Could AI ever replace diplomacy?

A thought from watching the impeachment proceedings: the relationship between major countries hinges on the personal interactions of a relatively small set of people on each side. The interests of the United States, a global power with more than 327 million people, come down to personal interactions between diplomats. However deep the Deep State might be, a small set of relationships matter for all countries in how they get along with other countries.

In the world of the Internet and computers, does it seem feasible to replace person-to-person diplomacy with Artificial Intelligence? Two humorous examples suggest this could be very hard:

1. The diplomacy built in to the computer game Civilization that never seems to work that well.

2. The arduous negotiations that can occur in the board game Diplomacy over relatively simple moves.

But, imagine the possibilities. A much reduced diplomatic staff! Quicker negotiations! Being able to blame an algorithm for mistakes rather than people!

Ultimately, would governments trust artificial intelligence to put their diplomatic fate in its hands?

The Democratic debate included several minutes of conversation about housing!

The Democratic debate on Wednesday night included several minutes on the issue of housing. From the transcript:

WELKER: Mr. Steyer, millions of working Americans are finding that housing has become unaffordable, especially in metropolitan areas. It is particularly acute in your home state of California, in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Why are you the best person to fix this problem?

STEYER: When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state, but it also includes skyrocketing rents which affect every single working person in the state of California.

I understand exactly what needs to be done here, which is we need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units.

But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is, we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable, that, in fact, how we build units, where people live has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.

So we are going to have to direct dollars, we’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that and we’re going to have force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure that those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

WELKER: Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Senator Warren, I see your hand raised.

WARREN: Yes. Think of it this way. Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.

Also, private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two bedroom, one bath house that I grew up in, garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.

So I’ve got a plan for 3.2 million new housing units in America. Those are housing units for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.

But there’s one more piece. Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as red-lining.

When I built a housing plan, it’s not only a housing plan about building new units. It’s a housing plan about addressing what is wrong about government-sponsored discrimination, how we need to address it, and we need to say we’re going to reverse it.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Senator. Senator Booker?

(APPLAUSE)

BOOKER: I’m so grateful, again, as a mayor who was a mayor during a recession, who was a mayor during a housing crisis, who started my career as a tenants’ rights lawyer, these are all good points, but we’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

And so all these things we need to put more federal dollars in it, but we’ve got to start empowering people. We use our tax code to move wealth up, the mortgage interest deduction. My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.

And what that does is it actually slashes poverty, 10 million people out. And by the way, for those people who are facing eviction, it is about time that the only people when they show up in rentals court that have a lawyer is not the landlord, it is also low-income families struggling to stay in their homes.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator.

Quick summary of the conversation:

1. It was short – just a few minutes and only three candidates talked.

2. Two candidates, Steyer and Warren, talked about the need for more and cheaper housing units. They did not get into many details about how to fund those units or where they would be located.

3. Two candidates talked in more detail about the inequality in housing with Warren talking about discrimination in housing and Booker discussing tax credits for renters.

Quick thoughts:

1. It is good to have the issue addressed directly. However, the amount of time spent on it, the number of candidates who responded, the lack of follow-up questions, and the quick cut to a commercial suggests it is not an important issue.

2. This is a complex issue with many local variables. Hence, it is not easy to fit housing discussions into sound-bite driven debates. However, the candidates barely got to say anything about actual policy or dealing with thorny problems such as convincing wealthier communities to include cheaper housing. Is it better in the long run to over-simplify a complex issue or not address it at all?

3. Given all the ways that housing intersects with issues that Democrats care about, why couldn’t a candidate start their policy positions with housing? This is probably because it is unpopular to address it from a top-down level but who said politics was easy? Truly addressing inequality will require addressing all the ways it intersects with places and communities.

When local government meetings go past midnight

Suburbanites like smaller local government. But, local government meetings or hearings that go past midnight can be inconvenient. A recent example from an Illinois suburb discussing marijuana sales:

Angering residents who showed up in droves to oppose the sale of recreational marijuana in the village, Buffalo Grove trustees at about 1 a.m. Tuesday approved zoning regulations to allow it.

For 4½ hours, residents spoke passionately against recreational pot sales. But in the end, only one trustee, David Weidenfeld, voted against the regulations, which will allow recreational dispensaries as a special use in nonresidential areas — three business districts and the industrial district.

There are two issues at work here. The first is this: the article suggests there was a vocal set of residents opposed to marijuana sales who were not happy with the results. Local residents can become active if they perceive a change in the community will negatively affect their quality of life and/or property values (see recent suburban cases in Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, and Itasca). If the decision does not go their way – and there are plenty of cases where there are vocal residents and leaders on both sides – then resentment and long-term conflict can develop.

But, the second issue is what I want to focus on here: how late the meeting ran. How many residents, even if they are energized by a particular cause, can afford to stay out past midnight at a public meeting or hearing? Staying up that late can put a severe damper on the next day’s activities, particularly depending on jobs, family situations, and health. Residents may feel they need to stay to the end of a meeting to be heard but that comes at a cost.

Local officials may also be in a bind regarding time. Many municipalities already have rules in place so that individual speakers do not run too long and that plenty of people get a chance to speak. There is other business that needs to be conducted at many local meetings, including considering a variety of proposals, approving payments, and considering reports from other staff or committees. The meeting can only start so early as residents and leaders may be coming from jobs, dinner, and other responsibilities. Stretching meetings over multiple days may not be optimal though multiple meetings or hearings can happen if leaders want to provide more opportunities for people to voice their opinions.

In the particular case above, it looks like the public had a chance to speak – 4.5 hours – and therefore the approval could not come until later (and the approval was overwhelming). The late ending may have only rubbed salt in the wounds of those opposed to pot sales. But, as best practice, local officials should work to avoid concluding meetings in the wee hours in the morning.

Win the suburbs, win 2020; patterns in news stories that make this argument

More than a year away from the 2020 presidential election, one narrative is firmly established: the path to victory runs through suburban voters. One such story:

Westerville is perhaps best known locally as the place the former Ohio state governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich calls home. But it – and suburbs like it – is also, Democrats say, “ground zero” in the battle for the White House in 2020…

In 2018, Democrats won the House majority in a “suburban revolt” led by women and powered by a disgust of Donald Trump’s race-based attacks, hardline policy agenda and chaotic leadership style. From the heartland of Ronald Reagan conservatism in Orange county, California, to a coastal South Carolina district that had not elected a Democrat to the seat in 40 years, Democrats swept once reliably Republican suburban strongholds…

“There is no way Democrats win without doing really well in suburbs,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice-president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic thinktank…

“There are short-term political gains for Democrats in winning over suburban voters but that doesn’t necessarily lead to progressive policies,” she said. In her research, Geismer found that many suburban Democrats supported a national liberal agenda while opposing measures that challenged economic inequality in their own neighborhoods.

Four quick thoughts on such news reports:

1. They often emphasize the changing nature of suburbs. This is true: the suburbs are becoming more racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. At the same time, this does not mean this is happening evenly across suburbs.

2. They often use a representative suburb as a case study to try to illustrate broader trends in the suburbs. Here, it is Westerville, Ohio, home to the Tuesday night Democratic debate. Can one suburb illustrate the broader trends in all suburbs? Maybe.

3. They stress that the swing voters are in the suburbs since city residents are more likely to vote for Democrats while rural residents are more likely to vote for Republicans. It will be interesting to see how Democratic candidates continue to tour through urban areas; will they spend more time in denser population areas or branch out to middle suburbs that straddle the line between solid Republican bases further away from the city and solid Democratic bases closer to the city?

4. Even with the claim that the suburbs are key to the next election, this often sheds little light on long-term trends. As an exception, the last paragraph in the quotation above stands out: suburban voters may turn one way nationally but this does not necessarily translate into more local political action or preferences.

Keeping track of the Democratic field on housing

Curbed is tracking the housing positions of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Here is part of the overview of YIMBY policies:

Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY)…

Because these laws are administered at the local level, federal policy can’t do much to directly change these laws and instead attempts to incentivize—or punish—local governments to change them. Castro has proposed a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning. O’Rourke would direct HUD to come up with a model for setting zoning and land use policies that let formerly restrictive communities to allow more housing production.

Warren’s plan puts $10 billion into a new grant program communities can use to build infrastructure, but local governments have to reform land-use laws to be eligible.

Booker’s plan uses a similar mechanism by tying more than $16 billion in federal block grant money—including Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—to local governments reforming zoning laws that serve as barriers to building more housing units. Castro also wants to expand CDBG and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and tie the money to zoning reforms. O’Rourke would double CDBG funding and provide new grants to communities that eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

Klobuchar proposes “prioritizing” local governments that reform local zoning laws when allocating federal housing and infrastructure funds, but doesn’t specify which ones.

Bennet would create a one-time $10 billion competitive grant program for state and local governments that reform zoning laws to allow for more housing density, in addition to increasing the funding of transportation grant program BUILD to $4.5 billion and make it eligible only to local governments that allow for more housing density near transportation hubs. Eligibility for New Starts, a grant program for fixing rail infrastructure, would also be deployed in this manner.

O’Rourke has a zoning-related proposal that’s unique among the candidates. He would allow people to deduct more in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns if they live in areas without restrictive zoning. There’s currently a $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, and that cap affects mostly coastal cities where restrictive zoning is a major issue. He would also pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package to repair transportation lines that would be tied to eliminating exclusionary zoning.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As the section above goes on to note, it will be difficult to enact change within wealthy communities through federal policy. Without buy-in from whole metropolitan regions regarding housing, would any YIMBY policies at a federal level simply push cheaper housing into communities that already have more of such housing?
  2. The subheadline for this article suggests “Housing policy is taking center stage in the 2020 election.” This is a bold pronouncement as housing seems to attract little attention in debates or drives little national conversation. I would still be interested to see someone really run with the housing issue.
  3. I have not seen recent numbers on this: how does housing as an issue rank among other possible issues among the electorate? There are certain areas of the country – like some of the largest metropolitan areas – where this is a pressing issue while it is less important elsewhere. On one hand, housing effects all possible voters but it rarely attracts national attention, particularly compared to other national economic issues like jobs or income.

Bringing grocery stores to rural areas and considering free markets

Declining populations in some rural areas means it is more difficult to sustain grocery stores:

Some states are trying to tackle their rural grocery gaps. Supporters of such efforts point to tax incentives and subsidies at various levels of government that have enabled superstores to service larger areas and squeeze out local independent grocers. Now, dollar stores are opening in rural regions and offering items at lower prices, posing direct competition to local groceries.

Critics see that development as a threat to public health, since dollar stores typically lack quality meat and fresh produce.

But every town and every store is different, making statewide solutions elusive. Some legislators say they are reluctant to intervene too heavily because the market should close the gaps…

In rural areas, the poor tend to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.

Providing a range of social services and cultural services is an increasing issue, ranging from medical care to religious congregations to food.

While there are logistical issues in how to run, supply, and sustain organizations across such broad distances with limited participants, the political approach cited in this article is interesting. Should more conservative states provide government assistance for grocery stores? The article suggests there is some reluctance for state governments to step in. But, this might be exactly a good case where free markets simply cannot work well: there are not enough people in certain areas to generate profits or efficiencies. Plus, the federal government over the decades has helped rural areas, such as through rural electrification projects. Will state lawmakers refuse help just because of commitment to certain ideologies?

This situation also suggests Americans could think more about providing services in ways that do not have to generate profits. Instead, the services exist to serve the community. Think cooperatives. Think community-based organizations meant to help sustain each other rather than make a profit.

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.