#BrunchGoals: County Executive Discusses Affordable Housing with Millennials

If there is anything that we Millennials know how to do right, whether we can really afford it or not, it’s brunch. In fact, I think it is my generation that has made it a thing to use “brunch” as a verb.

So when the Montgomery County blogosphere erupted at County Executive Marc Elrich’s recent Millennialgate gaffe, we both decided that a brunch at the Takoma DC Busboys and Poets would be a good opportunity to demonstrate that no, the County Executive is not trying to kick all the kids off his lawn. In a meeting with supporters and critics alike, which included women, people of color, and all of us under 35, we discussed the nuts and bolts of accessible dwelling units, MPDUs, the developer preference to stack single-bedroom units one on top of the other to align the plumbing, potential paths for tenant ownership, and co-op banks.

We didn’t really harp on “Millennialgate.” The context of the infamous comment reveals that Elrich spent about three minutes discussing displacement of low-income and immigrant communities and about three seconds referring to “housing for millennials” of a higher income range. At first, I had assumed that Marc was referring to a specific group of gentrifiers, high-income young consultants and tech professionals who want snazzy apartments with all the amenities right next to a metro stop. What would be more accurate is to take the comment in reverse – that the developers are marketing these new luxury units to millennials, regardless of whether most millennials can even afford them.

Rather than belabor the “controversial” remark, Elrich spoke at length as to where the housing shortages and surpluses lie. The County Executive stated that there is, in fact, a surplus of housing for the $60K-80K income range, or at what various sources (to be examined in a future blog) estimate to be in the upper third for millennial household (couple) incomes and upper quartile for millennial individuals. There is also a surplus of housing for the ~$50K household income bracket, which qualifies for MPDUs. Where the real dearth of housing is for the bottom 30% of household incomes, which includes minimum wage earners. This income bracket is left to attempt to find housing with more than three adults in the household, or to spend over 50% of their gross income on rent. Once the bottom 30% demand is met, it would free up the housing intended for the “missing middle” income bracket above the current MPDU threshold. Disclosure: Your author would fit in this “missing middle” housing requirement bracket, considering the added constraints of monthly student loan payments that render the “30% rule” for rent burden not strict enough.

The County Executive also touched upon opportunities for renters to become eventual owners with the assistance of nonprofits and co-op banks. He talked about using container units for shotgun-style housing for homeless. He also fleshed out the downsides of accessible dwelling units and defended regulations, which remains up for debate amongst the Executive and the County Council. (This matter will also be discussed in a future blog). More importantly, Elrich contested the claim from Greater Greater Washington, Hans Riemer and Dan Reed (whom your author suspects are working in tandem) that the low income and immigrant displacement resulting from new developments that the County Executive opposes is not actually happening. Elrich maintained that the reason why the displacements have not happened is directly because of his oppositions to the master plans that would have caused them, such as the upzoning of Long Branch along the future Purple Line.

So, yeah. The County Executive does care about what millennials have to say about our financial and housing concerns. And, we, like, really geeked out about it. The other remarkable thing is that, politically speaking, Marc really didn’t have to meet with us. The thought had crossed my mind that, while a fair number of millennials and gen-Z voters did vote for Elrich in the primary and general elections because of their affinity for Bernie Sanders-style progressives, he might not have really needed the youth vote. Objective critics and staunch opponents claim that Elrich has locked up a base of old, white, wealthy anti-development “NIMBY” voters alongside aging hippies in Takoma Park. Whether the young progressive vote ended up putting Elrich over the edge to victory or not, the County Executive took two hours to talk with eight of us and answer all of our questions in painstaking detail, and offered to make this a semi-regular discussion group. We all just really want to hash out the best affordable housing strategies and get things done.

As Stefani Olsen commented on Zach Wiita’s facebook post about the gathering, “The millenial/old hippie alliance is a good one. Seize that gold.”

Marc and Larry: Two Adults Trying to Make a Deal.

Meet Marc and Larry.

They want to fix traffic. Marc has an idea – Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on major roads, and reversible lanes on I-270. Larry wants to widen 270 and the Beltway and add toll lanes.

Larry knows the state budget and common conventions of urban and suburban traffic. Marc knows the layout of Montgomery County’s land and where widening a highway would be problematic (or impossible) because of homes, waterways, and bridges.

Speaking of bridges, Marc also wants to fix the American Legion Bridge, the source of major Beltway bottlenecks. Larry is listening.

Marc and Larry disagree on a lot of things. But they are listening to each other. They are listening to their constituents. They want to fix traffic.

Marc and Larry also have an orange-faced neighbor named Donald.

Donald wants to build a wall. A big, beautiful Wall.

Donald promised Mexico would pay for the Wall. Mexico said no.

Donald wants his Wall. Donald asked Chuck and Nancy if he could pay for the Wall with Your Taxes. Chuck and Nancy said no.

Donald cried on Twitter. Chuck and Nancy offered some money for border security in a form other than a concrete Wall. Donald doesn’t want to play without his favorite toy.

Donald cried on Twitter. He wants his Wall. He wants his toys, and he wants to pay for them with Your Taxes. But Americans are losing money. The government is still unfudned, and 800,000 Americans are losing paychecks. Some of them may even lose their jobs. These Americans aren’t spending money. American shops and restaurants are losing business. Americans don’t even want to travel and fly on planes that aren’t inspected and don’t have TSA security.

But Donald doesn’t care, he wants his Wall!

People disagree with Donald. Donald calls them Fake News. Donald calls them Haters and Losers.

Donald does not listen to Chuck and Nancy. Donald doesn’t listen to anyone. Donald is not an adult, like Marc and Larry.

Donald needs a nap. Donald needs a time out. Donald needs his phone taken away. Because every morning, at 5am, he shares his Trumpertantrums to the world on Twitter. Tantrums he has because he’s scared.

Donald is scared. Donald knows it’s Mueller Time.

Lessons for 2019

Happy New Year,  MoCo and beyond!

To be honest, I don’t necessarily agree with people who say that they are glad 2018 is over. I thought most of 2018 was exhilarating. For the most part, it ended well (electorally speaking). It could have been better for sure, but it wasn’t bad. I have to say I will miss going out there canvassing and holding campaign events and such. Next time around.

That said, I’m not going to speculate on national elections for 2020…yet. I’ll weigh in on that sometime in the future. What I do want to throw out there are some lessons for 2019…the year where we put our money where our mouth is (literally?) This is what I think Democratic voters – not necessarily just the millennial left – should keep in mind this year.

1. Scrap the Centrist vs. Progressive narrative.

I know I’ve fallen into this trap myself. The media certainly has, from CNN to MSNBC to the Young Turks, everyone is trying to make the case for either moderate Democrats or progressive/socialist Democrats being the answer to take on Trump in 2020 or win swing state elections or what have you. We certainly have competing cases – Moderate Conor Lamb winning in Pennsylvania, Andrew Gillum losing Florida after campaigning with Hillary Clinton,  centrist Claire McCaskill losing in red state Missouri, Ben Jealous winning the primary but then losing as predicted, a wave of progressive newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taking out centrist incumbents in blue districts, moderate Democrats in Virginia winning convincingly over Republicans, and our Marc Elrich demolishing center-right Nancy Floreen in the general election. One might be inclined to assume that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Marc Elrich could only win in deep blue districts and moderate Democrats are what is needed in swing districts. Beto O’Rourke, who is charismatic but with a rather centrist voting record, overperformed in Texas, but Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly did not benefit from their pivots to the center-right. Sherrod Brown, a possible presidential candidate, is a labor Democrat who won in Ohio, which voted for Trump. Basically, everyone is going to have their own argument about who wins or loses where, and why.

We need to throw this reasoning out the window.

The most successful candidate is not going to be the most centrist or the most progressive by default. The most successful candidate will be the one who campaigns on issues people actually care about.

This is why pro-labor politicians win in the Rust Belt. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan did not reject Hillary Clinton because she was just too liberal. They saw that the Clinton brand of the Democratic Party was not delivering and they chose to break glass in the event of emergency (and now are left with a mess of broken glass).

In Virginia, Danica Roem won against a transphobic blowhard not simply because she is transgender, but because she focused on improving traffic on Route 28.

Looking at Maryland, I somewhat agree with the analysis in Seventh State as to why Ben Jealous lost. My personal impression of Jealous was that he didn’t appear well versed enough on the nuts and bolts of the issues during his debates. His initial statements on the Kirwan Commission did not fly well with Montgomery voters who are worried about the prosperous County being treated as an ATM for the rest of the state. His arguments on how to fund a statewide single payer healthcare system were not sound enough, even for those who agree with him on principle. I agree with the conclusion in Seventh State that Jealous would have won against a right-wing extremist, but juxtaposed against a (perceived) moderate like Hogan, Maryland voters were just not sold on Jealous’ message – especially when some supporters attempted to lean on Republican racism and identity politics (which I generally find to be a dead end).

That said, I would disagree with any assumption that Ben Jealous was too left wing. Montgomery County voters chose Ben Jealous 54%, but chose Marc Elrich 65%. Elrich is considerably to the left of Venture Capitalist Ben Jealous, yet he campaigned on issues that people cared about, like development and transit and schools. Jealous, on the other hand, had support from an enthusiastic pool primary voters which pretty much dissolved in the great ocean of general election voters. A lot of us saw him as a movement politician versus a Maryland-focused candidate.

My conclusion is that Democrats voting in primaries should abandon ideology-based litmus tests and focus on where they stand and how they prioritize issues that Americans are most concerned about, which varies from region to region. We may not reach everybody on gun sense issues or gender politics, even if we wish we could, but we will most certainly reach people in the swing states if we focus on their underlying economic anxieties.

That being said…

2. Young progressives need to lobby for environmental causes. 

As much as I think candidates need to cater to what is most concerning to great swathes of voters, the general populace still seems to have a blind spot when it comes to climate change. The vast majority of activists and young progressives may support initiatives like the Green New Deal, but I’ve seen a fair number of polls that unfortunately rank environmental issues far below other concerns. One such poll is the Gonzales Maryland Poll taken last summer. At this time, Maryland voters were far more concerned about removing Trump from office than anything else, and education, jobs, public safety, and opioids came in before addressing climate change. I have seen similar but informal polls taken around in Montgomery County that show environmental issues lagging behind in priority. It appears that most voters recognize that it is a problem, but find more urgency in other issues. This is unfortunate. I have been saying, especially to people that like to recite “we need to expand our tax base,” that there will be no economic growth in a state that is underwater. The younger generation, which faces more dire consequences for the previous generations’ neglect of the issue, tends to put more emphasis on climate change. My recommendation is that younger activists team up with scientists and business leaders to make the case that environmental issues are not some box to be checked off at the bottom, but an integral issue that applies to jobs, health, safety, and every other priority.

Speaking of the young and the old…

3. We need to learn from our elders AND empower the youth.

After we throw out the Centrist vs. Progressive narrative, we need to throw the Old Guard vs. Young Newcomers dichotomy out with it. During this election cycle, age has been used both against and in favor of candidates. I’ve heard Bernie Sanders (age 77) described as too old to run for president, by people who support Joe Biden (76). Incidentally, this very statement has been uttered by my mom (69). My personal postings have shown a love-hate relationship with Nancy Pelosi (78), who has shown strength in some areas but rigidity in others. And yet our superwoman, RBG, is 85 (though she may be the exception to everything).

My three favorite political figures represent three different generations. Marc Elrich, a Baby Boomer the same age as my mother, brings wisdom and experience of the civil rights era and recognition of where we have made woeful progress in racial justice issues. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial, is someone who “gets it” in terms of what people our age are most worried about (climate change, student loan debt, livable wages…), and she brings energy and feistiness that we find to be a breath of fresh air. She does have a learning curve, I’ll give you that – and who better to teach and nurture her political career than incoming leader of junior House Democrats, Jamie Raskin, representing the elder Gen-X as well as my home district?

Tying the older and younger generations together, Ocasio-Cortez made a very Elrich-like comment on real estate development in a recent tweet:

Both the curmudgeonly so-called NIMBY Elrich and the energetic millennial Ocasio-Cortez are concerned with developers accelerating gentrification with luxury, unaffordable housing. I guess GreaterGreaterWashington is wrong when they assume progressive millennials are on board with their narrative that housing will become more affordable if you increase the supply by lifting regulations on developers. Go figure.

And lastly….

4. Stop Whining.

This goes for Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, progressives, centrists, socialists, EVERYONE. When we waste hours upon hours of our days calling out people for being offensive, or making fun of others for being “triggered snowflakes,” or saying anything we disagree with is “fake news,” what exactly are we accomplishing?

Pivoting from the daily Trumpertantrums to my observations in Maryland, candidates who whined the most did poorly. Instead of naming names, I’ll leave it up to the interpretation of readers who followed state and local elections this year.

Some armchair critics on social media continue to whine and complain about what they think some of our new electeds will or won’t do, but fail to propose any feasible alternative. I’m all for holding someone accountable, even if – no, especially if – you voted for them. This goes beyond complaining on social media (or cherry-picking quotations to bitch about on social media). This year, don’t just march with pink hats and signs. March up to Rockville or Annapolis and make your case with data and solutions and do your homework. Policy will not be reformed in the comment sections on Bethesda Magazine.

Quit bitching and get to work.

A Very Thankful Democratic Victory

For once, I’m not going to focus on the negative. It goes without saying that the election results were a mixed bag, though mostly good.

Elrich won, but so did Hogan. Democrats had another shutout in MoCo. There were not many surprises, though I was pleasantly surprised to see Elrich trounce Nancy Floreen with 64% of the vote to her 19% (and Robin Ficker’s 16%). But I’ve gloated enough.

I’d like to take this holiday as an opportunity for ten things I’m thankful for that helped propel these Democratic victories.

1. MoCo voters and their exceptionally high midterm turnout. Lines in Silver Spring were out the door and around the block at times. The torrential downpours on Election Day morning didn’t stop enthusiastic and motivated voters from helping state and county legislators rack up the numbers.

2. Enthusiastic, determined candidates. While I mainly canvassed for Marc Elrich and Lorig Charkoudian, I gave my vote, my $25-$50 donation, and my word of mouth endorsement to many others who did not enjoy a full night of rest for at least 18 months straight. The schedules were grueling, the spirits were high, and the smiles were genuine – most of the time, anyway.

3. Fellow volunteers. On one hand, I feel like we can’t take too much credit because all of our campaign activities were optional and we could pick and choose to attend events and help out at our leisure. On the other hand, we did it all for free (ok, we were compensated in free food and good times). You take any one of us away, though, and Elrich may not have gotten the 77 votes that brought him over the top in the primary.

4. Campaign staff. Of course, how can we not thank the staff? In addition to the candidate’s grueling schedule, the campaign staff had the meta-task of making sure the candidate didn’t miss anything and then had to put up with his (or her, but mostly his) changes of mind or mood or frame of reference in time.

5. Labor advocates. For some reason, it has become in vogue in American political discourse to assume that unions and their leaders are inherently corrupt,  but that the business community and corporate executives have our best interest in mind. Victorious Democratic candidates have to thank labor advocates for setting the record straight and showing the electorate the value of a living wage and paid sick and family leave.

6. Young people. Now, before I extend too much gratitude to the under-30 club (of which, alas, I am no longer a member), I do have to say that y’all still need to up your game. Young voters modestly increased in turnout but were still outclassed exponentially by their grandparents., according to Seventh State. That said, these lousy numbers surprised me, because general interactions with fellow Millennials and even Gen Z kids showed an enthusiasm and optimism I hadn’t seen since before the November 2016 disaster. I’d even say that Ben Jealous and Marc Elrich made politics cool again. But then again, this was in Silver Spring, so make of that what you will.

7. Neighbors. I could just list this as “old people,” but old age is arbitrary, so I’ll just say people in my neighborhood in Takoma Park as well as in other neighborhoods where I knocked doors (yes, including upcounty!) I thank neighbors for not shying away from talking politics and for not slamming the door in my face when they saw that I was a political canvasser interrupting their dinner or their nap. Thank you for being engaging and eager to learn, and of course, for voting.

8. People who disagree with me. Some of you might know who you are. I’ve had some polite debate (and sometimes less polite) with those with strong fiscally conservative convictions and who ultimately voted for my candidate’s opponent. I’ve also gotten mired in some very wonky debates on housing and infrastructure policy. Even if we still disagree, and even if we don’t even like each other, thank you. You’ve challenged my views, forced me to do more research, and to go back to my candidate to seek clarification of apparent logical inconsistencies and counterintuitive policy approaches. This just makes everything more interesting.

9. Small business owners. Thank you for using your own voices, since every politician and their surrogates think they can speak for you. Thank you for showing us that not all small businesses are the same or have the same priorities and operating pressures, just as not all regulations are applicable or helpful, but are also not all necessarily bad. Now you’ll get the chance to tell us which policies are most helpful to you.

10.  The Washington Post’s salty tears Fact checkers and critical thinkers. We have a serious problem with local news coverage in Montgomery County. Instead of the Gazette, we have the Washington Post local news section, whose straight news coverage is frequently drowned out by their neoliberal/fiscally conservative editorial board. Filling in the gaps are Maryland Matters, pro-development blog GreaterGreaterWashington, and blogs like Seventh State, which, while well-written and substance-rich, still slant to the political preferences of their authors. And of course, there is this blog, the premium source of objective news. Just kidding. With a dearth of local news media that isn’t heavily editorialized, Montgomery County voters who take the initiative to fact check and critically think for themselves are what prevents democracy from dying in darkness.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

The Radical Prospect of Electing Marc Elrich

As I am waiting for my connecting flight for my brief out-of-town vacation, I am already breaking my self-imposed rule of not engaging in political social media between the end of early voting and Election Day. I scrolled through Facebook, twitter, and instagram feeling rather elated – for once – seeing the explosive turnout on the last day in Montgomery County.

In what will more than likely final blog post before the election, I want to talk about my own involvement in this local election. Most people know that I was a “super volunteer” for Marc Elrich, though I also volunteered for Lorig Charkoudian in D20 (who won) and Danielle Meitiv for  Council (who did not win,  no women ended up winning 😔). Towards the end of the primary,  however, I laser-focused on the  Executive race.

My apparent obsession with the County Executive race was not for the reasons some people might think. There is nothing in it for me. I’m not vying for a County job. I don’t need Marc as Executive to keep my rent control (he doesn’t even plan to try this at the county level). I will, however, confess this: There is a streak of identity politics or maybe even tribalism at play. In a nutshell, I view Marc as an exception to the “rule” of Montgomery County elitism.  I use the word “elite” purely in the socio-economic sense; possibly somewhat in the cultural sense as well. I am not referring to intellectual elitism, which should be a good thing.

Let’s keep it real. Montgomery County is nationally known to be rather elitist. We are known for our polished lawyers and lobbyists, government contractors, DC politicos, and socially progressive business executives. And yet, there is another half of MoCo’s population, which is increasingly diverse in not just racial but economic backgrounds. It is time for someone from this side of the median income to have representation. I’m not saying Marc Elrich IS this. A Council member’s salary is above the median (though not absurdly so). But as a former teacher and co-op manager, he comes closest.

Regarding the “cultural sense” of Montgomery County “elitism,” I am referring to the “polished” nature of our image. Marc is….definitely not polished. He has an offbeat sense of humor that resonates with people like me. He is a straight talker, and in an intelligent way, not in a Trump (or Ficker) way.

In commentary I have made elsewhere, I advocate for considering “diversity of expertise” along with racial and gender diversity. This kind of diversity blends with diversity of income or economic class background. This is not to say. That there are no merits to possessing business acumen or bringing financial expertise from a private sector perspective to public service. I am pointing out, however, that under a mainly privately-financed election system, the top contending candidates tend to emerge from a “financially successful” class of people. As voters look for leadership qualities, they often pick from individuals who have made their splash in business or law,  if not with name recognition from well-connected family or institutional associations. Broadly, voters are keen on equating leadership with financial success. Of course, there are exceptions, as not all elected officials are independently wealthy. Marc Elrich exemplifies this type of exception, with decades of public service and not a glaring amount of personal wealth to show for it.

More importantly, Elrich comes from a working-class background. Not a reasonably comfortable middle or upper-middle class background, but legitimately working class. His adult life (that is, after college) consisted of working as a grocer at the TP/SS food co-op, raising two biological and two foster children with Down syndrome with his ex-wife while living in a group house with other roommates, and then becoming an elementary school teacher. He eventually bought a small house, which he expanded himself so that one of his foster sons could live with him. Like many curious and technologically-inclined Americans, Elrich has an affinity for some of the latest gadgets and green tech (he drives a Leaf, and can connect his Apple TV with BlueTooth with more success than I can). However, I wouldn’t describe him as “rich” and would not say that Elrich’s career is another rags-to-riches case for those who seek to follow the American Dream model of personal prosperity. His primary focus has been on public service alone, in the most fundamental sense of the word. While Marc is probably too into his tech gadgets to be Montgomery County’s exact version of Jose “Pepe” Mujica, I don’t see him setting his sights on a gated mansion in Potomac any time soon. He lives a reasonably middle or upper-middle class lifestyle and is close enough to his very relatable socio-economic background.

A victory for Marc, especially in a place as synonymous with establishment wealth as Montgomery County, would be a victory for not-quite-middle-class misfits like me. There is a growing, yet overlooked segment of the population that knows it will not be served by platitudes about “growing the tax base” and “promoting innovation.” We know that at tax base, by definition, must be taxed reasonably and that the libertarian ideals of cutting taxes (This, I assume, is what Nancy Floreen must have in mind, given her “business friendly” rhetoric in contrast with Elrich’s specifics about eliminating archaic regulations) is no more than rehashed trickle down theory and is unlikely to help us. It is a victory for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, who barely have enough to put away into a 401(k), who have student loan debt, and who don’t see a viable path to homeownership. It is a victory for an immigrant family with two parents who work minimum wage jobs while learning English, who don’t own a car, and who want to send their children to a quality (not-overcrowded) school to have a shot at this American Dream that the center-right love to champion. It is a victory for people who can’t afford the $1,800/month single bedroom units in high rises built by the donors to Floreen’s campaign.

It would be a victory for normal people.

The other night, I attended the Blue Wave rally in Bethesda with Ben Jealous, Bernie Sanders, and introductory speakers Jamie Raskin, Susie Turnbull, Brian Frosh, and of course Marc. The rally focused on the issues. It focused on what Hogan was getting wrong, and how Jealous would make set us on course towards stepping up job creation and being first in the county in education. The energy was positive and uplifting. I had my doubts about the Big Blue Wave, worried that Democratic voters would assume that because everyone we know hates Trump, it would mean an automatic victory for Democrats. But I did not sense hubris or complacency in that room. I sensed nothing but positive energy.

Watch out, Larry. Watch out, Nancy. A wave of “unlikely voters” – Young people, renters, and first-time voters – are coming to wash you away.

My Takeaways from the County Executive Forums

Well, there you go. I attended my last (ever?) County Executive debate, which was the East County forum on Saturday.

Much of my time was spent alongside Marc’s staff, trying to signal for him to speak louder, and to no avail. I had attended the Beth El forum on religious community issues, the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce forum, the very first general election forum in Rockville, the Sentinel forum at the Council office, plus watched the Montgomery County Media forum at a bar with other Elrich supporters while playing a drinking game using the most predictable talking points from the respective candidates.

I’m done.

Considering all of the debates, here are my conclusions:

Nancy Floreen’s debate performance evolved from platitudes to reasonably clever criticisms to attacks and falsehoods. Her first two debates were lackluster at best, featuring platitudes such as “We must become a cheerleader for investment.” The Sentinel forum in particular featured an unremarkable performance for Floreen, as she failed to point out exactly where her opponent was hostile to business growth. Her strongest performance was possibly at Beth El, where she highlighted her dedication to a trade mission with Israel to those within the Jewish community considered this partnership a key interest. Her negative attacks on Elrich were just vague enough that they remained  arguably true when Elrich was limited in time for rebuttals to show context. Her negative attacks proved empty in later debates, however, as Elrich himself challenged Floreen to name specific policies on which they differ that render him hostile to business. She couldn’t follow through.

Robin Ficker may initially be regarded as comic relief. He routinely gets laughs from the audience from his quips like “Takoma Parked” or “Takoma Park Trapezoid,” “I’m not a couch potato,” “My signs are environmental green!” among others. He has two crowd-pleasing aces: the term limits vote and the property tax vote. While his inability to substantiate any policy position without circling back to one of these two points might suggest he is not a serious candidate, these two aces of his may be just enough to win over large swathes of the fed-up, tax-weary, viscerally anti-Council electorate.

In my opinion, Marc Elrich’s performance was consistently good. He remains positive and issue-focused and has a keen ability to boil down complex and counterintuitive positions into well-packaged answers that makes sense. He can get wonky at times, which I fear may cause some lesser-informed, undecided voters to default to the simplified (and incorrect) position. Case in point: when he explains why lifting regulations on developers does not result in more affordable housing. Elrich also executes the tall but necessary order of delivering the “tough love” answers that might not be what many (on the left, right, or center) want to hear. He is the opposite of Floreen when it comes to platitudes. Some on the left resent his concessions to business interests (he supports the Amazon deal) and a few of his approval votes along with Floreen on flawed master plans (which the left will consider giveaways to development companies). Those on the center-right may resent that Elrich favors bringing labor into the discussions of restructuring county government – another seemingly counterintuitive point that makes perfect sense when you listen to his full explanation (or read my previous blog on  labor). At the end of the day, Elrich is not looking to please everyone with what they want to hear. Instead, he explains to them what they need to know.

While Elrich has largely maintained a positive campaign and has avoided personal attacks on his opponents, Floreen’s successive falsehoods eventually pushed him to the brink. At the Chamber of Commerce debate, Floreen said that Elrich would cut 40% of County employee union jobs, prompting Elrich to audibly say, “That is a LIE.” Backed into a corner, Floreen maintained that she had “heard it in a rumor.”

Another noteworthy attack was Floreen’s insistence on blaiming Elrich for having to write a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stating that he is not, in fact, that hostile to business and that he will honor Gov. Hogan’s and Ike Leggett’s proposal. Elrich repeatedly defended that it was Floreen’s campaign and her supporters that dishonestly spread this rumor, which he proceeded to correct.

So, in effect, Floreen accuses Elrich for #FakeNews spread about him.

It should go without saying. Everyone wants economic development. Elrich, however, is the only candidate to distinguish between “real estate development” and “economic development,” whereas Floreen deliberately blurs the two. Ficker is all over the place.

Each candidate makes a fair case for the concepts of Quantity, Quality, and Change. Floreen emphasizes Quantity, focusing on more growth, more buildings, more Fortune 500 companies, and more competition for these top-down milestones with neighboring jurisdictions. Elrich emphasizes Quality, with sustainable development, controlled growth, and robust local and small business as his priorities to enrich the quality of life of existing and new residents. Ficker emphasizes Change, highlighting that his Term Limits initiative was “not a vote to promote.” Ficker has not held office for 40 years, despite multiple attempts, and he leverages his not holding a public office against his opponents’ respective 16 and 12 years in office. Change, however, does not necessarily imply competence.

I will have another blog or two out before the election. Stay tuned for my take on what’s truly radical about Marc Elrich becoming our next County Executive, and why people 40 years younger are drawn to him and his policies.

How effective is Robin Ficker’s populism?

His booming heckler voice is unmistakable. He persistently stands up for the people – as in he won’t sit down, even when instructed to. He has bred a family of runners, and thinks that he, at age 75, can outrun me, age 30 (I guarantee you. He can’t. That is a fact). Oh, and he’s never met a Montgomery Countyan he doesn’t like. 

Robin Ficker has three strong talking points he’ll work into any answer to virtually any question. His Three Big T’s: Taxes, Term Limits, and the “Takoma Park Trapezoid” are his fallback lines when he runs out of relevant content, which usually doesn’t take too long.

I’ll be fair. These three talking points are pretty good points to make, at least for a start. The recent nearly nine percent property tax increase – although those who are more informed about County revenue point out that this increase was intended to make up for not having raised property taxes at all during the recession – hit some middle class long-time homeowners pretty hard. Optics-wise, it was ugly. Although an increase in revenue was urgent and a property tax increase of some order was likely necessary, a better argument could be made that a more meticulous restructuring of County government and painstaking look at the budget probably could have merited a less drastic increase at this time – but what do I know?

The Term Limits ballot initiative – which Ficker always capitalizes on social media – did pass overwhelmingly, and presents a fair argument for a desire for change. The flaw in Ficker’s argument here, however, is that voters loathe ALL current councilmembers equally. The Democratic Primary results say otherwise. Two thirds of voters chose a candidate with current or former local government experience. Marc Elrich won more than the other two council members, Roger Berliner and George Leventhal, combined, indicating that he is at the very least perceived differently than the others. And even if voters resoundingly DO resent the current County Council, forty years of failed runs for office suggest that the Term Limits vote was not a vote for Ficker.

Ficker’s “Takoma Park Trapezoid” refers to the geographic location of where the current Democratic nominees for Council reside, whose pinpoints form a connect-the-dots trapezoid anchored in the inner circle of hedonistic leftist hellscape, Takoma Park. The point serves as a hyperbolic reference to the relative lack of Upcounty representation in County government, which he, residing on a farm in Boyds, would refreshingly provide.

Each of Ficker’s Three T’s, despite their flaws, could suffice for solid populist talking points.

And yet… that’s where his political prowess ends. There’s a reason why Ficker hasn’t been elected in 40 years, even when running in more “red” districts.

Let’s take his “ace” point, taxes. Let’s also give him a huge benefit of the doubt, and let him make his case as a budget hawk, a principled fiscal conservative, or a tax wonk. (Spoiler: He’s none of the above). At Monday night’s Sentinel debate, Ficker was asked a moderately in-the-weeds question about tax deductions. Would Ficker support legislation aimed at decoupling federal income tax from state income tax, which would benefit the majority of taxpayers who itemize their deductions? This, in turn, would add back at state level the taxes affected by the Trump tax cuts, which eliminated the deductions which would have helped Montgomery County residents.

Ficker first mentioned fiscal notes attachment which he proposed, but this was not relevant to the question. Moderator Brian Karem reiterated that the Trump tax cuts resulted in a windfall at the state level, but harmed those who benefited from making deductions. Ficker then restated some of his positions on broad-strokes tax relief, pointing to the bag tax, and other “Regressive taxes” passed by the Council. Ficker then promised “no new taxes” a la HW Bush, and made another reference to the  Takoma Park Trapezoid.

Marc Elrich came a little closer to actually answering the question, saying that we wouldn’t have the votes in Annapolis to make changes that would benefit the County and promised efforts to remain tax neutral for the middle class.

Ficker had the chance to shine. If he wanted to appeal to the single-issue tax voter, he went out with a major swing in the miss. He only needed to prove the slightest bit of depth in his position on taxes, to just show he sort of knew what he was talking about – and he didn’t.

So how would Mr. Ficker go about bringing in revenue, given his position on taxes? Why, Amazon, of course! Our magic bullet. In August, Robin Ficker made a visit to Seattle to Amazon HQ1, which even one of Marc Elrich’s harshest critics, Steve Silverman, stated he  imagines this couldn’t have been with anyone of any decision-making role. 

Aside from Mr. Ficker Goes To Amazon to become BFF’s with Bezos (you had to be at one of the other debates to get this reference), he said in his closing statement that he would make Montgomery County so business-friendly that Bezos would decide to move HQ1 there as well.

I caught Elrich and Floreen trying REALLY hard to keep straight faces.

Onto another topic, which Ficker apparently knows even less about: public safety and the police. Without giving much context at all, Ficker said that he would hire a new police cheif – Jae Hwang. This was his way to ensure that we would be “Not shooting at any unarmed people – I guarantee that.” Ficker neither explained how a new police chief would guarantee this promise, nor did he speak of having talked to current police chief Tom Manger. Instead, Ficker repeated that he has “Never met a Montgomery Countyan I don’t like,” and then something about the regressive energy tax.

Ficker is also no stranger to schoolyard insults. Beyond “Tax increase specialists,” a recent favorite epithet of Ficker’s is “Couch potato.” In the debate, he felt the need to emphasize that he is “Not a foodie” – this coming after digs at Elrich’s weight on my personal Facebook page. (And, I might add, an awkward approval of my physique when addressing physical fitness during an interview with him last spring). Ficker has made points that, if isolated or in relevant context, I would agree with – that it would be useful for students to run a mile every school day, or to spend more time in libraries. But these points were not remotely relevant to the questions asked.

Robin Ficker’s populist rhetoric is an awkward mix of his three “ace” talking points, some various catch phrases that are too overused to be funny, some other points that are true but not at all relevant, and occasional non-profane, but juvenile, personal attacks.

In a normal circumstance, this kind of candidate shouldn’t have much a of a chance in Montgomery County. The electorate tends to be more educated) and would prioritize experience or at least competence in their electeds, and would never be inclined to electing a court jester as County Executive. Ficker could have a decent chance in a more Trump-friendly district where populist red meat is enough of a crowd pleaser to win votes, but alas,  Trump won 19% of the vote in MoCo. 

 

And yet… it is entirely possible that this is not a normal circumstance. I can’t really gauge this myself, but we may experience a perfect storm: general distrust of the council, the fact that both “Marc & Nancy” are current council members, the property tax hike, the term limits vote, and the lack of adequate local news media causing people to not properly distinguish between Marc Elrich and the unpopular development votes, which he opposed. Add to this Nancy Floreen’s arrogance and hubris in her campaign ad regarding Ficker’s chances.

I still think it’s probably not going to happen – but it is in the realm of possibility that this perfect storm could brew enough to reach a tipping point by November. It depends on how many fed up, pissed off, and simultaneously under-informed and/or nihilistic voters there are out there, and whether they collectively form a sleeping giant that Nancy’s arrogant remarks may have poked just enough to cause a roar. We’ll see, and lord help us if that’s what happens.

Why Labor Should Have A Say

Tonight is gubernatorial debate night, so I’m pretty sure this blog post will fly under the radar. I myself will be live-streaming the County Executive debate, and if I’m not fed up by that point, I’ll catch the Jealous vs Boss Hoagie debate on YouTube on the way home, or on a commute (thanks, YouTube premium!)

Nevertheless, I do feel like releasing a relatively short blog on a point that will undoubtedly come up during one of tonight’s debates: the importance of acknowledging labor issues in the discussion of economic development.

First, I’ll stand consistent in my opposition to the influence of money in politics. This stance applies to both corporate money AND union money. I don’t think corporations or their lobbyists should have disproportionate financial influence on our legislation, and I would say the same about labor unions as the Right often makes that point. This if fair. That being said, I do not view a candidate’s having been endorsed by labor unions as the same as being “financially beholden” to them. This summer, The Washington Post tried to make this argument, and journalist, activist, and friend Ben Spielberg adeptly refuted it.

There are multiple misconceptions among so-called “fiscal moderates” in labor-management discourse. Some throw out the glib stereotype that advocates of pro-labor legislation “don’t understand economics,” or “just want free stuff” (easily refuted – isn’t the whole point of being “pro-labor” that we’re on the side of those who work for a living?) More cogent arguments address a local jurisdiction’s competitiveness, arguing that “business-hostile” practices would force businesses to pack up and move elsewhere (such as Virginia). I’ve argued against this point in a Progressive Maryland blog about the $15 minimum wage.

Perhaps the strongest argument fiscal conservatives make, however, is that some pro-labor proposals end up hurting those whom it intends to help.

Let’s take the minimum wage argument, which is twofold. If the minimum wage is too high, certain businesses would have to lay off workers, and $15 per hour is not enough to live on anyway. My response, however, is not that we need to scrap the idea altogether; it’s that the minimum wage is an optimization problem.

$15 is not an arbitrary number. It’s a thoroughly estimated threshold at which businesses can still thrive and while giving a significant boost to employees trying to pick themselves off the ground. It is not ideal for either side. No one is denying that smaller businesses in particular may need to look elsewhere to maintain profitability in the interim. This is why pro-labor legislators are also looking into incubators and other assistance initiatives to help local businesses grow. Personally, I’d like to see developers and property owners make more of the cuts so small business owners wouldn’t face such high rents, but that’s a whole other issue. From the labor angle, it is also true that $15 is not a livable wage, but that doesn’t mean it does not help. Anyone who is familiar with the phrase “it’s expensive to be poor” will understand the mounting costs of finding oneself behind in rent or utilities or car payments. A higher minimum wage enables a working person to fall less in the hole while they pile on the hours, seek higher-skilled professional training, and apply and interview for higher-paying jobs.

This brings me to the greater point I’d like to make: that those who prioritize the interests of management over the interests of labor, claiming that pro-labor legislation would end up hurting those it seeks to help, underestimate the intelligence of our labor force. Employees know full well there is a tipping point, and that there is a figure too high, which would cause a small business to make layoffs or shift cuts. They also don’t want to lose their jobs. Sometimes they’ll even take the more “fiscally conservative” position. As an example, the District’s Initiative 77 on tipped wages actually met mixed support among DC’s waiters, likely dependent on how much they thought their tips might be affected as a result. Last year’s testimonies by minimum wage laborers before the Montgomery County Council, however, showed overwhelming support for the Fight for $15. What I would take away from their arguments, is that labor voices should be trusted. When labor has a voice in local government, we would have a better chance at working out the optimization problem together. We already hear a fair amount from the Chambers of Commerce, and it’s only fair to bring both management and labor to the table, as both sides would have a close relationship to the issue.

This reasoning also applies to the much-demonized public employee unions. While some may concede the necessity of private sector unions, public sector unions are often equated with corruption, “big-government” spending, and inefficiency. A common criticism of giving public employee unions a seat at the table in County government is that it would be a self-serving conflict of interest – public sector employees manipulating legislation to give themselves a raise amid a budget shortfall.

The truth is, just as the minimum wage private sector employees don’t want to lose their jobs, public sector employees also have a vested interest in a sustainable County budget. The public sector unions are not dumb; they know what would be asking for too much, and they also want to minimize layoffs while maximizing efficiency. While some kneejerk anti-tax, small government-absolutist would prefer a slice-and-dice approach, a truly balanced position would be to listen to the public unions and negotiate to figure out the government employee version of the labor-management optimization problem. It is in no one’s interest to have an economic crisis brought on by unsustainable and inefficient spending – least of all the unions.

I Interpreted Nancy Floreen’s Interview On The Kojo Nnamdi Show (So You Don’t Have To)

[PLEASE NOTE: I find it necessary to reiterate, amid the heightened sensitivity of many of us associated with various campaigns after a pretty bitter and intense primary, that the views presented in this blog are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for Marc Elrich or any other campaign, I am on nobody’s payroll; I am simply a left-wing blogger and commentator, and just for fun at that. Should I say something undiplomatic – and I most certainly will – these words are exclusively mine. They are absolutely NOT endorsed by any candidate I support or volunteer for elsewhere in my spare time. So take it or leave it.]

Last Friday, Council member Nancy Floreen (formerly D – Developers; now I – “Industry”) was interviewed on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU Politics Hour. I sat through it during lunch out of morbid curiosity, or in the way that we tend to rubber-neck at a multi-vehicle car wreck on the Beltway. To be brutally honest, Floreen was comically unbearable, to the extent that I am cautiously less concerned about her candidacy. I do not see how anyone working outside the real estate development industry could find her appealing. Of course, there are some voters that may go in the TFG (“too far gone”) category – neo-McCarthyists who are convinced that Marc Elrich is going to try and turn the county into Venezuela, and are generally immune to facts – but much of this cohort will end up voting for the county fool, heckler-in-chief Robin Ficker.
I would be more worried about Floreen as a threat if she were a rhetorically astute politician. Some people are giving her credit for her “clever” decision to sit out the six-way primary and challenge Elrich, who will have to find a new base of donors to overcome a financial disadvantage, but even supporters of Elrich’s opponents in the primary are speaking of Floreen’s move as opportunistic and even ugly, so this “cleverness” may actually backfire. The interview showed, however, that Floreen does not have a populist bone in her body. As I argued in my blog about the precinct results of the County Executive primary, voters generally wanted a change, and a plurality of voters chose progressive change. Floreen showed herself not only to be the anti-change candidate, but did so in an extremely (and characteristically) condescending manner. Because clearly, if Floreen’s pro-real estate industry approach doesn’t sit well with you, it’s because she just knows better than you.

So here goes. I will break down every cringeworthy statement from the Nancy Floreen interview, so you don’t have to sit through it if you haven’t already.

One of the first things Kojo’s stand-in Tom Sherwood mentions to her is how the Democratic Party of Montgomery County, upon Floreen’s presumed retirement, acknowledged the “great things” she did for the Democratic Party (to which Floreen cocks her head and smirks), after which she decided to leave the Democratic Party altogether in order to challenge the Democratic nominee. Floreen said that she had “decided to stay out of it,” but then “At the end of the day, though, after the primary . . .my phone started ringing off the hook, and people said, Nancy, you have to get in this race!”

Really, Nancy? Your phone just started ringing off the hook? In previous interviews, she had said something along the lines of “friends and neighbors” asking her to run, but this doesn’t seem like typical behavior for “friends and neighbors” of presumably happily retired, long-serving Democrats. Unless of course, all of her “friends” have last names ending in LLC. She then goes on to lament how all the work she had done to “advance Montgomery County” would go to waste, as Sherwood interjects, “Is Marc Elrich really that bad?” Floreen repeats her statement that Elrich is a “fringe candidate” (as my previous blogs would show is a complete distortion of the truth, not to mention the gross false equivalency made with actual “fringe candidate” Robin Ficker, but what does Nancy care). Floreen smugly continued, “at least 20,000 plus people agreed with me.”

No. These 20,000 people did not “agree with you.” They were hilariously misled.

I had been approached numerous times by paid Floreen canvassers. Most of them do not even live in Montgomery County and probably were indifferent to her actual candidacy. They would say things like “Would you like to support more voter choice in the general election?” or “Would you like to support the candidacy of a long-serving pro-choice Democrat?” or “Would you like to see more women on the ballot?” If you tried asking one of these people anything about her policies, they were not able to answer or would just be completely false. To say that everyone who signed her petition agreed with her is a gross misrepresentation. That said, being more or less in the know of what she’s really all about, I told these canvassers a polite version of “fuck off.”

“What is your complaint about Mr. Elrich?” Sherwood asked. “And if you could, could you say his name?”
Nancy shook her head, mouth agape, and looked to be on the verge of an eyeroll.
“You know, the election should not be a coronation.”

We’ve already heard that line from you, Nancy. It’s an election, not a coronation – unless it’s you ascending to the iron throne, Cersei. And really – would you have been saying that if it were your then-preferred candidate, Rose Krasnow? Or David Blair? And if indeed you believe it is not a coronation, then would you really be leveraging your real estate-funded bankroll over publicly-financed Elrich so much? Please.

She then went on to dismiss the legitimacy of a victory by plurality (while not bothering to come up with a solution that didn’t support her own advancement, like rankchoice voting).

Once again, she’s asked directly about Elrich’s policies. Floreen responds with a generic platitude; “it’s about who Montgomery County needs to lead them forward.” And then: “interest groups should not be demonized.” BINGO.

A third time: “What exactly are the policies that you are taking issue with?” Floreen drones on about nonspecific “problems of the past,” ONCE AGAIN, NOT MENTIONING A SINGLE POLICY.

A caller from Chevy Chase has a question: How are Floreen’s views of economic growth different from those of Democratic candidates?
Floreen says the county needs a “cheerleader” who “welcomes investors” and is for “expanding the tax base.”

More fluff. Yes, we need someone to cheerlead. Welcome investment and growth – but nope, not manage it at all. Nothing about making business a symbiotic relationship or anything. But sure, rah-rah, industry. As for “expanding the tax base” – this has been one of the most overused phrases in this election. I love how the people who call for “expanding the tax base” seem to forget that the point of having a tax base is that you actually tax it.

Apparently Nancy would just like to “cheerlead” it. She does say that the tax base is what would enable the county to provide services, but she fails to make this connection as to how. Marc Elrich, on the other hand, does this extensively in his economic development platform.

Sherwood then brings up that Elrich, when he was interviewed, articulated the importance of having a discussion with the development community about their impact on schools and infrastructure. Floreen makes the same expression – eyes rolling, mouth agape, head shaking. She doesn’t have time for all this common sense. Again, with the “problems of the past” comment. Interestingly, Floreen faults Elrich for not having successfully addressed this issue “for the last 30 years” (12 of which he had been in office, compared with Nancy’s 16), when it’s actually people like Floreen who have stymied his efforts to do so. Floreen “cleverly” reveals “the dirty secret” that it’s not the County Executive who deals with this. Ok, good, then. So what’s your problem with Elrich? Even if he is what you say he is, how is he bad for business if this isn’t even his authority?

The interview then addresses concerns that her entry would help Robin Ficker by splitting the vote. Nancy, eyes rolling, disdainful and smug tone of voice: “You know what I say to that? That reflects a nominee who doesn’t have a base.”

Except, Elrich DOES have a base. A base he held onto in a six-way primary. A base the other candidates didn’t have. A base that is and will continue to expand as they become more informed as to how condescending and lacking of substance you are, Nancy Floreen.

She continues on, dismissing Robin Ficker as a serious candidate. While I would still probably bet that he will come in third, this dismissiveness may be the very thing that emboldens his base. He should be taken seriously (and then seriously defeated.) In fact, taking him seriously would be the best way to expose his idiocy – invite him to answer actual questions and provide substance, then wipe the floor with him. If you completely disregard him, think that his base is only fringe “deplorables” and that he will “never win,” well…. Hillary Clinton says hi.

The next caller asks about her connection with real estate developers. THIS IS RICH.
In the same breath, Floreen employs the “whataboutism” fallacy and turns the question onto Elrich and his connection to labor unions… and then says “let’s not dump on people who have invested in our past and invested in our future and create great homes and great places!”

Which is it, Nancy? Is it okay to dump on people who actually labor and produce the means by which businesses profit? Or was your intention to make up yet another false equivalency, claiming that Elrich’s support from labor unions justifies your support from developers?

Elrich has labor union support, but he cannot take money from them. He can only take $150 from each individual. YOU, however, take PLENTY of money from developers, and you don’t even try to deny it.

“These are all people who played by the rules,” Floreen says of developers.
RULES THAT THEY PAID YOU TO MAKE.

Another caller asks about the nearly nine percent property tax increase, which Floreen voted for when she was Council president. Nancy laments that the “issue they were dealing with was the issue of the schools.”

I almost feel bad for Nancy Floreen at this point. She can’t even corner the anti-tax vote here. In fact, Marc may out-flank her, should he get the message across enough that responsibly inforce development impact fees could help prevent the costs of schools and infrastructure from being shifted onto the taxpayer.

Sherwood finally addresses a question that I have asked along with other listeners – where Nancy Floreen stands, as an ex-Democrat, in the governor’s race. Nancy comfortably states that she remains neutral on state and federal elections.

Wow. So courageous. In a time where the Republican Party nationwide has gone so far off the deep end, you won’t even stand up for opposing its insanity. You won’t stand for anything. The only thing you’ve clearly stated you stand for is being pro-developer.

Honestly, I’d respect her more if she would just own up to being on the side of Hogan and other Republicans. It’s almost as if she doesn’t really know which voters she’s courting. It’s almost as if she “doesn’t have a base.”

Finally, Floreen is asked what the biggest policy difference is between her and Mr. Elrich.
“The real difference is about leadership…”
“That’s not a policy.”
Floreen then pivots to comments Elrich had made that were taken out of context, then blames Elrich for them being taken out of context.
“He’s going to have the unions sit at the table when he makes decisions…” Oh, the horror. Labor actually having a say! It’s only okay when the development community has a say in decision making!

Of course, Nancy doesn’t say or even speculate as to what actual policy would result from such a process. She doesn’t bring up a single policy. She never, throughout the entire interview, mentioned a single, solitary policy of Elrich’s, let alone explain why it would be problematic.

I’ll refrain from using a word like “shrill” to describe her voice as it has sexist connotations, and it’s not even quite the right word…. “scolding” comes much closer… but her tone is worth noting. Were this interview conducted in a language I don’t understand, I’d basically gather that she’d been saying the whole time: “You know, that’s the way it is, and I know better than you.” I am by no means exaggerating the condescension and disdain in her tone of voice and in her body language. She also did make a dig at Elrich’s personality towards the end of the interview, while demonstrating nothing short of a visibly unpleasant personality herself, alongside a complete failure to convey anything of substance.

I sincerely look forward to the County Executive debates leading up to the general election.

Change of Pace: Free Speech, Internet Culture, and the Intellectual Dark Web

If you believe the loudest voices on the internet, the political Right has co-opted free speech. It’s the triggered leftist who want to ban conservatives from speaking on college campuses, who dictate what pronouns you can use, and dictate where one should fall on the political spectrum based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Clearly, the Right is comprised of the freedom fighters against the Orwellian Cultural Marxist state that the Left wants to impose on us.

Gosh, now I’m having an identity crisis. I like free speech. I even like to listen to people I disagree with. I like to argue. I think people should be allowed to say whatever they want, short of directly inciting violence. I love that about America. But all this time I thought I was a far-left Takoma Park socialist Elrich-ista. Should I call myself a right-winger now?

Long-form podcasts are my guilty pleasure. Why guilty? Because lately, I fear that they have replaced books, as I can listen to them while running or cleaning or driving/sitting on the Beltway. Books require me to devote all of my attention, and time available for that is a luxury. I am working on this, and getting back to reading at least one book a week. Podcasts, though, are accessible and can accompany me everywhere.

I like podcasts of all kinds. Science. True crime. Ghost stories. Political or political-ish commentary on issues that make people uncomfortable…

I am referring to the group of (pseudo?) intellectuals who like to call themselves the “Intellectual Dark Web” – badasses who present ideas that are so controversial, they are banned from the mainstream media.

OK, I’m familiar with the dark web (ask me why…mwahaha). It is not badass. The ideas presented by these commentators/podcasters/whathaveyou are not banned in the mainstream media. I’d wager to say that for the most part, these people do not have the scientific substance to contribute on a mainstream platform, but do offer interesting alternative perspectives on an array of ideas that are fun to think about. I believe that bringing some of these topics to the forefront of honest and open discussion would be constructive, but I would hesitate to cite most of these people of a valid source for anything (except maybe Ayaan Hirsi Ali). They present ideas, speculations, and opinions – which we should not be afraid of. If the Left wants to reclaim free speech as theirs – and I believe they should – I think they should engage with these kind of voices and some of their challenging views.

Sam Harris As the host of the Waking Up podcast, (which I listen to often) neuroscientist, and atheist, soft-spoken Sam Harris has managed to anger the Right and the Left. The Right loathes his atheism and his criticism of Donald Trump; the Left thinks he’s a racist, or at least an Islamophobe. I find him to be a fairly objective centrist. While some on the left may disagree with me, I don’t see his opinions as dogwhistles or carrying thinly-veiled agendas. The height of the controversy surrounding Sam Harris was his decision to interview Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, which contained a chapter on race and IQ. In a preface to this interview, Harris noted the controversial nature of the author and the topic and stated clearly that he opposes attempts to correlate race and IQ. Harris said that even if one did find the two to be correlated, nothing good could possibly come as a result of such research, no matter what it showed. For the most part, I agree with what Sam Harris has to say about religion, Trumpism, gender, biology, and other topics. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he calls attention to particular atrocities committed under Islamist regimes. I will say, however, that his views on Islam, at least indirectly, point to a more hawkish foreign policy recommendation than I would propose myself. Harris also has some pretty interesting things to say about consciousness and free will. This all being said, I wouldn’t cite Harris as a source for any real research; I find his topics more philosophical and fun to think about than scientific.

 

Jordan Peterson Hands down the most overrated charlatan of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” No, I don’t dislike Jordan Peterson because I’m a triggered leftist who lives in a politically correct safe space. It’s because I find a great deal of his ideas to be ridiculous. While 60% of what he says makes perfect sense, the other 40% is basically social conservatism repackaged into some pseudo-intellectual drivel designed to make lonely, underachieving white men feel better about themselves. I mean – forced monogamy, seriously? As for the 60%, that is mainly his warnings against excessive political correctness, (with which plenty on the left are on board), his rehashed Jungian psychology,  and his “clean your room” self-help mantra (which I learned from my parents, not from Jordan Peterson). What’s even more annoying is how much credit Peterson gets for classic strawman arguments – because clearly, anyone who doesn’t agree with your views on the merits of traditional gender roles wants to impose 37 different genders on you and denounce the masculine/feminine duality altogether.

 

Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Heather Heying. I didn’t link to all their personal websites, as you can go and read about them yourself if you are not familiar with who they are. Bret Weinstein was the subject of the Evergreen State controversy, in which he disagreed with the 2017 proposal on campus to require white students to stay off campus during the “Day of Absence,” finding it counterproductive. Weinstein argued that it exacerbated the problem of free speech becoming dependent on race. His wife, Heather Heying, also resigned from Evergreen, and she as an evolutionary biologist has argued that gender and sexuality do have roots in biology and are not entirely social constructs – though, she recognizes that there are exceptions and that differences in sexual orientation and gender presentation are also rooted in biology. Bret’s brother Eric Weinstein is a physicist and managing director of Thiel Capital and coined the term “Intellectual Dark Web.” All three are left-libertarians, free speech advocates, and favor evidence-based science. I don’t see what’s so bad about that.

Joe Rogan  Ah, yes.. The Powerful JRE. Confession: I LOVE Joe Rogan. He’s all over the place. If he were the guy next door, I think we’d definitely get along. Joe Rogan was the host of Fear Factor, an MMA fight commentator and comedian who hosts an eclectic podcast. He’s friends with Alex Jones and Abby Martin. He can get along with pretty much anyone. Rogan and his guests talk about virtually any subject, for three hours, and Rogan’s favorite topics are apparently health and fitness, intermittent fasting and aketogenic diets, DMT tripping, political correctness, various conspiracy theories, the pre-frontal cortex, hunting, and (likely questionable) herbal supplements. Of course much of what he says needs to be taken with a grain – no, spoonful – of salt, but it is nevertheless solidly in the “fun to think about” category. Some people on the Left think he’s a right-winger, or at least sympathetic to the right, because he does have this tendency to mimic the points of whatever guest he happens to be talking to, some of whom are right-wingers. But a composite of Rogan’s personal takes on repeated issues show he’s more on the left than anything. He’s certainly anti-authoritarian.

Dave Rubin,  host of The Rubin Report, is a “classical liberal.” He “left the left” because it is “no longer liberal” and has been overtaken by “Regressives.” Or, that’s what he’ll tell you literally every single episode. I used to kind of like Dave Rubin, I took him as a legitimate libertarian who could challenge my views on economics and government regulation, but he really is a broken record. What’s more, is that it’s clear that he’s decided upon (or is paid to have, he’s partnered with Learn Liberty) a rigid ideology to parrot, because when he’s challenged, he doesn’t really have much to substantiate his arguments. And he’s apparently OBSESSED with the gay wedding cake story.

Ben Shapiro Editor of the Daily Wire, staunch conservative, but not a Trumper. Fast-talking Shapiro is a very good debater, but he can be beat. Shapiro has a tendency to hammer you with statistics too fast for his opponent to attempt to correct them and they often seem valid enough, and when someone eventually verifies them and finds his “facts” misleading, it’s probably too late. That said, he’s a conservative, but not a Deplorable.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali The founder of the AHA Foundation, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-Dutch ex-Muslim who sheds light on the violence committed against women in Islamic societies. I think of her in a similar way as I do Sam Harris, except I find her writings to be far more reputable and substantiated and backed up with actual activism and experience. There’s no beating around the bush – Hirsi Ali is politically a Conservative (though European Conservatives are not the same as US Conservative Republicans). She certainly stands a lot further to the right than I would on issues like immigration, and is yet another case of someone “with whom I would have my disagreements, but raises important points we all should consider.” Having suffered FGM, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells us the uncomfortable truth about some of the practices in fundamentalist Islamic societies, which defiant cultural relativists tend to gloss over.

Wrongspeak with Debra Soh The “Wrongspeak” Podcast is fairly new, and as of August, there are only three episodes. I hope she comes out with more. Dr. Debra Soh is a science journalist and writes about gender and biology. Her controversial (I guess) topic is, once again, linking gender and sexuality to biology. She also writes about gender dysphoria and transgenderism from a pretty objective, scientific perspective. While the Left may take issue with her not embracing every individual’s initial decision to transition into another sex, true liberals should appreciate what she has to say, because she does support inclusiveness of transgender individuals and lays out the science behind transgenderism and exceptions to conventional gender binary presentation. She just doesn’t think it’s a good idea to inject a five-year-old with hormone blockers when he or she shows signs of preferring things associated with the other sex.

And now, internet personalities who are considered in opposition to the IDW.

Cenk Uygur,  host of The Young Turks. Oh, how the Right, the alt-Right, and the Intellectual Dark Web LOVE to hate The Young Turks. Cenk, who can be rather bombastic and not the greatest debater in the world, is a favorite target of those who love to ridicule “triggered SJWs.” Hate him or love him, The Young Turks have amassed over a billion views. Full disclosure: I’ve regularly listened to The Young Turks for about twelve years. It’s been my blood-pumping staple for getting ready in the morning – but I recognize it for what it is. It is not news; it is commentary, and they fully admit that it is progressive/left wing commentary. The truth is, though, Cenk and his crew are NOT of the “triggered SJW” stripe. Cenk and his co-host Ana Kasparian (yup, a Turk and an Armenian, side-by-side) have said throughout that they are proponents of free speech, they do not support banning speakers on college campuses, and they are not for “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces.” The real value shows like The Young Turks add is the breadth of their coverage, which I do find, makes up for their lack of depth. For example, they covered Standing Rock and the Flint water crisis to far greater length and far sooner than mainstream media sources.

Kyle Kulinski.  Kyle is the host of Secular Talk, a YouTube political commentary channel which I find to the left of The Young Turks. Of all the internet personalities here, he’s probably the one whose views resonate the most with me. He’s a staunch left-libertarian, a critic of capitalism, censorship, organized religion, and hegemony. I do find, however, that both he and Jimmy Dore are a lot more doggedly skeptical about some things that I would lend more  credence to, however, such as Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia. Kulinski seems to think the Trump-Russia story lends no credence whatsoever. That being said, Kyle is a WAAAY better debater than Cenk Uygur, even though he also can get goofy at times.

Franchesca Ramsey The host of MTV Decoded. Or those videos that tell you why everything is offensive. She annoys me in a similar way as Jordan Peterson does from the right, but I can understand where she’s coming from….ok, I’m not allowed to say that, as a non-POC. Anyways, I don’t want to “white-splain” her videos, but my critique is that her characterization of so many things as offensive and somehow rooted in racism I find exaggerated and counterproductive to dialogue. She makes her points, and I do think that they are worth considering to various extents to become a more inclusive-minded and sensitive person, but you’re not going to get everyone to monitor themselves the way Franchesca may like us to. I say this pretty sure a few of my accessories I wore today were cultural appropriation of some sort.

In conclusion…

I like the “Intellectual Dark Web,” for the most part. I even like to listen to those with whom I disagree – and yes, I listened to Joe Rogan’s entire interview with Jordan Peterson.  But I’m against bestowing any of these people with a cult following. I like how each of them looks at things critically, but they themselves should also be looked at critically. Each, to varying extents, is guilty of the strawman argument trap (I’d say Peterson is the most guilty of that), validating their arguments with examples of the most comically extreme arguments of their opponents. At the end of the day, I think it’s a valuable thing to not only support free speech, but to engage with it. Listen to people you disagree with and people you partially agree with and find out what they have to offer. Honestly, it’s fun.