Monday, July 14, 2014

Sure it's Pseudoscience if You Don't Read It Right: Jacobs, Knowledge, and Urban Growth

EDIT: James Russel (@burghdiaspora) hit me up on twitter and said he does not conflate labor mobility and migration, but was trying to show how the two are connected and clarify existing urban economic theory.

In two recent pieces, James Russel and Drew Reed spar over the legitimacy of Jane Jacobs' observations of city life and contemporary claims around the development of walkable urban places as centers of innovation. Russel is aiming, albeit widely, at recent justification for the planning of "innovation districts" and rightly questions the reasoning that supposedly undergird the policy choices of cities and institutions rushing headlong to redevelop whole sections of cities in order to, quite literally, bottle up innovation through a particular physical form. But both commentators fundamentally misunderstand the determinants of urban growth and what Jacobs had to say. As a result, they are boxing with the imperfect translations of Jacobs by, frankly, unqualified hustlers and, in turn, push their own fallacies regarding social science and knowledge formation and misreading two centuries of economic geographic thought.

Reed's response, while energetic, is as unconvincing to me as Russel's broadside on Marshallian agglomerative theory and "Jacobsian spillovers". Reed cannot actually muster the evidence to defend the claims others make of Jacobs' work (something neither Russel or Reed actually explore is what Jacobs actually wrote, but that's another issue) and, instead takes offense at Russel's use of the term "pseudoscience" to describe the sloppy application of Jacobs' writings and basically calls Russel a hurtful bully for attacking a woman who helped to, supposedly, resuscitate the idea of cities as positive places to be. Neither response is particularly profound, but the former deserves a bit of exploration before diving into more important questions of urban growth and agglomeration.

Reed takes offense at the application of Jacobs' work as pseudoscience and attempts to sidestep the critique by saying that social science can never be as certain as the natural or life sciences and it is impossible to determine what amount of evidence is actually necessary to test a social scientific claim. This argument, essentially, says that any social scientific claim can basically be taken as legitimate because the causal mechanisms are always messy and testing is nigh impossible. Such a position is profoundly dangerous because it destroys any meaningful reason for the existence of social science if social science is to actually clarify the whys and how of social phenomena. While social phenomena are rarely mechanistic and regular, the best social science seeks to clarify and sketch out particular causal mechanisms and the conditions by which those mechanisms arise or work themselves out (admittedly, I am drawing from the realist school here, in particular, Andrew Sayer).

While this is not the space to dive deeply into questions of the varied ontologies and epistemological approaches of social science, the schools that have trained me are quite clear that social science allows for the testing of claims, the weighing of evidence, the delineation of causal mechanisms etc...that make it possible to definitively reject certain conceptions and theories. The abandonment (though it is still applied in some areas) of early Chicago School human ecological notions of the city are no longer considered valid, though they are making a comeback through the uncritical application of ecological metaphors from some commentators. So Reed's claim that we cannot come up with a way to garner enough evidence to test the claims made by certain innovation proponents holds little weight. This does not that Russel's waving of one paper discussing labor mobility between firms is enough evidence to either convince us to move away from the Jacobs-inspired commentators or accept his notion, but it is certainly one piece of evidence that we should be considering.

On to Russel's claims concerning growth. If Russel were merely critiquing the application of Jacobs' observations about walkable places and innovation, then I do not think there would be any serious issue. Even if you are a die-hard Jacobs acolyte, such crude applications and insistence of the physical determinism of certain physical arrangements of buildings and infrastructure and economic development should offend anyone who thinks deeply on cities and economics. But Russel seeks to extend the critique by attacking the notion of Marshallian industrial districts, Porter's cluster theory, and the general idea of external economies and agglomerative forces, in general. While cute, it is a step too far and exposes some confusion on his part, even within his own arguments.

The problem with Russel's view rests on a few parts, but due to space limitations I will focus mainly on the question of scale, a particularly fruitful area, I think, as Russel is a geographer. The problem is that Russel smashes all scales together, a cardinal sin in geography where scale and space are central to how the field understands disparate social, political, economic, and cultural phenomena.

Russel thinks he has hit upon a gap in the understanding of economic and urban geography, but it is a misreading of the literature and more progressive economic development policy. It becomes clear when Russel conflates migration and labor mobility a la the paper he cites on labor movement among firms and its ties to innovation. Because Russel does not distinguish between scales he combines migration, both inter-regional and international, and labor mobility between firms. Specifically, a region could have extensive mobility among firms without necessarily relying on external migration and still innovate or, more likely, such innovation would then encourage greater growth and migration from those looking to take advantage either through entrepreneurial concerns or working for growing firms. Such a model encompasses both the importance people, from individual entrepreneurs to common labor pools, while recognizing the different scales and times at which these operations can occur. The essential unstated aspect of this firm mobility still rests on the co-location of similar firms, the pooling of a labor supply, and the existence of a set of supporting firms. In other words, the same essential aspects that Marshall first pointed out and that economic geographers have elaborated upon since in different ways.

This one particular illustration is not novel, by any means. It is, actually, a fairly common way that economic geographers, planners, and economists actually conceive of urbanization growth and external benefits of co-location. While Marshallian industrial districts may be too restrictive to understand the rise of the polycentric urban form that characterizes the spatial organization of advanced economies in later capitalism, it is also equally simplistic to dismiss the existence of agglomeration and urbanization economies that rest upon spatial propinquity. This does not give a magical power to place, per se, but the "people aspects" that Russel points to as essential to innovation still must occur somewhere and it is that question of where that remains that Russel does not contend with. Now recognizing co-location and propinquity as important to economic development and innovation does NOT mean that innovation only occurs in specific areas or with specific spatial configurations. But in seeking how to sketch out the causal mechanisms and the conditions necessary for that innovation to occur it is nonsensical to throw out over two centuries of economic and geographical thought that have shown quite clearly that agglomeration and urbanization economies exist, and that urban-regional areas are hotbeds for innovation precisely due to the combination of a constant influx of people, concentration of similar firms, and ancillary firms that provide essential support services from legal and financial services to equipment leasing.

The question, then, is not one of people versus place but of the unique combinations of people and the organization of space that results in different places. The existence of true megapolitan and regional agglomerative economies show the lie of the "innovation district" boosters that insist that certain innovations are so neatly geographically circumscribed or that they can increase innovation through the "accidental bumping" of people in a place. A kind of Brownian motion theory of industrial development that does, in defense of Russel, rest firmly in the realm of pseudo-scientific reasoning.

I would like to end by actually coming to the defense of Jacobs and something that both Russel and Drew did not do in their posts-engage with what Jacobs actually wrote. Commentators using Jacobs to justify "innovation districts" or the economic impacts of walkable places actually fundamentally misread what Jacobs actually wrote on the economy of cities (no, really, she has a book called "The Economy of Cities") and nowhere in her descriptions and theorizing of how cities grow and how cities operate economically does she say anything as facile as "walkable" places beget innovation. In fact, Jacobs builds on scholars like Chinitz(a truly classic paper in the field), and other mid-century economists and geographers, to give an elegant set of descriptions on how entrepreneurship, increasing industrial specialization,  increasingly sophisticated divisions of labor, and local institutional variations seed urban economic growth. Her description of urban economic development as the creation of "new work", an explicit nod to innovation both of the disruptive and non-disruptive kind, is still an elegant way to describe the mechanics of urban economic growth.

The question of how to encourage innovation is one that is at the forefront of policymakers minds and we certainly need a much better understanding of the actual work that's been done on the topic. "Innovation districts", as they stand, will likely be relatively expensive boondoggles that were good excuses for cities to blight and redevelop poor neighborhoods near universities, but will likely not have the kind of massive impact boosters promise. But their willful misreading of Jacobs and ignorance of the last forty years of economic geography is not at all an indictment of the theories of agglomeration and urbanization economies nor of Jacobs' own work. We can debate just how exactly "spillover" benefits operate (is it some magical property of space or labor mobility?) but the fact that innovation, the kind of innovation people write so many books and articles about, happens repeatedly in similar places means that the question is not whether space matters, clearly it does, but how does it matter?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

No Room for Halfway Crooks- The Case for Black Reparations

*this is a slightly more extended meditation on a series of tweets I made earlier which can be found here. Because of the tweet foundation this piece may seem a bit more disjointed. I apologize, in advance.


Conor Friedersdorf has a new piece in the Atlantic responding to the now famous Ta-Nehisi Coates piece "The Case for Reparations". Friedersdorf seeks to advocate for what he calls a set of "race neutral" reparations policies. The kernel of his argument is that seeking race neutral policies to alleviate or compensate for past injuries, in this case housing discrimination, are better than race-based policies because they will compensate more people, thus alleviating more injustice, and prevent racial resentment. 
This  is, singularly, the greatest piece of concern trolling of all time. I have many, many issues with this piece, but I will try and cover some of my main annoyances, starting with factual/historical miscues and work into larger issues. 

Timid, Unimaginative Policies

Friedersdorf offers a variety of different policy recommendations to universally compensate injured parties in a variety of areas, but once you look beyond the fact that the policies are novel, it becomes quite clear that they are incredibly conservative nature and not at all transformative. I am not looking for the dissolution of capitalism, but he can do better.

He first offers a series of modest policies in response to redlining, including federal grants or waiving property taxes, to expanding public transportation and access to school vouchers. Absent the obvious point that many victims of redlining and "slum" clearance no longer own those properties and may no longer own any property and therefore could not be compensated through property tax exemption, these recommended policies are decidedly NOT novel or even that aggressive. School voucher movements and the rise of charter schools are well advanced in many urban areas to where New Orleans school district is now entirely made up of charters. And advocating for decent public transit that serves traditionally disinvested areas? Look, I'm all for it, but to make it seem like this is some grand compensation for past wrongs as opposed to simply how a public transportation should be run is laughable. If this is how you justify providing transport for the transit-dependent, fine, but recognize that comes from a position that believes such public goods should not be geared to serve the most vulnerable AND lets transportation planners, past and current, off of the hook for their racist and anti-poor policies. 

A more radical, or even imaginative, set of policies might have included fundamentally restructuring how public schools are funded by decoupling their funding from local property taxes. Or, as Sandy Darity mentioned the other night on twitter, all public and private pre-Civl War institutions should offer free tuition to the descendants of slaves as their endowments universally benefit from the legacies of chattel slavery. Or, if we want to keep policies universal as Friedersdorf prefers, we should make ALL public higher education free. Ever-increasing student debt and disproportionate Black underemployment, even for Black college graduates, shows that access to education should not be limited to those who can pay.

And one set of policies entirely unmentioned that would do some of the most good and be universal would be the vigorous enforcement of existing Fair Housing statutes and the passage of stronger fair housing laws and the re-adoption of public housing in the US. Housing discrimination is a persistent, universal, ongoing problem for millions of people in America, in particular, for people of color. Demanding that HUD more vigorously pursue Fair Housing complaints (and giving them the funding to do so) and encouraging the construction of new housing for low-income folks through a combination of zoning loosening, greater subsidy, and the immediate halt to public housing demolition are policies that would immediately change the nature of our urban landscapes and open up space for a real discussion of disproportionate impact of current and historical decisions. 

Americans are racist. Americans are ignorant. Americans are racist and ignorant. 

Beyond advocating for "universal" policies, Friedersdorf also attacks Coates's demand for a congressional study on reparations stating that any such study would invariably be politicized and that people are already well aware of the effects of housing discrimsination and slavery. There's a lot in these statements so I'll give you the block quote for better context:


This is the passage in the essay that least persuades me. In part, that's because my faith that Congress would sponsor a rigorous, non-politicized inquiry into reparations approaches zero. Nor do I think that a congressionally sponsored inquiry would confer any more popular legitimacy on the recommendations than a historian's book or a magazine writer's reported feature. There is, too, a hint of presumptuousness here: that if masses of America rigorously studied and fully confronted the history that Coates highlights so powerfully—as if that's going to happen—the result would be a transformation of how they view America. At the top of this article, I linked a number of thoughtful intellectuals who examined history exactly as Coates sees it and made good faith efforts to grapple with his insights and arguments. None of them had their consciousness "revolutionized" by the exercise.

That's not how people or ideas work.

First, the fact that such a study on reparations would be "political" is precisely the point. The topic itself is political and deal with the longstanding racial politics and policies of the US government. The Kerner Commission's report on the "urban crisis" of the late 60s is a useful example here. The commission called out, in print, the racist practices of government at all levels for encouraging and defending segregation and ghettoization and how that lead directly to the riots and recommends immediate redress. It doesn't get more political than that! That's the entire point of such commissions, really. So, the inability of congress to not be political is an absurd level to place such a story. Second, the supposed presumptuousness of Coates's wish for Americans to be fully informed on these issues and thereby transformed assumes Americans are already knowledgeable about these things, and it is obvious they are not. 

I am a PhD student and I have had the fortune to attend good to excellent schools my entire life. And NEVER have I been in a classroom whether it was at my DC prep school, a seminar at UNC, or a lecture here in Portland, where someone has not expressed surprise at the outright nastiness of American racial history, in particular to urban policy. Americans are largely ignorant of the LOOOONG history of urban race riots, residential segregation, the outright exclusion of Blacks from varied arms of the progressive movement, the harms of urban renewal, and the current neoliberal turn in urban policy that is based primarily on mass incarceration, the withdrawal of welfare supports of all kinds, and displacement through gentrification. A commission on reparations or even one on the current state of urban America that focused on race would expose a system that is still virulently anti-black and a set of policies that serve only existing economic and political elites. Coates may indeed be presumptuous as to the effect such a commission could have on the collective American conscience, but we haven't even gotten far enough to test the assertion. Friedersdorf advocates for keeping Americans in a comfortable ignorance that can only be expressed through a confused advanced white-guilt complex from progressives and callous indifference from conservatives.   


No One Actually Thinks the Federal Government is Blameless


This next section goes after Friedersdorf most nakedly (wrong) libertarian argument of the entire piece: that the federal government is largely responsible for housing discrimination and it complicates the way we view the federal government and its role in racial discrimination. 


The logic goes something like this: the federal government enters into vigorous housing policy in the 1930s, culminating in the Federal Housing Acts culminating in the Housing Act of 1949 that set the stage for urban renewal for the next three decades; realtors using the lending guidelines and infamous redlining maps of the Homeowners Loan Corporation redlined many areas of cities, in particular black neighborhoods, and jumpstarted mass housing discrimination and displacement; if the federal government had not entered housing policy black communities would not have been harmed; this connection shows that the federal government is not the benevolent giver of civil rights as loony progressives would have you believe.


Such a chain of logic is absurd on the face of it, but also shows a terrible misreading of history or total ignorance about the history of housing and planning policy in this country at the federal and local levels. Part of this comes from the oft-mentioned, yet mistaken, notion that the Homeowner's Loan Corporation (HOLC) mandated redlining and started the onslaught of disinvestment of poor and black neighborhoods. Amy Hillier has done some great analysis to show that HOLC had actually little to do with the classifying of neighborhoods as redlined for local real estate agents in most cities. The HOLC maps were carefully guarded and were largely made from pre-existing market analyses and racist logics. In other words, black neighborhoods were already de facto redlined by local real estate agents. Thomas Sugrue and other urban scholars make similar points when they point towards the warehousing of blacks in certain parts of cities, in Sugrue's case, Detroit, and starving those areas of funds while preventing blacks from leaving. These were entirely local policies built around keeping blacks segregated. HOLC, in many ways, simply documented the areas that were already largely seen as no-go zones by local real-estate interests.


This is not to absolve the federal government in this. HOLC did not challenge the racist policies of cities and the locking out of blacks from federally subsidized mortgages sped up white flight and ghettoization. The federal government is entirely culpable in these areas. But to say that the lack of federal government intervention in the housing market would somehow have lessened the negative impacts on blacks is preposterous. While the federal government has done many messed up things in regards to housing its entryway into the market from the construction of public housing to fair housing legislation have absolutely benefited blacks, not to mention lifting discriminatory lending practices in relation to federally subsidized loans. In a country where blacks in many places were expressly forbidden from purchasing property, where cities attempted explicit racial zoning policies, and placed multiple barriers to blacks living anywhere except for their designated places by local authorities, the federal government has been absolutely central in opening up space for blacks to live. Such an argument also arbitrarily draws a hard historical line somewhere between 1934 and 1960 as the culmination of federal housing action and ignores ALL of the work the federal government has done since then to try and defend the right of people to live where they can. Not to mention how even drawing such an arbitrary line still ignores policies like public housing that were incredibly helpful for poor populations, both black and non-black alike. 


Its this arbitrary drawing lines that allows Friedersdorf to conveniently ignore the Fair Housing Acts, the de-fanging of George Romney's HUD (examined, in depth, in this great piece from Nikole Hannah-Jones) that has crippled Fair Housing to this day, and multiple other policies that federal government has attempted to enact precisely to mitigate and reverse the devastating effects of residential segregation. But who have been the primary opponents of these changes? The same local jurisdictions with long histories of enforcing segregation in the first place! The federal government, as with many times in our history, has been a primary mover, if not always benevolent or perfect, for the advancement of civil rights of African-Americans. To say otherwise is either myopic or patently dishonest. 

You Can't Recognize Racial Injury and Argue for Racial Neutrality


Beyond these questions of history and policy, important on their own, lies a larger issue with Friedersdorf's argument that must be addressed. There are two parts here.
The first issue is his valiant effort to make the argument that even as he recognizes in his piece that racism and discrimination in the housing market uniquely injured blacks that our policy prescriptions should not be addressed specifically towards black people. He claims that "universal" policies seeking redress for past behavior will simultaneously help blacks, and the greater population, and also not engender racial resentment. 


The first claim, on addressing a greater number of wrong parties, is a strictly utilitarian one. On pure welfare grounds it is hard to ignore, but it contradicts his recognized point that blacks have been uniquely penalized in the housing market compared to other groups. Such an utilitarian approach then subsumes the legitimate, unique injury claims made of blacks by equating them with the injury claims made by other groups. To whit, if you're a white Irish person and your neighborhood was redlined in the late 40s, you would have as equal a claim as a black person whose property may also have been redlined. But what such a point does not recognize is that that white Irish family could draw on private and public funding for new home loans, they had access to residential areas made expressly forbidden to blacks by law, had access to work, at levels of the labor market, traditionally barred from blacks and on and on and on. The claims are entirely incommensurate and to think you could evenly compensate the two is absurd.


The second claim that universal policies will adequately address black injuries is ridiculous. The argument for reparations is fundamentally one based on a rejection of utilitarianism and instead is one based on notions of re-distributive justice and that is precisely why Freidersdorf cannot connect the two. A unique claim of discrimination and injustice means you have to make specific policies to respect those claims. That does not preclude compensating folks who were displaced by urban renewal. By all means do so, but the claims made by blacks are STILL unique because of ongoing anti-black racism that forms the foundation of American existence and policy. Liberalism, especially more libertarian strains, are entirely incapable of accepting a world where justice, accompanied by redistribution, is a legitimate action of the government and not an affront to individual liberty. The liberal ethic, best understood from Rawls as the "primacy of the (political) right over the good" precludes real, radical redistribution of resources. This is Friedersdorf initial policy recommendations are so unimaginative, because he wants to feel as if he's actually doing something without having to give anything up. There is no recognition that non-blacks have gained wealth, influence, and power at the expense of blacks and in virulently non-black institutions since the inception of the nation, and that continuing discrimination ranging from housing discrimination to mass incarceration disproportionately affects blacks and benefits non-blacks, particularly whites. 


The second part feeds directly from this lack of awareness and that is Freidersdorf's, and many other commentators in the wake of Coates's piece, utterly shallow understandings of race and its role, not only in history, but in contemporary settings. It is incredibly disheartening that after building up such a great case and set of examples, that Coates's critics only choose to focus on what they frame as a purely historical racist regime as opposed to connecting such de jure racist policies with ongoing de facto racist policies currently. Beyond that, such blindness also prevents these commentators from recognizing how incredibly central racial identity is to America's understanding of itself, primarily because these commentators are too frequently unable to view themselves, read: white people, as themselves raced individuals. If you are able to frame American's development, economic, political, and cultural as one built upon anti-blackness and the expansion of the porous borders of whiteness, then it is impossible to accurately link historical discrimination with current black want and contemporary institutional and structural racism. Blackness remains a heavy barrier in ALL aspects of American life and even moreso historically. If you cannot see the formation of American identity as one of separating one's group from blackness, then you cannot see how utterly absurd a claim of "race-neutral" reparations really is. Because the assimilation project of other ethnic groups in this country, to this very day, is a project of separating one's identity from those of blacks, blackness, and a black politics.


The story of what Adolph Reed calls "benign ethnic succession" that punctuates so many histories of different ethnic groups in our cities has never applied to black Americans. Blacks garnered large municipal power, and even then only temporarily, primarily due to the abandonment of cities by other non-black groups and the forced enclosure of black people in central cities. The projects of ethnic assimilation like the settlement house movement were explicitly barred to blacks. Political machines and trade unions, traditional paths of urban ethnic power grabbing and social mobility, were also forbidden to blacks. The advancement and whitening of other ethnic groups, is built upon, requires, the exclusion of blacks over and over again throughout our history and continues to this day. Not understanding the role race, and really what I mean is anti-blackness, plays in this means that commentators can only ever point towards seemingly "universal" policy prescriptions that act only as band-aids on the gaping chest wound that is America's relationship with the descendants of its slaves. 

To Conclude...


Finally, and if you've made it this far, I thank you for your patience, I would say that there is no room for those who would wish to try and straddle this logical divide over reparations. You can argue against them, and I can respect your view, but what I cannot abide is for someone to recognize that blacks indeed have been, and continue to be, uniquely injured by American policy and that this requires a set of policy prescriptions, and then have the temerity to say that blacks should not be given special consideration within said policies. It's a contradictory position that cannot hold. One must take the honest position that either we must do more and it should targeted towards blacks, even as we seek more universal solutions, or one must stand firm on the ground of Rawls and other liberals and say that while the history is wrong and blacks may have a unique claim is too heavy a cost to individual liberty to do anything substantive about it. That may be unjust, but at least it is honest.

















Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Whitlock and the Politics of Blackness

Jason Whitlock loves black people. He unapologetically loves blackness and embraces it without hesitation. In a country, no world, predicated upon the disposability of the black body such an open and unguarded expression of love for black peoples is a radical proposition. But, contrary to shallow, saccharine representations of MLK and Gandhi, love, even a radical love of self, is not a political platform, though it is a powerful political statement.

It is this common misunderstanding, mistaking for a love for self and "community" (however you define it) as a self-contained that obscures not only trenchant political critique but also a coherent, actionable, and, dare I say, radical program.

Whitlock's most recent column shows the pitfalls that arise from a politics centered on loving blackness instead of challenging anti-blackness. This politics of blackness, which I would say is different than a black politics, plays with a dangerous essentialism that not only threatens to turn the black community into an undifferentiated mass, but also displaces the object of black political concern away from anti-black racism, the liberal logics of unfettered property rights and individualist politics, and instead becomes a project of intra-racial disciplining. The result is an inverted pedagogy of the oppressed that seeks not to counter the conventional wisdom of the day, a wisdom that is always liberal, capitalist, and anti-black, but instead seeks to accommodate it and turn the supposed failures of the black community back onto itself.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are vital institutions for black Americans. Most HBCUs were founded in the immediate period after the Civil War in states with large black populations (read: former slave states) and were tasked with educating a nascent black elite. They have a long and proud history of producing black leaders and intellectuals. Until very recently, HBCUs were still responsible for producing the majority of black college graduates. But for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix, Everest College and countless locally serving for-profit secondary institutions have surpassed HBCUs in producing degreed black Americans. This shift reflects many things, the desire to be more economically competitive in slack job markets through gaining credentials, the desegregation of higher educational institutions that removed a good proportion of the captive student body HBCUs could draw from, and a concerted campaign of disinvestment from both the state and federal government over the past decades to choke the life out of these schools.

Something we can definitely agree on, though, is that the decline of HBCUs is not principally due to a lack of alumni giving or black Americans not caring for "our own institutions". Whitlock ignores the structural contexts of HBCU existence, again a context that is first and foremost virulently anti-black, and instead seeks to scold and discipline black people for insufficiently loving ourselves and our institutions. In other words, he attacks black people for being insufficiently in love with their own blackness, instead of recognizing the external attacks on black people and black institutions.

His column's most eloquent expression of racial disciplining is best exemplified in his comparison of Grambling State University and Notre Dame. Whitlock uses the example of Notre Dame and wonders whether the,"...well-to-do white catholics-- would flee their prized institution and let the football program rot from neglect, indifference, and a desire to make non-white Catholics love them?" This is in reference to the Grambling football team and its many trials over the past two decades. But what one should focus upon here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the context in which Notre Dame exists and the accusation of insufficient blackness as the primary driver of Grambling's issues.

Notre Dame is an elite private Catholic institution. It was started by and is still partially supported by the Holy Cross brotherhood of the Catholic Church. It has an endowment of over six BILLION dollars. It draws upon not only the private wealth of its esteemed alumni but also the support of the Catholic Church. A 2000 year old institution that is its own sovereign nation and is present in almost every country across the globe. And I would be remiss if I did not remind folks that  some proportion of the wealth of the Church comes from the benefits of black and indigenous slavery and the wealth benefits that white Catholics have gained over the years in profiting off of an economic system built upon the exploitation of black labor and the expropriation of black wealth.

Grambling State University is a public HBCU founded in 1901 in Louisiana for the purpose of educating black residents of northern Louisiana. The land on which the school was founded was donated by a local white lumber king. It has an endowment of nearly five MILLION dollars to serve approximately 5,000 students. Grambling has always depended upon the support of the state and Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, has supervised a constant campaign of disinvestment, most recently cutting over $50 MILLION dollars of support. Grambling's decline is not due to the depraved indifference of a blind population obsessed with white acceptance, but is the inevitable result when states and the federal government disinvest from their own institutions. It should go without saying that the donated income of a few successful alumni will not be able to fill the gap made not only by more consistent external funding but centuries of accumulated wealth that black Americans have never had access to.

And this is what Whitlock's politics of blackness misses. It is not a radical proposition to retreat into the doctrine of "self-help" as the solution to black America's ills. This embodies what Adolph Reed Jr. calls a "politics of capitulation" that does not seek to demand that black Americans be afforded the same rights, privileges, and supports that non-blacks have, but instead turns away from "external" critiques and limits its critique at the racial line. Thus black disadvantage must primarily (because Whitlock and others will recognize racism's existence) due to black folks' unwillingness to properly support black people. This is the politics of blackness in its most pure manifestation. It is always a politics that rests upon a monolithic black particularity and is measured by one's racial authenticity and stated love for black people as opposed to actually representing or advocating for the interests of blacks. It not only abandons structural critique, but also subsumes intra-black difference by assigning a common political identity based upon racial identity as opposed to recognizing that black people, like any other group of people, is made up of a multiplicity of interests that cannot be boiled down to racial identity.

If black politics is to move forward, then it is time to abandon the politics of blackness that places responsibility for black community advancement squarely at the foot of black people as opposed to the racist state in which we live, and that equates black political success with the isolated success of black elites. Such a focus excuses someone like Barack Obama from concerted and vocal black critique due to a defensive posture that assumes that the criticism of one of us is a criticism of all of us. As long as Obama and other black political leaders support policies that contribute to increasing poverty in black neighborhoods, the imprisonment of black peoples, and, ultimately, the early death of black people, then we will never move towards a more responsible and radical black politics.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Can't Eat Respect

Noah Smith has a recent blog post reflecting on the differences between Japanese and US society and their conceptions of equality and liberty. In particular, the difference between Japanese notions of respect, and personal and social conservatism regarding overt displays of wealth, contrasted with America's, admittedly, more egalitarian (using the American habit of addressing people by their first names as an example) traditions  that lack an overall conception of "respect". Smith places this idea of "respect" as a fourth pillar of equality to add toward's Smith's descriptions of American conceptions of equality: equality of outcome, attributed to "true" communists and socialists; equality of opportunity, championed by centrist liberals; and equal rights under the law, championed by conservatives and libertarians.

"Equality of respect" in this assemblage of rights can ameliorate the dissatisfaction of those at the lower ends of society by demonstrating that they are, well, respected and, in turn, valued. The use of honorifics in communicating with a humble sushi chef demonstrate that his or her work is valued and their skill recognized. Smith admits to lacking evidence of a respect gap in US culture and politics, but nonetheless attempts to make the case that both conservative/libertarian and progressive/radical critics erode the idea of respect that rests at the core of American ideals. According to Smith, conservatives have too often insisted upon the intrusion of market institutions to guide social life and sponsored a hyper-competitiveness that makes many service workers embarrassed of their jobs while progressive and radical critics have focused too narrowly on income measures of welfare that overplays material inequity absent other cultural aspects, namely "respect".

In fairness, Smith recognizes the vagueness of these thoughts and one cannot expect a fully formed political theory in a blog post of a few hundred words. But I think it necessary to address some of these preliminary thoughts now such that we can move beyond a discussion that, I feel at least, will not benefit our understanding of history, politics, or equality. I'll try to address my concerns in three areas: the first is Smith's characterization of respect as a potentially lost or fading attribute of American society has little basis in US history; second,  focusing upon moving away from material measures of equality risks reifying unequal social relations and political institutions as well as blunting analytical space for examining inequality in any useful way; and third, Smith's utter indifference to towards race makes for an unnecessarily confusing and sloppy bit of analysis.

Smith's lament over the loss of a more casual egalitarian US as embodied in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and  the raucous inaugural party of Andrew Jackson rest in a history that stands as a testament to profound inequity. Succinctly, America has never been as egalitarian as it thinks it is and it is arguable that America is somehow less egalitarian now than it was in the 1830s! The abolition of slavery, the destruction of Jim Crow, women's suffrage, and queer rights are all testaments to a growing egalitarianism and respect under the law. To somehow posit that Americans from the 1830s until the last 30 years or so were more egalitarian, as in all human beings are afforded the same moral status (as defined by Gray in Liberalism), than they are now is profoundly ahistorical. America has never really had a good run of such a pure egalitarianism even in its early years. Jefferson may have espoused the virtues of the yeoman farmer, but he also helped to better develop the immense plantation system in the deep south that not only further stitched slavery into American society, but also redoubled inequality between a small, yet immensely powerful, white plantation ruling class and poorer white farmer/laborer class. Thus one can see that particularly American paradox where the poor and ethnic minorities, in particular black Americans, where material well being improved with industrialization and urbanization, but egalitarianism, as in being perceived as equal in moral status to everyone else, remained static. The passage of the Civil Rights Acts may truly where we may legitimately start to speak of an egalitarian age in the US not in the streets of Philadelphia in the 1760s and certainly not in the raucous quarters of the White House in the 1830s to a slave-owning president responsible for the Trail of Tears.

The critique that progressives focus upon material inequity, particularly income or wealth inequality, to the detriment of other values that in turns reinforces a kind of crass cultural materialism is a contradictory and fundamentally conservative position that Smith can't even keep straight himself. This confusion comes from a refusal to recognize social and economic inequality manifest themselves in many material ways that often end up doing real harm to people. This is where Smith could have fruitfully used Japan as a comparative case to show that while Japan may have higher income inequality than some European countries (though less than the US) it is also has a bevy of social programs designed to blunt the negative material consequences of economic inequity. In particular, Japan has had universal healthcare since the 1930s. Considering the massive health disparities in this country, largely tied to income inequality, such a comparison would have added an interesting aspect to his observations. But in trying to separate economic inequality from other forms of material inequity, the most dramatic of which includes black American infant mortality rates as twice that of whites, and the disparity persists even when controlling for income. Such an issue would seem to partially support Smiths contention that income is not the only factor when discussing issues of disparity and inequity, but he entirely ignores the need for greater redistributive policies and the obliteration of racism and instead stands upon this idea of "respect" and a shallow egalitarianism.

Smith, ultimately, does not seem all that interested in thinking deeply about inequality as a real force in peoples' lives nor is he interested in theorizing what it means for such stark material inequality and disparity to be essential parts of the organizing logic of our country. This gap speaks to either a relatively shallow understanding of what income and social inequality mean for those at the bottom of society or it speaks to how many self-described liberals are seemingly incapable of seriously contemplating questions of social justice in contemporary contexts.

Finally, Smith could have avoided much of the muddled reasoning on this if he seriously considered the existence of black people in the US. The history of slavery, abolition, civil rights and ongoing battles for racial justice and fairness under the law place the material, social, and political effects of income inequality and racism in stark relief. If we are to critique progressive critics for primarily focusing upon income inequality, then the proper critique is not to say that progressives should demand more "respect" from economic elites, but to show how other social factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation all interact to reinforce and exacerbate social injustice.

To conclude, Smith misrepresents American history in order to claim the US has become less egalitarian, in terms of a potential loss of "respect", even as the past 240 odd years of this country's history has been a slow, bloody, unsteady march towards greater egalitarianism. Second, Smith's inability to connect social inequality to greater material disparity leaves a confused reasoning that does not leave space for demands for greater social justice and potential redistribution because of an inability or unwillingness to connect inequality to real disparities in life outcomes or to connect continued to inequality to directly to the lack of "respect" he claims to care about. Ultimately, this is part of a popular project of seemingly reasonable, progressively oriented folks who worry about inequality but are profoundly uninterested in actually substantively transforming material benefit in our society. It is a politics devoid of any substantive positions of dealing with injustice outside of wishing for some greater cultural transformation that simply seeks to mollify those at the bottom of the social pyramid.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Inadequacy of "Good" Urbanism

Run a google search for the term “good urbanism” and you run into a bevy of blog posts, articles, and even books all proclaiming to know the secret to making good places through adhering to the principles of “good urbanism”. Invariably, the recommendations touted are almost all design-based or centered on modifying the urban form. The interventions offered usually focus on making cities “human scale”, encouraging multiple modes of transit etc...what’s wrong with this? It misses an essential facet of cities; they are the physical representations of social relations. Buildings, blocks, transportation systems represent the political, economic, and social relations of the time of their construction. Nothing about that statement is novel or particularly deep but it seems that many mainstream “urbanists” seem to elide over or entirely forget that cities are not solely objects but a set or array of social relations.


Roy (2011) has a piece where she says that the central role for planning theorists is to take seriously the question of the production of urban space-- or urbanism. She then goes on to introduce the four processes that make up urbanism, at least in the studies she is introducing. The first process she identifies is the role that capitalism and the flow of capital plays in the production of space and how capitalist market relations play upon issues of neoliberal style urban development and governance and post-colonialism. The second focuses on the struggle over urban space. Succinctly, highlighting the multiple contradictions and conflicts that play out everyday as different people go about living and creating urban space. The third aspect is that of urbanism as a “constituted object” that is produced through planning-- i.e. the built environment and how this built environment embodies, bolsters, or conflicts with the other processes. Lastly, she observes that urbanism is a global process that is manifested through the uneven flows of global capital, migration,  and massive urban growth in the Global South. That calls for recognizing these new, incredibly large and increasingly powerful cities that exist in entirely different historical, economic, and political contexts than Western cities requiring a new theorization of cities founded upon a serious study of urbanism-- or the production of urban space.


I find these four aspects of urbanism to be incredibly enlightening. Specifically, Roy points to the physical ordering buildings through planning as one of at least four aspects of urbanism. More importantly, she instructs us to examine the many relations that they embody within space. Planning here speaks directly to the three processes, but it does not dominate. This is something that many mainstream urban commentators seem to forget or do not adequately explore. To say that a certain kind of development embodies “good urbanism” versus “bad urbanism”, often framed as idealized dense central city living vs a more sprawled suburban design or lifestyle, is an absurd statement. The central city and the suburb both embody a set of social relations that dictate how that area came to be developed and how people currently live within it and create their own spaces. There’s nothing a priori better about the social relations in a central city than one found in the suburbs. Both areas can be sites of oppression, exploitation, sinks or sources of capital or, conversely, sites of liberation, fulfillment conflict etc...


We can critique certain building patterns as being inefficient in terms of budgetary restraints, ecological impact, concentrating poverty etc but those are all results of a particular set of social and political relations that stand semi-independently of the built environment. The essential point is that a particular configuration of buildings is neither “good” nor “bad” in absence of a serious examination of the social relations responsible for the construction of those buildings and the greater social processes that continue to shape the greater community in which those buildings exist. In other words, urbanism is not about an object, but about a set of overlapping, constitutive processes that produce a wide range of physical forms. The physical form is largely a reflection of these greater processes and forces.


Insisting on ascribing a particular physical configuration with the moniker of “good urbanism” or, even worse, labeling individuals and institutions as good or bad urbanists based primarily on their physical design decisions obscures and depoliticizes the processes of the production of urban space, rendering critique to now-repetitive laments over building decisions. Commentators are more concerned over developers and corporations being good neighbors than giving a more full review of not just office placement and design, but in trying to situate the process in a fuller context of urban redevelopment and planning, regional and global economic change, and eternal conflicts over the claims to certain spaces.


To this end, it is absurd some of the more recent laments we have seen over the role of tech companies as “good” urbanists as demonstrated by how they re-shape neighborhoods. Such a label would assume that these companies are engaging in actions that are out of the ordinary or contrary to the goals of, at minimum, city and regional planners and policymakers. But a cursory reflection over how our cities, in the US at least, have grown not just in this past decade but over the past century, shows us the folly behind such assumptions. Urban development largely follows the dictates of social and economic elites, is based around uneven development, and exclusion. In a country with stubborn racial segregation, increasing economic segregation, and increased income and social inequality that is, in turn, reinforced by our city and regional governments uncritical embrace of economic growth as the only viable solution, why are we surprised that for-profit corporations act like for-profit corporations? And, more important for folks who proclaim to study and love cities, how are you so unfamiliar with the pattern of urban development, in the first place?


Let us stop the limited, and unproductive framing of “urbanism” as an object to be judged based principally on design and let us, in the spirit of Ananya Roy, see urbanism as the confluence of multiple processes in the production of urban space. This can move us beyond facile laments over twitter’s seeming lack of community engagement and show us how absurd it is to expect values not rooted in profit and accumulation to be expressed by profit seeking tech firms.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Affordability Index: Who is this for, exactly?

The new HUD housing/transport location tool has made a minor ripple in the urbanist blogosphere. The hope, as stated by HUD is to,"...to provide the public with reliable, user-friendly data and resources on combined housing and transportation costs to help consumers, policymakers, and developers make more informed decisions about where to live, work, and invest."  There have already been a couple of blog posts at sites like Next City and DC Streetsblog that have played with the tool and speak on its functionality. I don't wish to reproduce this work, but to ask a more fundamental question: Who is this exactly for and what are we trying to show here?

First, the tool is an excellent visualization application. The display is clean, the controls fairly intuitive and you can get a lot of information in a simple format. Kudos to HUD and its partners for making this available. But I also feel that this tool is supposed to provide a service that does not accurately reflect how people make housing decisions. I get it, this is a visualization application. It's not a policy or an office, but the stated goal of the tool does, in fact, hold a particular political orientation.

Succinctly, the tool, in holding up housing options for people as largely a rational exercise in cost tradeoffs, does nothing to interrogate the ways in which we construct housing or provide transit infrastructure. In framing housing choices as basically a rational choice exercise without also recognizing that most households, including all low to moderate income households, actually have an incredibly restricted set of choices based on market power, the tool subtly shifts the onus of housing affordability onto potential residents. This is not to say that this tool is part of a greater insidious project to disenfranchise marginalized populations, but it does show that the framing around this tool's use is based on a rational consumer in a depoliticized landscape of housing and transportation costs that are simply presented.

More specifically, while the tool offers a set of idealized populations you can map with that can offer some rather stark comparisons (the first image is a map of Portland's affordability index for a "region typical" household making around 56k a year):


It's clear your "region typical" household basically has their pick of spots. This may be the closest one can get to an idealized decision structure for a household. There are clear tradeoffs to be seen, at least for the rental market. When taking home ownership into account the decisions change drastically (again for "region typical" household):


We see a large jump in prices. This is largely a reflection to the really tight housing market we have in the region right now and you can identify some of the areas in the city and outer parts of the region that are still affordable and, in the case of Portland proper, is quickly being converted bought up by better off households.

Now, what does this same market look like for the "low income" category?


The difference is there in stark relief. Low income renters, on average, are looking to spend 54% of household income on housing and transit. More recent rental market changes are especially evident in this map. Northeast and central east Portland are now areas where most low income households can be expected to pay nearly half of their income on housing and transport even though these areas are central to the region. For low income homeowners or prospective homeowners the difference is even more stark:


Uhhhhh...so....yeah. Nothing much to say here, really. If a low income household is able to buy a home (an unlikely proposition given still-tight lending standards and the hot market in PDX) this household can expect to 80% of its income on housing and transit. 

It's clear that low income households, both renters and homeowners, have a much more restrictive set of "options" available to them in terms of housing and transportation. This is to be expected in a system where housing provision is primarily left to market forces. There's nothing really new here, but it's always good to be able to visualize such stark disparity in simple ways. But if this affordability index tool is designed for policymakers and planners, then I'm wondering what this actually adds to planning or policy practice? Planners already know that housing and transportation are large costs and that these costs are borne more heavily on low income households. I don't know if this tool is telling us anything new or unique. If this tool is showing planners something new, then those planners don't deserve the title.

The obvious rejoinder to this observation is that this simply a tool and planners and policymakers can use it different ways. As a visualization tool it can display disparity in stark, unmistakeable terms that can help when engaging with elected officials or the public. Its simple interface allows for folks outside public planning agencies and government to make similar arguments as long as they have access to a decent computer and internet access (a barrier, but one that is being slowly broken down). In this way, it can potentially be useful as a tool for a particular political project, but as an actual analysis tool it is lacking. 

One gap, an entirely understandable one given model constraints but still big, is that you cannot disaggregate households on different demographic characteristics (see methodology here). For example, you cannot separate households by race and compare. Why is this important? Because household income varies widely among different racial/ethnic groups. In Portland, for example, median household income by race (ACS 5yr-2011) taken from Social Explorer:


The regional typical household for Portland makes around 56k a year for the HUD tool. But we can see that the only racial group that comes close to being a "typical" household is that for White households. Admittedly, this is a very White region compared to others, but this difference here is still striking. Planners and policymakers can see that if they're planning for households other than White ones, then they need to really focus on making housing available more generally to low-income populations, in particular Black households. But the tool, as offered, can't show planners that kind of detail or difference. This severely limits its potential as an actual tool of analysis for planners. As offered, the tool does not really give an accurate representation of housing or transport costs except at the most general of levels. 

For equity oriented planners, or for planners who want to be able to better track, analyze and display difference within their cities, this tool obscures much more than it can potentially display. I recognize the limits of creating a standalone web mapping tool, let alone one that is as easy and kind of fun to use as this one, but I have a hard time seeing the upside here. At least when it comes to planners making use of this. Add to that the implicit rational choice orientation of the tool that depoliticizes and obscures the role the market and market actors play in restricting housing to those who can afford it and the tool loses even more value. 

Overall, I give this tool a C- in terms of utility for planners or policymakers looking for analysis. It can maybe help planners to ask some deeper follow up questions on distribution, but, in my opinion, they should already be asking those questions. I'm inclined to give it a B or B+ for visualization in a simple, easy to use web format. What say you all? Is this a move forward? Does it potentially move HUD's mission forward? Does it help planning or planners? 

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Question of Legitimacy? Public Health and Planning

I had an interesting exchange on twitter earlier with @AlexKarner regarding the difference in the awareness of social injustice and advocating on behalf of the marginalized between public health professionals and, in particular, transportation planners. While I agree that public health, as a field, is much more open and honest not only about the corrosive effects of poverty on individual and societal health but also has a much more vigorous history of advocacy on behalf of the marginalized, I started wondering what were some of the structural, disciplinary, and political differences between the fields that allowed public health the rhetorical space and political capital to engage in such advocacy. These are by no means finished thoughts, but sketches of thoughts, and I invite comment and critique on this. I think this is a potentially useful discussion, though, especially as public health professionals and researchers make a more vigorous foray into aspects of physical planning.

Theoretical Consistency and Legitimacy

This is not to imply that research in public health is monolithic or one dimensional. Nor should anyone think I'm implying that there are not vigorous critiques of dominant research paradigms and approaches coming from practitioners and researchers as well as health activists. Even a cursory history of public health initiatives show a strong history of debate, protest, and contestation ranging from innovative community health programs in response to medical racism by the Black Panther Party to the direct action of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Of course, these traditions continue today with the field of public health being pushed from multiple levels. That being said, public health is able to rest on a relatively coherent and consistent epistemology that's firmly rooted in medical science. There are certainly challenges to the hegemony of positivist legitimacy and exploration, but public health researchers, practitioners, and activists can all reference shared notions of disease (though this can also be areas of intense contestation as in labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder) and a shared understanding that there are clear social determinants of disease in addition to physiological conceptions of disease. In turn, public health can also use the social position of "science" as widely construed as a platform of legitimacy, even in the face of historical and current abuses like forced sterilization and exposing children to lead in homes.

I think, above all else, this is what allows for the kind of message that allows public health practitioners to more fully explore and critique social determinants of disease. While we can argue over the social construction of diseases and their relational characters, public health scholars and activists can point to a child that has asthma, a pertussis outbreak, or widespread lead poisoning as clear and direct threats to public well being. But beyond having a political orientation towards the "public" (however you define that) it is the ability to express and formulate those problems that offer a foundation from which public health practitioners can not only collaborate but also critique other claims. The social realm becomes a much more legitimate arena of critique and exploration when everyone can point to some kind of disease incidence and say,"This is a clear problem and purely physiological/environmental causes are inadequate to explain these problems away."

Planning, on the other hand, lacks such consistency. Yes, planning largely adheres to a rationalist, post-structural set of theories that can encompass a wide array of knowledges, but this foundation is much more shaky and contested than public health's. Planners have a hard time truly formulating what are pressing problems that they can potentially address and serve. Ultimately, this is due to the inability of the field to adequately answer the questions,"Just what is it that planners do?" But part of why we can't answer such questions is because of our lack of a shared theoretical foundation. Calls for the rationalist, scientific city are widely discredited (though they are re-emerging with the obsession with smart cities) and planning has never been able to recover a foundation from which we can move forward.

This tension may be best illustrated by planning's continuous tension between process and outcomes. How do we balance our desires for democracy and representation with the priorities of a large city or even a region? The scalar questions alone are enough to tie you in theoretical knots for years. But a large reason why we even have such debates is that planning, and by extension planners, have little to no legitimacy in the greater public realm. We attempt to claim legitimacy through claims of technical expertise, position within a greater bureaucracy, or sometimes even as advocates, but planners in most of our cities and regions do not speak with the power and confidence that public health professionals can.

Planners cannot claim legitimacy because we have no widely accepted epistemological tradition to claim and draw upon and eventually extend into more radical areas. The result is a field where, academics at least, constantly tear each other's theories down and we move no closer to answering the essential question for the field of,"What do planners do?" This, in turn, feeds into the alienation we see between practicing planners and academic planners, whereas the public health field seems to have pretty decent relationship in terms of research from government and academic institutions reaching practitioners and being considered and used. Whereas planning practice seems to dominated by a small set of elite urban-oriented popular thinkers, sometimes academics but sometimes not, that cycle through eras of dominance. The durability of Jane Jacobs' critiques, the dominance of Florida's creative class thesis implicit in contemporary obsessions with attracting "millenials", and the new dominance of "sustainability" are all things that practicing planners draw from but can hardly be called a coherent theoretical base as opposed to a series of observations, interests, and practices at varied stages of popularity. Sustainability offers the closest to a coherent theoretical position that planners can work with, but the way it is often presented and acted out in practice is shallow and tends to favor policies that reinforce social inequity and represent the interests of social and political elites. That's a political critique, but we can also see that sprawl, while slowed down, continues on, fracking continues to despoil our water tables, biodiversity continues to suffer, and poverty and social inequity go unexamined in popular treatises in planning and quite often in published plans.

The result is a series of fads paraded as "best practices" repeated by the same cadre of consultants, journalists, and super-star urbanist academics until the next big thing comes along. All the while, the shiny new edifices planners are trying to build remain upon a foundation of sand consisting theoretical inconsistency, a lack of empirical support, and a lack of structural or institutional change that would cement the radical changes in urban governance that could actually bring about something like durable sustainability.

That's all I've got for now. I have some further thoughts also on the difference in political exposure and position within the greater economy between the two fields but I would love to hear from you all on this.