It isn't sprawl if it's dense.

Since I tussled — gently I hope! — with Ned Resnikoff, who is Policy Director of California YIMBY, I want to give credit where it is due.

California YIMBY recently came out in favor of the "East Solano Plan", which is bureaucratese for California Forever.

As I said before, I favor that project, and wish it every success.

I am delighted to see CA YIMBY back dense, greenfield development at scale. I think it is the only approach that can match the enormity of our housing problem, a catastrophe that renders life insecure and dystopian for nearly all of us not sitting on equity from a home bought years ago.

I think ultimately it will take an activist state to jumpstart and "derisk" this project of building new, dense places, in order for it to happen at sufficient scale, and in a diversity of places, not within just superstar metros. Resnikoff disagrees. Regardless of who is right or wrong in that debate, I am delighted that we share an enthusiasm for dense habitations built on "greenfields", rather than just "infill" development of already inhabited places.

I know that it is difficult for California YIMBY to take this position, because most YIMBY activism has been devoted to reforming land-use regulation in support of infill development. Many YIMBYs consider greenfield development inherently "sprawl", an enemy to good, green urbanism.

I think California YIMBY is right. Dense development is green development, almost wherever it is. It's the density that matters, not the where.

There are roughly 340 million people in the United States. All of them need to be housed. The "footprint" of that housing, in terms of simple land area, land that can be neither wilderness nor farmland, is solely a function of average density. At suburban densities — call it 2000 humans per square mile — we require 170,000 square miles for our habitat. At Paris density, the same 340M people could be accommodated on less than 7000 square miles.

Density is overwhelmingly the factor that divides green from less-green development. Besides raw land area used, people live more efficiently and ecologically when they live densely. In a suburb you drive to your errands. In a dense city you walk or take transit. There are economies of scale in distribution and infrastructure, especially if you can plan in advance rather than suffering the economic and human costs of retrofitting.

An exception is when residents would have to commute long distances. But more and more work can be done remotely, or distributed to local offices. People don't like to commute! New residents of new cities will sort themselves, and be disproportionately people who can work in or near their new homes, rather than schlep to some distant city center. Of course it would be great if we built trains to make any schlepping ecological and convenient! But we shouldn't hold our new-city-ing hostage to that. One thing at a time is how anything actually happens.

Yes, it is great, when we can, to build densely near existing centers of on-site employment. All else equal, such housing that can serve a greater variety of people at lower environmental cost. But wherever we build, if we build densely and at sufficient scale to amortize the cost of urban amenities, we will dramatically reduce both our geographical footprint and the environmental weight of our lifestyles.

Dense living does not imply cramped living. If we build at midrise or higher, we can accommodate Barcelona to Manhattan densities with generously sized apartments. The elevator is an underrated form of transit.

Human beings are clever, and people have gotten very good, especially in Europe and Asia, at planning and building dense, extremely desirable places to live.

That's the prize.

We can do it too! And we don't have to confine the work to the geographies where it is hardest to do, to places already inhabited at moderate densities whose residents understandably get grumpy when we come in with our bright eyes to reconfigure their worlds.

California YIMBY is doing the right thing on the East Solana Plan. However we organize and finance it all, the way we address America's housing and ecological problems at their actual scale is building new dense communities in places now only lightly inhabited.


State capacity and authoritarianism

One of the drivers of authoritarianism is a sense we just can't get anything done, that solving our multiplying polycrises demands a strongman who can break through the gridlock, get everybody moving in the same direction, actually do stuff.

It's easy to be antiauthoritarian because you think the wannabe authoritarians are fascists, white supremicists, Christian nationalists, assholes. That's largely true!

But if your pro-democracy activism is centered around opposing these easy evils, you are countering the weakest rather than the strongest arguments of your opponents. You might or might not win the narrow political squeakers that our electoral system now sets up, but you won't persuade the bulk of the public to any new consensus. And without a new consensus, well, eventually one of these most important elections of our lifetime will be lost, and perhaps that will be that.

It is in fact correct and true that solving our muliplying polycrises demands a state capable of overcoming narrow vetoes and forging some broad consensus that can break through the gridlock, get most of us moving in the same direction, actually do stuff.

If you believe in electoral democracy as a practical rather than merely desirable system of government, then you must believe that it is possible for a democratic state to recruit sufficient alignment to meet the challenges that the polity faces.

If you think that's going to happen by "our side" definitively winning and simply banishing the other side to perpetual marginality, well, that is also what we think that they will do to us. So long as that's the plan, each side will think of themselves as the anti-authoritarian side. Nothing will change, or, even worse, something will.

If we want genuinely democratic state capacity, state capacity that does not rely on disenfranchising much of the country, we have to address the institutional factors that favor polarization rather than consensus.

We have to move past a narrow majoritarianism — which is a much weaker basis for democratic legitimacy than proponents on "our side" often pretend — towards a system in which most of the public feels on-board, rather than either winning or shut out.

If Democrats are really pro-democracy, they have to do more than argue only reelecting them can save democracy. They must bequeath to the public a system in which citizens actually have meaningful choices, rather than cling to and capitalize on an it's-us-or-Adolf dynamic. Are Democrats pro-democracy, or just pro conditions that help them win their next election?

The reforms I favor Congress could pass in a day. Elections for single-winner, at-large positions like Senator and President should be by approval voting, which favors candidates everyone can live with over candidates that members of conflictual factions most ardently support, and which encourages the emergence of multiple parties. Elections to the House of Representative should be by some form of proportional representation, whether it's my unlikely dorky favorite (random ballot), a conventional party-list based system, single-transferable-vote, or the clever hybrid MMP.

Perhaps you have different reforms in mind. This is a democracy! But you are not objectively pro-democracy if you are not working to reform a system that, by virtue of widely understood social dynamics, will predictably, recurringly, almost inevitably, yield polarization, gridlock, and incapacity.

States are the sine qua non of human capability. A certain kind of libertarian might resent this, but it's obviously true. Human achievement and flourishing stratify across borders, favoring states that act and act well over states incapable of acting or that act poorly.

In a different era, when communication technology had not so completely tamed geography, the deficiencies of the US political system were kept in check by the diversity of an all-politics-is-local world.

Now all politics is national. Dysfunction latent in our arrangements has emerged, a blister burst, a festival of maggots dancing in the wound. We're not going to uninvent the internet. Our national state will yield little but polarization, gridlock, and all-pay auctions in favor of political consultants, until we change the institutions that structure it.

We need state capacity now more than ever. We can do better than succumb to authoritarianism or gin up some war to find it.

But we will do one of those things if we don't do anything else to restore a capable state.

Electoral reform is possible. It is easy. Nothing is more urgent, or more hopeful.


Yimboree

Ned Resnikoff offers a great rejoinder to my recent piece, Only the state can house us. Go read it if you haven't!

Lots of places in that piece, I felt like Resnikoff didn't have an accurate understanding of my position. That's my fault, not his. I thought I'd try to clarify.

First a narrow thing. Resnikoff writes

What’s instead needed — in fact, what he describes as “an inevitability” — is a massive social housing program that will create millions of government-owned, government-subsidized housing units across the country.

That isn't quite right. I don't propose some giant unified "social program", and I don't propose that housing units should necessarily remain government-owned.

I propose — and yes, I do think quite inevitable — a much more dirigiste approach to housing. The state would subsidize development of new communities in places and under terms private business otherwise would not invest. Call it a CHIPS Act for new cities.

I hope we would experiment with a variety of models, from the Singapore model — basically sales of publicly developed homes to residents — to "Red Vienna"-style rentals from a municipal corporation. But I believe we need new cities built in greenfields, not just liberalized infill of already desirable places, in order to meet the housing challenges that we currently face, and the much more difficult challenges that await us. I think we will require an interventionist state.

If you want more specifics on the kind of development I'd propose, please see Microcities.

Resnikoff does not comment on the reason I give why state-led housing production is inevitable. We are already in a miserable housing affordability crisis. I argue that forseeable climate events are likely to provoke migrations and shortages at a different scale than moving-to-amenity price-bidding has thus far.

I wonder, does Resnikoff agree or disagree that this is at least a plausible scenario? If it happens, our housing problem is going to feel less like today's growth ill-accommodated, and more like wartime logistics. That's why state action is inevitable. We can either develop capabilities within the state to superintend construction of high-quality, dense, mixed-use communities, or we can fail to do so, and then build slapdash, utilitarian, barrack communities that will remain people's homes for years if not lifetimes.

I think it's urgent that we develop state capacity to endow high quality new communities quickly and at scale, now, so that we know it as a practical thing when the crisis comes and overwhelms us. The alternative will become a terrible scar to our body politic, slums for millions of people. And if we are going to start building new communities now, to develop this state capacity, why not make it an alternative to the NIMBY-YIMBY trench wars?

In general, I think Resnikoff read my piece as more of a broadside against YIMBY than I intended. I'd characterize myself as YIMBY-skeptical or YIMBY-critical. But that's not the same as anti-YIMBY (or NIMBY, or PHIMBY, or whatever).

People who share a lot of values often disagree more bitterly than people who are more straightforward adversaries. Betrayal is a crueler cut than enmity.

I share a lot of values with YIMBYs!

  • I agree with YIMBYs that housing scarcity in desirable places to live is the signal domestic crisis of our time. We can't fix anything if we don't restore housing abundance in safe, lively, places with good schools that offer residents a high quality of life.

  • For a lot of reasons, I agree with YIMBY visions of urbanism. Exurban McMansions may offer some residents a high quality of life, but in ways that cannot possibly scale and are necessarily exclusive. Dense mixed-use development is what does scale, is (contra some green intuitions) the way to house large numbers of humans with a light environmental footprint and also with the greatest joy, if it is done well. In a good future, the majority of humans live at near-Manhattan densities, and car travel is for trips, not for everyday life. That's best for human flourishing, and best for the planet.

    "Done well" is an important caveat! Density is a magnifying glass, both for social virtue and for social vice. Bad density is very bad. But excellent, delightful, dense development is a tractible sociotechnical problem. They build out little utopias in Europe all the time.

I disagree with YIMBYs about some important things too.

  • As a matter of tactics, I think that focusing on infill rather than greenfield densification is a big mistake. For all the reasons described in my prior piece — what Resnikoff characterizes as "futility theses" — I don't think that infill densification in already desirable places will come anywhere close to matching the scale of the problem.

  • As a matter of ethics, even though I agree with YIMBY ends, I have problems with their means. I think they often understate and deny the costs of the changes they propose to incumbent residents. I think the people they often mock as NIMBYs have understandable reasons for the positions they take, motivations that merit social and political respect. Left YIMBYs sometimes suggest that what they propose is a kind of redistribution. (Matt Yglesias once described the YIMBY project as "as 'radical land reform' in the sense of the Latin American left.") I'm for a lot of redistribution, but I think we all can understand that when redistributing, questions about from whom, to whom, how it is proposed to be done, how it will actually work out in practice, are really important.

These two critiques are mutually reinforcing. One reason I think infill densification in already desirable places is tactically challenging is because achieving it often involves threatening perhaps the most intimate and powerful circumstance of peoples' lives, their homes and neighborhoods. Some people are filthy rich and who cares if they don't like the new development they can move. But most Americans struggle to afford housing in safe, desirable, lively places. When they have done so, when they have achieved that dream, it becomes the anchor of, and usually the crowning economic achievement of, their lives. Many households have devoted years of energy and volunteerism to maintaining and improving neighborhoods the market now finds so desirable.

In poorer commuinities, the rentals might not be a crowning economic achievement, but most of people's "wealth" takes the form of easily disruptible, informal social capital. Wealthier reformers don't even perceive this, because they are accustomed to meeting their needs primarily through the market and perhaps insurance from immediate family. But busting up a neighborhood, with all its informal connections and friendships, its habits of help, people who owe and are owed one, is, as a wise man once said, a big fucking deal. This sort of displacement can be a terrible redistribution away from the already poor.

For all of these reasons — futility, I know! — residents of existing neighborhoods, of every social class, have very powerful reasons to seek to exercise control over whether and how their neighborhoods change. Tactically, fighting against that seems like it should be a last rather than first resort, if you mean to achieve housing abundance soon. Ethically, even if — fuck futility! — you are able to organize over the heads of, outside the boundaries of, affected neighborhoods and impose "wins" from above, well, that's good for housing abundance. But it may or may not be a net good thing. It depends.

I have never understood, at some deep basal level, why a reformer would choose to go for housing abundance in this way. It seems to me, historically, when metropolitan areas have grown in population quickly, the unit at which change has occurred is neighborhood or new town, rather than project-by-project infill in stably settled places.

My hypothesis is that we got this approach, and have kept doubling down on it, because a generation of young professionals really wanted to move to particular, already settled, places. They disliked that they either were priced out, or — to their credit! — they were not, but disliked that they were pricing out incumbent residents.

It is understandable that actual people coming of age want to move to particular existing places. It does an individual little good to imagine that someday there might be other wonderful choices. But once we shift our perspective from wanderer to reformer, an imagination of what could be, of alternatives we are capable of achieving that are just a bit less adjacent to the status quo, strikes me as essential.

Anyway, I am not "anti-YIMBY". I lived in San Francisco for eight and a half years. On controversies surrounding particular projects, I usually favored the YIMBY side. I couldn't help but notice, however, and it did upset me that almost always the fights over some ridiculous abuse of historical preservation were in the gentrifying Mission, rather than, say, in upzone-the-affluent Pacific Heights. I was very excited by Hunter's Point, a greenfield which I hope will be developed well, because it was going to dispossess or displace no one. I was very happy to see new construction in my own Richmond district. I wish I could afford to live in it.

We left San Francisco in large part because we were priced out of housing. We had a rent-stabilized apartment, thank God, but the kid was growing. Four-hundred-and-some square feet wasn't cutting it. I had to save my marriage. Now I drive infinite miles for every stupid errand in Pinellas County, Florida, rather than just strolling down Clement Street.

We'd move back to SF in a second if the twelve hundred square feet we have here were more affordable. If there were a plausible, ethical way to make that happen over a relevant time horizon, I would be all for it. I think there is not, though. I think the plausible ways aren't ethical, and the ethical ways aren't plausible.

Well, that's not quite right. There are the approaches YIMBYs historically haven't emphasized. If, as Resnikoff suggests, I am out-of-date on actually existing YIMBY-ism, and YIMBYs now devote part of their considerable talents to promoting dense new development on greenfields beyond the borders of existing cities, then I am very happy to stand corrected. The plausible way to create housing abundance rapidly is through new neighborhoods and new towns. The San Francisco Bay Area is full of undeveloped land.

I don't love some of the backers of California Forever, and I fear their stealth buyout approach to addressing holdout problems may have doomed the project. But I wish them every success. I hope the project ushers in a new age of new-town development, one pursued in a manner less adversarial to publics constituted through our imperfectly democratic state, including at the local level. Eminent domain does exist, even if the backers of this project are ideologically opposed. Some of the people involved in California Forever are people I knew in San Francisco as prominent YIMBYs. At that time they seemed skeptical of new-town development, fearing that in a US context it would necessarily degnerate to single-family suburbs, endless sprawl. I am very glad their views have changed and I support their current work. (Manhattanize Mare Island!)

There are lots of old-school YIMBY initiatives that pass my cost-benefit test, that I support, but that I think can only help on the margin. I support "by right" construction of ADUs and missing middle housing, for example. Obviously it's a judgment call. I respect the residents who adamantly disagree. I have deeply mixed feelings about organizing over their heads. But my judgment is that given the low density of single-family neighborhoods and the small scale of the construction legalized, this sort of development represents a pretty limited threat to the character of those neighborhoods and the lives of the people who live there.

So I support these reforms. But I still feel icky substituting my judgment about how big an imposition these laws are for residents' own. I think local government is a critical component of democracy, and would prefer approaches that persuade local governments by first persuading their constituents, rather than coerce local governments over the opposition of incumbent residents.

In any case, I don't believe these approaches can achieve the scale or densification that our housing and environmental crises demand. Will these mostly car-served neighborhoods become garlanded by walkable amenities and public transit, once ADUs and triplexes emerge? We can hope so. Maybe my quantitative intuitions are off, my imagination too limited. But while it's per se good that more people will get to live in the places they'd like to live, it's per se bad to overrule existing residents. I have a hard time seeing these reforms impacting supply enough to dent the cost crisis, so long as so many people seek to live a relatively small number of extraordinarily places.

As I emphasized in my prior piece, I think the heart of the problem is geographic inequality. As long as so few places — the "superstar cities", a few "super zips" in other metros — are where the amenities and opportinties and safety and good schools are, we will have a whole country trying to pile into them. You really would have to Manhattanize to have any hope of accommodating that sort of demand, and that really would overthrow the character of people's neighborhoods.

Resnikoff is right to point out that the YIMBY movement has gone from success to success, that it's achieved on its path more than I ever expected it would. Maybe you should just write off my judgment? Why are you even reading this?

But if you are still here, I'll say again, even with YIMBYs' surprising achievements, land-use liberalization continues to strike me as an approach incapable of meeting the scale of the problem.

Politicians often boast about reforms using past reforms as their baseline. Dodd-Frank, Obama reminded us, represented the toughest regulation of the financial system since the New Deal. That was true! It still left a predatory, broken, corrupt financial system in place, and our pathway toward neofeudalism undisturbed. Solutions don't need to meet the scale of low expectations from past nonsolutions. They need to meet the scale of the actual problem. YIMBY organizing has succeeded much more than history suggested or fatalists like me imagined that it would. Yet the question remains, while demand remains heavily concentrated in a few places, can supply ever match its fluctuations, even under very liberal land-use regimes, without development of new greenfields in active collaboration with the state?

I don't know. Neither do you, dear reader. You know my guess. What's yours? Here's the Orlando, Redfearn study I cited in the previous piece, whose conclusions match my priors. Enthusiastic YIMBYs have their studies too.

Here's a graph. It's rent inflation in three metros, adjusted for overall inflation. The graph will mechanically underestimate fluctuations, up and down, because the numerator is a component of the denominator. It's laggy: New rent prices fluctuate more quickly than the average rents in the CPI basket. It's quick and dirty. I've normalized everything to 100 on January 1, 2010.

It is very easy to explain this graph in terms of demand. The 2010s were a tech-led decade, so San Francisco and Seattle both rocket. Seattle permitted a lot more housing over the period, more than three times as much in popuation-adjusted terms. (They are cities of similar size.) Their inflation-adjusted rental prices nevertheless grow in lockstep from 2012 to 2020. Seattle's price growth slightly exceeded San Francisco's, despite its much more vigorous construction. Post-pandemic, prices decline and stay declined in construction-lagging San Francisco, but, after a dip, bounce back to their highs in Seattle.

Throughout the 2010s, both tech-powerhouse cities faced strong housing demand, whose price inelasticity meant Seattle's incremental new supply barely registered. Post-pandemic, tech opportunities have softened a bit in both markets, but San Francisco has been plagued in the national conversation by a persistent "drug-addled shithole" narrative while Seattle has not.

It's easy to explain these price curve from a demand perspective. From a supply perspective... not so much. Prices rose faster, and have stayed higher, in the city that permitted much more.

I've also graphed my current home, the Tampa metro. Tampa's permitting rate, per population, has been comparable to Seattle or Houston, but post-pandemic demand (to which my own family contributed) has made it the rent-price-growth leader of all the metros I have looked at. (Fuck me.) Miami has permitted less and seen less price growth than Tampa.

Permitting is not a great proxy for YIMBY land-use policy, because it is a function of demand as well as regulation. For San Francisco vs Seattle, I think we can agree that both cities faced relentlessly high-demand over the 2010s, so they're a good match for a supply-side policy comparison. If you tell me the Miami, Tampa comparison is no good because lower starting prices drew population to Tampa, which is what drew the permitting rather than any difference in land use regulation, I'll shrug and say yeah, that might be right. Nevertheless, there's always a demand story in these price graphs. You sure have to squint to tell supply stories.

A counterexample might be Austin, which by the permitting numbers looks like YIMBY paradise, and which is currently enjoying a delightful rent price slump. Austin's rent component of CPI seems not to be available on FRED, so I can't include it in my lazy little experiment.

But I think the YIMBY story is probably a big part of what's going on in Austin. My view, which is the view beautifully documented in the Orlando, Redfearn paper, is that while metros are small, supply very often can keep up, because there are greenfields near demand drivers still to be developed. Once greenfields are exhausted — because the city is confined to a penninsula, or because it has sprawled so far that new exurbs would be far from drivers of demand, or because regulation prevents further sprawl — then cities cannot keep up. When demand is high, prices will spike, but greenfield expansion really can help. Infill is by its nature an order of magnitude harder and slower and more expensive.

YIMBYs in my experience have diverse views about "sprawl". I think the correct position is that

  1. greenfield development should be encouraged, not restricted; and

  2. the political challenge is to ensure that edge-city growth takes the form of dense, mixed-use development, rather than single-family-home cul-de-sacs.

Even when supply growth can't make a dent in price, it doesn't follow that barricading supply is good policy. All that extra housing in Seattle translates to a lot more people who get to live there, people who choose living there even at high Seattle prices. That's a real benefit. But if the housing was permitted over strenuous objections of nearby residents, that betrays real costs too. Those costs and benefits are hard to quantify. My intuitions mostly side with the YIMBYs, that the benefits probably exceeded the costs. But I could be wrong, and I don't see a way out our housing catastrophe in that kind of delicate balance.

I think the work we have to do is to guide demand into places we can supply at scale.

Resnikoff writes

But the other reason is that we won’t be able to demand manage our way out of population growth in superstar cities. We already tried that in the second half of the twentieth century when we downzoned San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York to cap population growth. How did that work out?

Despite our miscommunications, I think Resnikoff understands that merely capping supply in places with lots of demand is not a form of "demand management" I would propose or support.

But we have never tried to manage demand by using state power intentionally, to endow attractive new communities, and then to subsidize amenities, opportunities, and relationships under which agglomeration effects will likely take hold, bootstrapping "natural" demand.

Does Resnikoff think this impossible? Does he have a "futility thesis" of his own?


America is not already great

Joe Biden is the best domestic-policy president of my lifetime.

I wasn't expecting that, but his administration has defied my expectations. I would like for him to be re-elected. I am hungry for him to be re-elected.

I am very angry with Joe Biden as a foreign-policy president. Biden's foreign policy has made it difficult for me to support his re-election in the public, full-throated way that I would like to. Yes, when the alternative is Trump, Biden remains easily the better choice, even on foreign policy, on moral as well as practical grounds. But I am not at all happy with the Biden administration on foreign policy. I am chastened by my own moral vanity when I speak too highly of the person who has presided over the United States' policy with respect to Israel and Gaza.

Nevertheless, you should vote for Joe Biden. Vote for Joe Biden.

I think a lot of people who share my electoral politics are making a terrible mistake. I will mock it as the "America Is Already Great" mistake, after Hillary Clinton's response to MAGA. A lot of center-left economics pundits are telling us this is a fantastic economy, and that's why people should vote for Joe Biden. America is already great.

This is not a fantastic economy. I was going to hang this post on an article by Rogé Karma, The U.S. Economy Reaches Superstar Status, which pretends to "ask how [the economy is] objectively performing". There was lots I could object to in the piece.

But Karma gets it basically right in the end. (Of course!)

Indeed, the out-of-control cost of housing is perhaps the biggest black mark on an otherwise excellent economy. This problem started decades ago—since the 1980s, the median U.S. home price has increased by more than 400 percent, twice as fast as incomes—and got even worse during the pandemic, as the rise of remote work prompted millions of people to seek more space. Those rising prices have collided with higher interest rates to produce the most punishing housing market in at least a generation. Would-be homeowners can’t afford to buy, and many existing homeowners feel stuck in place.

Housing is one of several crucial categories, along with childcare, health care, and higher education, that have ballooned in cost in recent decades, putting a middle-class lifestyle further and further out of reach—what my colleague Annie Lowrey has called the “Great Affordability Crisis.” The past few years of high interest rates, which make borrowing money more expensive, have jacked up costs even more. And despite the recent good news, the U.S. still has lower life expectancy and much higher levels of inequality, poverty, and homelessness than other wealthy nations. For millions of people, getting by in America was a struggle before the pandemic and continues to be a struggle today.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. economy has had a remarkable four-year run, judged against both its own history or the international competition. A few years of good news isn’t enough to make up for 40 years of rising inequality and stagnant wages. But it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

Professional-class pundits are used to talking about the economy in cyclical terms. We're not in a recession! Unemployment is down! The stock market is up! GDP numbers are up! This is a good economy, by definition, right?

No. What matters most is how the economy shapes lives and societies over time. Presidential performance is a secular, not cyclical, concern. We should not vote for a President based on whether, by some bit of luck or manipulation, unemployment numbers hit a new low or the S&P a new high just before the election. Presidents should not emulate idiot CEOs, who eviscerated our economy by chasing numbers — hard data! — they imagined to be sufficient statistics for their performance. A President's job is to see through the cycles and shape a better future. In my view, Joe Biden has made an excellent start at that.

But what is secular takes time to bear fruit. Joe Biden has just begun, imperfectly but hopefully, to reinvigorate America's industrial policy. The right way to promote this is the honest one: Big, important changes have been initiated in the structure of the American economy, but it will be too soon on November 5 to know how this experiment works out. The experiment includes dramatically strengthening labor unions, using subsidies and when necessary even tariffs to reshore critical industries, muscular antitrust enforcement that aims to undo concentrations of economic power and ensure vigorous competition. If the experiment is allowed to continue, it will also include higher taxes on the wealthy (as the Trump tax cuts will be allowed to expire for very high earners).

The question before voters is whether this experiment should be allowed to continue, or whether it should be aborted.

There's that story, undoubtedly apocryphal, where V. Lenin says, "After the revolution, there will be strawberries and cream for everyone." His interlocutor responds, But Comrade Lenin, what if I don't like strawberries and cream? Lenin replies, "After the revolution, you will like strawberries and cream."

That's what all the rhetoric trying to "convince ordinary people" that this is really, objectively, a great economy feels like to me.

The question of whether an economy is good is as "objective" as your preference for strawberries and cream. What matters for the economy, overall and longer term, is as well captured in the moment's economic statistics as GE's quality of management was captured in its August 2000 stock price.

There's no such thing as "objectively good". We don't all share the same values. We have radically diverse views about what a better future would look like. I want a prosperous future for us and so does Peter Thiel, but the shape of the worlds we aspire towards, what would count as prosperity, diverge. Some ways that the economy might "grow" bring the world towards Thiel's vision, others towards my own. Any delta between the GDP numbers of those growings is not the thing that matters.

Expansion is most of the business cycle. We spent the majority of the last forty years in a "growing economy". Most economists, most of the time, would have characterized it as a "good economy".

What did all that good economy, in a cyclical sense, compose to as a secular matter? A world that is Pottersville, not Bedford Falls. A world in which the "successes" who buy our media companies and endow our universities are con men and financial predators, rather than people who produce more and better and cheaper goods and services. A world in which it's hard not to juxtapose a booming stock market — yay! — with relentlessly expanding profit margins, companies "too big to care" (as Lina Khan memorably put it), private equity rolling up medical imaging and shutting down Red Lobster while blaming shrimp generosity rather than sale-leaseback financial engineering.

The American economy is dystopian, secularly. I agree that the Biden post-COVID cycle has not been so bad, has been pretty good along a variety of dimensions, although not as good as boosters protest too hard to claim.

It's a point of light in a bowl of shit. If the people who are speaking on Joe Biden's behalf keep missing that, don't be surprised if voters go with the other guy. As Ian Welsh put it today

This is the Brexit/Trump/Javier problem. To whit, when things are bad for a long time and nothing seems to help, people reach [for] something extreme. They know the status quo isn’t working and that things keep getting worse no matter who they vote for among the mainstream, so they look for someone or something completely different. Trump is a billionaire, but he doesn’t parse the same as normal politicians.

Don't sabotage Joe Biden's chances by making him out to be a normal politician. He's the only politician since Lyndon Johnson to begin to seriously try something different. Biden may "parse the same as normal politicians", but on questions of economy and society, he has been much more ambitious, much more bold, much more different than Donald Trump. He may be a fragile, senile, old man who farts on stage, but he's done the policy equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger benching 500 pounds.

Credit him with that. Stop damning him with faint praise about labor market leverage already beginning to fade, modest "real wage" growth against tiny baselines, stock market performance that mostly helps plutocrats and the professional class they employ, housing "wealth" that for all of us who do not own a home represents a crushing liability.


p.s. I want to dedicate a great deal more than this post to Eugene Lewis, who told me the Lenin tall tale.


Authority minimization

We've all seen this wonderful New Yorker cartoon by Will McPhail:

There are real tensions between democracy and technocracy. The cartoon shows an example where, in fact, technocracy should rule. The people should defer to the experts.

But if you think of yourself as pro-democracy, I hope you thought the question through a bit more than "Ha ha, take that MAGA blowhards!"

If you think of yourself as a small-d democrat, you should recognize that there are serious tensions between democracy and technocracy. Democracy is based on the notion that everyone should have a say in how affairs are governed, because no one other than each and every one of us for ourselves has authority in deciding what ends we should pursue. Technocracy justifies itself by pointing out, accurately, that the broad public is incapable of devising means that will actually achieve its desired ends. You need experts for that.

Unfortunately, distinctions between means and ends blur in practice. We all share many values, but we weigh them quite differently. Experts can, and too often do, quietly presuppose a prioritization of values — and therefore of ends — that would reinforce their own status and role, and then demand deference as they move on to prescribing means.

During the financial crisis, once "financial stability" was the priority — rather than keeping people in their homes, or winding down and replacing pernicious institutions, or ensuring distributive justice — then of course we had to listen to bankers as to means. Who else understood the plumbing of the system we were stabilizing? Such a shock, then, that the means the best experts offered involved bailing out banks and their creditors while squeezing debtors with mortgages.

The continuing COVID fight between "listen to the science" Blue America and Plandemic Red America is really a proxy war over whether disease minimization should have been the overwhelming priority, or ends like personal liberty and supporting commerce should have weighed more heavily in the mix. The public health community predictably presumed that preventing disease should be the overwhelming priority. (Predictably, since that is both a reasonable choice, and the choice that would maximize its own status and scope for discretion. I certainly agreed. I still do!)

The public health community didn't mean to enter partisan politics. But unlike bankers, who very much did mean to take control in their own interest, public health will see its status and perhaps its funding diminished going forward, because it is now perceived by much of the country not as a neutral arbiter of facts and evidence, but as a usurper of discretion that properly belongs to the democratic public. We will all, unfortunately, be even less prepared when the next public health crisis hits. (I hope not soon.)

It is good that members of a democratic public jealously guard their right to have opinions and to have them heard on questions of ends. The public ought to be suspicious of technocratic claims that circumscribe their ability to assert agency over public affairs. Expert communities really do snow the public, all the time. (I don't know whether COVID was lab-leak or zoonotic, but I think the case is pretty strong that expert communities put their thumb on the scale early on in favor of zoonotic, in part to protect parochial interests.) But if the public becomes so allergic that we never defer to expertise, well, then bridges will collapse and planes will crash and all of our medicines will be snake oil.

Democracy places an ethical demand upon experts that they on the whole are failing to meet. That demand is radical humility. It is human — and career-advancing — to play up ones abilities and accomplishments. Many of us quietly believe that if we had more say in how things are run, things would be run much better. Humility just at the moment when you might make a difference is a hard ask. But key to an expert's job is to actively minimize the scope of their claim to authority. When communicating with the public or with political figures, they must strive to impose the narrowest set of constraints their expertise will allow, because their duty is to support, not to gainsay or foreclose, the democratic public's discretion.

Legitimate authority derives not from expertise alone, but from expertise in service of the democratic public. If you intend to wield your expertise as an activist, if you learned about climate science to change the world, great. Present yourself as an informed advocate, make your case to the democratic public, educate, convince, try to help them understand things as you do.

But if you demand deference, if you claim that by virtue of superior knowledge, failing to adopt your policy positions is failing to "follow the science", then you are mixing the roles of expert and advocate. The name for people who do that is "hack". The prevalence of hacks in this sense — on cable TV, in think tanks, on social media, even among well-meaning scholars — has replaced a lot of public trust in experts with earned hostility. How are you supposed to feel about people who are actively disenfrachising you?

Expertise can be a resource to a democracy. It can be the weapon of a faction. But it cannot be both at the same time.

You can be both a citizen with an opinion and an expert with knowledge that less knowledgeable people should defer to. But you must keep those roles distinct. As an expert, you must present the largest space possible of options that might under anyone's values be reasonable to pursue. You must report, to the best of your abilities, the consequences and uncertainties surrounding each option without fear or favor. Even when that means people whom you think are terrible might get their way.

If you put your thumb on the scale, if you present as authoritative claims that are tailored to further your own contestable priorities — however virtuous your priorities may in fact be! — you are heightening the contradictions between democracy and expert authority. You are tacitly making the case that meaningful democracy is impractical, and therefore one form or another of authoritarianism is inevitable.

No, New Yorker cartoon, the democratic public should not try to fly the plane. But the pilot, for his part, must fly it to the place the passengers contracted to go.

If some kind of science fiction catastrophe were to occur, and the plane must divert to a final destination from which rebooking will not be an option, then taking a vote of the passengers would absolutely be the right thing to do. If, when the pilot presents the destinations they have fuel enough to reach, she leaves out places she would disprefer... Well, she might get away with it! Or she might not.

Regardless, it would be a sin.