Contemporary Segregation from the Side of the Privileged (Update)

Note: This post has been updated with the correct name for the land use institute cited–it is the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Alana Semuels has a cool piece on The Atlantic today, approaching metropolitan segregation as a problem of self-segregation of the white and affluent rather than of exclusion of the poor and black or brown. Obviously, there are still plenty of practices that exclude the poor (exclusionary zoning, the retreat from enforcing affordable housing requirements, a housing market spatially organized and segmented by price) and racial minorities (steering, differential service by realtors, good old fashioned community prejudice).

Nonetheless,  approaching the phenomenon as one driven by the desire of the affluent for a separate society, and supported by public policies, helps us to understand that this self-segregation is not simply individuals pursuing the rewards of success. It is a distribution of resources and advantages toward what University of Minnesota researchers Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks, in a working paper presented to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, call  “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence.” That distribution inevitably and inherently impacts “Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty” through fiscal impact, uneven development, educational inequity, and, less quantitatively, a diminished understanding of shared fate and mutual obligation among parts of the metro area.

For scholars, and particularly those seeking to apply scholarly theory to policy, taking RCAAs seriously might be very necessary to reverse the tendency of policy interventions to normalize white/affluent segregation and focus intervention on the deficiencies of the minority poor. Semuels writes:

Public policy has “focused on the concentration of poverty and residential segregation. This has problematized non-white and high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Goetz, the director of the Center for Urban and Rural Affairs at the University of Minnesota, when presenting his findings at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “It’s shielded the other end of the spectrum from scrutiny—to the point where we think segregation of whites is normal.”

Indeed, one of the things I try to uncover in my research is the historical production of that segregation, and the political and cultural work that has enabled and protected it as a sociospatial production. I’ve been looking at Atlanta, and specifically north Fulton County, to make that case, so I was interested to see that Semuels includes a table of data for representative metro areas studied by Goetz, Damiano, and Hicks.

Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, Jason Hicks (University of Minnesota): American Urban Inequality: Racially Concentrated Affluence

Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, Jason Hicks (University of Minnesota): American Urban Inequality: Racially Concentrated Affluence

Compared to other metro areas, Atlanta seems to have fewer “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence.” But, based on my research on the growing political power of affluent north suburbanites in the recent past, and the connections of their real estate-based affluence and their political agenda to white privilege, this report drastically understates the influence of affluent whites in near-RCAAs over politics in metro Atlanta counties and in the state. One would suspect that the low number of RCAAs recognized in the study is a result of many areas in the East Cobb/North Fulton/Buckhead/North DeKalb/Gwinnett area having nonwhite populations that exceed a certain threshold. Perhaps normalizing the definitions of RCAA against the composition of the metro area might show Atlanta to have a greater proportion of areas that are more affluent and much whiter than the rest of the metro area. In any case, political dynamics engendered by the creation and preservation of RCAAs are a major driver of politics in metro Atlanta and in Georgia.

As I’ve written in the Journal of Urban Affairs, one of the most important political issues in Georgia, particularly since the 1990s, has been the attempt by residents of north Fulton to separate themselves from the rest of the county. At stake are the property values residents enjoy as a consequence of the area’s status as a predominantly white area. The principal threat residents have identified to that property have been reforms to the property tax system that rectified systemic and illegal undertaxation of affluent areas. Because acknowledging that sort of advantage is difficult, residents reimagined the higher taxes imposed by correction of the tax appraisal system to be the result of wasteful spending, chiefly by governments in Atlanta and Fulton County, governments run by Black elected officials and supported by either majority- or near-majority-Black electorates. The incorporation of new cities has served to put white electorates and white officials in charge of decisions affecting property owned by affluent whites. The use of the state legislature to manipulate legislative districts and redistrict the county commission has reduced the ability of Black residents to influence decisions affecting Fulton County. The county legislative delegations for Fulton and DeKalb county have disproportionate representation of RCAA areas, because Republicans in the legislature have created district boundaries that cross county lines. Although Republicans from RCAAs have been aggressively fighting a voter fraud problem that exists largely in their imaginations, some of them multiply their influence by voting in two or three legislative delegations.

Elsewhere, there is a second wave of city incorporation efforts in north DeKalb County, which would also be the beneficiary of a controversial charter school law that would, in practice, help affluent parents avoid enrolling their children in the county’s diverse public schools. And the process may be reaching a peak in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, with the effort to incorporate a city called St. George along with a new school district carved out of the existing Parish district. Frontline covered that one, and I’ll have more to say about that in the future.

I would expect that the terminology of RCAA/RCAP will become a useful, if occasionally too rigid, schema for writing the history of post-civil rights metro areas.

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Another Urban Secession Movement

This time in Baton Rouge, where the south side of town would like to become “Saint George.”

I’m sure that there will be a host of well-articulated arguments about how splitting the affluent and white side of town from the poorer and blacker side is Not About Race. I’m also sure that the fiscal devastation wreaked on Baton Rouge by secession would be merely an unfortunate side effect and not the whole point.

I can’t comment much on this movement at the present, but I notice three things that are pretty significant and resonate with what I’m studying in Atlanta and what I’ve written about in Los Angeles.

For one, the battle evidently began as an effort to create a new school district. The color-blind rhetoric from proponents of the new district holds that creating a smaller and more affluent district will keep wealthy people from leaving Baton Rouge Parish. The movement to create “Saint George” was a response to the state legislature’s refusal to establish, then to fund, the new district. I’m actually kind of surprised that the Louisiana state legislature wouldn’t support this wholeheartedly, but I suppose that’s another research question.

Second, this territorial battle is also closely linked to the effort to destabilize a wider scale of government (the consolidated city-parish government of Baton Rouge) by creating a competing municipality. Much like the 2000s effort to municipalize Fulton County by incorporating cities in affluent north Fulton, incorporating Saint George would fit a devolutionary strategy of disempowering the parish-scale government in order to create competitive (and possibly zero-sum) relations between the municipalities and reduce redistribution.

Lastly, incorporating Saint George is a decision with parish-wide (and metropolitan) implications that will likely be made with input only from the residents of Saint George, whose interests are opposed to the rest of the parish, a fact acknowledged by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in a study of the issue:

The study urges St. George supporters to listen to input from those outside the proposed city limits: “Perhaps the most important point to be made is that the institution of this proposal will not affect the residents of the proposed geography alone. This is a decision that will impact the entire parish.”

There may be few options for those outside the proposed city limits who want to prevent the St. George incorporation from moving forward.

If enough signatures are gathered, only those who live within the proposed boundaries will be able to vote in the special election on incorporation.

This is what George Lipsitz describes as the institutionalization of defensive localism: basic institutions of government are set up to allow the wealthy and privileged (who in Louisiana tend overwhelmingly to be white) to assert their will over the interests of the wider, interconnected metropolitan community, while justifying this defense of special interests in terms of the general interest of local community control.

This local news video is a pretty rich example of this discursive frame:

WBRZ Baton Rouge

Big News for the Fulton County Commission

I’ve been offline with respect to this blog for a while, completing an article on the historical relationship of color-blind racial ideology and political geography in metro Atlanta, arguing that the contemporary movement for secession in north Fulton County is part of a long series of maneuvers to manipulate political geography to favor the interests of north Fulton residents and limit the ability of African American voters and officials in the rest of the county to influence them.

One of the things I like about the kind of history I practice is that it tends to blur the distinction between past and present as objects of inquiry. It’s exciting when the history you write is still unfolding. A major event in that unfolding just happened in a recent state legislative hearing in Atlanta, with the introduction of HB 171, a bill sponsored by six north Fulton County Republicans to redistrict and reapportion the Fulton County Commission. The commission, as Bill Pendered reports in the Saporta Report (invaluable for coverage of metro Atlanta and the General Assembly), now has two at-large seats (including the chair) and five district seats. One seat lies entirely in the city of Atlanta, while two cover south Fulton County, one covers the Buckhead area in north Atlanta and parts of north Fulton, and the fifth covers far north Fulton County. The new districting would eliminate the second at-large district, extend the Buckhead district south to Midtown, and divide North Fulton among two Commission districts.

Fulton-ccp1-2013

Courtesy GA Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office, 2013

There are some legitimate reasons for eliminating the second at-large seat; creating a sixth district would make all of the districts somewhat smaller and, in principle, more responsive. It would also eliminate an at-large seat could be considered redundant, since the commission chair currently answers to all of the voters. In the abstract, redistricting Fulton County is a fine idea.

The problem, of course, as J. Morgan Kousser ably demonstrates in a legal history of voting rights and racially-driven redistricting, lies in the fact that districts are drawn not to serve abstract principles but real-world political interests. This graphic of the current commission district, which includes the headshots of the current commissioners, might offer a bit of perspective:

ComMapAnimate_7

Map and Portraits from Fulton County Commission

If the concern were for making the commissioners more responsive and accountable, why stop at eliminating only the at-large District 2? Why not make all seven seats district-based and have the members elect a chair? The answer of course is political advantage. In effect, the bill trades a seat elected by a majority-minority county (now held by Democrat Robb Pitts) for a district election with white supermajority in the electorate. Since the geography of all of the Commission districts would change, there is no single “new district” being created. But the percentages of African Americans of voting age in each of the three proposed northern districts ranges from 10.7 to 15.4%, while the percentage of Hispanics of voting age in each ranges from 7.9 to 10.2%. The proposed district with the largest share of minorities of voting age would be the new District 2, covering Roswell and  Milton and parts of Alpharetta. While a quarter of this district’s voting age population would be a member of these two minority groups, minorities would be well overmatched by a solidly Republican white electorate. And, while the new District 3 would essentially extend the current District 4 southward, it would do so as Pendered notes, only to “10th Street. Tenth Street is at, or near, the historic – and often unremarked in public – dividing line between the county’s black and white communities.”

To put this in a context of electoral math, 71% of the voting power on the Commission, and 60% of the district-based vote, is currently held by black Democrats. Fulton County gave about 67% of its vote to Barack Obama in the 2012 election. In other words, the current commission apportionment, even with two at-large seats, only moderately inflates the power of voters who favored a black moderate Democrat in a presidential election over a corporate Republican with an arch-conservative running mate. It’s a very rough proxy for local voting preferences, but I think it works OK for quick-and-dirty analytical purposes (and, at risk of making a racially reductive argument, see illustration 2 above).

The redistricting plan, however, would split the district-based votes 50-50, and ensure that north Fulton Republicans would control no less than 42% of the overall commission votes–and 57% if they could win the chair. If we use countywide Romney-voting as our yardstick, north Fulton Republicans win under the new deal even if they lose. And, although it would be difficult for white north Fulton Republicans to win a countywide race for commission chair, it wouldn’t be impossible. A Republican has chaired the commission as recently as Karen Handel’s tenure (which ended in 2007, shortly before an unsuccessful primary run for governor and a now-infamous tenure with the Susan G. Komen Foundation), and with three absolutely secure seats in Buckhead and north Fulton, the party would be able to concentrate its funding on one must-win countywide race, rather than two.

It’s not a coincidence that HB 347, another bill being sponsored by virtually the same group of north Fulton House Republicans, seeks to reorganize the Fulton County Board of Elections. Whereas the County Commission now appoints the election commissioners, under proposed legislation, the Fulton County delegation of the legislature would appoint two Democrats, two Republicans, and a commission chair chosen by the House and Senate members of the Fulton County legislative delegation. North Fulton party activists like Hans von Spakovsky, who chaired the Fulton GOP in the 1990s before working for the George W. Bush Justice Department, were instrumental in devising vote-suppression strategies like voter ID laws and stoking fears of widespread vote fraud to justify tightening access to the ballot. Given the demographic balance of Fulton County, it’s difficult to imagine that Republican electoral strategies would not involve significant efforts to shrink the electorate.

These legislative proposals, if successful, would constitute a strong Republican play for power in Fulton County, and one to which observers of urban and metropolitan affairs in the rest of the country should pay attention. They signal another instance in a changing relationship between local governments and the states. While policy historians have devoted valuable attention to the relationship between city hall and Washington, D.C. during the relatively brief heyday of liberal social policy, the consequences of federal retreat from urban policy have more recently come into focus. When it comes to taxation, social services, political representation, transportation, schooling, and any number of other significant metropolitan policy issues, the state houses, and partisan politics at the state level, are becoming more and more consequential.

In Georgia and elsewhere, efforts to undercut the power of urban centers and black voters living in them is old news. The state’s County Unit System prevailed until the 1960s, promoting a “rule of the rustics” in which tiny rural communities routinely undercut state support for infrastructure in Atlanta, hamstrung efforts to secure home rule for the city, and gerrymandered legislative districts to keep black candidates out of state and federal office. Yet, this situation is something quite different–the use of state power as a tool in an intrametropolitan conflict. Unlike the era of rustic rule, this redistricting attack on black Democratic political strength originates within Fulton County’s own legislative delegation. The state House and Senate members who represent Fulton County constituents are supporting a plan that runs contrary to the apparent political preferences of a healthy majority of the county’s voters.

Understanding why this has happened requires a bit of discussion about how it has happened. Some aspects of this situation are unique to Georgia. The era of rustic rule in Georgia valorized the county boss and demonized urban governments. State legislatures in Georgia were thus historically stingy about granting home rule power to the cities; preserving control for the rural-dominated General Assembly over Atlanta’s affairs was a check on racial moderation and other forms of urban degeneracy real and imagined. The consequence of this tight grasp of power was that the legislature was potentially overburdened with consideration of any and all changes to local laws and policies. The compromise that emerged was the “local courtesy” system, in which legislation pertaining to local affairs is largely handled by the delegation of the affected county, which is effectively a gatekeeper to the whole Assembly. Georgia has 159 counties, by far the largest in proportion to state population in the nation. Insofar as most of the counties remain small, rural, and homogenous, the system works reasonably well. But it breaks down miserably for heavily urbanized, diverse, and internally differentiated counties like Fulton. In these settings, and particularly in the Atlanta metro area where suburban settlement spans several counties, control of a legislative delegation is a matter of immense importance and potentially of intense conflict.

After the dismantlement of the County Unit System in 1966 led to reapportionment of the legislature, significant numbers of black Democrats joined the larger Fulton County delegation, and were, until 2005, successful in stopping efforts to incorporate cities in the north Fulton areas of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton, which were major goals of north Fulton residents (mostly Republicans) who had come to resent the use of their taxes to fund both public works and social services in the rest of the county. The Fulton delegation was also successful in preventing any consideration of legislation to amend the state constitution to allow north Fulton to secede (the number of 159 counties is a constitutional provision).

As north Fulton’s affluence made it a key territory for the state Republican Party, and the priorities of north Fulton Republicans increasingly revolved around secession, it was inevitable that the growing supermajority of Republicans would seek to remove the local courtesy roadblock by the tried and true method of gerrymanderingredistricting the northern Atlanta suburbs so that more seats crossed Fulton County’s borders with Cobb, Cherokee, Gwinnett, or Forsyth–all prime territory for suburban Republicanism. Thus, the 2013 legislative session opened with a Fulton delegation tilted by 13-12 toward the GOP in the House, 7-4 in the Senate, and Lynne Riley, an active member of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, newly elected as its chair.

Redistricting the Fulton County Commission is an example of the kind of change that would typically require preclearance from the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because Fulton County is a “covered jurisdiction”; the county’s history of racial vote suppression subjects it to federal review of any changes in its voting procedures, and it would not require a particularly loose interpretation of the VRA to attribute this redistricting to an effort to diminish minority power. It so happens that current Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is a cosigner for Shelby County v. Holder, a suit pending before the United States Supreme Court that would invalidate Section 5 and free previously covered jurisdictions to change their voting procedures at will, with the burden falling on minority voters to prove an adverse effect on their voting rights after the fact. Before becoming the AG, Olens was the chair of the county commission in Cobb County, the catchbasin for tens of thousands of whites who fled Atlanta as the city desegregated in the 1960s and 1970s. Olens is thus firmly within the orbit of suburban Georgia Republicans for whom districting and voting are particularly salient.

So, the dominoes appear to be lining up for a series of interlinked efforts at protecting white north Fulton voters’ power. First, redistrict to create a virtually un-losable seat for another Republican on the Fulton County Commission. Then, wait for the Roberts Court to invalidate Section 5 of the VRA so that the new districting can take effect. Third, stack the Fulton County Election Commission with operatives committed to tightening minority access to the ballot, and, ultimately, bet the house on that one key race for Commission chair. Some of these dominoes seem pretty likely to fall (including, unfortunately, the demise of Section 5 at the hands of the Supremes), and others more farfetched (actually winning that commission chair election). And, from the point of view of north Fulton residents, encouraging a racially polarized campaign for the commission chair entails substantial risk. It could spark a backlash at the ballot box in the form of high turnout from south Fulton, and could result in the election of a commission chair with political debts to south Fulton (and grudges against north Fulton). Wouldn’t this reproduce the sort of polarized and dysfunctional government, dominated by the south and oppressive toward the north, that the north Fulton cohort have been bemoaning all along?

I think that’s the entire point.

Lynne Riley, the current chair of the Fulton County legislative delegation, is a north Fulton Republican who served as a County Commissioner from 2004 to 2010. As a protege of Karen Handel, she was committed to shrinking the scope of Fulton County government. And, at the same time as she was serving as a Fulton County Commissioner, Riley served as a member of the Milton County Legislative Advisory Commission convened in 2007 by state House members Jan Jones and Mark Burkhalter to advance the cause of county secession. It strains credulity to imagine that this effort is a good faith effort to fix county government. The proposal is virtually guaranteed to worsen polarization on the commission, and its chief sponsor was working to dismantle the county even as she was cashing a paycheck as one of its commissioners. Rather, it seems that north Fulton Republicans are making a short play to control the county and hedging with a longer game: if it doesn’t work out, it will only prove that the county is irredeemable, and that north Fulton demands for secession are justified.

After all, Riley’s Fulton delegation is also floating HR 275, another attempt to amend the state constitution to allow the secession of north Fulton, which doesn’t suggest a strong commitment to the success of county reorganization. If reforming Fulton County government fails on the terms that most of the public would recognize, i doubt most north Fulton Republicans would mind.

Let me say this again: when it comes to redistricting Fulton County as an ostensible good government measure, FAILURE, NOT SUCCESS, IS THE GOAL. 

And if my account sounds conspiratorial, you could take House Speaker Pro Tem (and another co-sponsor of both HB 171 and HR 275) Jan Jones’s word for it:

“My goal is not to re-create Milton County. My goal is to end Fulton County and bring government closer to the people,” she said. “But it will take convincing.”

The great thing about redistricting is that it can dramatically reduce the amount of convincing your side needs to do.

GOP to Cities….

Another provocative polemic by Kevin Baker in the NYT yesterday (I linked to another of his pieces in this post). Baker could, I think, hit on the point a bit more directly that the GOP platform doesn’t so much institutionalize neglect of cities per se as the people in them, but he offers a concise overview of the fall of urban Republican politics from the New Deal forward, a process that was further accelerated by the suburbanization of the nation’s electoral center of gravity (in terms of ideology, policy, and demographics).

But it’s not just malign neglect; despite the role of anti-urban federal policies past, present, and future in supporting suburban expansion at the expense of cities and the environment, conservatives, racial reactionaries, Tea Partiers, and the rest of the current GOP coalition have developed an insistent posture of victimization to explain and justify their policy choices, as Baker shows:

The Obama administration, the Republicans conclude damningly, is “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

If you think the phrase “social engineering” means more than just apartment buildings and bike lanes, claim your cookie. The ideological fusion of race and place provides much of the support for suburban grievance politics against cities.

In my ongoing research on Atlanta’s suburban secession movement, which gained steam as Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2004 with members from north Fulton County suburbs making up a key voting bloc), one thing that’s struck me is that secessionists don’t often try to make the case purely on the ground of rational self-interest, though it’s undeniable that secession would have tremendous benefits for affluent north Fulton County.

This stacked bar chart represents the number of households at each income level in Fulton County. The lighter top section represents the households in the five north Fulton cities that propose to secede, and the dark lower section the households in the remaining parts of the county.

From American Community Survey 5 Year Estimates, 2006-2010 (Once Congressional Republicans defund the ACS, we can ignore social facts like these!)

Alternately, we could look at the median household income of the five cities versus the county at large (also from the ACS 5 Year Estimates for 2006-2010).

Fulton County

Sandy Springs

Roswell

Alpharetta

Johns Creek

Milton

$56,709

$67,260

$76,481

$90,450

$106,950

$111,263

Even the poorest of the north Fulton cities is more than $10,000 above the county median. It’s pretty much impossible to think about secession without considering this disparity and what it would mean for the ability of Fulton County to serve the needs of its poor.

There are lots of arguments for secession that could apply abstract principles of local control and small government to skirt the equity implications. Some secessionists make such arguments, but many also take the resource distribution implications head on, and commit to the argument that they are the ones being robbed. Interestingly, the antagonist that they identify is not only the city of Atlanta, but the largely African American suburbs and unincorporated areas in south Fulton (suburbs are more diverse than Baker acknowledges, though the GOP policy reflects a more affluent and whiter section of suburbia). My guess right now is that there are two factors at work. First and most evidently, the modern conservative movement, its denunciation of “the race card” and the “phony war on women” and other instances of liberal attention to injustice aside, loves to pick up the cross of victimhood. They’re also particularly invested in the idea that black political rule will inevitably be used to exact reparations from white America (see Limbaugh, Rush). But I think it’s also worth considering the way that partisan politics, and particularly the organized anti-urbanism of the contemporary GOP, are driving a policy agenda that would cut Atlanta and black majority south Fulton out of the loop politically. The fact that material interest, racial prejudice, and partisan advantage align overdetermine this outcome.

Despite the facts that wealthy suburbs have used state, federal, and local power to cordon themselves off from low-income housing, derive unfair benefits from racist mortgage lending and homeowners insurance schedules that transfer wealth from  low to high income areas, and hoard opportunities and resources while benefitting from regional economies organized by urban institutions, they argue that black-led governments, from Atlanta and Fulton County to the Obama Administration are conspiring to rob the suburbs to pay for the cities. On “the internets” I’m told that “the kids” refer to this as “butthurt.” I’m trying to find a more scholarly description, but I suppose that will do for now.

There is one issue, though, where I’ve got to disagree quite strongly with Baker. He bemoans the lack of a Republican interest in cities, arguing, with some justification, that bipartisan competition for urban votes might incentivize better urban polices. Baker looks to Cory Booker as an example of an urban politician disgruntled with one-party rule whose discontent represents a potential for political innovation:

At a moment when Republican Party’s “dog whistles” are more racially pitched than ever, this may sound crazy. Yet one got the impression this election season, for instance, that Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, would like some new place to turn. Mayor Booker has battled valiantly against the sclerotic, black political establishment in his own city as well as outside white indifference. A Mayor Booker who had someplace to go besides the Democratic Party with his city’s votes would be immediately empowered as never before.

Booker’s approach–fiscal conservatism, entrepreneurial social activism in lieu of a comprehensive safety net, and a voice for Wall Street bond investors–already has its ideal patrons in the contemporary Democratic Party, typified by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose social vision for cities I’ve already discussed. Rahm isn’t telling the city of Chicago to drop dead, but he’s not interested in helping 90% of its population live well. Booker’s a rising star in the party, and it’s not because he’s out of line with its urban policy.

UPDATE: And I’m not sure that this adds up:

Republicans in turn could show on a very human level that they are more than the mere radio ranters who constitute so much of what urban voters get to hear of the right wing. They would have to vie for votes in a manner that reflects urban realities instead of fantastical theories. Imagine a serious, practical discussion of educational reform or mass transit, instead of more heavy-handed attempts to demonize teachers’ unions or privatize the rails.

I agree that reality-based urban policy is in order, but we need reality-based political analysis too. The national Democratic Party and members of its neoliberal star system are driving the train (privatized, natch) of education reform and the privatization of services, down to the parking meters. I’m not holding my breath for the GOP to move several notches to the left of right-trending Democrats to hunt for votes among the demographics their base holds in contempt (though without funding for clean mass transit service, holding one’s breath might be a good idea in general).