The Case for Andrew Yang

As we gear up for the first Democratic presidential debates tomorrow, here is my final endorsement-potential among the candidates: the wild card of the bunch, Andrew Yang.

It could be argued that the case for a President Yang is equivalent to the case for universal basic income (UBI). In this instance, it more or less is, but it is also a case for a something different, considering the range of views of the other candidates. While the other 23 candidates face off, placing themselves somewhere along the spectrum  of centrist to progressive, using litmus tests like medicare for all, student loan debt forgiveness, reparations, and voting rights for prisoners, Yang is writing his own rules. For those who firmly believe that a change candidate is needed to banish Trump from the White House next year, Andrew Yang would be a solid choice.

At first glance, UBI might seem like a leftist policy, but it really is not. There is a well documented libertarian case for UBI, based off the premise that the fixed amount – in Yang’s case, the $1000 per month Freedom Dividend – would effectively replace the welfare state. Essentially, we’d all be on our own, only with an extra $12,000 per year in cash.

As a leftist more inclined to be a social democrat, this leaves me with a number of questions.

If everyone is just given a $12,000 per year raise, how would we ensure that the cost of everything wouldn’t just go up alongside it? How much would we be better off in the end?

If the welfare system were to be pulled out from under us, how can we be sure that those who most need the Freedom Dividend would not be tricked or defrauded into paying too much for a basic service that would have otherwise been provided? Would there be a comprehensive financial education program instituted in schools, for example? (I think this should happen anyway).

Would that money be enough to cover everything it is intended to replace? For example, if Section 8 housing were no longer to exist, would this money be necessarily enough to find a home in a very expensive city?

While it would serve Yang to clarify more as to what counts as a welfare program to be withdrawn in favor of UBI, he does make sound arguments to satisfy other common questions about the initiative. For example, one common question suggests that it would be regressive to include the ultra-wealthy in the program. After all, why does Jeff Bezos need an extra $12,000 per year? Yang’s argument is simple: Everyone receives the UBI, and no one will be incentivized to earn less – or to under-report their income – in order to receive it. Another common reaction is the apprehension for withdrawing all welfare programs in favor of UBI. Yang offers the solution of providing each citizen a choice: the government assistance status quo, or the UBI, and Yang is confident enough in the appeal and effectiveness of UBI that it will be phased in by popular will.

The debate over the welfare state versus the Yang Dollars is also intriguing because it has the potential to upend the thinking that the progressive left looks more favorably on the state than on the individual. As a social democrat,  I find myself frequently faced with the task of navigating valid arguments about government bloat and inefficiency of certain  public assistance programs and whether or not the inconsistent patchwork of each state’s social services adequately serves their purpose. In a similar vein, we on the left do not like to find ourselves boxed into a corner defending the proverbial lucrative compensation of a bureaucrat at the expense of the middle class taxpayer (you know, the economic class that actually has to pay their taxes as opposed to weaseling their way out of it). The progressive left fundamentally stands for a more equitable distribution of resources, a guaranteed basic standard of living, and a balance of power – not a transfer of power and resources from the higher-ups of one sector to another.  Libertarians are not always wrong when they point to poorly allocated funds or poorly executed social services. The UBI system empowers the individual to make his or her own choices and priorities while maintaining a cushion funded by a Value Added Tax (VAT) that can fill the gap while unemployed or underemployed.

Lastly, Yang’s proponent of UBI in place of the welfare state is not equivalent to saying, “privatize everything.” In fact, Yang is on the record for supporting Medicare for All and forgiving most student loan debt. In other words, you get the extra thousand bucks every month, and you don’t have to use it on student loans or medical bills or insurance premiums. That’s a pretty good deal.

It is true that Andrew Yang is a capitalist; an entrepreneur no less and one of the dreaded “tech bros” that I have railed against in other discussions. Nevertheless, Yang offers a different kind of capitalism worth giving a chance as we make our way further into the 21st century with rapidly transforming industries and unclear job security forecasts. His outside-the-box candidacy is one worth considering.

The Case for Kamala Harris

As I round up my cases for potential “endorsements” among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates – of which there are not quite as many as the 2018 Montgomery County Council At-Large race, but almost – I’d like to make a case for a more-or-less “establishment” pick: Kamala Harris.

Let’s face it. Maryland voters generally vote to protect the Democratic establishment. We house federal government employees here, as well as lobbyists, corporate lawyers, and socially progressive business executives – many of whom may have their hearts in the right place on many issues but at the end of the day err on the side of not disrupting the status quo. Hillary Clinton beat Bernie by over 30 points here, after all. This all being said, some “establishment” candidates are less bad than others – and some make rather compelling cases for being the DNC-friendly candidate that progressives could actually get excited about.

Enter Kamala Harris.

Known for being a tough-as-nails prosecutor, she’s done nothing but shine in the Senate hearings, grilling both Brett Kavanaugh and AG William Barr. She’s been relentless and passionate and knows where to jab where it really hurts, and this will make Trump crumble – or better yet, throw a meltdown – during general election debates. As a woman Attorney General of color in California, I will give her the benefit of the doubt when coming down on the more authoritarian side of issues such as the state’s truancy program. As a progressive, I would disagree with this more hardline position, but knowing the barriers that women of color face in this field, her commitment to being a no-nonsense prosecutor has enabled her to overcome systemic career obstacles.

I’d also give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the bold, progressive ideas that Bernie Sanders has made central to the Democratic primary discussion, such as medicare for all and voting rights for those serving time in prison. Harris appears to be still feeling out her position on these issues, which indicates that she has the most potential of the establishment-friendly candidates to be pulled leftward. In her interview this winter on Pod Save America, she wavered on Medicare for All, initially jumping on the progressive bandwagon but somewhat stumbling when pressed on whether or not she would favor eliminating private health insurance. This response isn’t perfect, but it is superior to Biden’s, Klobuchar’s, and Buttigieg’s flat-out NO. In a similar vein, Kamala’s CNN townhall featured a much-repeated response when pressed on the boldest progressive positions (prisoners’ voting rights come to mind): “I’m open to having that conversation.”

Again, these responses aren’t perfect. In fact, they could be among the weakest, most waffling-politician-y responses you could get to the real probing questions – and Kamala knows a thing or two about relentless, probing questions. Still, it shows her as a potential ally.

Harris speaks in a way that shows she is relatable and likeable. She cracks jokes, she laughs, she speaks very matter-of-factly, and she isn’t boring. She wants to be liked. This could be a “politician thing,” but it could be used to our advantage. If she wants to be liked, then she wants to be liked by progressives. She knows that she needs us and she is willing to listen and take our ideas seriously.  For these reasons, if you are voting in a state whose delegates are more than certain to go to a comparatively DNC-approved, Rachel Maddow-MSNBC-friendly candidate, Kamala Harris might be a wise choice.

The Case for Bernie Sanders

A few weeks ago, I made my case for Elizabeth Warren for President in 2020. While I remain officially undecided, the “endorsement cases” I make in this blog are coming more or less in the order I would rank them were we to have an advanced rank choice voting system in place. In my case for Warren, one of the primary drawbacks I articulated was whether or not she could win – whether she was simply too wonky and too ivory tower for the typical American voter. This may or may not cause progressive voters to second guess her candidacy.

Another leading candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, potentially closes this gap in the electability question. Sen. Sanders is undoubtedly a movement builder – he has riled up a passionate, unwavering base of younger and otherwise disillusioned voters. As a populist, he taps into the swath of the electorate that wants to “drain the swamp” while offering an option other than filling it in with even uglier swamp creatures (like Trump). This is why Clinton supporters were eager to point out (disparagingly) that 12% of Sanders voters ended up voting for Trump in the 2016 general elections. The “Bernie Bro” vote, in many cases, was less about sexism or being a sore loser than it was about voting against entrenched Washington insiders. We see the same reaction on social media among Sanders supporters today with regards to Joe Biden’s candidacy.

This brings me to another criticism – that Sen. Sanders has been an ineffective legislator. Critics often like to note that Sanders has only gotten seven bills passed during his time in Congress (both in the Senate and the House) since 1991. In contrast, unabashed centrist Amy Klobuchar has passed 33 bills. To those most disillusioned with Washington, however, Bernie’s legislative is not the bug; it’s the feature. Remaining a maverick and an outsider throughout his decades in office demonstrates an immunity to the Swamp Fever that corrupts politicians on both sides of the aisle. Sanders, after all, racked up primary victories in surprise Trump-voting states like Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as rural and western states. He also walked into the proverbial lion’s den, giving a town hall on Fox News, which generated resounding applause from the audience and set the trend for other Democratic candidates to follow suit. (My other preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, would have done well to do so in my opinion).

It is noteworthy that my case for Bernie Sanders is based around the politics of his nomination rather than his individual policies. I maintain that Senator Warren has more (painstakingly) clearly articulated policy plans – and ways to pay for them – though Sanders deserves credit for taking leadership on the very popular Medicare for All proposal in the Senate. Both Sanders and Warren have articulated a proposal to induce more employee stake in large companies. For better or for worse, however, the 2020 elections may come down to not who has the most clearly articulated policies, but to who can mobilize a loyal base and tap into populist unrest that has not subsided since 2016. For this reason above all, Bernie Sanders is the clear choice for the movement-builder’s candidate.

 

Larry Hogan: My Way or the Highway (Literally)

Your author just got back from her backcountry, off-the-grid vacation and missed the massive town hall held in Silver Spring on Sunday.

A Very Wrongheaded Idea from Mr. “Popular.”

Imagine a world where the NIMBYs and YIMBYs unite in opposition to a wrongheaded, regressive proposal from a “popular” Republican governor. Stranger things indeed happen.

On Sunday, a crowd of over 700 came to the Silver Spring Civic Building to voice opposition to Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add lanes to 495 (the Beltway) and I-270 by widening both highways. Hogan had initially claimed that the highway widening would not take homes and businesses, but later fleshing out of the proposal proved otherwise. According to the Hogan administration’s report released in April, over 1,500 properties would be “directly affected,” with 34 homes and four businesses destroyed.  Moreover, the Maryland Park and Planning Commission determined that over 3000 acres of Rock Creek Park, the DC area’s central oasis, would be taken.  This makes sense, and, it could possibly be worse. After all, the space needed will be not for just new lanes, but completely new constructed on-ramps, exits, and barriers.

Not only did Hogan’s highway plan generate opposition from the expected groups of environmentalists and NIMBYs (of both the tree-hugging and the get-off-my-lawn varieties), it also generated opposition from urbanists. Action Committee for Transit, a transit advocacy organization generally aligned with the views of Greater Greater Washington, tweeted in favor of County Executive Marc Elrich’s assessment of the plan. Elrich, who is normally the elected official the urbanists love to hate, cited the LBJ Highway in Houston as an example of the undesired and (presumably) unintended consequences of adding lanes to highways: displaced families, destroyed businesses, and induced traffic demand.

If You Build It, They Will Come.

Induced demand means what you think it means. Citylab explains the phenomenon in its piece about the Houston highway widening:

Just as with the Katy Freeway expansion, adding new roadway capacity also creates new demand for those lanes or roads, maintaining a similar rate of congestion, if not worsening it. Economists call this phenomenon induced demand: When you provide more of something, or provide it for a cheaper price, people are more likely to use it. Rather than thinking of traffic as a liquid, which requires a certain volume of space to pass through at a given rate, induced demand demonstrates that traffic is more like a gas, expanding to fill up all the space it is allowed.

The CityLab article refers to “induced demand” as a key point for urbanists:

  • In urbanism, “induced demand” refers to the idea that increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion.

  • Since the concept was introduced in the 1960s, numerous academic studies have demonstrated the existence of ID.

  • But some economists argue that the effects of ID are overstated, or outweighed by the benefits of greater automobility.

  • Few federal, state, and local departments of transportation are thought to adequately account for ID in their long-term planning.

If there’s any issue that will get the urbanist crowd and the Elrich gang to agree with each other, it’s this one.

The Guv Gets Ratioed on Twitter.

FiveThirtyEight ranks Larry Hogan as the second most popular governor in the nation, and as a remarkably popular Republican governor in a deep blue state. Hogan’s second term was greatly assisted by a coalition of Democrats for Hogan, which brought the Republican within ten points of winning solid blue Montgomery County.

On Sunday, however, the popular, never-Trumper Republican engaged in Trumpian namecalling, which got him ratioed on Twitter:

In case you didn’t know, to be “ratioed” on Twitter means that your tweet gets more negative comments than likes or retweets.

So You Think You Want To Be President

Hogan has frequently billed himself as a “bipartisan moderate” and an anti-Trump Republican, and has denounced Trump and his overly simplistic thinking and inane tweets such as this one above. He’s even gone so far to cast himself as a Republican primary alternative to Trump, should Trump be impeached or forced to resign or (hopefully) imprisoned.

And yet, Hogan is finding out that the GOP has no appetite for bipartisan moderation or centrism. The GOP is entirely the Party of Trump, so I guess it’s just as well that Hogan would start acting like it.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, knowing full well that a tweet about highways does not a Trumpkin make. Even so, sometimes we realize that if it walks like a Republican and quacks like a Republican, it’s a Republican, and it’s probably going to behave like one sooner or later.

Anyways, I only wish Hogan would take a holiday in China and then reconsider his proposal.

Vehicles are seen stuck in a traffic jam near a toll station as people return home at the end of a week-long national day holiday, in Beijing, China, October 6, 2015. Picture taken October 6, 2015. REUTERS/China Daily.

2020: The Case for Elizabeth Warren

In my first post in the series of potential endorsements for 2020, I’d like to focus on the candidate who I place at the top in terms of policy alone. That candidate is Elizabeth Warren. While other candidates have demonstrated policymaking capabilities far above their Republican competitors, Senator Warren has been the most thorough and consistent in her proposals to address income inequality and keep a check on predatory, corrupt financial institutions. The potential first woman president has repeatedly presented sound cases for reining in the institutions responsible for the unstable employment (and underemployment) situations and precarious standard of living of the nation’s most economically distressed.

Our lifeline in the financial service sector

Warren proposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2007, upon the financial crisis and recession, and finally established the institution in 2011. The CFPB, which is being gutted by the Trump administration appointees, is our lifeline in protecting consumers from predatory practices of financial institutions, bank fraud, and ensuring transparency. As Republicans conspire to dissolve our safety net, the CFPB is one of our last lines of defense. Re-enforcers for the faux leather in our bootstraps, if you will. We need someone in office who is on our side as we scramble to pay student loans, or for the lucky few of us who are handling our first mortgages.

A wealth tax that makes sense

Senator Warren’s wealth tax aims to curb spiraling inequality while helping to answer the “How do you pay for it?” barrage of questioning facing every new government initiative. What separates Warren’s wealth tax from others, which have failed, is its comprehensiveness – it closes loopholes which its targets would otherwise exploit to evade and avoid the tax. When simplified, Warren’s wealth tax is levied on stocks, bonds, and private equity, as opposed to income or property, which are the largest assets of the middle class. The wealth tax by definition targets the most wealthy and serves as an alternative to raising income taxes – which, arguably, is in many cases rendered a regressive tax in practice when it disproportionately burdens the middle class and lower middle class (those of us who do not have personal lawyers to find tax loopholes for us to exploit). This two-percent tax, instead, would affect fewer than 80,000 Americans worth more than $50 million.

A Chance to Climb Out of the Hole

So where would this new tax revenue from the ultra-rich go? Elizabeth Warren’s most recent proposal is to help out students who face crushing student debt – by forgiving $50,000 of student loan debt to households earning less than $100,000. This would prove an economic stimulus more justifiable than Obama’s Wall Street bailout. More millennials could afford to buy homes and new cars and start families. Low-income young adults could get themselves on their feet, while middle-income earners could start to build some modest wealth.

Standing up to Big Tech

Warren’s plan to break up some of the big tech companies harkens back to the Antitrust Act of 1890 that targeted Standard Oil, only with a 21st century twist. Big Tech – Facebook, Amazon, and so forth – not only begets untold concentrations of wealth, but also transcends government protection of privacy and civil liberties. In effect, tech companies have Facebook have formed a surveillance state of their own, for surpassing government institutions in terms of Big Brotherdom. Senator Warren is a force to halt the trajectory of dominance of Big Tech and its merging with authoritarian government interests, before it is too late.

But can she win? 

Unfortunately, among my potential endorsees, Elizabeth Warren probably fares worst against Trump. She’s wonky, she’s smart, she’s accomplished, and she’s a woman. All things that threaten a fragile male ego, and we are already seeing the most fragile of egos launching their attacks. In American horserace election coverage and meme culture, a one liner from Trump will resonate farther, wider, and longer than Warren’s thorough explanation of how her policies would realize.

The other challenge for Warren’s campaign in a general election is something that hits home hard for me, as someone who has experienced the downward spiral of responding to bullies only to get bullied even more. Take the “Native American” issue. When Warren ran for Senate in Massachusetts against former model Scott Brown, the “issue” was brought up and actually backfired on Brown, making him look petty. Warren said something along the lines of, “Look, my parents told me that I had Cherokee and Delaware ancestry somewhere down the line, and I believed family lore. Now, onto financial protection…” She hasn’t reacted this way with Trump. Instead, she released a cringeworthy video of herself consulting a DNA test analysis, which only produced more memes and derision from Trump supporters and collective facepalms from Native American tribal representatives. In a similar vein, Warren’s Instagram post of her looking like a “real American” having a beer kind of look like she’s trying too hard. Warren, when she’s at her best, focuses on policy and its implementation. The problem is, much of the American electorate does not have the attention span for that.

Endorsement Category: The Policy Candidate

Elizabeth Warren is the clear choice for voters looking for thorough policy proposals and implementation roadmaps. She has the answers to the “but how do you PAY for it”  naysayer questions, and will calmly explain how the wealth transfer from the highest high earners is no more radical than it was fifty years ago. Her delivery is poised, her arguments sound, and her candidacy depends on the preparedness of the American electorate for a mature discussion of real and necessary solutions.

Why Montgomery County Needs More Jordan Peele

Would MoCo Liberals join Hands Across America before Untethering the Sunken Place?

If you haven’t seen both Jordan Peele films – “Get Out” and “Us” – stop reading this and go watch both of them. If you have, or if you are disinclined to watch psychological horror, read on.

While “Get Out” is set in what appears to be exurban New York State, and “Us” in Santa Cruz, California,  both films could easily be set in Montgomery County (our lack of beach notwithstanding.)

Jordan Peele grasps the concept of racism, class consciousness and being complicit in structural inequities in a way that would make a nonprofit executive in Takoma Park uncomfortable. In fact, I hope Peele sets his next film in Takoma Park (disclosure: I live in Takoma Park), though Bethesda would work well in an ever-so-slightly different vein.

The Armitage family might live in Bethesda. They voted for Obama twice. They have a Love Trumps Have sticker on their Prius. They have a yard sight that says “All Are Welcome Here.” They’ve checked the right boxes and repeated the right slogans and donated to the right causes. They see themselves as far removed from the MAGA hat-wearing, Confederate flag-waving denizens of our state’s eastern and western extremities.

How far removed are they, though, from the racial biases of our law enforcement? How welcoming are they to immigrants, people of color, and children of low-income families in our public schools? More insidiously, to what extent does the Bethesda Armitage family use the county’s diversity as window dressing, or a prop to fill a suitable role, and not embrace immigrants and people of color as individuals with a diverse range of ideas, professions, and goals of their own?

I would not accuse your average white liberal Obama-voting family in Bethesda of a sinister underground brain-swapping practice. I would, however, caution against a latent tendency to comfortably pick and choose the ways to embrace diversity where convenient, and of the assumption that engaging in liberal punditry and fundraising absolves oneself of any responsibilities for structural inequality one might willfully ignore.

Which brings me to Peele’s second film, “Us.” Even if “Get Out” was the more critically acclaimed of the two, “Us” could apply even more directly to Montgomery County.

“Us” may as well feature an upper middle class family of color in Takoma Park. While the Wilsons don’t display the iconic progressivism of TKPK (they seem to be a fairly standard, American Dream-living suburban family fixated on their model homes and boats) the city’s embrace of feel-good progressive action (To be fair, some Takoma Park-style progressive endeavors do make real changes. But let’s not kid ourselves. Virtue signaling is a reality in MoCo, love it or hate it) speaks to some of the points the film addresses.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

“Us” turns feel-good charity on its side with its sinister take on the 1986 anti-poverty campaign “Hands Across America.” “Hands” raised $35 million, but less than half of that went to the charity after overhead costs, and as we can see, it made no dent in to the homeless problem.

Let’s examine the harsh truth. Montgomery County may be as a whole, progressive and well-intentioned, but we are sitting above the tunnels of the Tethered, and our wealthiest residents, who provide the tax base we acknowledge that we need, benefit from the structural inequalities that did the tethering.

The main difference between the film and reality is that the Tethered are not as hidden. We know they exist. They are children in cages at the border, drugged and force-fed. They are the urban working poor, who, rather than being paid a living wage, are told to learn a new skill to get a higher paying job, while balancing three jobs, moving from eviction to eviction and racking up medical bills. They are in rural West Virginia, addicted to opioids, and yes – some of them voted for Trump. After all, the Tethered are presented to us as villains, right?

They are Americans.

Perhaps the most poignant revelation at the end of the film was not the Adelaide/Red switcheroo twist itself, but what it really means about human nature at play with structural inequities.
Why has Red, who we found has been impersonating Adelaide for thirty years, solidly fought for Team Wilson, team Above Ground? Why is the real Adelaide fighting for the side of her captors? It is certainly not a story of Stockholm Syndrome. At all. It is the truth about human nature that throws a wrench in the proletarian revolution.

A prisoner of the underground tunnels, or a member of society’s underclasses gets a taste of freedom, prosperity, and privilege – and chooses not to look back.

It’s Adelaide, fallen from privilege, to the world of the Tethered that leads the revolution. She has full knowledge of both worlds.

Do Montgomery County residents have this knowledge, when our Tethered live visibly among us?

What should be the leftist position on development and housing?

Traditionally, socialists and environmentalists have shared a position with staunch development opponents, even when their reasoning has come from opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of class consciousness. It isn’t hard to see why. Both groups (and we are combining socialists and environmentalists for the purpose of argument) want to shield affordable, green, sustainable communities from rapid urbanization and transformation into a corporate, fast-paced, high-stress and exhaust-fumed asphalt jungle. And yet, each of these groups has different things they want to preserve. Some want to preserve the affordability of a given neighborhood and the ability of its residents to stay. Some want to preserve forest and green space and prevent them from being cut down and paved over. And some want to preserve “the character of their neighborhoods.”

The case against overdevelopment

There is a legitimate case against overdevelopment that is not exclusively made by older homeowners who want us kids to get off their lawns. In fact, emotional appeals to overdevelopment resonate with the very young:  Who remembers Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and Bill Peet’s The Wump World – two books that were read to me in kindergarten that elicited a fear of a sad, dystopian asphalt planet? Or the Disney Channel movie Rip Girls, that came out when I was in the fifth grade, where the surfer chicks convinced the wannabe-surfer chick in town not to sell their home beach to developers who would make it into a luxury resort? Even a comparatively insulated and admittedly privileged child like myself in the 90s can be conditioned to resent the social costs of overdevelopment. This is how opposition to development can come from a class-conscious and environmentalist perspective, and not just among ex-hippie seniors in Takoma Park.

Many of the arguments against specifically high-end development are intuitive. Opponents to gentrification rightfully argue that existing residents will be displaced, regardless of what promise of new employment opportunities new commercial development might bring. Likewise, the arguments for infrastructure to satisfy the needs of additional development do often consider that the burden of subpar infrastructure falls disproportionately on lower income residents. If school capacity and transit do not keep pace with development, lower income residents have fewer alternatives to turn to than wealthy residents. A fair case can be made that truly “smart growth” considers quality of life for all residents alongside the quantity of new homes. Similarly, environmental concerns play a role in opposition to or criticism of rapid development. While urbanists argue that denser developed areas prevent outward sprawl into rural areas and leave more untouched land available for agriculture and nature reserves, suburban residents make the case for maintaining minimums of green space, park space, and breathable air for the people who live there, especially for young lungs at play. Additionally, infrastructural strain such as increased impermeable surfaces have been featured in testimonies against increased density.

Lastly, there is a benign appeal to the conservative, “character of the neighborhood” objection to development. When coming from those who we consider less powerful – say, an elderly resident who purchased her modest home in a quiet suburb fifty years ago – appeals to preservation may resonate. I personally grew up with this strain of benign NIMBYism from my parents, who bought a 200-year old house in a small town’s historic district back in 1990, before neighboring streets faced an onslaught of tightly-packed McMansions to house wealthy commuters who sent their children to school with classrooms in excess of thirty students. With this upbringing in context, who could help but empathize with the true story behind the Pixar movie “Up,”  the stubborn elderly occupant of a cottage amid urbanized (and probably gentrified) development?

Source: Pixar/Buzzfeed
Source: Buzzfeed

The case for more housing

All this being said, we need more affordable housing – with the emphasis on affordable. Urbanists and home-seekers alike will argue that there is simply a shortage of housing. Market urbanists make the argument that by increasing the supply across the board, housing costs will go down by the law of supply and demand. Likewise, by restricting zoning, limits on housing supply will cause the costs to go up. The debate lies in what kind of housing faces a shortage. Some argue that the supply in general remains too restricted, though I do not see families making multiples of six figures struggling to find homes. The tricky issue is the strain on low-income housing as well as homes for the “missing middle.” MPDU requirements, even when increased from 12.5% to 15%, still come with a very restricted income bracket, limited choices in size (most of them end up being single-bedroom and studio-style apartments, with few options for families), and a lengthy wait list.

According to County Executive Marc Elrich, the most severe shortage of housing is for the lowest income bracket. The consequences of this shortage are threefold: low-income families face homelessness, those that keep their homes pay over half of their income on rent and face eviction when they cannot keep up with their payments, and lower-middle  income residents (early-career millennials, for example) are squeezed out of housing appropriate for their incomes because it is being occupied by residents who make below their income bracket. In other words, millennial roommates are competing with low-income families for the same housing supply, and nobody wins. Meanwhile, developers find luxury housing with minimal MPDU requirements to be most profitable. This housing ends up being occupied by the new, high-earning residents attracted to the amenities, or by lower-middle-income millennials who also like the shiny objects but, once again, end up paying half their income on rent (and never save up for homeownership, or end up killing industries due to their lack of discretionary spending).

The fact remains, however, that the shortage of affordable housing largely applies to multifamily housing. Criticism of single-family zoning requirements is not limited to pro-development blogs like Greater Greater Washington, but also concerned citizens on the left, exemplified by a recent Commonwealth MoCo blog post. Exclusionary single-family zoning, according to their argument, results in segregation by income (and often by race) and insulates wealthy (white) homeowners from “encroachment” by “keeping the rifraff out,” as one activist puts it.

While requiring basic accompanying infrastructure alongside development is a sound concept, progressive affordable housing advocates should be wary of these criticisms when coming from the testimonies of wealthy homeowners and thorough in their analysis of what constitutes adequate infrastructure. Are there established metrics of investment into transit, school capacity, and other social services necessary to accompany the arrival of a given number of new residents in their new homes? Or is a particular subset of well-established homeowners, resistant to change, combing through the regulations in order to find one loose thread in their aim to unravel the entire development proposal, under the guise of “infrastructure”? There is an apparent divide between progressives and leftists who resist development that is inequitable and unsustainable and those who resist development for less altruistic reasons. This divide may become increasingly pronounced.

Are Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) the wedge issue? 

County Executive Marc Elrich won the Democratic primary by a mere 77 votes. Were it not for every single branch of the coalition that supported him, Montgomery County would be head by the multimillionaire, capitalist and pro-business choice of the Washington Post. If Elrich is historically seen as the leading opponent to (excessive?) development in the County, it would make sense to assume that some of the decisive Elrich voters were of the more conservative, exclusionary wealthy homeowner class of anti-development voters.  It would also make sense that, for political purposes, Elrich might refrain from publicly denouncing those voters for their reasons for supporting him. One activist described how some wealthy homeowners oppose development for reasons that are “simply racist” and seek to keep certain residents outside of their communities, and yet, that “these people love Marc” for zoning purposes alone.

But does Elrich really need this particular subset of voters? The breakdown from the County Executive suggests otherwise:

Source: Jordan Tessler via Twitter

Precinct data showed that, outside of the Ag Reserve, Elrich performed best in urbanized, mixed-income areas with high diversity, such as downtown Silver Spring and East County.  The precincts that consist of mainly wealthy, single family neighborhoods – Potomac, West Bethesda, Chevy Chase – leaned toward David Blair. This suggests that, regardless of these residents’ stances on development, they opted for the more fiscally conservative, center-right (by our standards) County Executive candidate.

Pro-development and YIMBY activists are trying to make Hans Riemer’s Zoning Text Amendment a wedge issue on the progressive stance on development. Framed in a way that would enable residents to choose to have accessory dwelling units on their own lots, the ADU bill attempts to deregulate development in a sense without having “greedy developers” as the opponents’ easy target. The idea is to increase affordable housing options by lifting some burdensome restrictions. Proponents of this bill argue that its opponents are prioritizing the convenience of single family homeowners. Opponents, on the other hand – such as Elrich himself – argue that the issue isn’t increasing the number of ADUs per se, but glossing over some of the regulations that might still be necessary. At the end of the day, what we have once again is both sides digging their heels into an all-or-nothing narrative. You either support Riemer’s bill as-is, or you are against affordable housing.  Critics of Riemer’s ZTA should focus their arguments on which regulations should remain intact and what infrastructure demands new ADU residents would bring, rather than “character of the neighborhood” aesthetic complaints from (wealthy) single family neighborhood residents.

“Compromise” is not a word we really like to toss around all that much. At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed centrist appeaser, it would serve DSA members and Elrich supporters alike to come to a consensus on development policy and proposals like the ADU amendment. Instead of supporting or opposing the idea outright, or deriding those who don’t support it as reflexively anti-housing, perhaps we should comb through the text of the bill and decide which regulations are necessary and which are redundant or archaic. More importantly, those who are known to oppose new housing plans should prove to others that they are not categorically anti-housing. Executive Elrich, whose criticism of development has (deservedly or not) earned him the NIMBY label, should present a counter-proposal to the housing plans he has rejected in order to  affirm his commitment to providing new affordable housing. While it is in our interests to oppose development done wrong, it is also in our interests to propose development done right.

If I were to propose a leftist consensus on housing, it would be one that is moderately pro-density and soundly pro-infrastructure. While I generally avoid slippery slope arguments, I do fear that maximal density as a housing policy would diminish quality of life for all residents in the vicinity. We wouldn’t want to go to such extremes in urbanization that would reach unsustainable – and even unsanitary levels. I do agree with the pro-density premise that increased development in the urban, transit-accessible cores would limit outward sprawl and encroachment into areas designated to be more rural (for example, upcounty). Extreme density, however, would overlook certain environmental factors, such as drainage and runoff from increased impermeable surfaces, and the urban heat island effect. At the same time, we must make sure that “infrastructure” is not a stand-in excuse for wealthy homeowners to preserve their own giant yards and parking spaces for SUVs.

Market Urbanists are not your friends.

One of the pitfalls of the NIMBY vs. YIMBY dichotomy among the left is getting away from the root of the problem, which is that housing, a social good, is almost entirely dictated by the market. In this case, I am defining a social good as something you can’t opt out of if you can’t afford it, similarly to healthcare. Everyone needs a home, and if you don’t have enough money for a home, in most cases, you will pay a disproportionate amount of your income towards rent and sacrifice everywhere else (and in turn, hurting the consumer goods market because you have no discretionary spending).

The author of the aforementioned Commonwealth article conceded in a series of tweets that the capitalist process of “filtering” justifies a deregulated housing policy. By this process, developers should be encouraged to build more housing across the board, including luxury housing, because the wealthier buyers would choose the newest and most expensive homes while the others would “filter” down to those with lower incomes. This “trickle-down” logic posits that increasing the supply is the fundamental answer to the affordable housing crisis, and the way to do so is to lift regulations on development (therefore encouraging developers to simply develop more).

The problem is, however, that housing does not “trickle down” in cost like new iPhone models. When home values and prices go down, it’s because of an external market crisis, such as the recession and housing bust of 2008. If a developer builds a new luxury high-rise with single-bedroom units going for $2,000/month, that’s not going to make the previous high-rise’s single bedrooms budge from their $1800/month. The reason being is that the supply and demand model is imperfect in this case, as I described above. Rents don’t go down so that the market can bear them; tenants instead become more rent-burdened. 

Also, who is to say that comparatively wealthier people will necessarily choose the more expensive units? The incentive structure of the capitalist economy demonstrates otherwise. For example, I currently pay about 27% of my gross monthly income on rent. When I get raises, or if I get a new job, I’m not going to move to a bigger apartment; I’m going to put money away for a future downpayment. This could be considered a selfish decision, since someone with a lower income might want my apartment, but the capitalist system, after all,  incentivizes homeownership and building equity.

It matters what kind of housing is being built, and our priorities should not be to pave the way (bad pun intended) for developers to increase their profits. Removing necessary regulations such as infrastructure requirements (or the taxes that pay for them) in order to encourage developers to build more by making it more profitable will not result in more affordable housing. When housing advocates on the left use the supply argument, they are no longer aligning themselves with YIMBYs, but with market urbanists.

Greater Greater Washington published this graph a while back:

Source: Greater Greater Washington

Were I to guess, I would place my stance on Montgomery County-specific development moderately in the YIMBY square, with about 10% towards the pro-development side and 70% towards the pro-redistribution side. Marc Elrich might be a mirror image of that in the NIMBY square, or maybe 70% redistribution and 10% anti-development, but that would be for him to determine, given the metrics. Greater Greater Washington would be 80 to 100% on the pro-development side, but vary from moderately pro-redistribution to moderately anti-redistribution. The way things have played out, unfortunately, is that the developers who backed Nancy Floreen for County Executive would be solidly on the Market Urbanist pro-development/anti-redistribution side, which is the loudest voice of increasing the housing supply across the board as the way to solve everything. The wealthy white homeowners that Elrich is wrongly being accused of protecting (and who didn’t even vote for Elrich) are solidly on the anti-development and anti-redistribution side, or BANANA (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). Based on the precinct results, BANANA territory voted for David Blair and then for Larry Hogan in the gubernatorial election.

Source: Jordan Tessler via Twitter

Conversation Starter for Elrich: Vaughn Stewart’s Social Housing Bill

D19 delegate and DSA member Vaughn Stewart recently introduced a social housing bill, which gained coverage in Jacobin. While Executive Elrich has voiced support for the bill in casual conversation, the recent Commonwealth article stated that Elrich has not voiced public support or endorsement of the bill. Elrich faces a budget shortfall for the County and further reduction for the FY20 budgets (thanks to Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act), so lack of funding might be a valid argument. The resources to implement this social housing proposal may be a long way coming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the initial stages of appropriating funds. Marc has a big job of creating a multi-pronged approach to increasing revenue and funding necessary (and hopefully transformative) services. As Elrich works within the existing capitalist system to increase revenue through new businesses (and hopefully taxing country clubs, one of these days, we hope he can allocate funds toward a truly progressive housing plan.

Especially if the social housing ends up near single family neighborhoods in Chevy Chase.

 

 

 

 

Let’s talk about that Dianne Feinstein video

As a left winger, I pride myself in calling out fake news from the right. As a supporter of County Executive Marc Elrich, I never hesitate to call out Greater Greater Washington or developer-funded detractors when they take his comments out of context. And yet… I have to say that the left is not innocent of this either.

You’ve seen the video. I even fell for it and reposted it. Children along with activists from the Sunrise Movement visited Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) begging her to support the Green New Deal, as-is, and she responds to them with a condescending tone, barking at them, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” The video presents her as old, stale, and out-of-touch.

The truth is, this was a doctored video. It was edited and spliced to show Sen. Feinstein’s worst responses and tone without any surrounding context. The full response was several minutes long and reveals that Feinstein did indeed engage with the students, and did so in a way that takes them seriously as future adults instead of telling them what they want to hear. I will say, the Sunrise Movement did itself no favors by releasing the doctored video, given that the full version is now circulating. You can watch the full video here.

The Atlantic published a lengthy defense of Feinstein, describing her response as mature and realistic while scolding the children for being rude and underinformed. The article makes a very fair and important point that accomplished “old women” like Feinstein, who have endured many battles to get where they are, need to be respected not merely for their age but for their experience, wisdom, and grit. I agree with this point – but I do think the Atlantic was much too forgiving of Feinstein and too dismissive of the children, the Sunrise Movement, and the idealism of the incoming young progressives in Congress.

In my opinion, the full version of her response does not exonerate Senator Feinstein. While I applaud her for being honest and tough in her response to the children – I much prefer this over smiling and telling them what they want to hear and making promises she has no intention of keeping – I still don’t think she is right. I can respect her for her wisdom and experience, but there is still the bad to be taken with the good, as far as her “doing this for 30 years.”

I do not think Feinstein is gleefully and maliciously out of touch with her constituency. I don’t envision her donning a Marie Antoinette wig and issuing a watered-down proposal as a “cake” version of the Green New Deal. I think she is being honest about how she feels about the viability and constraints of trying to get something like the GND passed. She may not be deliberately isolating herself from the masses, but she is acclimated to a certain Washington culture and mindset.
This is all the more reason to embrace people like AOC not only for their energy and urgency but for simply seeing things differently; for still being on the outside looking in, so to speak. She doesn’t come in with the assumption that something is not going to work; she instead asks, why not? For example, when Feinstein says that we don’t have a way to pay for the Green New Deal, she isn’t entertaining ideas that make certain entities accustomed to the status quo uncomfortable. Defense spending, lower marginal tax rates on the wealthy, and corporate subsidies are all a given, according to most people in Washington. It’s “just too complicated” to mess with.

It may be ironic to compare the AOC way of looking at things to what is usually attributed to a very capitalist mindset, but AOC is operating on the American Dream mentality. You know, everything that libertarian capitalist idealists want you to believe – that if you can work hard, anything is possible; the self-made entrepreneur who starts with $5 in his pocket, that sort of thing.

Yes, the Green New Deal looks impossible. It may very well be impossible. But AOC is saying that we should try. That if we clear out the usual Washington assumptions of how things have to get done and tap into the rest of our un-jaded potential, that we can at least get pretty damn close to these goals.

Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, among others, has said that the Green New Deal is an “aspiration.” This is true. I wouldn’t use the term dismissively, however. Many notable achievements were at one time “aspirations.” Going to the moon. Running a 4 minute mile. Summiting Everest. The original New Deal.  The Green New Deal is a similar calibre aspiration. It is supposed to be HARD.

I’ll save this tangent for a future blog, but…depending on to what degree the UN scientists who give us twelve years to turn things around are correct, we may need to undergo a paradigm shift that is an order of magnitude greater than AOC to fight climate change. While I am no proponent of communism or any kind of forced collectivism, we may need to shift away from our individualism-based mentality to unleash a collectivized “excited delirium” (the alleged phenomenon where a mother can lift a car to save her child, etc) to achieve something currently deemed impossible in order to save the planet.

Until that happens, let’s give the idealism of AOC, the Sunrise Movement, and the children in Dianne Feinstein’s office a chance.

Coming Soon: 2020 Candidates

I was this close to titling this blog entry “2020 Visions” but I decided it was far too cringeworthy a cliche to even use mockingly.

Taking a step beyond Montgomery County for a few weeks – a step so far as to venture six miles down the road to the White House – I’ll be considering some of the candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Spoiler alert: I am undecided. Wholly undecided. And I probably will be for the next year.

I will look at debate performances and endorsements among other things to determine viability and such, while keeping in mind that I want the most progressive President we can get.

The most progressive President we can get. Not necessarily the most progressive candidate. This isn’t to say I think the most electable candidate against Trump will be the one that runs to the center; rather, the one who best articulates and sells progressive policy positions to disaffected “Obama-Trump” voters. The best candidate will not necessarily be the most centrist nor the most progressive, but the most convincing. 

This being said, I am open to voting for someone, in crowded primary no less, who isn’t lock-step aligned with my views on every position. There is a reasonable case to be made for electing the most progressive candidates to the House and the Senate to draft legislation that we want, and to elect a President who won’t veto it.

For the next few weeks, I will make cases for three or four different candidates I am considering supporting for the 2020 primary. I’ll make it no secret once I do make my decision. For now, though, all I ask is this:

Can we please, please make this primary about the issues. Fantasy as it may be, I hope this primary brings out the best in all the candidates and that we have an earnest discussion and debate on policies and how to implement them. NOT tearing each other apart. NOT making Trump’s job easier. NOT providing Trump with far more clever schoolyard insults than the ones he comes up with himself.

I will support the nominee, even if it’s my least favorite Democratic candidate.

I will support that nominee 200%.

 

Does the Left have a diversity problem?

A few days ago, a Facebook post from a well-known local environmental activist was attacked on the grounds that, apparently, only well-connected, older, white people were invited to meet with the County Executive and the new Department of Environmental Protection director.

Granted, some folks on the right and center-right are inclined to simply press CTRL-F “Elrich” and release their daily angst on whatever comes up, but this time, they may have stumbled upon an actual issue worth talking about on the left: Do some activist circles lack diversity?

Robin Ficker gave us all a few laughs when he incessantly referred to Montgomery County’s political establishment as coming from the “Takoma Park Trapezoid.” This criticism, however, extended beyond the GOP’s perennial court jester candidate. David Blair’s almost-successful County Executive primary bid was driven largely by younger upcounty residents of color seeking to give their communities a voice, and perhaps shift some political influence away from Takoma Park/Silver Spring to also heavily populated Germantown/Gaithersburg. These residents are not wrong.

In Montgomery County, the “establishment/outsider” dynamic is not so clear-cut as Washington’s “progressive-insurgent/centrist-insider” dynamic. How can Takoma Park politicians be the “establishment” while they are also the most “far left”? Is it now “anti-establishment” or even “edgy” to be more centrist, conservative, or pro-business? This could be a topic for another time, but what is worth considering is the diversity of Montgomery County’s political Left.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the political left consists of mainly old white people, but certain activist groups, based on my observation, do trend older and whiter. Again, based entirely on my own observations, Progressive Maryland’s core is very young and quite diverse, while the Democratic Socialists of America is young, though skewed white and male. I had commented on the facebook group in question that there are a number of stakeholder advocacy groups centered around racial identity, immigrants, and faith-based initiatives that regularly meet with and influence the Council and the Executive. The criticism of Executive Elrich and the Takoma Park Left-activist “establishment” (these words do seem very strange to put together) stems from the idea that there is an inner circle of long-time political activists that know each other well and are first to consult with one another and answer each other’s calls. This may or may not be true. Aside from trolls or people simply looking for something to complain about, no one is suggesting that the activist left is intentionally racist, but that they had simply formed a clique by nature of working with each other for decades.

While I can’t speak for the lizard-skinned hippie cabal of Takoma Park baby boomer leftist – probably because this cabal really isn’t a thing – I can speak for the fact that “they” are not shutting people out of their “clique” intentionally. Most activists, such as environmental activist Diana Conway and education activist Laura Stewart, are very easy to talk to. There is no specific roadblock – or password, or secret handshake – to having one’s voice heard on a variety of issues. The problem, in my opinion, is accessibility.

A friend of mine, a 20-something activist named Danielle, has agreed with me that aside from civic activist groups directed specifically towards younger people, civic engagement in local public policy and/or campaigns tends to be “old white people.” Take the County Executive for example. Even if Elrich won votes from young, working class people of color – they didn’t really make up the demographic that attended his events and rallies. Aside from his interns and volunteers and their friends, most in attendance were Baby Boomers who had known Elrich for a while. This doesn’t make Elrich or his supporters less progressive, but it does say something about an accessibility or enthusiasm gap.

What Danielle and I agreed upon was the problem that those for whom public policy affects the most…unfortunately have the least accessibility to influence them. When you think about how to get involved or have your voice heard – it means waiting in line to speak at listening sessions at two-hour forums in the evenings. It means driving or taking transit to Silver Spring or Rockville to attend events. It means sifting through the constant Trump news to the local section of the Washington Post (and getting around the paywall) to find out what’s going on in Montgomery County (and then sort from the slanted editorials to the actual news). Try doing all of this when you are the one who is actually working the minimum wage jobs and trying to raise children. If you are juggling bills, multiple jobs, and a family, are you to be shamed for not knowing that there is an election coming up? Are you supposed to have the right opinion about whether or not the Beltway should be expanded? If your number one local policy concern is whether or not your rent is going up, how do you know who to believe – Hans Riemer and Dan Reed who tell you that we need to deregulate real estate development so we can build more housing everywhere, or the Takoma Park Left who tell you that rent stabilization will solve the problem? You probably know my answer, but how are busy people supposed to know?

It is an unfortunate, but fair argument to make that civic activism is a “luxury” for those who have the time and resources to commit. It is understandable that two to three-hour biweekly meetings in a single downcounty location would be dominated by retirees, stay-at-home spouses, or those successful enough in their careers that they can make their own schedules. Or, you know, lonely weirdo single nine-to-five people like me. I would argue that this is why some factions on the left may have a “diversity problem” – not so much because of deliberate exclusion.

A number of us younger activists are making the following suggestions to the Takoma Park/Silver Spring “Old Guard” of well-meaning progressives:

  • Offer more online and live stream options, such as the recent Virtual Town Hall, on specific issues that affect low income residents.
  • Continue the effort to have more public forums in upcounty and East county locations, but advertise them more on social media.
  • Encourage small group meetings, such as the recent meeting we had on affordable housing, to discuss specific issues that involve young people and people of color.

And our suggestions to fellow local activists:

  • Address environmental issues that affect low-income areas and articulate why they are important to someone with a busy schedule.
  • Involve immigrant and faith-based stakeholder groups in discussions of environmental, labor, and housing policy, so that our respective interests are not siloed.

To elected officials and activists alike:

  • Be open to solutions to problems that might not align with one’s ideological mindset. Approach solutions to concerns about housing, jobs, the environment, income inequality, and transportation that are governed by data, case studies, and real life evidence, as opposed to a particular ideological interpretation. The idea is to find out what works, not what gives us the most leftist street cred – or what makes us look more appealing to the center. Leave politics aside for a moment. Solve a problem, then campaign on having solved that problem.