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.

Shorts: movements

Striding

1. Susan Silberberg et al (via Angie at Streetsblog write that placemaking’s true value stems less from physical transformation than social transformation: “The act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities.”

In short, it’s not about the bike, or the parklet: it’s about creating social space for a social movement to free now-privatized but publicly-controlled spaces, returning them to public use.

Years ago, this was a key (and under-appreciated) accomplishment of early Critical Mass rides. The event is just a means to an end, a safe space through which a social movement organized; to this day*, many confuse those ends and means.

* it’s arguably lost its urgency now that there are many other organizing venues.

not a maglev

2. There have been a few proposals to build maglev trains in the USA before, including this cross-Maryland proposal ten years ago. So what’s different about the latest version?

In a meeting with President Obama last winter, Mr. Abe offered to provide the maglev guideway and propulsion system free for the first portion of the line, linking Washington and Baltimore via Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a distance of about 40 miles. – Eric Pfanner, NYT

Those previous plans, however, did not feature Abenomics and its tidal wave of printed yen. As much as I’m skeptical of proprietary technologies, a fast and efficient connection between the two cities would certainly be momentous.

3. Thad Hall from the University of Utah (via Washington Monthly & Mischiefs of Faction) graphically shows how the House GOP has marched rightward, using DW-NOMINATE data:

The 50th-percentile average Republican in 1995 (104th Congress) — the red bar — was as conservative as today’s “RINO” moderate. Meanwhile, 1995’s firebrand 90th-percentile revolutionaries (the blue bar) then are *below* average now. The entire bell curve has shifted.

Metro DC’s not that rich (for the most part)

Western Avenue
Western at Wisconsin in Friendship Heights: not Madison Ave. by a long stretch

Nate Cohn in the New Republic addresses a factoid that really bugs me: metropolitan Washington is not the wealthiest region in the country, because sums, means, and medians are all quite different things. Rather, the surprisingly high median household incomes posted by many suburban jurisdictions here reflect a large upper middle class of dual-income white-collar families, rather than the very spiky (higher average, lower median) incomes that one finds in New York City or Chicago (or, perhaps even more strikingly, metro Chicago).

Compare, for instance, the Gini coefficients for income (derived from 5-year ACS):
Central jurisdictions
New York County (Manhattan): 0.60
District of Columbia: 0.53
Suburban jurisdictions
Fairfield County, Conn.: 0.53
Hudson County, N.J.: 0.48
Prince George’s County, Md.: 0.38
Loudoun County, Va.: 0.36

For the suburban jurisdictions, that’s the difference between Brazil or Zimbabwe-level inequality in NYC suburbs vs. Japan-level inequality in the Washington suburbs. Despite the District having worse income inequality than any state,* the region as a whole ranks 82nd among top-100 metro areas in income inequality.

This broad equality also contributes to the region’s general good performance on other economic metrics. Despite the extortionate cost of housing locally, proportionately high incomes for the middle class mean that the cost of living is about as reasonable as in Des Moines. A preponderance of well-paid jobs makes the area the most productive in the USA, as the returns on labor are pretty broadly distributed here.

This particular factoid is a favorite of those who trot out the tired “Boomtown DC, growing fat on your tax dollars” GOP talking point. That would have been a correct storyline back when Virginia defense contractors were getting rich off of Presidents Reagan & Bush(es), but it doesn’t quite hold today for various reasons. Besides, those complaining might take a closer look at how wealth elsewhere ultimately stems from federally directed subsidies from “the rest of us”: boomtown Houston flourishes only through vast implicit subsidies to untaxed, unregulated carbon pollution, and booming NYC (with more cranes building more flats for the superrich than anywhere else in the USA) is fed by a federally bankrolled financial industry.

Incidentally, anyone who is looking for the super-rich around here shouldn’t look along the Red Line. Wisconsin Ave. may have “Gucci Gulch,” but besides its relative lack of ostentation (a clue that the real money in America is elsewhere), it’s not nearly as exclusive as the sensitive watershed to its south. Stephen Higley locates the real gold coast along the Potomac gorge: the storied Embassy Row — so named because many of its Gilded Age mansions now house chanceries — of Massachusetts Ave. and its Maryland extension, River Road, plus their Virginia counterpart of Georgetown Pike.

* Typical disclaimer: D.C., as a wholly urbanized place, is not comparable to any state. Urban areas usually have higher inequality, since the very wealthy generally earn their living only within metropolitan economies.

Signals across the urban archipelago

City DOT commissioners panel

A recurring theme that I keep hearing about in 2013 is that cities — linked together through national and global networks — must assert a leadership role in conceiving and implementing the policy changes necessary to adapt to the 21st century. Not only have these changes become too great to ignore, but the federal government that led America through the last great era of socioeconomic upheaval (the consolidation of the United States into the world’s industrial superpower) is mired in deep paralysis. Although states are meant to be the “laboratories of democracy,” they suffer from the same hyper-partisan paralysis and an institutional bias against metropolitan regions.

As a recent Economist editorial put it: “the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue… Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants… creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending.”

Taking a cue from a sharply partisan 2004-election postmortem by Dan Savage and the editors of The Stranger, we live in an era of The Urban Archipelago:

If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that’s as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents… We’re going to demand that the Democrats focus on building their party in the cities while at the same time advancing a smart urban-growth agenda that builds the cities themselves.

This approach was plainly evident in the closing panel at NACTO’s Designing Cities conference, where as Angie Schmitt reports, “transportation chiefs from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and New York all talked about the progress their cities have made and shared their frustration at the lack of attention to cities and transportation in the state and national political arenas.”

“Why aren’t state governments and Congress keeping up with cities? Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein proposed that it’s because city residents — especially younger residents and entrepreneurs — expect their mayors and city governments to move at a much, much faster pace. City governments have to be much more creative and nimble to respond to these demands or else risk losing the residents and businesses that power their economies.” Yet, that agility doesn’t extend to the federal level: as Randy Neufeld said, “the disconnect seems to be Congress being out of touch with the good stuff happening on the ground.”

At the conference’s opening keynote, USDOT secretary Ray LaHood bemoaned that he would have preferred to do even more to support local government innovation, but that Congress had always “taken care of our infrastructure needs — right up to this moment in history.” Indeed, he singled out “this particular Congress” as having a peculiarly awful track record at passing transportation legislation.

The bond analysts at S&P concur that devolution of authority from the federal government will continue, reports Ashley Halsey in the Post: “The burden to finance infrastructure projects will fall more heavily on local government entities or users in the form of higher rates or tolls.”

A natural follow-up to the NACTO meeting came at TRB a few months later, where Bruce Katz addressed a substantially similar crowd at the Transportation Issues in Major Cities committee meeting. In summing up his forthcoming book, he strenuously argued that federal government are paralyzed by dysfunction, states refuse to adapt to the new metropolitan reality (and indeed, many state legislatures are backsliding), and need to be bypassed if cities are to successfully adapt to new global realities. The good news is that cities are in fact stepping up — even though they usually haven’t been empowered to do so.

(This comes with a huge caveat: ultimately, even a paralyzed state is a sovereign unit — quite unlike a city, whose municipal charter [particularly in a Dillon’s Rule state] may be tremendously limiting. And it is much more difficult to do a 50-state campaign, or even a 20-state campaign, than a single national campaign.)

How can citizens and local government officials respond? We can set up peer-to-peer innovation networks so that innovations can spread more quickly and easily between cities. States and national governments can no longer be counted on to scale up innovations, but we also no longer need them to do so.

We won’t be able to innovate our way out of every intractable problem — but with a fresh understanding of the problems, we may be able to find new resources to bring to bear. For example, Janette Sadik-Khan summed up her department’s super-effective work in three broad steps:
1. Leveraging existing assets: a holistic approach to street space manages to do more with less; “back to basics” means that feet come first; local & state governments already spend $2 in general funds on transportation for every $1 in road user fees and should expect greater accountability
2. Working nimbly: in times of austerity, we can’t afford not to work smarter, not harder (echoed by Rina Cutler from Philadelphia as “we cannot not fix” urban infrastructure, and by Gabe Klein, who contrasted the old capital-intensive approach with new ways that resemble “marketing, change management, public relations, and sales”)
3. Transforming the city: Mayor Bloomberg noted that the city has surpassed records for population & GRP, but has experienced the safest five-year period in its history and has successfully directed all new travel demand onto transit.

(About the title: a friend of mine grew up in Windward, the collection of damp suburbs east of Honolulu. There, TV and radio signals from Honolulu, just five miles away, are blocked by a mountain range, so instead residents watched TV from Maui, a hundred miles away across the flat ocean. Such is life in an archipelago: sometimes we have more in common with people far away than those just on the other side of the ridge. Our cities have more to learn from one another than from their hinterlands.)

Parks are free, right?

Stripey
See those high-rises? They paid for Millennium Park.

And this month’s award for Not Getting the Point goes to:

“The idea that McMillan could be Washington’s Millennium Park or High Line, that kind of creativity has never come to the project,” [John] Salatti [of Bloomingdale] says.

Not only does he want a free park instead of taxpaying development on a decrepit old industrial site that the District needs to develop to meet its own revenue projections. Not only that, but he wants a park on par with two fabulously expensive parks: $475 million and $250 million apiece just for construction, plus ~$9 million a year apiece in maintenance, and all even though his neighborhood is a half-hour stroll from the National Mall, which is not only about as big as Grant Park and Central Park combined, but might have a few world-class attractions of its own. (And yes, in fact, building The Park Of Their Dreams on the unstable structure and soils at the Sand Filtration Plant would in fact cost somewhere in the nine figures.)

No, the real stupidity lies in his ignorance of park financing. Both of those parks were largely paid for by lining said parks with skyscrapers: Millennium Park with revenue from the Central Loop TIF, bolstered by 80-story towers that boast park views, and parking garages underneath it that serve the adjacent downtown; the High Line only became possible by selling its underlying development rights and upzoning some adjacent areas by 50% to permit residential towers in an industrial zone.

It seems especially rich when these NIMBYs lash out in ad hominem attacks that impugn the ethics of anyone (including me) who disagrees with them: obviously, they must be paid off by the greedy developer, since money is apparently the only possible motivation. These folks know something about selfishness: They want city taxpayers to lavish hundreds of millions of dollars to beautify their backyard, in addition to foregoing a considerable opportunity cost from new development.

Three more election thoughts: coalition, gerrymandered House, cities’ voting power

1. The “Coalition of the Ascendant” narrative continues to be validated by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Richard Cohen; Sully has a roundup. (James Joyner: ‘The only question is how many more elections they’ll lose clinging to a “traditional America” that’s a distant memory.’)

2. The tidal wave of Big Money and a House map spectacularly gerrymandered in their favor only downgraded the Republicans from a stern rebuke to a slap on the wrist. As a geography nerd, I’m particularly concerned about the electoral map: “the ridigity of the gerrymander is more impressive when you see it hold off a minor wave,” says Dave Weigel in Slate. He points to several states, particularly Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the House delegation and the Presidential vote diverge sharply. One could also look at the average winning margin across Democratic and Republican districts, or, as Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang points out, that the total national vote may go to Democrats even as the actual House went to Republicans. (Put another way, if there were national, or even state-level proportional representation, the House would be balanced or slightly Dem.) Update: Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress points to a preliminary House tally of 53,952,240 (50.3%) Democratic votes vs. 53,402,643 (49.7%) Republican, with the caveat that West Coast vote-by-mail states have incomplete results and that uncontested races were excluded.

Another indication: the opposite may well be true at the Presidential level, which is tied to House representation but at a slightly more macro level. Republicans rack up huge margins in their core red states, but Democrats seem to have a persistent edge in several of the battlegrounds.

3. Sommer Mathis ties the ascendant demographics to the “urban archipelago,” a theme from the 2000 campaign that I heard echoed recently in discussions at NACTO (an event I’ll be posting notes from soon). Interesting to note that Romney’s largest county margins so far appear to have been in Maricopa at 131,770, Utah County (Provo) at 126,546, and Tarrant County, Texas (Fort Worth) at 95,897. Obama pulled six-figure margins even in suburban and second-tier counties like Contra Costa, Hartford, and Mecklenburg (Charlotte, a traditionally Republican city whose former mayor won N.C.’s governorship in a rare GOP pickup) — never mind the nearly million-vote margins in population centers like Los Angeles and Cook.