Workingmen and Reformers
Top Stories of the Year: #4
Yesterday, I concluded that genuine political reforms have to be pursued almost in secret, outside of normal partisan lines.
Actual activity certainly does not correlate with the degree of press coverage. The biggest non-story of the year, in that regard, was gun control. Shooting incidents are rare and—contrary to both the left and the right—crime and violence are still near historical lows. As I noted after the November election, in which guns turned out to be a non-issue:
Why does this issue keep fizzling out? The reason is precisely because it only flares up after an isolated event like a mass shooting—the kind of event that is in reality quite rare and affects relatively few people. A single event may provoke outrage and a sense of urgency for a few weeks, while it is still getting obsessive coverage in the news. Once it fades, the urgency fades, because an urgent need for gun control is not reflected in any other aspect of our lives. We live in a society that is remarkably peaceful and secure by global and historical standards.
The most interesting political movement of 2018, in my view, is one that is happening in a way that is truly grassroots, under-the-radar, and unexpected—so much so that you may have missed it entirely if I hadn't been making sure to point it out from time to time.
Early in the year, I directed your attention to the most interesting political phenomenon of the year: "An Anti-Regulation Campaign Led by Millennial Liberals."
I just mentioned the policies that make "blue" cities expensive to live in and chase out the middle class. Chief among those policies is the restriction on housing, a tangled web of regulations that prevent cities from building enough homes and apartment to keep up with population growth, driving the cost of housing through the roof.
But that leads me to one of the few really good, important, and unexpected political developments in America today: the rise of "market urbanism" and the YIMBYs, who have created one of our era's few genuine reform movements.
"To Lubarsky, a number cruncher-turned-housing activist, Wallingford's architectural jewels, with their grand front porches and exquisite topiary, are emblematic of this city's potentially fatal flaw: a housing market so expensive it's throttling one of America's biggest urban success stories. Decades ago, these tidy homes were cheap enough for schoolteachers and firefighters. Today, most cost at least a million dollars, and what was once a proudly middle-class neighborhood has morphed into a financially gated community.
"Part of the problem, Lubarsky admits, is people like himself: Seattle's red-hot tech economy, led by companies such as Amazon and Groupon (where Lubarsky works), has filled the city with an army of well-paid workers bidding up the price of housing. But that tech-fueled demand has tended to overshadow the other driver: insufficient supply. Since the end of the financial crisis, Lubarsky says, Seattle has added roughly 100,000 jobs, but barely 32,000 new homes and apartment units. 'We've underbuilt every year since 2010,' he adds. And a big part of that deficit, Lubarsky says, is due to neighborhoods like Wallingford, where zoning laws make it almost impossible to build anything other than a single-family house....
"[I]t wasn't just people on the economic margins who were suffering, Lubarsky came to realize. Many of Seattle's middle-class residents were also being squeezed out, in part because tight zoning prevented the market from building enough new homes. The problem, in Lubarsky's view, wasn't so much market failure as market restraint. Most galling, those constraints were landing especially hard on younger people, who, because they are just entering the housing market, are most in need of the very apartments and other multifamily options that many neighborhoods find so objectionable."
Pointing to another article about a new business tax in Seattle that is championed by leftists and vigorously opposed by blue-collar workers, particularly those in construction, I noted the pattern.
So on the one side, we have the entrenched anti-capitalist dogmas of the left. On the other side, we have workingmen and reformers.
Longtime readers may also recall my fondness for the Locofocos, a long-forgotten political movement from the 1830s that has been described as a coalition of workingmen and reformers who fought for free markets. This is precisely the kind of movement the "blue city" dystopias need today.
Speaking of Seattle, I also linked to my former RealClear colleague Alex Berezow writing about why he and his wife are moving out of the city.
He begins by describing a conversation where his city council member called him a Nazi for asking her about the encampments of homeless people in his neighborhood. Then he gets to the real meat of the issue.
"The toxic politics are bad enough, but the city also has become unaffordable for the middle class. Partly, that is due to high demand (which is a good problem for a city to have), but it's also due to self-inflicted wounds, such as a restrictive housing policy that artificially caps supply. Seattle is well on its way to becoming the next Vancouver, British Columbia, with the median housing price having spiked to an eye-watering $820,000, far outside the reach of the middle class. Unless they are able to save for about 14 years to afford a down payment, millennials can forget about homeownership entirely....
"But stubborn facts and a hurting middle class don't seem to faze the City Council, which seems far more concerned about issues over which it has zero control—such as climate change and foreign policy—than it does about issues over which it has at least a modicum of control, such as the cost of living, homelessness, crime, traffic and potholes. For our City Council, virtue signaling is more important than governing."
This sums up the pattern I've been harping on for a while. For all their talk about the evils of inequality, when the left gets hold of a society, even if it is just a city, they always turn it into a two-tier class society split between the wealthy and the very poor.
These two articles focused on Seattle, but this is a wider problem emblematic of a whole range of left-dominated cities. Later in the year, I linked to a long, unsparing history of San Francisco's notorious housing restrictions.
The main theme that emerges is a reminder that so-called 'Progressive' programs were rotten and corrupt from the very beginning.
"On the face of it, the new zoning was created with a Progressive Era ideology that government should curb the ills of industrialization and improve life for its citizens.
"'In theory, zoning was designed to protect the interests of all citizens by limiting land speculation and congestion,' Kenneth T. Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier. 'In actuality, zoning was a device to keep poor people and obnoxious industries out of affluent areas. And in time, it also became a cudgel used by suburban areas to whack the central city.' Jackson points out that the most strident advocates of stronger land-use restrictions lived in suburban districts on the city's fringe, a tradition that continues to this day. 'They sought minimum lot and setback requirements [regulations that drive up the cost of housing] to ensure that only members of acceptable social classes could settle in their privileged sanctuaries.'"
If you know the true history of the Progressives—for example, Woodrow Wilson's sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan—this is no surprise. And here's a further reminder: this was also true of the New Deal federal welfare state.
"In 1934, as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to insure private mortgages. The FHA's underwriting handbook included guidelines that pushed cities to create racially segregated neighborhoods and encouraged banks to avoid areas with 'inharmonious racial groups,' essentially meaning any neighborhood that wasn't exclusively white. Meanwhile, the federally sponsored Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) had been set up to help homeowners refinance their home loans in an attempt to stop the spread of foreclosures, a widespread problem during the Great Depression. However, recipients of these low-interest, long-term loans were typically chosen based on HOLC's residential 'safety maps,' which divided neighborhoods in four categories: Green indicated the most desirable areas for lenders; blue was good; yellow was supposedly in decline; and red marked the riskiest areas. As HOLC's racist literature explained, besides containing older building stock, red districts were under 'threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.'"
Speaking of race, I also linked to an excellent Ben Shapiro column describing how the free market, in the form of Uber and Lyft, has "broken the taxi monopolies and in the process vastly improved the availability of taxi service for black men and for those in city neighborhoods with overwhelmingly minority populations."
There are two reasons that taxi drivers discriminate against minority passengers and minority areas. The first is what black economist Thomas Sowell has described in his new book as Discrimination I(b)—discrimination against individuals based on available group data....
Uber and Lyft solve that problem. They solve that problem by allowing drivers to see the ratings for passengers. This individualizes data, making group data irrelevant. Thus, drivers can see if a passenger has a 1-star rating, they probably shouldn't pick him up, regardless of race. That makes it far more likely that black people are picked up by drivers....
But the technology wouldn't be enough to overcome discrimination. The other issue is that Uber and Lyft aren't monopolies: they're competitive businesses. That means there is a competitive advantage in going to higher-risk neighborhoods—the taxis aren't out there. Competition broadens the rationale for catering to higher-crime areas, for example. You can make money the other guy won't. That's not true when a government-sponsored cartel rules everything: the available pool of competition is so small that you wouldn't drive out to a high-crime area when you could make an artificially inflated wage driving in a low-crime area.
So the free market is the reason Uber and Lyft drivers don't discriminate against minorities."
All of these solutions to poverty and racial inequality in the big cities are opposed by the left, because they are only against racism "so long as doing so serves some other preexisting political agenda, which is usually anti-capitalist." So these reforms are ripe for someone else to pick them up. Today's Republican Party, unfortunately, is more concerned with pandering to the anti-urban sensibilities of its rural and exurban base, rather than taking up causes that would actually appeal to or benefit anyone in the cities.
That means all of these reforms are now being advocated and pursued by single-issue reformers and ad hoc local coalitions, outside the usual partisan lines—which, come to think of it, might be the greatest hope that they can accomplish something.