Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The difference between health care and housing policy, and why I'm inflexible on the latter

This was written in response to a friend's comment on facebook.  Published here because I hate reading long comments on facebook.

I think there are two big differences between our discourse on housing policy and that with health care.

First, the external context for the latter was much more objectively defined.  Health care had been the topic of extended national debate.  There was tremendous literature on health care reform, from academics to journalists and everyone in between.  Many of those people were self-consciously working to inform public debate, people like Aaron Carroll and Uwe Reinhardt put a lot of work into translating research results and policy discussion into layman's terms.  You and I could draw on that, it wasn't just "I think…".  Finally, when we began discussions the ACA was law, we never dealt with mutually exclusive choices where doing one thing necessarily implied not doing something else.  We also never confronted value choices like universal coverage vs. affordable care for the very sick, the ACA set the table.

None of that is the case with housing policy.  I find the literature sparse and of limited scope, and the only people promoting it in public discourse are advocates of one policy or another.  There's nothing objective to connect with.  And with that material we confront a vaster problem, the gulf between "what is" and "what should be" is bigger with housing.  For example, even before health care reform we had  backstops, anyone could walk into an ER and receive life sustaining care.  We didn't have bodies in the street.  That's clearly not the case with housing.  A bigger problem means bigger solutions, and more variability in preferred courses of action.

The second difference is that with health care, I thought both the state and the country were going in the right direction.  Political debate was focused on how best to expand access to care, there was no voice of significance arguing that we needed less access to care, or that some people should get care and others should not.  I'd liken health care discourse to a river that, while it had rocks and other hidden dangers that could turn over the unwary, would sooner or later get everyone to the right place.  In contrast, I think the housing discourse in Portland is headed to a terrible place. 

Two groups have dominated that discourse in recent years.  One is a large chunk of people interested in nothing other than preserving the economic exclusivity of their neighborhoods.  The other is a smaller chunk of people who think the problem isn't that there's not enough housing, but that the wrong people get it.  They want to take housing away from some people and give it to others.  Those two groups define political discourse in Portland, every code or policy proposal related to housing since Sam Adams left office served one group or the other.  Needless to say, I think both groups are wrong.  To go with the flow, to not contest the bogus assumptions (less housing means lower prices!  people can't live without cars!) and questionable values (I should be able to dictate the economic class of my neighbors!) they rely on, is to accept a more racially and economically exclusive Portland.  I don't want that.

At the bottom, I suspect we have fundamentally different ideas on what a community should do to define itself. I'd call one way a negative approach, to exclude those who don't conform.  How do you maintain a neighborhood of Amish people?  You refuse to allow residency to anyone who isn't Amish.  That negative approach is conservative and reactive, at best it preserves what is.  It relies on authority rather than consent.  It is sterile, incapable of building anew.

As you might guess, I think the negative approach is intensely undesirable, I'd go so far as to say it's a recipe for community self-destruction.  Such a community lasts only so long as it attracts sufficient members, and as soon as its authority or self-definition is violated it becomes meaningless.  White city neighborhoods that spilled blood resisting integration only to crumble away into suburban flight are an example.

The alternative is a positive approach, to promote public community institutions and traditions that are open to all.  Things like parks, schools, and community groups can include residents regardless of demographics.  They can demonstrate to residents what they can do, and why they should care.  That approach creates a two-way conversation, it continually challenges groups to show their relevancy and adapt as necessary.  It doesn't just maintain but increases the public good by bringing an interest to people who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to it, and in turn by being exposed to new ideas and challenges that exclusion wouldn't allow.

I think the positive approach, building more good, is what Portland desperately needs.  I think that's how Portland should respond to growth.  Not by putting up walls, but by embracing people and showing them who we are.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Aristocracy of Everyone

I finished reading Benjamin Barber's An Aristocracy of Everyone.  It was published in 1992, the same year I headed to college.  The context in which it was written- the emergence of multiculturalism, and reactionary criticism of "political correctness", brings back memories.

Barber tries to carve out a middle ground between radical and reactionary, and he does it in an interesting way.  He starts from the equation that Liberty = Education, and that a primary purpose of getting educated is to understand liberty and support it.  Barber is worried that we've lost our sense of "positive" liberty, the obligations we must accept to make self-government possible.  We're too infatuated with "negative" liberty, the right to do as we please without interference.  The latter without the former is impossible because we interact with each other too much, generally speaking we aren't hermits.

To the left Barber says that majority rule by itself isn't enough for good governance, that uneducated voters are no more than a mob waiting for their demagogue.  To the right Barber says that liberty for the masses is both possible and desirable, and implicitly they are flim-flam artists for wanting otherwise.

It's heady stuff and there's a lot of quotable material.  But it comes up short in in its prescription:  How do we educate people in liberty?  Barber's suggestion is to add a service component to undergraduate degree requirements.  This is inadequate on multiple levels.

First, as Barber ably demonstrates the problem of uneducated citizens isn't primarily a problem of youth.  The dominant systems students interact with- education, economy, culture- are largely controlled by elders.  The world outside of college is much, much bigger than the world inside of college.  Adding a service requirement won't change those systems or the incentives they create.

Second, what work does Barber envision students doing?  He means for work to be a component of education in democracy and its obligations, something more than charity.  What would he have students do?  Invert the question and ask how much does your company need a bunch of pre-interns who explicitly aren't actually working for you, but are instead guided by a goal of understanding democracy and its obligations?  Who, outside of non-profits, would even let them in the door?  I think the service requirement runs into a hard reality that most of our economy is private, it has nothing to do with democracy.

The answer to Barber's challenge has to focus on people who aren't students, on civic organizations that bring people together to pursue common interests.  Those interests might be political, such as with a political party, they might be local, as with a neighborhood association or PTA, or they might be issue oriented such as with advocating a cause.  What they have in common is
    • people coming together, working in concert and learning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,
    • coming together on a public matter, not limited by class or education, and
    • doing it in their free time, as in not subject to anyone's direction but their own.  When people are at work they aren't free, they're guided by bosses or business requirements.  Liberty exists when we aren't a Teacher or a Welder or an Accountant, but when we act on our own as citizens. 

Learning about liberty means learning that what we do "on our own" in public matters, those actions define what is public. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Unsolicited Advice for Portland Mayoral Candidates

I took a poll the other day which asked a number of questions about Portland and the mayoral race.  My assumption is those questions are on behalf of a potential candidate, and they're testing the waters.

The poll focused on economic matters:  how is the economy doing, how important are jobs, should Portland try to entice businesses from out of state to move here or focus on growing our own, etc.  They're all good questions on their own, but if that's the focus of a mayoral candidate I think they're all wrong.  In my view Portland's economy is doing pretty well, and when the economy does well people take it for granted.  It won't get votes.

What will get votes is articulating a response to Portland's population growth and housing shortage.  Portland desperately needs not just a direction or a set of actions that will happen ("we'll build more housing, we'll stop demolitions") but a reconciliation with our commitment to sustainability and livable neighborhoods that have long defined the city.  To paraphrase a wise person who's name escapes me, out of
  • affordable housing, 
  • a tight UGB, and
  • our current neighborhood densities,
we can only have two out of three.  One way or another we have to compromise on one of those, and we ought to explicitly decide which.  If we don't, we'll lose affordable housing by default.  That's a shitty thing to do to people with lower income.  If we're pushing them out, the least we can do is tell them so and tell them why.  And if we're embarrassed to say such things out loud then maybe we should look at a different compromise.

I think (I hope) the next mayor will be someone who presents that call, who can answer it out loud, and convince us that they are right.