climate change

The Green New Deal needs a theory on cities, fast

Promising start tho (Time/Saul Loeb/AFP — Getty Images)

Promising start tho (Time/Saul Loeb/AFP — Getty Images)

Last week, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced a resolution outlining the broad ambition of the Green New Deal. It’s a stunning document that calls for the full transformation of the American economy and society to a degree that our political system has seemed incapable of producing for decades. Given the urgency of the climate and inequality crises, this failure is untenable. The Green New Deal offers a very exciting beginning to how we solve these problems.

However, because we’re at the beginning, there are still a lot of unknowns. There is plenty of time to address what, for my money, is the biggest blindspot in the resolution: cities.

Right now the only implicit mention of cities is about public transportation and high-speed trains (which are both great). That misses the challenges and opportunities inherent to cities for fighting climate change and economic injustice. It needs a theory on cities, fast.

Cities will win or lose the future of our planet

One of the least appreciated stories of the late 20th century is the rapid transition of humans from rural or urban living. The global urban population went from 750 million in 1950 to over 4 billion today. More than 53% of humans live in cities, the first time in recorded history that more than half have done so. The UN expects it to increase to 68% by 2050, largely driven by growth in Africa and Asia (though demography is tricky to predict.)

The explosive growth of cities across the world is in part a reaction to the problems outlined in the Green New Deal — climate change and economic injustice. Climate change is making large swaths of rural inlands and coastlines unproductive and even uninhabitable, causing a mass exodus to cities that is destabilizing many regions.

The triple blow of neoliberalism — globalization, privatization, and deregulation have created an economic race to the bottom between countries that have left millions of urban dwellers in the US and internationally in poverty or near poverty. The disgust many Americans feel about the now cancelled Amazon HQ2 “contest” has been happening on a global scale for 40 years. As capital has been allowed to flow across borders, labor has not, which leaves a lot of people vulnerable and powerless.

It is safe to say that the future of our planet will be decided in cities. If we get the growth and development of cities right, we stand a good chance of addressing climate justice, economic justice, and social justice at a global scale. If we don’t get cities right, we’re screwed. It’s that simple.

The Green New Deal doesn’t do enough to address cities right now, so let’s fix that. This is something it and Congress can do a lot about. Allow me to pitch why cities are so important to the success of the Green Neal Deal going forward.

Cities promote density — which is the foundation of modern justice

We know that cars are terrible for the environment, but the bigger problem is that car-centric development is terrible for our health environmentally and socially. This development in 20th century America — commonly known as sprawl — was deeply racist and deeply unjust.

The government and private industry subsidized the exodus of white families to the suburbs, where they built generational wealth. The same forces blocked communities of color from doing so and instead exploited and/or neglected them in cities. This eighty-year government project is where the racial wealth and health gap comes from.

Zero-emission standards outlined in the GND solve direct pollution from cars, but they don’t solve this structural legacy of discrimination. There is simply no way to address climate change, economic justice, and social justice in the US without fundamentally rebooting the built environment towards density. With density comes greater accessibility, agency, and opportunity for all income-levels.

Luckily, we have existing infrastructure to accomplish this — in cities. The problem is that we don’t have enough of them. Few American cities have a high level of density or the means to achieve it right now. Even the ones that do, like New York City, have terrible accessibility and affordability challenges that make it hard to live there. As a result, the urban revival that has been talked about over the last 10 years is mostly bullshit. We’re still a sprawl nation.

For the Green New Deal to deliver in practical ways, it must focus on cities and demand that we abandon the 20th century car-centric, racist assumptions caked into our land-use policies. That means it must address everything from land-use to building codes that promote low-density and separate commercial and residential life at a city, neighborhood level, and individual building level.

We need to promote density in our cities and connected inner suburbs so we can create greater accessibility for the disabled, elderly, and families with young children. We can provide all income-levels, particularly historically marginalized communities, with more agency and opportunity when they are integrated into the built environment. And we can change the energy and transportation habits called for in the GND.

Cities rely on socialism to work and it does

Neoliberalism has pushed public ownership and engagement out of favor in America over the last forty years. They have been replaced by the much more individualistic ideas of corporate shareholder value and consumer identity. That’s a big reason why our physical infrastructure is crumbling, our institutions are fraying, and our civic culture is stratifying.

We need to make all three work to tackle climate change and inequality. Doing that requires abandoning neoliberalism and embracing a new commitment to shared, publicly controlled action. That means socialism — in the American tradition that has quietly and successfully worked in cities for over a century.

You might bring up the fire department or public transportation as good examples of socialism to your angry uncle at Thanksgiving, but cities themselves are the best example of socialism working in America. Public transportation and housing, public schools and hospitals, public libraries and parks — these are all deeply ingrained institutions that make cities possible for all residents at all levels of income and types of background. They were all the products of public-minding government in the Progressive and New Deal eras.

None of these institutions are in great shape today, but that’s not because of problems inherent to socialism. It’s because neoliberalism has crept into cities and attacked these institutions for multiple generations. A failing public institution is an opportunity for private profit. As bad as NYCHA or the MTA is today, the fact that they are even working at all is a testament to how well built and managed they were for so long — through strong public commitment and vision.

There is no way the GND can work unless we embrace public ownership and engagement at a renewed level. We can start be reviving American socialism that built these treasured public institutions in cities.

But cities have more people than power right now

The Constitution does not recognize cities and has a rural-bias that artificially limits the power of urban centers in American politics, both at the state and federal level. This is partly because cities are classified imperfectly in the US — overall more people live in surrounding suburbs than cities themselves, which doesn’t reflect the economic and cultural ties between them (and ignores the legacy of race-based decisions white enclaves made to secede from cities.) Given the problems facing the US and cities’ abilities to address them, this disconnect is untenable.

The GND must embrace Constitutional reforms that empower cities. This means adding representation in Congress (we need more reps and more states), abolishing the electoral college and, perhaps most radically, a realigning existing state boundaries to better incorporate natural urban geographies.

Some of these ideas sound outlandish and are probably unfeasible in the short-term, but they are also necessary to talk about. The GND is about injecting big thinking back into politics as much as it is about climate change. Introducing long overdue structural changes to our government to make cities as powerful as they should be must be a central pillar of that effort.

The Green New Deal is a work in progress. Critics can dismiss it for where it is right now, but activists are focusing on where it is going. And all roads lead to cities being its primary weapon against climate change and inequality.

Universal Rent Control is about more than tenant power, it’s about reestablishing democratic power over the market


As election day approaches, the stakes keep getting higher and the political environment keeps getting scarier. It was inevitable that the President would turn to imaginary fears and blatantly false claims to poison the climate, partly because he sees the grave risk in “losing” the midterms, but mainly because that’s who he is. It is disheartening that so many other Americans seem to share his darkest impulses. It might not be enough to prevent Democrats from retaking the House, but we’ve seen that song and dance before. 

The real question for me is: how much will change if the Democrats win? The battle in New York for Universal Rent Control is a good place to consider what needs to change, what could change, and what might not change within the Democratic Party.

(Honestly, this blog got away from me and is more about the political process around URC than specific policy proposals, but feel free to check out something I wrote about it here for more details. I will be following up this article with more about URC.)

Now, of course things will change considerably for the President if Democrats take back the House. There will be actual oversight of the administration. There will be meaningful roadblocks to the Republican agenda on the hill. There will be some reaffirmation of some democratic checks and balances. This is all great.

But, look, we’re still in a bad way. The faith in our democratic institutions has eroded because the institutions themselves have eroded. The faith we have in each other as a whole has eroded because our vision of each other as a whole has fractured. The faith we have in the American Dream has eroded because our economic reality is a world away from it. Most disturbingly, the faith we have in our climate security has eroded because our planet is clearly in grave trouble and we’re failing to face it.

None of this changes if the Democrats take back the House

It won’t change and it’s not for the obvious reasons that they might still lose the Senate, don’t control the White House, and don’t control the Court. It’s the same reason why even taking power back in New York might not result in real change.

It’s because the Democratic Party doesn’t have any real answers for these problems. They haven’t for decades. Just look at this recent interview with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (starting at 2:58.) Seriously, what the hell is she actually talking about? They are nowhere near the nihilism of the Republican Party, but that’s not hard or virtuous. 

As the party continues to make commendable strides in promoting diverse candidates that better reflect the 21st century American experience, it has been notably less successful at promoting ideological diversity. They have allowed candidates to run to the right, but have mostly isolated those that run to the left. 

It’s obvious why: Democrats have been corrupted by the same system that has corrupted the Republican Party, only in slightly different ways, by only slightly different actors. And that system isn’t working.

For decades, both parties fully embraced neoliberalism as the end of history ideology

Privatization, deregulation, and globalization have been the name of the game for 40 years in America and both parties have become beholden to the moneyed interests that wanted it, benefit from it, and jealously guard it.

To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with a competitive private sector, a proactive regulatory regime, or a deeply connected international world. In balance these elements can make us all safer, richer — financially and culturally- and healthier. But neoliberalism hasn’t delivered that world. There is no balance. 

There is something inherently wrong with “trusting markets.” 

The obvious point is that neoliberalism by definition doesn’t trust or value democratic control of power. It’s central belief dictates that power will be competitively dispersed between rational economic actors and that that competition will inevitably produce better outcomes for society. 

Those are some major leaps of faith to build a global society on:

  • It assumes that economic actors are rational (which is far from true for individuals, firms, and even states) and discounts the consequences of when they aren’t rational, which is most of the time. 

  • It assumes that competition between these actors will be honored rather than crushed, which is what always happens (either by brute force or collusion) and is unprepared for the fallout. 

  • And it assumes that all of this will produce a better society, while it has clearly ignored the toll it takes on the planet and on vulnerable populations.

What neoliberalism has left us with is a vastly unequal and unparalleled concentration of wealth and power that we can barely see let alone hold accountable. It has left us with a wake of destructive exploitation of human populations and natural resources that we can’t prevent or replenish. It has left us with severely compromised democratic governments that can’t represent or protect us. And it has put the very-near-future of our planet in peril. 

This is because the hallmark of neoliberalism is illiberalism, a fake democracy. It’s a term that we’re starting to hear used more about countries like Turkey, Russia, and Poland, but we have been experiencing it here for a long time. The structural flaws within the Constitution, the shameful voting suppression efforts in many states, and the corruptive flow of money across all levels of politics and media have warped our government far from any definition of “self.” Neoliberalism requires this. It’s a really raw deal for most of us.

How Democrats went from the New Deal to Neoliberalism matters for how we get them out

The Democratic Party is complicit in this. The party abandoned its New Deal commitment to democratic control over the economy, to public investment and ownership, and to sharing the benefits of prosperity evenly across society with an ever wary eye towards the future.

The New Deal represented a clear, unifying theory of self-governance forged from the trauma of the Great Depression: a strong interventionist state to create and spread wealth. It became the bedrock for the greatest sustained civic growth and wealth creation in the history of the world and it kept Democrats in power for 50 years. It remained the de facto organizing principle for decades because not only was it a powerful narrative, but it did what it said it would do. People believed in it because it did make life in America better.

Mostly for white Americans. That commitment wasn’t perfect and its fatal flaw was its reliance on actively preventing other groups, domestically and internationally, from partaking in it, often violently. 

By the 1970s, the world was starting to catch up with the US economically or resist it’s influence militarily and at home the civil rights and gender equality movements, plus opposition to the Vietnam War, began to fracture the coalition. Tragically, it could not adjust to these new voices and realties. 

For the first time, many people felt that the American pie was as big as it was going to get and that it was necessary to fight over and protect your piece of it and prevent others from getting close to it. The right started exploiting these tensions to further crack the coalition with growing success. Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” worked twice and has remained the Republican Party’s default playbook ever since. It has only been more naked with Trumpism.

When the New Deal seemingly ran out of answers to expand the American pie, it created a vacuum that neoliberalism filled.

Racial appeals and resentment were powerful subtext, but a movement needs actual text to rally around. Neoliberalism was a powerful narrative answer, especially in the hands of President Reagan. It was cloaked in Cold War rhetoric and spoke about expanding freedom throughout the US and the world. The way to expand the pie was to end communism and open up the world’s markets. It seemed very American.

But, unlike the New Deal, neoliberalism hasn’t done what it said it would do. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has done exactly what it was intended to do, but its supporters who said otherwise were either villains or fools. It has seized political power from popular representation and given it to a small amount of corporations and wealthy individuals. 

There is nothing “American” about enriching a tiny portion of stateless oligarchs and firms by turning people against each other, by robbing the public of our own social and economic capital, and by selling out future generations even as the current population’s slice of the pie is actually getting smaller. But that is what has happened under neoliberalism.

Although President Reagan was wildly popular and enacting neoliberalism created an air of revolutionary spirit, it never did kill the New Deal coalition. Democrats remained in control of Congress all during this period and voters remained wary of calls to totally deconstruct the welfare state (at least for white people.) 

But Democrats killed the New Deal Coalition. Bill Clinton killed the New Deal Coalition.

Though many old guards held out, a new generation of party leaders eagerly accepted the premise that the New Deal was failing, that America had turned right and that it was advantageous to go with them. Rather than try to challenge corporations’ and wealthy individual’s power, they wanted to channel it.

In the wake of several presidential losses (though, again, Dems held Congress each time) Clinton became Nixon essentially in 1992 and ushered in a Democratic machine that relied on big donor money and cosy relationships to corporations and Wall Street while distancing itself from “the era of Big Government” as though it hadn’t worked for the majority of Americans all along. Tough on crime, tough on welfare, tough on unions looked like “Serious People Making Serious Decisions” but was really slow moving betrayal of the New Deal coalition. 

The party has remained in the Clinton image ever since. President Obama included. It hasn’t been able to counter Republicans slow turn to the right because it has largely accepted their worldview and has been left arguing over degrees.

Ironically, Republicans realized the neoliberal game was up first

Despite pulling a Weekend At Bernies with the corpse of Ronald Reagan for years, it has been clear for a long time that Republicans have largely abandoned neoliberalism and replaced it with an ethno-nationalism that is really just zero-sum oligarchy with a bunch of racism and fanaticism to scrape out electoral victories.

The Democratic Party, at the national level, but also at local levels, has been left in the awkward and clearly untenable position of half-heartedly defending neoliberalism. Sure, compared to the nihilism of the Republican Party, protecting the status quo seems appealing and even noble, but it isn’t. 

Neoliberalism in the first place was a betrayal of the modern Democratic Party’s New Deal ethos and hasn’t worked for most Americans anyway. The American pie is getting bigger for the wealthy (many of which aren’t American) but fewer people are getting slices at all.

Forget #theresistance and resist the Democratic Party’s continued dereliction of duty

At all levels of the Democratic Party, the reliance on big donors and corporate coziness has killed its ability or desire to counter this and to address the issues facing our country in meaningful ways. Big, sweeping visions of societal change are anathema to these interests and thus the party has turned to bland incrementalism and technocratic insularity to keep muddling along. 

It is obvious that this has failed as a political strategy, particularly at the state level where Democrats have lost over almost a 1000 seats since 2008. But it has failed as a moral imperative. 

We need big thinking to turn things around. We need big actions to save the country and the planet. We need big ideas to overcome the cultural decadence and civic rot fueling all of this, which was encouraged by the individualist consumerism that neoliberalism requires.

That’s why the Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign was so important, even if it fell short. It started much needed and much unwanted soul searching within the party because it was about big ideas. It was about what kind of country and what kind of world we can create if we control it. 

It offered a glimpse of a 21st century version of a New Deal coalition that has had a powerful impact on the party, despite every effort to resist it. It shows that there is a hunger for taking back democratic control over the economy and the environment from the market that neoliberalism trusts exclusively.

It has been slow and will continue to be, but the successes of leftist social-democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (full disclosure: I volunteer for her on housing policy), Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib at the national level means there will be more voices in Congress speaking for more people that have been voiceless there and within the Democrat Party for too long. This is an important development, regardless of who wins control of the House on November 6th.

Universal Rent Control is one of many local fronts in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party

Wrestling back democratic control of the Democratic Party at the national level will be a multi-cycle project. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to impact the party’s future where you live. The real fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is happening locally as we speak over issues like Universal Rent Control.

In New York City, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory swept national attention and has made her an instant rockstar on the left, but she will be the first to say that she is part of a ground-up grassroots movement that is bigger than any one candidate or office.

That was on display in many New York Senate primary races on September 13th where 5 of the 6 NYC members of the infamous Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who voted with Republicans in Albany, all lost to left-leaning candidates. All of these candidates ran on an unapologetically social-democratic agenda that includes universal rent control. They and others need help to win in the general election.

There is a real chance that despite severe gerrymandering, and real estate lobby money, Democrats will win the Senate in Albany for the first time in decades (the Assembly has long been in Democratic control) on the strength of this social-democratic agenda.

Democratic control of Albany doesn’t mean social democratic control — or that Universal Rent Control happens

If that happens, we’ll see just how much of a battle taking back the Democratic Party will be and why neoliberalism has such deep roots in Democratic politcs. The IDC and Republicans are an easy target to blame for the lack of more progressive policy in New York state, but the truth is more complicated. 

Many New York Democrats, notably Governor Cuomo, who is the poster boy for cynical Third Way Clintonism (he was HUD Secretary in Clinton’s second term after all), are skeptical of progressive policies and have deep ties to the real estate industry that make up the base of the traditional big donor interests in Albany.

Will these traditional Democrats listen to their constituents and the grass-roots movement trying to save the Democratic Party? How many Democratic voters recognize how much of the problem lies within the Democratic Party itself? The primary results show that there is real momentum, but the activists fueling this rise need to rally more Democratic voters to the cause, and it means talking about big ideas again.

URC and every progressive fight must be framed as taking back democratic control over our economic and environmental destiny

Universal rent control is a big idea. At heart, it is a series of policy proposals that aim to protect all renters in New York state from harassment, displacement, and homelessness. It’s a completely justifiable policy proposal given the structural nature of the housing crisis that cries out for more tenant protections. Half of all renters in New York are rent-burdened and there are over 89,000 homeless New Yorkers in the state. On top of this, the city and state are not ready for climate change, which will effect many of these low-income communities first.

Universal Rent Control has been and will continue to be attacked by the real estate lobby, most economists, and many members of the media as a foolish, self-destructive fantasy. That’s horseshit.

“Highest best use” has been the religion defining neoliberalism’s economic and political policy for decades, even as it has enriched faceless corporate entities at the expense of local communities and popular representation. The principles of efficient allocation of resources appear to be agnostic and empirical, but they are still subjective assessments of fundamentally moral arguments about what a society should be and whom a government should serve.

That’s why URC must be understood as being the head of a larger political spear aimed at fighting the illiberalism at the heart of neoliberalism. It is about taking back power from the high priests of the market. The goal is to give power back to the people through democratically elected leaders and popularly supported laws. 

Illiberalism has been on displace within New York State for years: blatant gerrymandering, terrible voting laws, and endless amounts of anonymous money (much of it coming from the real estate lobby) make New York’s government a truly anti-democratic institution. Only popular movements like URC can finally end this system.

To be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that ‘the people’ will agree on every issue. The point is to reestablish democracy as a forum where all sides felt heard, all views are addressed, and as much consensus is reached as possible. Only then will our self-government live up to its definition. Only then will it have legitimacy and buy-in, even if the results are compromises. That’s the whole point.

This is all a moral failure. Let’s keep calling it that.

Democrats have long abandoned the sense of morality that was the foundation of the New Deal coalition’s success. I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Party is devoid of morality. They have adopted moral language rhetorically for certain vulnerable populations and on the environment. Some of this language has resulted in real, meaningful action. 

But most hasn’t. As a result it falls into the lose-lose situation of being lambasted for its overly “PC” rhetoric and focus on identity politics while not actually taking legislative stands for those issues, harming those constituencies.

Democrats don’t need to try to revive the New Deal coalition per se. 40 years of increased diversity and increased economic burden has greatly expanded what this coalition should and could look like. But to do so will require reviving the moral clarity and civic purpose that it represented. If the New Deal came out of the Great Depression, the next version should come out of the Great Recession. 

It is a message that already polls well with Americans from all political spectrums. There will be political victory if the Democrats do, but that will pale in comparison to saving the country and the planet. The only way to do that is to wrest control back from the markets.

Let’s start with calling out the immorality of our housing policy. 80,000 of our fellow New Yorkers should not be homeless. Half of all renters should not be burdened. So many seniors should not be so close to housing disaster. Communities shouldn’t be displaced for the sake of private equity profits. 

These are choices that have been made without our consent. Universal Rent Control is the first step in taking control of these choices and fixing them. That means greater public investment and ownership of housing. That means holding the private sector accountable as a partner, not as a master. It means redefining what our society should value and who should get to debate and ultimately define that.

For all of us as individuals, this means getting out there and supporting movements and candidates that want to take control of these choices. There is still time before November 6th to get involved, but the work won’t end there. It won’t end if Democrats win or lose in Albany or DC. We must keep shaping the fight for the soul of the party and keep making it clear that this is about saving our shared future.

berniesneoliberalism.JPG

Trump's Real Estate Taxes, the Supreme Court, and Climate Change Are All Related (That's a Good Thing)


It’s only been a week since the New York Times published an article about Trump’s prolific tax cheating with his father’s real estate fortune, but it’s fallen out of the news. That’s not surprising given the complexity of the story and the baked-in awareness that Donald Trump was/is not an honest businessman. It’s also nowhere near being the most important national story given the ugly Kavanaugh confirmation debacle and the dire UN climate change report. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, all three stories are deeply related.

To put it broadly, without radically changing our real estate laws, we can not save our country from climate change and to change our laws that radically, they will need to pass through the Supreme Court eventually. 

As of today, both seem like a daunting if not impossible tasks. The Supreme Court is set up to spend the next generation turning us back to the 19th century. The entire conservative movement over the last 40 years has worked to empower a judicial philosophy that is openly hostile to popular democratic governance and legislative oversight of the economy. And they just locked in power for next 40. 

On top of that, real estate has long been one of the most privileged industries and asset classes in America. That makes it deeply small-c conservative and has given it a powerful set of tools and incentives to prevent major reform, whether on its tax policy, its relationship to political contributions, or its environmental impact. 

These interests have lots of lobbying power at the national level, but their true power is on the state and local levels. They block candidates and policy initiatives that are perceived to “threaten” property values and are the main barrier to reforming land-use policy around economic and environmental justice. Overcoming that structure is extremely challenging.

But before you despair, let’s consider why the Trump tax cheat story is so important: it offers a hack into changing all of this. 

To defeat President Trump or the Republican Party, we must defeat Real Estate Developer Donald Trump.

To quickly recap, the Times story poured over thousands of court and tax documents and spoke with hundreds of people associated with the Trump Organization and family to reveal three fundamental facts: 

  • Donald Trump didn’t build his real estate empire like he claims, he illegally inherited it from his father. 

  • Fred Trump, the father, built most of that empire through gaming the federal government for millions in tax subsidies. 

  • Father and son committed systemic tax fraud over decades that directly harmed tenants

All of this happened by aggressively exploiting the already favorable tax code that allows real estate developers to self-assess lower property values for tax purposes, to arbitrarily split management structures to hide profits while overcharging vendors and tenants, and to shield ownership through obscure legal entities to further dwindle tax liabilities. 

The bad news is that, at this stage, it seems likely that the Trump family has already gotten away with it (although New York is looking into it). Most (but definitely not all) of these moves are perfectly legal given how the real estate lobby has helped write the tax code at the local and federal level for decades. That’s true in every state.

This is largely because a tiny fraction of the population, like the Trump family, has an immense amount of the wealth generated over the last few decades and as a result has captured almost all of the political power. Real estate money is the foundation of this power structure and always has been. Who owns the land is the very basis of power in America, which both Republicans and Democrats have protected. 

When then-candidate Trump bragged about giving money to both parties, this is basically what he was bragging about. Almost every big real estate interest is like that. 

The Trump tax cheating story then is incredibly useful as a rallying cry for real estate reform because it is a shorthand to explain how damaging real estate law is in the US and it is also a roadmap for how to change it. 

That’s where the good news comes in: we are already starting to dismantle this power structure. 

In New York, the Democratic primary on Sept 13th saw a slate of progressive pro-tenant candidates defeat real-estate backed candidates, potentially shifting the balance of power in Albany for the first time in generations. Their victories were backed by a growing bottom-up coalition for universal rent control that has a real shot of removing the type of legal loopholes that the Trumps used to jack up rents and avoid taxes for decades.

If Democrats take the senate in Albany next month, there is a real chance that a once-in-a-generation reform movement can take hold in Albany. Universal rent control should start with issues related to rents of course, but it should expand to address all of the background mechanics of real estate tax law and political contributions that have fed this unjust system for decades. 

This coalition is gaining power as a popular response to the affordable housing crisis and has a real plan to address it. But just as importantly it is also helping people begin to see that the affordable housing crisis is part of a larger inequality crisis across our late capitalist society. The environmental destruction ravaging our planet is a logical outcome.

There are few, if any, states that aren’t subject to the toxic mix of shadowy real estate law and shadowy political contributions from real estate. Without removing their hold on power, we will never be able to make the changes we need to protect the environment in the long-term and protect the must vulnerable populations in the short-term. 

Even if that happens, the real estate interests profiting from this power structure will inevitably look to the Supreme Court to protect it. 

Anti-union, pro-voter suppression, and generally skeptical of the administrative state, the current court, now with Kavanaugh confirmed, looks set up to bail out “Big Real Estate” (or maybe the more Georgist “Big Land”?) But on closer look, they shouldn’t be so sure.

The Supreme Court famously does not have the power of the purse or the sword. It is a deliberative body that interprets laws, which is inherently a subjective process (which so-called “originalists” prove in action). It’s credibility as a separate, legitimate third branch of government has always rested on its popular support regardless of any rhetoric suggesting otherwise. It can get away with being out of step with the majority of people for only so long.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t need to worry about that. Blocking Judge Merrick Garland and now jamming through Brett Kavanaugh has severely damaged the court’s image as a non-partisan institution, but Republicans will be rewarded by their donor class for it. (Their base may get some short-term victory on further restricting abortion access, but it will pale in comparison to the losses they suffer in the long-run from the conservative movement’s real priorities). 

Chief Justice Roberts does need to worry about the Court’s image. It’s one thing to strike down EPA restrictions on (flimsy) grounds of federal overreach, but it’s entirely another to strike down direct laws passed by state legislatures. There is at least some evidence that Chief Justice Roberts understands that blindly delivering partisan victories for conservatives is bad for the health of the court, and, perhaps generously, for the country. Overturning popularly supported state laws even if they are counter to prevailing a la carte conservative judicial theory seems unlikely. There is hope, at least.

But even getting in front of the Supreme Court starts with getting laws passed at the state level. That will take building broad coalitions across and within states that agree on a narrow set of legislative priorities that can get them passed. 

I believe that real estate reform is the perfect issue to kindle the formation of these coalitions. The power of developers and landowners over our politics has crippled our democracy, long before its crippled our ability to face climate change. There are immediate and well-defined legislative goals that can be achieved to break that structure. 

The progress made on electing candidates in the New York Senate that support universal rent control is a great start. There is much to be done from there. But if we can create a model for passing progressive laws on real estate reform, we can do so for climate change. 

It starts with telling a simple story to as many people as possible. We have one now. Showing how Real Estate Developer Trump has harmed New Yorkers both as a landlord and a political contributor is a powerful way to start dismantling the system that created President Trump, the plutocrat supporting, climate-change denier. 

(market watch/ getty images)

(market watch/ getty images)

Changing Land-Use Policy Isn't Enough - Change Capitalism

The Day After...Yesterday...wait? (abc)

The Day After...Yesterday...wait? (abc)

The past two weeks have witnessed truly horrifying climate events across the US. From the wild fires in Oregon and California, the devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, to the in-progress Hurricane Irma in Florida and Georgia, our country is enduring unprecedented climate damage and millions of Americans are suffering and in some cases dying.

The work now is to save and evacuate people, to provide shelter and comfort, and to endure. But the more important work, work that we should have been doing already, must begin as soon as possible. It includes a radical change to how we value land use and how the real estate industry operates, but that even that won’t be enough. We must rethink capitalism in the 21st century.

It is difficult to discuss these storms while looking out of my window at a beautiful fall day in NYC. I look at a playground that is full of laughing kids running around and parents chatting with each other. I can see the crowded tents of the farmers’ market where I’ll probably go by some apple cider after finishing this post. It is serene. It is difficult knowing that so many people across the Caribbean, the Gulf (including the victims of the earthquake in Mexico) and Florida are either trying to make sense of a society in ruins or to make sure their homes are still intact.

But even what I’m looking at now experienced some of those same fears and feelings only five years ago during Superstorm Sandy. The storm surge came frightfully close to that same playground, even though it’s a good 8-minute walk to the East River. We lost power for 9 days. The National Guard came to help us go door-to-door through thousands of apartments, checking on older residents who were trapped. By Day 9 it was getting cold out and I still sometimes wonder how bad it could have gotten if we didn’t get power back that day.

Where I live was swamp and coastline 200 years ago; it was filled in like many parts of Manhattan. The water during Sandy came up to that former coastline with remarkable consistency across the island. It’s almost as if nature had figured out where Manhattan should stop. But we ignored it and pushed further.

That we even have to endure “debate” that climate change is “real” is tragically self-destructive. Of course it is real and of course we are causing it. And of course it is complicated to measure and difficult to draw direct links between these storms and carbon emissions. But the obvious point is: our weather is changing in increasing dangerous, unpredictable, and likely permanent ways.

That we have been failing to craft public policy that even remotely protects us against climate change is irresponsible and depressing. The current administration is telling us not to discuss it while cutting research funding for it, but the previous administration didn’t do enough when it had the chance. One party is villainous, the other is cowardly. Both are guilty of failing our present and our future.

In addition, much has been written about poor land use regulations in Houston and no doubt much will be written about hyper development policies in Florida. Between the two storms, over 10 million people will have been impacted. A fraction of those numbers lived in these areas just two generations ago. Their growth happened quickly and without any respect for the environment they exist in.

Could some of the havoc been avoided if there were stricter flood zone controls, density measures, and better building codes? Absolutely. Florida and particularly Texas have prided themselves on their lower cost of living and lower government oversight. Taxes are low, but that has consequences.

Could some of the suffering have been avoided if it wasn’t so cheap for people to live in these areas? Sure. Water control, air-conditioning, and cheap travel (by car or plane) made these areas attractive and profitable. Growth is constant, but that has consequences too.

These storms were more dangerous and destructive because of climate change, which is being caused by the very things that made those areas expand in the first place. And those same decisions made it harder for the natural environment to absorb the rains and the storm surges of Harvey and Irma. It is an increasingly untenable cycle.

But the problem is even bigger. Climate change and our inability to comprehend it is the hubris of our modern capitalist system manifested. The readily accepted idea that our society should value economic growth above all else has all but eliminated our ability to think critically about how we interact with our environment. It has blinded us to the limitations that all human civilizations have faced over where they can live. It has made us think we are the sole, dominant actor on our planet. And it has put us all in danger.

A system that relies on the exploitation of the natural world (and, lest we forget, of the human body) can’t simply separate itself from that world. That system relies on the premise that certain inputs are priced according to their scarcity, while others have no price (or a low price) because they are abundant. The idea that we could run out of drinkable water, arable land, or breathable air doesn’t factor into our foundational beliefs. But those resources aren’t endless and they aren’t immune to our actions.

This isn’t about Texas or Florida, or even NYC or any place on the west coast. This is about a system that has been lying to us and this is about us letting it get away with it. It has been allowed to shield itself behind a false layer of rationality, claiming that the power of the market to price our goods and activities is the best way — the only way, in fact — to organize our society.

But capitalism has never accurately priced how we have chosen to build our world. The cost of fossil fuels isn’t captured at the pump. The cost of housing isn’t captured at the closing. The cost of disposable goods isn’t captured at the checkout counter. The true cost comes in polluted air, dead oceans, and, yes, powerful storms.

What is so disheartening, in addition to the human suffering happening as we speak, is how little will change. Our elected leaders have already promised the great recovery. Congress might haggle over funding and a few politicians might be embarrassed by past or current votes, but federal funds and private funds will surge in to these areas just as fiercely as the storms. Our political system accepts this like its a business cycle and not an existential threat.

As a result, some people will be able to rebuild, some won’t. Some will lose money, others will make it. Maybe, for a time, some cities and towns will discuss how to be ready for the next storm.

But as we learned in the five years after Sandy, even in an area that accepts climate change and has the resources to make dramatic changes, our system simply isn’t built to price the cost of future storms and future suffering.

Until we ask why and until we say no more, all we’re doing is buying time. And that’s a deal where we’re increasingly paying more for less.

5 Reasons We Need More Federal Intervention in Housing

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

This past week, Urban Institute released a report on the dire state of the affordable housing crisis.  Put simply, every county in the country has a significant shortage of affordable rental housing.  Every. Single. County. This report focuses on extremely low-income (ELI) households (which make 30% of average median income) and shows that there are only 21 market-rate units for every 100 ELI renter households. The number climbs to 46 units with federal programs.  On it’s own, this report shows why federal intervention in housing is so important to this population, but taken in a broader context, it shows why we need to re-embrace the type of large-scale federal intervention that we saw from the 1930s-1960s. Here are five reasons.

1. Localism Makes Things Worse

“Localism” is a call for more local autonomy that acknowledges the deep geographical divisions that have paralyzed our federal government. Frenemies Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have come together to make a compelling argument for why the only way to overcome this is to essentially admit defeat, avoid relying on the federal government, and let local preferences control tax dollars/policy. 

As I explained in last week’s blog, though both scholars, coming from different ideological perspectives, present solid reasons for supporting this idea, there are two practical problems that would potentially make the housing crisis worse.

First, we already have localism and it stinks.  As Matthew Yglesias pointed out recently about Palo Alto, localized planning policy has skewed political outcomes for one constituency – the connected present – at the expense of the non-connected present (and the future). These local groups in these select economic areas are suffocating the entire national economy. Right now.

Second, the history of NYC before the dawn of federal intervention in the 1930s shows that in many cases, even at the local level, the interests of “financial power” and “voting power” rarely align and at best create a corrupt status quo that serves only the leaders of each faction.  We wouldn’t likely see a return to political machines, but can we assume that contemporary “financial power” and “voting power” have similar political goals? Or can they find political strategies that both sides buy into?

Whether its local planning policies that prevent growth or deeply divided local political interests, our current reliance on localism is counterproductive. Removing the small federal power that exists now would only make these issues worse. We need to supersede these local interests as a nation.

2. Regionalism Has Too Many Boundaries

A counter-argument presented to localism is regionalism.  Amy Liu wrote about several areas – Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – where local municipalities are working together, across city-lines, to create equitable development.  Though these examples are encouraging, they show the larger political conundrum of planning this way.

Regions, let alone cities, are not recognized in the Constitution, which poses fundamental challenges to cooperation and coordination at the sub-state level. You only need to look at the dysfunction in North Carolina over Charlotte’s bathroom policy to show that the partisan divisions at the federal level are just as toxic, if not more so, at the state level. Cities and regions are not powerful enough to overcome bad state-level planning.

Even worse, NYC shows the challenge of interstate coordination.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters are stuck in perma-hell over the deteriorating train tunnels under the Hudson River, partly because NY and NJ have bickered about who pays for what. Forget Bridgegate, Governor Chris Christie's legacy will be scandalized for canceling ARC.

State boundaries in many cases do not reflect the larger economic and political cohesion of a commuter-shed and instead have the affect of pitting residents of the same region against each other or putting residents in one state under the whims of politicians in another. The only recognized power to overcome these obstacles – to get cities, states, and regions to work together - is the federal government.

3. There Already is Intervention - Just the Wrong Kind

The US is a majority suburban, majority homeowner society.  Why? Because the government decided that we should be. More specifically, the US federal government decided to promote white homeownership and car ownership as the bedrocks of the post-war American economy by building free highways, underwriting mortgages, and segregating neighborhoods.

There is nothing organic or market-driven about how our communities are organized in America.  These were political choices that tipped the scales decidedly towards certain outcomes that were not pre-destined and were certainly not universally accessible.

Over the last 80 years, the US government has spent trillions of dollars subsidizing the suburban expansion of our country.  Even today, 60% of government spending on housing (over $100b) goes to subsidizing homes for wealthy Americans.  We don’t think of this as a ‘handout’ in the classic sense, but it absolutely is and it has had immeasurable consequences to our society.

If we acknowledge that the federal government has always played a central role in our economy, we can get over the childish ideologies that continue to harm our country.  Instead, we can focus on how we want the government to intervene.

Do we really want to spend billions of dollars subsiding the homes of wealthy Americans when we can spend a fraction of that on providing guaranteed, affordable housing to all vulnerable citizens? This isn’t a crazy, ideological question.  It’s a value judgment first and foremost, but it also makes more economic sense on top of that.

If the economy is moving towards innovative jobs clustered in urban areas, we need to build more housing in those communities to encourage spillover affects for all workers. The federal government has picked housing winners for 80 years - we just need it to pick different ones now.

4. Late Capitalism is Eroding Our Civil Society

Late capitalism is an increasingly mainstream term to describe the inevitability of the economic and political malaise we have been in (depending on how you measure it) for decades.  We are in a sustained period of inequality, inopportunity, and insecurity that shows, demonstrably, that something is deeply wrong with our economy and the politics organizing it. The person who ignores this is a fool and the person who defends it is a villain.

Just as I outlined in the previous section, this is no accident.  The federal government over the last 40 years has tilted the economic playing field towards stateless globalization, corporatist monopoly, and sanctioned corruption. The logical conclusion of this unabated trend is social collapse. Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but the populism seen on both ends of the political spectrum in the US and across much of the western world is a direct response to late capitalism and another step towards this frightening possibility. How (and if) this anger can be channeled constructively is the great political question of our time.

However, as we’ve seen during other eras of extreme political and financial inequality, that anger can be channeled positively at the federal level.  The legislation passed during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all far-reaching attempts to address massive, system-level problems (obviously with uneven results.)  Just as federal policies are the cause of many of these current problems, they can and must be the solution too.

5. It’s the Environment, Stupid

All of this comes back to the ghost at the feast: climate change.  Sorry Bret Stephens, but there is no debate about the danger this poses to our society.  Sure, scientists don’t know exactly how, where, or when these changes will manifest as an existential threat, but it’s not an academic question.  We are experiencing this all over the world right now.

The simple, unsexy truth is that our development history – sprawl – has been terrible for the environment overall and terrible for the health of many people specifically.  (One area where HUD Secretary Ben Carson has shown some potential is this connection between housing and health.)

Creating denser communities where housing and jobs are walkable and connected to public transit isn’t some liberal fantasy for its own sake.  It’s a proven form of addressing inequalities and inefficiencies harming our environment and our collective health. 

Localism and regionalism can’t address the dangers of climate change if some localities “want” to maintain sprawl.  Decades of federal intervention in homeownership and car ownership that cause climate change can’t naturally be reversed. The ills of late capitalism that have damaged the physical and political health of our society won’t fix themselves.

The federal government is the only entity strong enough and ultimately legitimate enough to adequately address all of these problems.  Giving up on this idea, as academics or advocates, is giving up on the American experiment itself.

Rather than abandon the idea that the federal government can help, we must commit ourselves to a national “reboot” of political, economic, and social priorities.

Starting with housing seems like the logical place to begin this process.  The moral urgency of the housing crisis calls for big, bold national ideas.  The economic and social benefits of committing the nation to housing-as-a-right are self-evident.  Where and how we build that housing may just be the difference between a sustainable future or something far darker.