Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

The conservative approach to affordable housing

Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution summarizes how conservatives might approach affordable housing:

The key challenge is to choose the correct path for housing reform. Many of Carson’s critics think the proper line is to require new developments to save a proportion of units for low-income residents, which will ensure, they claim, “that economically diverse neighborhoods and housing affordability will be preserved for generations to come.” The implicit assumption behind this position is that government agents have enough information to organize complex social institutions, when in fact they are slow to respond to changes in market conditions and are often blissfully unaware of the many different strategies that are needed in different market settings. No one wants to say that governments should not lay out street grids and organize infrastructure. But they operate at a huge comparative disadvantage when it comes to real estate development on that public grid.

Far superior is an alternative view that I have long championed. The first thing to do is to abandon the assumption that there is a systematic market failure requiring government intervention. The second is to remove all barriers to entry in the housing markets, so that supply can increase and prices can fall. These barriers are numerous, and include an endless array of fees, taxes, and permits that grant vast discretionary authority to local officials. A removal of these burdens will allow us to harness the private knowledge of developers who will seek to work in those portions of the market that hold the greatest profit opportunities…

The so-called housing experts all sign on to the general mission of HUD to deal with the various ills of housing shortages, but none of them have the slightest interest in the market solutions that could improve the overall situation. To make the point more clearly, market solutions do not include letting developers steamroll small property owners through eminent domain abuse, or allowing local communities to pass restrictive zoning and permitting requirements that are intended to block low-income housing. Rather, the correct answer is to stop eminent domain abuse, to peel away layers of regulation, and to cut out the extensive network of government grants that impose strings on how housing can be built. Perhaps Carson does not know much about the current programs. But if he puts the necessary reforms in place, he will have no need to master the details of endless federal, state, and local regulations that have created the affordable housing crisis in the first place.

Epstein sees two issues: there is not “a systematic market failure” and too many regulations limits supply and discourages builders. While I am not suggesting federal government programs alone can solve affordable housing (see this earlier post where I discussed this idea with other academics who study public housing), I am skeptical about this line of argument.

First, the “systematic market failure” often discussed by academics is related to race: whites made rules (and then institutionalized them with lending institutions and the federal government) that ensured whites did not have to live with other racial and ethnic groups. Even before some of this was institutionalized, the relatively freer housing market of the late 1800s and early 1900s was already promoting residential segregation. See the case of the Black Belt on the South Side of Chicago or separate black suburbs (see Places of Their Own by Andrew Wiese). And if people didn’t make market decisions about housing based on race, they would do so regarding class. The idea of exclusionary zoning is that wealthier communities set up conditions that do not allow for the construction of cheaper housing. Epstein suggests at the end that exclusionary zoning might have to end but then how would he balance the interests of lower-income residents versus the property rights (often an important cause among conservatives) of existing owners?

Second, regulations may discourage builders. But, loosening regulations does not necessarily mean that they would suddenly build cheaper housing when they could make more money on larger houses. This is a common conservative argument about the Bay Area in California: if regulations protecting land could be done away with, more housing would be built and prices would drop. This could happen broadly though I suspect some of those existing homeowners would not like this (and property values are of utmost importance to many homeowners) and it is not clear that builders would construct housing that is that much cheaper (even if they are contributing to increased supply). Perhaps Epstein could provide some examples where this – builders have moved to fill cheaper niches in the market – has happened. And it may be hardest to do this in places where there are already a lot of regulations; moving to a lot fewer regulations or no regulations requires a major shift on everyone’s part and probably must be demanded by a majority of the public (requiring some sort of political movement).

Come to think of it, there are ways these arguments could be evaluated with data. Are there places in the United States that have more or less housing regulations and whose housing outcomes can be compared? Are there any truly free markets in housing that working in providing affordable housing?

Additionally, it may be time for some more creativity regarding housing. Could we have different locations – cities, states – try different approaches and see what works?

 

“McMansions are the visual front line of right-wing American culture”

This is a view from afar but I wondered how long it would take to connect McMansions and resurgent conservatives in America.

This is the sort of problem one can run into when using the McMansion as a symbol: it is painting with very broad strokes. Some might see McMansions as a sign of the right-wing, presumably people who don’t have great taste and like to overconsume in the suburbs. But, is this true of most McMansion owners? Are there no liberals who own such homes? All those teardown buyers (plus the people who sold them the property) are right-wingers? There might be a grain of truth to it but I doubt the ending is constructive to building any relationship or convincing those same people not to purchase a McMansion.

The ongoing politics of the 2020 Census

The dicennial Census is not just a counting exercise; it is a political matter as this commentary suggests.

According to recent documents from the Census Bureau and the Government Accountability Office, the bureau plans to substantially cut back on door-to-door surveying and, instead, use the internet, the Post Office and other means to determine who is living where.

The bureau thinks the 2020 survey will cost $5.2 billion less than the last one (an estimate the GAO questions), but the accuracy could be called into question. There will also likely be worries about fraud because many of the conclusions will be drawn through “imputations” — educated guesses.

In fact, fraud could affect the House of Representatives elections for years to come if someone isn’t watching.

During a recent hearing before the House Oversight Committee, which maintained control over the Census Bureau after the Obama-Emanuel caper, a key technology officer for the 2020 decennial admitted that a fraud prevention system won’t be fully in place until just a few months before the polling starts.

If the Census Bureau – often led by sociologists and other social scientists who have expertise in collecting and analyzing data – is fraudulent because certain parties don’t like the result, what can be left alone?

Sampling and estimation alone does not have to be a problem. Just because the Census can’t reach everyone – and they have certainly tried at points – doesn’t mean that there is room for fraud. If done well, the estimates are made based on accurate samples – meaning they generally match the proportions of the total population – and responsible people reporting on this data will always note that there is not 100% certainty in the data.

The ever-active big city as antidote to Donald Trump

One New Yorker writes about how the city itself is a salve against the election of an undesirable candidate:

Urbanism isn’t perfect, certainly not as we’ve ever managed to live it in New York. It’s brought us income inequality and political complacency and an ugly disdain for the forsaken voters on whose rage our boy-king just boogie-boarded into office. But the city is not one that will respond to that comeuppance with humility. And as the days wore on after the election, and we settled back into our know-it-all selves, we began to feel a little less ignorant or even ill-informed. We know plenty. We know tolerance and science and that cosmopolitanism does not mean unanimity but that it does mean vitality, and that you shouldn’t intervene when two drug addicts are yelling at each other outside a Chinatown subway station but that you should when it’s one of them yelling at a Mexican woman to clear out of town. We know that, whatever he thinks of Hamilton, there are safe spaces for the president-elect in this city — Staten Island, for starters, and Hasidic Williamsburg and the ‘21’ Club and Jean-Georges, apparently. Thankfully, we know there are unsafe spaces, too, including right outside his front door, where many continue to rally every day despite the armored trucks and sandbags and police with blacked-out name tags. We know that “inner cities” aren’t “war zones” and that ending discriminatory policing doesn’t lead to a rise in gun deaths — we actually know that because the city is an urban laboratory for city-first governance, and it has yielded real results. We know that putting America First means welcoming the world, and we know our immigrants have enriched us, not raped us. We know that city life can be ugly, but also that we are all strong enough to live among some ugliness. We know that, stranded in a country that may soon privatize public schools, we have just established universal pre-K, and we know — or think we know — that it works. We know that we have pretty gender-­accommodating public bathrooms because we know people who still fuck and do drugs in them. We know that La Guardia is a dump — but so what? We know this city is, ultimately, ungovernable — that it’s too unruly, that it’s at its best when it’s unruly, and that its unruliness is what gave rise to what people like Trump used to call the American Dream. We know that people like him are the cost of that unruliness, and that you can learn to live with them by mocking them. We thought we knew the country would listen to our warnings, but we’re not going to stop making them. We know, whatever one might think of Bill de Blasio, our giant in Gracie Mansion is up to the task of grandstanding, suggesting he’d erase the city’s ID-card data rather than endanger immigrants. We know the city will be independent, and we know the city will also continue to be itself — a theater of freaks and refugees and the restless who were never elsewhere able to feel at home. We know that an open and tolerant and ­progress-minded future still lies before us, even if we have to go it alone, and even if that future now looks a few feet smaller at the shoreline.

And we also know that we are not in fact alone — that New York is not an island but an archipelago. Our mayor has resister-cousins in Chicago and Los Angeles and Providence, San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis — and those are just a few of the cities mobilizing themselves as immigrant sanctuaries. We know that the number of Democratic counties has shrunk over the last decade or two, as entrepreneurs and other hustlers flooded into cities, and we know that the counties that went blue in this election account for nearly two-thirds of the American economy. We also know that Peter Thiel was basically the only Trumper in Silicon Valley. If you have to live in a bubble, really, you could do worse.

This could be relatively easy to dismiss as an example of urban dwellers or coastal residents leaning Democratic versus those in more rural areas or in the middle of the country voting Republican. But, the underlying idea is more interesting: is the city, particularly the #1 global city in the world New York City, bigger than presidential elections? Regardless of who is president, this city moves on with its own concerns and attitudes. It is affected by national politics but it is also a world onto itself. More broadly, the economic heart of the city – giving rise to all the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), Wall Street, dynamic urbanism described by Jane Jacobs – continues.

When the candidate with the big data advantage didn’t win the presidency

Much was made of the effective use of big data by Barack Obama’s campaigns. That analytic advantage didn’t help the Clinton campaign:

Clinton can be paranoid and self-destructively self-protective, but she’s also capable of assessing her own deficiencies as a politician in a bracingly clear-eyed way. And the conclusion that she drew from her 2008 defeat was essentially an indictment of her own management style: Eight years earlier, she had personally presided over a talented, sloppy, squabbling, sprawling menagerie of pals, longtime advisers and hangers-on who somehow managed to bungle the building of a basic political infrastructure to oppose Obama’s efficient, data-driven operation.

To do so, Mook hired a buddy who had helped Terry McAuliffe squeak out a win in the 2014 Virginia governor’s race: Elan Kriegel, a little-known data specialist who would, in many ways, exert more influence over the candidate than any of all-star team of veteran consultants. Kriegel’s campaign-within-a-campaign conducted dozens of targeted surveys—to test messaging and track voter sentiment day-by-day, especially in battleground states—and fed them into a computer algorithm, which ran hundreds of thousands of simulations that were used to steer ad spending, the candidate’s travel schedule, even the celebrities Clinton would invite to rallies.

The data operation, five staffers told me, was the source of Mook’s power within the campaign, and a source of perpetual tension: Many of Clinton’s top consultants groused that Mook and Kriegel withheld data from them, balking at the long lead time—a three-day delay—between tracking reports. A few of them even thought Mook was cherry-picking rosy polling to make the infamously edgy Clinton feel more confident…

In numerous interviews conducted throughout the campaign, Clinton staffers attested to Mook’s upbeat attitude and mastery of detail. But, in the end, Brooklyn simply failed to predict the tidal wave that swamped Clinton—a pro-Trump uprising in rural and exurban white America that wasn’t reflected in the polls—and his candidate failed to generate enough enthusiasm to compensate with big turnouts in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Philadelphia suburbs.

It would be fascinating to hear more. The pollsters didn’t get it right – but neither did the Clinton campaign internally?

The real question is what this will do to future campaigns. Was Donald Trump’s lack of campaign infrastructure and reliance on celebrity and media coverage (also highlighted nicely in the article above) something that others can or will replicate? Or, would the close margins in this recent presidential election highlight even more the need for finely-tuned data and microtargeting? I’m guessing the influence of big data in campaigns will only continue but data will only get you so far if it (1) isn’t great data in the first place and (2) people know how to use it well.