The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Coastal elites among middle America = “Margaret Mead among Samoans”

The quasi-anthropological quest of liberals to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump continues:

Third Way’s researchers are far from the only Americans inspired to undertake anthropological journeys in the past year. Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s election shocked the prognosticators, ivory-tower types are still sifting through the wreckage. Group after group of befuddled elites has crisscrossed America to poke and prod and try to figure out what they missed—“Margaret Meads among the Samoans,” one prominent strategist remarked to me.

HuffPo embarked on a 23-city bus tour to get to know places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg undertook a series of carefully choreographed interactions with factory workers and people on tractors. The liberal pollster Stan Greenberg appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his findings from a series of focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters in Macomb County, Michigan. A new group of Democratic elected officials hosted a “Winning Back the Heartland” strategy conference in Des Moines this month. The title of yet another research project, a bipartisan study underwritten by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, encapsulates the sentiment: “Stranger in My Own Country.”…

The other groups of anthropologists roaming Middle America face the same quandary. Having gotten the country drastically wrong, they have set out on well-meaning missions to bring the country together by increasing mutual understanding. They share Third Way’s basic assumption that mutual understanding is something Americans can agree to find desirable. But as hard as they try to open their minds to new perspectives, are they ready to have that basic assumption challenged?

The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see.

Theoretically, academic ethnographic fieldwork should be different than some of the approaches described here which primarily seem to be concerned with finding support or reassurance that liberal perspectives or approaches resonate to some degree throughout the United States. An academic approach could better disentangle personal political views from those of the group who is being studied, or at least clearly demarcate when the personal subjectivity of the researcher influences the interpretation of the group under study. Such academic studies already exist – such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in a Strange Land which she summarizes here – and surely more are to come. What will the academic consensus be within ten or twenty years and how will it sit beside more partisan interpretations of the 2016 elections?

In related matters, Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans holding a combination of conservative and liberal viewpoints has decreased. Thus, the growing need for the two sides to embark on safaris to interact with and try to understand fellow citizens (who do not even necessarily live that far away if we look at Democrat-Republican splits between big cities and outer suburbs).

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.

Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

“Federal Officials Push to Urbanize Suburbia”?

Conservatives are still worried the Obama administration is against suburbs:

In its final months, the Obama administration has set up a strategy to bring inner city living to the suburbs by deploying three federal agencies to dictate to states and local communities how to set up schools, housing and mass transit…

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expanded the reach of its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to two other federal agencies: the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education…

State and local educational agencies, for example, are urged to develop “boundary-free open enrollment or lottery schools when drawing school attendance boundaries, and selecting sites for such a programs like charter schools or magnet school.”

The three federal agencies also want their local and state education officials to “consult with transportation and housing authorities and housing development agencies” when planning a school site.

The federal authorities want local and state transportation officials to create mass transit plans and more public transportation routes, as well as include local school districts, housing authorities, Head Start programs, community colleges and similar entities in putting together the mass transit plan.

The first two thoughts that come to mind when seeing the specifics here:

  1. It sounds like this applies to communities that receive HUD block grants for redevelopment. So, if suburbs don’t apply for this, the guidelines may not apply.
  2. At the least, the guidelines would encourage more conversations between some important actors – like developers, local officials, school districts, transportation planners, and others – that could build upon and expand existing infrastructure. Instead of doing all of their work independently, a little collaboration could go a long ways.

In other words, wealthier suburbs will still have ways to resist lower-income residents. And isn’t what this is really about? Or, more broadly, suburbs want the ability to have complete local control over land use – which is all about quality of life, property values, and attracting the right kind of people. For example, see this statement from a Westchester County official:

“This document proves what I’ve been saying for six years: The federal government is planning to take control of the American suburb and forever change it in the false name of equality. If HUD gets its way, small town America will literally disappear. It will be forcibly urbanized by Washington social engineers.”

Suburbs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Plus, market forces may lead to denser suburbs anyway as there is plenty of demand for new housing in attractive suburbs. But, there could be more conflict in the future as wealthier communities want to retain control and regional and federal governments try to spread opportunities around.

“The deepest causes of inequality…are entirely out of the reach of city governments.”

At the end of a long essay against the actions of liberals in American cities comes this summary:

Liberal mayors seem utterly unaware of how poorly positioned cities are to address income disparities. The deepest causes of inequality, such as globalization and cultural disparities, are entirely out of the reach of city governments. They are seduced by mission creep. Progressive politicians are unwilling to stick to their real work of improving the core functions of municipal government, namely K–12 public education and public safety, and maintaining the basic infrastructure and services—parks, libraries, and the like. The rise of 21st-century urban progressivism points toward a future characterized by shoddy local services, increased regulation of city economies, and the consolidation of inequality.

I suspect this author would argue that liberals also don’t know how to correctly address social issues at the national or global level. Setting that aside, is the argument correct that cities can’t truly address inequality?

On one side, cities sit within a larger social system. Even the biggest cities – New York City, London, Hong Kong, etc. – operate within a global economic, political, and cultural system that they may influence strongly but don’t control completely. Global capitalism is influential everywhere and affects flows of capital and jobs.

On the other side, major cities are large economic engines in their own right – see several rankings here – and have significant budgets to utilize with millions of residents. Even as there is a global system, the decisions cities make as well as the unique resources they can draw upon can lead to disparate outcomes. Can they individually completely eliminate inequality? Probably not but they can use the means at their disposal to shape life in their borders.

Maybe this issue should be put another way: if inequality is not addressed at the municipal level, who is going to address these issues? At whatever level it happens, certain actions by city governments could help.