NIMBYs: loss aversion and, geography of, and rhetorical fallacies of

Not all change is bad.

It won’t rank high in the annals of “speaking truth to power,” but it’s interesting to read Washingtonian writer Marisa M. Kashino’s take on DC’s systemic housing underproduction: “But the District hasn’t shown much nerve when it comes to making big changes… Which brings us to the unusual power wielded by the city’s NIMBYs.” (City magazines usually aren’t known for taking their wealthy readers to task.)

But Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg View, says this is an unlikely scenario. Writing about the current back-and-forth regarding DC’s zoning, she says it’s been “Two steps forward, sure, but such little steps, and now we’re looking at going backward again.” But why are zoning fights so inherently difficult? McArdle points to cognitive biases: “At the heart of the matter is loss aversion: people will fight harder to preserve something they have than they will for a potential gain.”

Three related thoughts on NIMBYs:

1. History doesn’t offer much encouragement. In theory, a clear majority of citizens would benefit from abundant housing, but they rarely voice broad support on behalf of their minimal gains — and certainly rarely can drown out the fewer but louder voices who could lose benefits under the current system. For example, Red Vienna democratically chose to tax the rich to build mass public housing, but it took an abominable housing crisis (and the World War-spurred collapse of an empire) to force the electorate into action.

2. It’ll be interesting to see how similar politics plays out in other policy arenas — a thought that came to mind when listening to a recent talk about the feasibility of “deep decarbonization,” i.e. reaching the -80% CO2/2050 goal necessary to stabilize a changing climate. Although the study found that total energy services costs will increase only slightly — by about 1% of GDP by 2050 — it found that, within that energy services budget, the balance will shift from fuel providers to capital.

A clean energy economy will build renewable power plants (i.e., cap ex) which cost more upfront, but thereafter will throw off energy with very little ongoing costs. In the case of “negawatts” from efficiency, highly efficient or even net-zero buildings cost more up front, but cost much less to operate and maintain. This is a huge contrast from the existing system, whereby fuel providers extract huge rents from the rest of the economy.

Geographically, this shift should benefit most places, since green power is widespread — somewhat like Portland’s Green Dividend. However, the relatively few places that currently live off of fossil-fuel “resource rents” will lose out, and will fight back. Even though just three small states produce almost 60% of US coal, their representatives’ passion for coal far outweighs the millions who would benefit if coal pollution were reduced.

3. One of the NIMBYs’ favorite rhetorical fallacies is “the shill gambit,” an ad hominem attack that proclaims any non-NIMBY to be a secret, Astroturf-esque “paid shill” for development interests. (Some people can’t conceive that there are non-monetary, non-selfish reasons to hold a given position.) This contemptible lie — which slanders the opponent’s ethics to “poison the well” and thus avoid an argument on the merits — is readily leveled against pro-density forces even when it’s demonstrably false, including SFBARF in San Francisco or, of course, against yours truly.

This particular lie isn’t unique to arguments about development, of course. Naturally, conspiracy theorists of all stripes like to paint their opponents as all part of the same conspiracy that’s out to get them. It’s especially common among “alternative medicine” quacks, who love to call anyone who questions their arguments pharma shills — a label some have embraced with the hashtag #shillarmy. In an indication of how tired and un-useful the argument is, it’s been banned on parts of Reddit. If only such moderators were active elsewhere.