Voting, Homelessness, and Gentrification

Voting, Homelessness, and Gentrification

I live in Reno, Nevada, a city that was hit very hard by the Great Recession and has turned around over the last few years with an explosion of gentrification. The city is in a valley between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and more smaller ranges to the East. The city is at a point where the valley has been mostly filled in, meaning that any additional urban sprawl will have to take place in valleys outside the main Reno/Sparks area. Consequently, prices have risen in the valley, driven by a limited supply, limited ability to spread, and an influx of new residents from California and neighboring states. At the same time that the city is gentrifying, new developments and new economic programs built on tech and outdoor tourism are changing the local landscapes. New trendy hotels are being built and large hotel casinos are being turned into condominiums and apartments.
Caught-up in the city’s transformation are the homeless shelters. The main area where homeless shelters have been concentrated downtown is transforming into a trendy place with local breweries and new restaurants. It is close to the still somewhat new baseball stadium and is close to an area where the University of Nevada, Reno is currently expanding student housing. This has put pressure on city leaders to clean-up the area, which means pushing out the homeless who have come to know the area as a place where they can find shelter and a meal.
“The very poor are a tiny minority,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “and they hardly ever vote. Citizens who want the poor to live as far away as possible are a large majority, and they vote regularly. That leaves the poorest of the poor with nowhere to go.”
This quote from Jencks accurately sums up the current situation regarding the homeless in my home town. Rumos I have heard are that the Gospel Mission my wife and I volunteer at to serve the homeless will have to move and the building it occupies will likely be demolished for new hotels in the near future. I think this is a good economic move for the city, our ballpark, and the area around the stadium. Reno is a town that has always been in the shadow of Las Vegas as a less glitzy, downscale version of sin city. Many people want to reimagine Reno as something better, cleaner, and more attractive to the outside world than a sad version of Vegas. However, our homeless who rely on the shelter and know they can depend on the area for a place to eat and sleep are going to be pushed further away. A new, much larger, homeless shelter was recently built, but it is several miles down the road in a somewhat hard to access part of town next to the busiest freeway interchange. It was people with resources who vote that decided the homeless needed to go and that they would be pushed to one of the least attractive parts of town. The homeless, without any power themselves, certainly didn’t chose to be even further marginalized and outcast from a city that wants to ignore their existence.
Reactive Racism

Reactive Racism

An unfortunate reality in the United States is that there is a great deal of racial segregation across our states, cities, and communities. There are not a lot of spaces that manage to mix the different races, different socioeconomic status individuals, and different cultures that exist within our country. Many white people have almost exclusively white friends and social groups. Many wealthy people only engage with and interact with other similarly wealthy people. We don’t have a lot of voluntary institutions where different races come together willingly or where people of different socioeconomic status mix. I admit that this is the reality of my own life, as much as I wish it were not the case.
One consequence of this segregation is a misunderstanding of the power dynamics and direction of racism in our country. When we do not interact with people who are not like us in any deep or meaningful way, we can fail to understand the power dynamics of racism. We can fail to understand the structural and systemic factors of modern racism. In the end, this means that we misunderstand power dynamics, animosity, and the hatred that can flow between people of different races or social classes. I see this in my own life when people I know argue that black racism against whites is just as bad as any white racism against blacks. Black people who hold racist views against white people are sometimes used to excuse racist white people and in some cases they are used to turn the table and suggest that white people now face more discrimination than black people and other minorities.
What this argument seems to miss, however, is the role of power dynamics and the nature of reactionary racism. In 1993 when spending time trying to understand and write about homeless women for his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow noted this phenomenon. In the book he writes, “It is tempting to see white racism and black racism as mirror images of one another, made of the same kind of stuff. But white hatred of blacks appeared to be a purer, self-sustaining emotion that fed on itself. Black hatred of whites appeared to be more reactive, more dependent, feeding not on itself but on white hatred.”
Liebow’s argument is ultimately I think about power. White racism against black people seemed to stem from systemic and structural factors that enabled, and possibly even promoted, the disenfranchisement of black people for the gain of white people. The racism and hatred for white people that blacks held, on the other hand, seemed to be more reactionary. That is not to say that both forms of racism are terrible and can drive people toward atrocities, but it is important to note that Liebow could detect a leading force and a reactionary force. It is important to recognize the idea of reactive racism and the inherent power structures and dynamics it represents so that we don’t fall into the false equivalence argument that racism toward white people is just as bad in this country as white racism toward others.
Ownership of Land

Ownership of Land

“The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. This line feels like it could be from a book written about the Trail of Tears, about any number of American atrocities toward indigenous populations of the Americas, or about European colonialization. But the line is about modern evictions from rental properties across the Untied States.
I don’t think the idea of connecting modern evictions with our nation’s history of forcing Native Americans from their land was intentional in Desmond’s book, but I think it is an interesting and insightful angle through which we can view evictions and the American housing crisis. People need reasonable and safe places to live. Research has demonstrated how important the places where you live and grow up can be for your life outcomes. Our troubling history of taking land from Native Americans shows that we have always known this and it reinforces the lessons that current research is presenting. Additionally, the abandonment of native populations and the economic challenges that tribes across the country face today show how long lasting dislocation from property and housing can be.
American public housing projects have often not gone well. Providing housing via market mechanisms is generally much preferred to government provided housing, but for those on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, this option often become exploitative, exclusionary, unhealthy, and dangerous. Poor people often have to live in slums that can do more to set them back than help them find a way to get ahead. And when they can’t get ahead, they face eviction, with the powerful landowners forcing them from the lousy housing they were at one point able to attain.
The power dynamics of renters and owners is important to acknowledge. Landlords can evict tenants, and low income tenants quickly realize that a landlord can make their life difficult if they speak out about the slum conditions they live in. The people living on the land have to deal with terrible conditions, and risk being forced from the land if they speak up. Just as Native Americans had to accept the terms of the powerful American Government, tenants have to accept the terms of land-owners, no matter how unreasonable they may be.
I recognize that land owners have rights. I also recognize how terrible renters can be and how terrible they may treat the property of the land owner (I currently live in a house that was once a rental and we are still dealing with the costs of careless renters and neglect). However, my efforts to connect Desmond’s writing with the way Native American’s were treated is a deliberate attempt to show that a power imbalance can be more harmful for renters than landlords. I don’t have a great solution, but I think it is important that we recognize the opportunities for exploitation that arise for our nation’s lowest SES members in a market system of providing low-income housing. It is also important that we recognize the great harms that exercising power and forcing people from land can have, as demonstrated through the darkest moments of our nation’s past. We should do all we can to avoid leaving another bitter legacy of power and eviction in our wake.
A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing The Scream Johann Hari briefly writes about human practices of using drugs dating back well over 2000 years ago. He uses a story about Greek rituals at the Temple at Eleusis to show how common and widespread drug use was, and how it occupied a central and almost sacred role in human life for ancient Greek civilizations. Hari writes about the downfall of the ritual use and near celebration of drugs which occurred at the temple. A downfall that doesn’t appear to have been brought about by negative consequences of drug use, but a downfall that was a deliberate power grab.

 

“The early Christians wanted there to be one rout to ecstasy, and one rout only – through prayer to their God,”  Hari writes. “The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief. If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own.”

 

Hari writes that drugs alter states of consciousness and can give people a new sense of wonder, of awe, and of being something more than themselves. These senses, he argues, were what the Christian Church wanted to offer people through their religious experiences. Church and drugs were competing for the same mental faculties and experiences, and the Church wanted to limit outside exposure to sources that gave people a supernatural feeling.

 

I like to think about the world in terms of the systems and structures that shape the possibilities of our lives. Institutions matter, and they can inform what we find to be immoral, just, and common (or uncommon) parts of human nature. Hari’s research suggest that human desires to change their states of consciousness with chemicals are not in fact the immoral and uncommon problematic desires that we have portrayed them. Institutions, such as religions, have shaped the ways we think about and understand drugs and chemical intoxication. There are probably some true elements of public safety and health in our drug prohibition today, but much of our policy stems from and still maintains a system of authority, power, fear, and xenophobia. Drug use can be widespread and accepted, even if it is problematic – just look at alcohol use in the United States and across the globe. It can also be prohibited and marginalized, it just depends on the institutional systems and structures we chose to attach to drug use. We can develop ways to use drugs responsibly and safely, or we can force drug use into illicit and shady corners of society, where a guarantee of safety and protection is a laughable idea.
Limits in What We Do

Do We Need Some Type of Limit?

I’ve recently watched The Hobbit trilogy, and images of Tolkien’s dwarf kings consumed with greed and gold have stuck with me. For whatever reason, the image of King Thror spinning around in a state of dazed confusion among his treasure, and the image of Thorin becoming corrupted by the same gold bounty have replayed through my mind. Tolkien and the artistic creators of The Hobbit are using the dwarf kings to show the negatives of greed, of lust for power, and the danger in pursuing wealth over people and relationships. They also show what can go wrong in the mind when we have everything.

 

The Hobbit came back to mind as I looked over quotes I highlighted and notes I took in Dreamland by Sam Quinones. My last two posts were about our efforts to avoid pain, suffering, and negativity and about how we try to fill our lives with consumer products that promise to make us happy. Mixed in with those ideas, Quinones adds, “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.”

 

Thror and Thorin show us what Quinones means. When the kings were at the top, when there were no constraints in their power or wealth, they used other people for their own gain. Their minds turned to selfish impulses, and turned away from doing what was right for the good of their people. When they reached the top, they atrophied, with nothing to work toward but the preservation of their own grandeur.

 

A curious phenomenon that Quinones highlights throughout his book is how opioid addiction cuts across all socioeconomic status levels. The sons and daughters of esteemed judges and doctors just as well as men and women who have grown up in poverty all seem to be victims of opioid addiction. For some reason we expect addiction among the second group, but find it inconceivable that the first group might face the same challenges. In some ways, the quote above from Quinones answers part of why we see addiction among middle class families and among the children of talented professionals.

 

When we have no limits in what we do, when our lives are tailored, curated, but isolated, we begin to lack purpose. Our lives might look full from the outside, but be void on the inside. When we seem to have it all, the value of our lives can decay, and without friction under our feet to push us forward, we can’t move anywhere. Just as our excesses produce terrible externalities, our having it all, or at least thinking we can buy it all, produces a feeling of purposeless that can lead to drug use to blunt the meaninglessness of self-indulgence.

 

My recommendation is to remember Thorin and his grandfather. To remember that our selfish desires can become our own downfalls, and to turn instead toward community building and relationships with others. To strive for our own greatness will leave us on an empty throne, but to work with others for shared goals will help us develop real structures in our lives that last and have real value.

Markets & Civil Society Organization

I tend to be a bit hard on the idea of free markets. I grew up learning about the invisible hand and in a family that started a business and did well. I (mostly because of my family’s business) appreciated the idea that setting up a market and running a business was a good thing from the standpoint of finding an efficient point at which to price a product or service. Today however, perhaps as a result of my healthcare interests, I see numerous examples of markets falling short of the goal we establish in our minds based on the idea of the invisible hand.

 

Rather than seeing markets find an efficient point where competition drives efficiency and provides everyone with better products at better prices, I see too many externalities from free markets and unfettered competition. We are producing a lot of greenhouse gasses that harm life on the planet. CEOs are getting better (maybe deservedly so) at capturing greater salaries from their companies, driving economic inequality, and straining social stability. Private health insurance markets seem to drive overall healthcare costs up at every turn, and no one seems to be able to understand how health insurance actually works. The free market, and open competition, does not appear to function as clearly and organize as succinctly as my simple understanding from high school would have suggested.

 

What is missing is something that ties markets and capitalism back into civil society. Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, in their book The New Localism, suggest that shifting political power and decision making back to local contexts within cities and metropolitan regions can help correct these problems. They write, “New Localism is a mechanism for converting the self-organizing power of markets and civil society into structured fiscal and financial resources, and ultimately, political power.”

 

National and multinational sized corporations often have a responsibility to maximize profits for shareholders or top executives. Their huge scale means that any local or regional place is less important for them, since there are always markets in other countries and other states. However, when local governments exert more control over such companies, the local contexts begin to matter more. When CEOs and executives from these companies are invited in to help shape policy beginning at the local level, and are held accountable to the local individuals in the places where their markets are strong or where their employees actually live, the business motives that encourage negative externalities are shifted. The dynamic becomes one where civil responsibility is elevated, and ultimately political power is shifted in a way to help organize business in a more responsible manner in relation to the local context.

 

The lesson that Katz and Nowak share is that businesses on their own are encouraged to organize themselves in a way that maximizes profit at the expense of the local communities in which they operate. By giving localities more power and better networked governance structures, big businesses can instead be a cooperative part of the political and social structure, re-organizing themselves within society in a way that helps make Adam Smith’s invisible hand dream a little more plausible. The Invisible hand in this model is not so invisible, but more of a structured handshake creating a commitment to more than just profits.

City Power

Where does power and authority come from? I think this is an interesting question to ask ourselves. What is it that makes a nation, a state, a city, or an institution powerful and authoritative? Thousands to hundreds of years ago we solved this question by outsourcing – we decided that a divine being had vested power and authority in a single individual. Today, what creates authority for our mayor, the supreme court, and our nation is not divine, but public trust, cooperation, and economic prospects. Building society with these blocks isn’t always perfect, but it has managed to work for humans for a few hundred years now.

 

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the implications of the authority and power philosophy I described above in their book The New Localism. They write, “The power of cities and counties is not like the power of nations or states. It is grounded in markets and civics more than in constitutions or charters.” The authors make a split between the local and national in terms of how power and authority play out to create a social structure of trust. Nations and states tend to be based on written charters agreed to by relatively diverse populations. Cities and local counties tend to be based on shared values, experiences, and backgrounds with shared economic prospects and motives being the ultimate binding glue.

 

I think there are two things that we can understand about national versus local systems from the description provided by Katz and Nowak. Nations and states, with authority grounded in written constitutions and charters, have a more permanent and stable feel to them. changing something in a drastic manner requires a change to the written founding documents. This gives national and state governments more structure and a form that is more likely to endure longer into the future, but at the cost of making them rigid and hard to adapt to changes in the economy, in social preferences, and other trends.

 

As a contrast, city and local governments, which are based more on shared interests, engaged civic actors, and local economic contexts are more flexible and adaptable to trends, changing social preferences, and new economic developments. This gives local and state governments the flexibility that is needed to take advantage of new innovations and technologies. It allows the governments to solve problems through the power of collective action, but it also leave them vulnerable to wild swings in economic fortunes and broader sociopolitical forces.

 

While nations are able to define their populaces and establish binding rules for citizens across decades or centuries, cities often find it hard to create structures and institutions that are guaranteed to last as long. City populations are more prone to leave when things go south, and the strength of institutions can be greatly diminished when the population falls and a few actors exert undue influence in local decision making. Nevertheless, humans seem to be drawn toward cities and seem to be willing to reinvent cities on a continual basis. This creates the dynamic power that cities are exerting today to solve problems and address global challenges that seem to be paralyzing nations.

The Location of Power

Power in the United States, at least the power to actually get things done and make changes, is transforming. National politics exist at such a polarized level that bipartisan lawmaking and any action in general is almost impossible. As a result, political decision making and dynamic policy changes are occurring at a different level of governance, the hyper-local level. From my vantage point, state governments are muddling through as normal, with some big legislation passing here and there in some states, but simultaneously a lot of state level legislation seems to me to symbolic and broad, and often hung up in courts.

 

The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explores how and why power in American public policy is shifting to the city, municipality, and metropolitan arenas. Dynamic changes and transformations are not occurring nationally, are not occurring in all states, and are not occurring in all counties. Some regions of the United States are growing, booming, and adapting, while others seem stagnant and stuck.

 

The authors write, “The location of power is shifting as a result of profound demographic, economic, and social forces. Power is drifting downward from the nation-state to cities and metropolitan communities, horizontally from government to networks of public, private, and civic actors, and globally along transnational circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.”

 

The thing about city governments and metropolitan communities is that they can act with a sense of informality that large national governments and bureaucracies cannot. They can be quicker to respond and more targeted with their actions. We are coming out of a period in American history where policies and actions moved upward to the Federal government. Lobbyists moved from small town capitals across the nation to Washington DC, to be closer to the big decision makers. As congress has fallen into gridlock, local governments have taken up action to innovate and re-imagine their futures. New actors come into play at local levels, and connections in both public and private organizations are driving the changes of governance, economies, and communities.

 

It is important that we embrace these changes, but recognize the potential for inequality with these changes. We have to find ways to embrace the new drivers of innovation, knowledge, and development while equitably ensuring that our communities are strengthened and not fractured from this new localism. Metropolitan areas are booming, but they must not become exploitative or this shift in power can become dangerous and further the divisions in our country. In order for new localism to be sustainable, it must also become equitable to bridge the gaps we see in our current politics.

The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

Centralization of Power

A political question attached to every decision and baked into every system of governance is the question of centrality. The center of the political system can be thought of as the legislative body that creates the laws or the administrative body that designs rules and regulations within the laws and is responsible for implementation. For every law and every program, fidelity to the intent of the decision-maker is important, but also in conflict with the ambiguity required to pass legislation and the flexibility needed by street level bureaucrats to implement policy. There is no one answer that tells us how centralized decision-making and implementation should be for any given issue or solution. Another factor that makes it difficult to determine the appropriate level of centralization is where power is located. Strong leaders may be able to demand more oversight and adherence to policy, while strong unions or popular street level agents may be able to shape policy from the periphery.

 

In Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the dynamics between centralization and power within congress and within our national political parties. Rauch is critical of some of the power grabs of congressional leaders and argues that increasing power through centralization does not always lead to improved governance. He writes,

 

“Similarly, centralizing a machine is not at all the same as strengthening it. A corporate CEO who concentrates decision-making in the C-suite while hollowing out the divisions might expand her authority at the expense of her effectiveness. In much the same way, House leader’s centralization of power over the past several decades and their weakening of the committee system and regular order seem to have diminished their governing capacity more than it increased their personal authority, weakening them on net.”

 

Centralization, whether within government or within a corporate structure as Rauch demonstrated, has the appearance of bringing more power to the lead decision-makers, but may lead to less creative solutions, less productive and effective systems and organizations, and weaker long-term performance. Rauch would argue that political power and centralization are tools to use to set agendas and push forward the most important items, but should not be used for every decisions in every context. Taking authority away from those who are responsible for the bulk of policy implementation can weaken the system overall and demoralize those who can provide creative solutions, innovative and effective design, and do the tough implementation work. Our country often gets into arguments about centralization as if there was a clear answer, but the right level of centralization for any given issue is always fluid. The right level of centralization is contextual, with influence from who holds power to how the public thinks about a given issue and about government more broadly.