdisciplinarity is useful for historians because social scientists working deductively on questions of the role of racism in decision-making help to ground what may seem like more ephemeral or constructed narratives about historical actions. In this case, I’m highlighting research by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine, featured on sociologist Lisa Wade’s blog The Society Pages

Are some Trump supporters’ political views motivated by race?

One way to find out is to see whether the typical Trump supporter is less likely to support policies when they are subtly influenced to think that they are helping black versus white people. This was the root of a study by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine.

Prior to the election, they asked 746 white respondents to complete an internet survey. Each person was randomly assigned to see one of two pictures at the beginning of the survey: a white man standing next to a foreclosure sign or the exact same photograph featuring a black man. Respondents were also asked whether they supported Trump. (Non-white people were left out of the analysis because there were too few Trump supporters among them to run meaningful comparative statistics.)

The first graph shows that white Trump supporters were eight percentage points more likely to oppose mortgage relief if they had seen a “black cue” (the picture featuring a black man) than a “white cue.” The opposite was true for white Trump opponents.

This mirrors findings by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee posted on the Wester Political Science Association’s blog in March. McDaniel and McElwee conclude noting correlations between education and economic status and Trump support in a US county, that strongly held resentment against racial minorities by whites, defined in terms of a zero-sum or something-for-nothing understanding that gains for minorities come illegitimately at whites’ expense, was the stronger predictor:

While we accept that all of these factors help explain Trump support, we find that racism is the main driver of support for Trump. The model presented here accounts for all of these attitudes and still finds an incredibly strong relationship between racism and support for Trump. The centrality of racism to the Trump phenomenon should not be obscured.

This research is disturbing, but perhaps, in reference to the likelihood of drastic actions by Tom Price, hopeful. On one hand, the reality that the Republican Party has an ideological core of white nationalism or racial resentment evokes horrifying prospects. But, if the party is guided less by a rigid free market ideology and more by a perception that government largesse is simply going to the wrong people, that could mean that social safety net legislation like the Affordable Care Act, with its substantial constituency of white beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, could be very difficult to repeal. I’m not a policy wonk by training. I’ve been taught how to pick stuff apart after it’s happened, not to try to evaluate the process as it unfolds. But, it seems as though the difficulty of recrafting the ACA to exclude the “other” while legitimating and preserving benefits to whites may stop the new Congress from repealing it (Sarah Kliff explains).

Tom Price and Metropolitics

First, off, regrets for the delay between starting this post when Tom Price’s appointment was news and publishing it today, when no one in the media has got time for Tom Price at all. Just pretend that Russia, Exxon, and the Electoral College don’t exist and that Tom Price still matters. Because he most certainly does, if you plan to get Medicare or Medicaid or have paid taxes on the premise that your payments might entitle you to partake of those social services someday.

(Ahem)

Most of the attention paid to Donald Trump’s naming of Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services has focused on Price’s adamant opposition to the Affordable Care Act and social services in general.

Amy Goldstein and Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post that Price is a loyal Trumpist, a foe of Obamacare, birther-curious, and, perhaps most importantly,

supports major changes to both Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements in order to receive health care benefits — an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.

No doubt, all of those concerns are legitimate and important. I echo all of them. But I think it’s worth pointing out that where Price is coming from is important; his extremism on social services reflects not simply fiscal conservatism but also a politics of (sometimes) veiled (and sometimes not) racial resentment formed in (but hardly unique to) post-1970s metro Atlanta. And, as I’ll discuss below, Price’s brand of politicized racial resentment has been disguised as principled concern for the fate of democracy with the help of words attributed to, but most likely never written by, a Scottish Enlightenment scholar of little significance outside of That Uncle’s email forwards and, unfortunately, the United States Congress.

By happy coincidence, I’ve published some articles about the part of metro Atlanta that contains Price’s 6th Congressional District. As I noted recently, Price won a landslide re-election hand in hand with an overwhelming vote for Trump in his district. North suburban Atlanta, hardly a bastion of the working class (white or otherwise), was the type of affluent and educated area strategists expected to swing to Clinton. The vote monkeywrenched Clinton’s predicted win in Georgia into something the Georgia Bulldogs might choke up in a big game against ‘Bama.

Here’s the map of the district.

6th Congressional District of Georgia

6th Congressional District of Georgia

While many national Democrats were looking toward Fairfax County, Virginia as a model of a winning Clinton coalition of post-partisan educated professionals and service workers horrified by Trump (and post-election analysts like Matt Karp have compellingly argued the narrowness of that vision), north Fulton didn’t act like Fairfax. Which reflects the region’s relatively recent history.

Note that Price’s district contains all or part of several cities incorporated within the last 12 years, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County, and Dunwoody in DeKalb County. The story of those incorporations, while spun by proponents as an effort to achieve accountable, efficient, and responsive local government ostensibly denied by the county governments that previously served the areas, is, I’ve argued, part of a broader campaign to shield affluent and majority-white suburban areas from political control, and specifically control of property taxes, by Black elected officials or elected officials accountable to Black constituents.

This is partly evident in the fact that the local governments established by recent incorporations have been neither honest nor inclusive, though they have been notable for their roster of white elected officials.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Now, I would avoid characterizing the drive for incorporation as a product of simple bigotry. It’s impossible to know the mindset of residents, those who voted for or against creating new cities, and the officials they elected to govern them. However, it is possible to understand the particular ways in which suburban governments operate as instruments to defend property rights and values and to hoard economic resources embodied in real estate against claims made by those residing outside the local boundary. It’s further possible to understand, as New Regionalist scholars have, that metropolitan areas are substantially integrated economies, despite extensive political fragmentation. It’s finally possible to understand that social processes, notably housing segregation, income inequality, and racial discrimination can work to place people in particular parts of the metropolitan area, while political fragmentation creates different levels of access to resources.

Accordingly, there is a profound connection between racism, property value, and the stakes of local politics. As Atlanta’s northern suburbs began to boom in the 1960s, and the city of Atlanta sought to annex some of them, the prospect of Black elected officials making decisions involving taxing suburban property and spending the proceeds fueled movements for defensive incorporation. Suburban voters fought Atlanta’s city government to a stalemate over annexation, until a movement for suburban municipal incorporation emerged, gaining considerable momentum from a 1991 property tax revolt.

A substantial irony of the tax revolt was that the property of many of these suburbanites had been grossly undertaxed for years. As I wrote in the Journal of Urban History, drawing on contemporary public sector economists’ analysis of late 1980s and early 1990s tax receipts, the market value of north suburban property was galloping ahead of tax appraisals and, accordingly, tax assessments were lagging far below levels mandated by state law. This was not a racially innocent process. As Kevin Kruse has most notably observed, Atlanta’s housing market had, since the desegregation of Atlanta’s city schools, created a premium for property in mostly white communities. Further, following Paula Ioanide’s discussion of affective economies, many white Atlantans’ perceptions of positive use value (aka “quality of life”) in their suburban communities has hinged on whiteness, adding an additional set of political stakes around both integration and local control, with the facially race-neutral values of good schools and quality of life dominant in public discussions.

Despite the evidence that many north Fulton homeowners had received a double whiteness dividend (increased property value plus a tax discount), when Fulton County conducted a countywide reappraisal to put the tax rolls in line with the market, those homeowners rebelled, with both Black County Commissioners and countywide public services (notably, for the purposes of our discussion, Grady Hospital, which serves the poor of Atlanta and Fulton County) taking the heat.

In my article, I identified a key conflict around social services. Embattled County Commission Chair Michael Lomax, who was nearly recalled in a 1991 petition campaign, attacked the perception that Atlanta’s public services were a benefit only to Atlanta’s poor residents and an unjustified burden to others, specifically arguing in a May, 1991 Commission meeting that while metro Atlanta residents outside of Atlanta enjoyed the benefits of the institutions and infrastructure paid for by the city and county, outlying areas were not contributing adequately to maintaining those facilities, including the care for the indigent provided at Grady. Other commissioners were more blunt, insinuating that racial animosity inspired austerity.

Things were probably not quite that simple, but in the context of a sudden tax reassessment, affluent white homeowners were quick to shift responsibility from their previous free ride to the presumed wastefulness of public services. A year after the 1991 tax revolt, a north Fulton realtor named Mark Burkhalter launched a political career that would take him to the state legislature by leading LOGTAX (Lower Our Grady Taxes), a group that openly framed the public hospital as a rip-off of north Fulton taxpayers. One of LOGTAX’s mailers presented a leading True/False quiz, which included such “questions” as “North Fulton homes are unfairly taxed for a hospital that doesn’t serve them.” The questions were misleading on a number of levels. As Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s longstanding alt-weekly) notes in a brief history of the politics of Grady Hospital, the facility in fact does serve residents of the entire metropolitan area through its trauma center, though its image as a facility for the black and poor obscures it:

When he first started working as a paramedic, Lunney remembers the stigma certain Atlantans attached to the hospital. He recalls instances in which affluent people such as a “soccer mom from Alpharetta” involved in a car crash on I-75/85 would “flip” at the suggestion of going to Grady, despite the fact that the level-one trauma center offered the best possible care.

Grady’s service to the whole region works indirectly, too. The indigent receive care there, making the for-profit facilities in the region more profitable, allowing middle-class Atlantans to afford private health care by shunting the cost of caring for the poor off the books, and benefitting the not insubstantial number of homeowning doctors and healthcare executives in north Fulton County. One of the ironies of Grady’s recent history is the extent to which local private hospitals panicked at Grady’s financial problems, fearing that they might be forced to absorb them. This proved to be of little consequence in the political arena, however, where aggrieved taxpayers and their spokespersons could make hay.

As the tax revolt matured and institutionalized within the Fulton County Republican Party, north Fulton tax hawks readily embraced a theory that Black elected officials were using the public budget for redistribution and racially-motivated reparations against white homeowners. I describe the response of a local reactionary columnist to the 1991 recall of Lomax, which evinces a particularly racialized take on taxing and spending:

Dick Williams likewise accused [Commission Chair Michael] Lomax of “playing the racial card,” asking “where is the racism in struggling for breath after finding a 100 percent or more property re-evaluation?” In the very same column, however, Williams blamed black politicians and voters for the crisis. Since “a greater percentage of whites own homes and businesses,” he wrote, “black lawmakers are freer to lay the tax burden off on people who didn’t vote for them anyway.”

If this formulation sounds familiar, it should. The idea that using the institutions of representative democracy to meet the needs of the largest number of people is not only improper but fatal to democracy itself is a contemporary favorite. Its purest form is reflected in this meme:

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

In case That Uncle ever sends you this over email or posts it to social media, I will suggest as a service a few critical approaches to rebuttal. We could, as historians, nitpick the neat teleology of progression from “Bondage” to “Abundance” and back again, or the blatant artificiality of a two-century rule for civilizational collapse, or note that the parties in bondage tended to stay that way under Anglo-American settler government. We could even question whether the failure to consider warfare as a contributing factor to Athenian decline calls into question Tytler’s knowledge of shit from shinola. We could, as political scientists, be astounded at how Tytler’s quotation utterly mistakes the extent to which the Constitution purposefully separates the citizenry from the treasury. Think Electoral College. Think whether your vote counts as much as your Congressman’s. Think about what would happen if you demanded trillions of dollars to build an F-35 in your garage. Think about every Gadsden Flag waver who ever brayed “it’s a republic, not a democracy.” I think we’re actually safe from the masses voting themselves Obamaphones. We could, as rhetoricians, note the use of anachronistic phrases like “loose fiscal policy” that, with these other analytical errors, contribute to the propounding of a historical doctrine coincidentally suited to the exact needs of Tea Party conservatives today.

And, we could wonder why, if this Alexander Tytler was so goddamn smart and important, nobody’d ever heard of him until the invention of the email forward. Indeed, it appears that while an Alexander Tytler did exist, his authorship of scholarship on Athenian democracy is, to say the least, lacking in evidentiary support:

The “Alexander Tyler” quoted at the head of the article is actually Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, there is no record of a Tytler’s having authored a work entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic (or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic), and the quoted material attributed to him above is likely apocryphal.

Would it surprise you to learn that Ronald Reagan was an important figure in catapulting this bit of propaganda into our collective consciousness? If it does, you should read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge as soon as possible (though the fact that the Trump campaign could have used it as a how-to manual is distressing).  Their historical fraudulence notwithstanding, the words attributed to Tytler have been mouthed with disturbing frequency by Republicans in Congress, usually while advocating policies of upward wealth redistribution (and often after having been forwarded the quote by a constituent!).

I’m just not lucky enough that Tom Price himself ever read this quote into the Congressional Record– although his Republican colleague Mark Sanford (whose judgment is unquestionable) did, in a debate on the FY 2015 budget for which Price was the Republican leader. Here’s Sanford’s conclusion:

Ultimately, what I think that this budget is about is avoiding that very bondage that that historian and many others have talked about over the years.

To sum up, then: Mark Sanford thinks the federal budget should be written based on the fabricated musings of a non-expert on ancient Athens, who, even had he offered comment on that democracy’s failure, made no observations of republican government in the United States or anywhere else in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The case is airtight.

And, if Price never offered the Tytler quote, he certainly channeled its spirit in his own remarks in the same session:

Remember, Mr. Chairman—the American people know this—every dollar that is taken for taxes and every dollar that is borrowed, stealing from the next generation, is a dollar that can’t be used to pay the rent, to buy a car, to buy a home, to send a kid to college, to open a business or to expand a business and create jobs. We think there is a better way.

Social expenditure is theft, from the deserving (you) to the undeserving (them). But, to make it sound less like whining and more like principle, Price and his colleagues have continued to dress this essentially political mantra in the universalist robe of obscure enlightenment figures to make Obamacare, or Medicaid, or SNAP the equivalent of an attack on democracy itself and the supporters of such programs the equivalent of the Barbarians.

Even when Tytler isn’t dragged into it, the formula jumps up repeatedly. It echoed in Rick Santelli’s call for a Tea Party to protest a tiny proposal for mortgage relief, aptly described by Ian Haney Lopez as a dog-whistle of group antagonism:

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Paul Ryan turned the Tytler formula around to pretend to care about poor people’s own good, calling social services a “hammock” that could trap people in poverty by eroding their self-reliance. The Tytler formula animated the Tea Party attack on the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, suggesting a tidal wave of moochers threatening the Republic. And, in a March 2010 debate over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act so loathed by Tom Price, Republican Congressman Tom Posey of Florida (a birther whose professional life has unfolded in the federally supported industries of aerospace and real estate) trotted it out once more, though this time not even bothering to attribute it to anyone, noting “it has been said….”

So, this fabricated quotation from a figure of no authority on modern governance is so entrenched in the culture of right-wing Washington as to hardly require attribution, let alone critical reflection on its merits as a guide to policy. But, it’s core premises are also deeply entrenched in metropolitics, where the politics of taxing and spending are just as contentious but often more immediate.

As I’ve argued in another article (available through Journal of Urban Affairs) that links the tax revolt to prior and subsequent politics of suburban separatism in north Fulton County, the racialized tax politics of the 1990s were critical to building political support for incorporating Sandy Springs in 2005, which sparked a wave of new cities formed in the next decade and was part of a campaign to split north Fulton from Fulton County, which would have substantial benefits for wealthy north Fulton residents and dire consequences to the (poorer and majority-Black) remainder of the county. As I wrote,

As the near absolute segregation of [north Fulton] has receded in the new century, so have overtly racial declarations of community interest given way to public appeals to efficiency, local control, and privatization as rationales for Sandy Springs’s political independence. Yet, black voters and officeholders remain the prime symbol of threat to the interests of white homeowners and taxpayers, who seek, as their predecessors did, to organize political space to avoid the influence of black officials and common obligations to black fellow citizens.

Throughout, the theme of zero-sum conflict was sounded. As I wrote, no one in Atlanta politics exemplified this better than attorney and anti-tax activist Robert Proctor, described by a local columnist as “Rush Limbaugh with a law license.” Proctor’s rhetoric merged the concepts of social services as theft and black political leadership as an illicitly race-conscious enterprise:

Proctor, described as “Atlanta’s Rush Limbaugh with a legal license” (Pendered, 1994a), became the director of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), and initiated a series of lawsuits that demonstrate the deep intersections of the tax revolt and white political grievances. Proctor and SLF challenged affirmative action policies of the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, DeKalb County, and Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as Atlanta’s policy of extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees (Campos, 1999; Helton, 1996). Proctor frequently described affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing “the playing field has been leveled for at least 30 years [but now] is being made unequal” (Kimbrough & Daniels, 1997) to the detriment of taxpayers. Proctor only implicitly identified “taxpayers” as white, but was willing and eager to identify their oppressors as black. Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’s black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars” and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking, “Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and … pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote, unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). Although Proctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the Ku Klux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Public expenditures took from us to give to them, on the sole basis of them commanding more votes. The necessary rhetorical step is to turn democratic outcomes (and Democratic victories) into attacks on democracy; they’re not content to just take your taxes, they’re trying to take your freedom.

So, to summarize and bring thing back to the present. We can understand a bit more what’s driving Tom Price if we can understand the specifically metropolitical context of his career. The Fulton County Republican Party, mobilized around property taxes, became a key bloc in an ascendant conservative and suburban Republican caucus in the legislature that thrived not only by preaching austerity, but by specifically attacking Black-serving institutions like public hospitals. Rather than providers of key services, they were corrupt vehicles for self-dealing, wasting taxpayer money to give others something for nothing.

This is the context in which Tom Price, representing north Fulton County, became the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2002 before jumping to fill Johnny Isakson’s open Congressional seat in 2005. If you are looking for principles that might predict Price’s actions as HHS Secretary, “screw them, we’ve got ours” is probably as good a place as any to start.

Special Virtual Issue of Journal of Urban Affairs

A quick note during a week when there’s not much else to talk about. My article Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta has been included in an accessible virtual online issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City” (or in my case, the metropolitan county).

Here’s the abstract:

The Reverend Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus sponsored a 2011 voting rights suit, Lowery v. Deal, that demanded the disincorporation of several majority-white cities in Georgia’s Fulton and DeKalb Counties and preemption against attempts by affluent and majority-white north Fulton to secede from the rest of the county. Secession would have severe consequences for racial equity in the metropolitan area. Lowery’s 2011 dismissal by the District Court reflects ascendant color-blind racial ideology that defends white privilege in metropolitan space by attributing it to culturally and legally legitimate race-neutral processes. Historical analysis challenges this color-blind interpretation, identifying the nominally class-based interests of north Fulton residents with systemic racial discrimination and the politics of secession with historic patterns of spatial politics that have sought not only to exclude but also to manipulate political space to limit the ability of black voters and officials to make decisions affecting whites and their property.

Although I’m sure anyone reading this has had their fill of election analysis, and academic writing moves slowly, I think that there is one key element in my article that resonates with the shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) results of Tuesday’s voting. I highlight the vehemence with which many affluent suburban whites insist on the one hand that their political behavior is not about race (and indeed fixing blame for racism on minority leaders) while on the other hand taking extraordinary measures to prevent Black voters from influencing decisions affecting their property and avoid participating in a political commonwealth with Black people. Maybe that sounds familiar.

For whatever it’s worth, compare the county-level map of Georgia with the results of Congressional races (a precinct level map would be better, and maybe I’ll update with one later). At the larger scale, it seems like Metro Atlanta is a bastion of Clinton support, which makes the final 51.3-45.6 percent Trump margin (231,323 votes) seem inexplicable in a state many talked about flipping blue.

But if you look at the results of several congressional races in metro Atlanta districts, you’ll see the region is starkly cleaved on an east-west line separating strong Dem and strong GOP seats that also roughly tracks the geography of support for suburban secession.

In District 6, which includes much of north Fulton, Tom Price defeated his Democratic challenger by 61.6-38.4 percent (more than 72,000 votes). Adding up the Republican margins in districts 6, 7, and 11 on the north side of metro Atlanta yields a total advantage of 244,672 votes (bigger than Trump’s statewide margin). Assuming most congressional voters cast ballots by party preference for the presidency, that means that Trump won Georgia in significant part by dominating the white suburbs of Atlanta. I’d also heartily recommend Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which remains as relevant and important a work as ever.

A coda to my article. Voters in south Fulton County yesterday approved a ballot measure to pursue incorporation as a city, which would pretty much complete the municipalization of Fulton County. A few brief points: while South Fulton would be poorer and have more Black residents than any of the north Fulton cities I discuss, this does not support the idea that cityhood and fragmentation give desired local control to all communities on an equal footing. I’d say it’s much more likely that south Fulton voters recognized the degree to which Fulton County has been weakened as a service providing government by the incorporations of wealthy areas in the north (and of the more affluent Chattahoochee Hills area in the south) and the risk of incorporating later after existing municipalities annexed valuable land. Going forward, different parts of Fulton County will be using the same tools of local government but with vastly different resources at their disposal.

This is Encouraging

The Intercept has posted what seems to be a leaked Pentagon video about the challenges, from a counterinsurgency and governing perspective, of mega-urbanization. If you’ve been keeping up on your dystopian futurism (my current favorite is Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the Pleeblands outside of the corporate compounds in her Maddadam trilogy, but YMMV) you will recognize a lot of this.


What’s interesting is that the broader alternate possibilities of promoting democratic and humane cities is completely outside the frame for the Department of Defense. If your only tool is a hammer, you start complaining about how many nails there are and wondering why they won’t sit still.

Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.

 

Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.