Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, April 28, 2014

Gentrification in the Short- and Long-Term

The first (and so far only) comment on my previous post raises an interesting point about gentrification:

One of the possibly unfortunate side-effects of gentrification is that it makes neighborhoods more homogeneously good (or at least tolerable) or bad. In other words, I wonder if your theory of gentrification isn't actually a theory of why gentrification isn't faster: if people did not care about neighbors they would just bid up the prices of the "objectively" best neighborhoods (as defined by convenience) and the poor people would get the "objectively worst" neighborhoods; however, the Q. of neighbors makes good neighborhoods sticky even after they have stopped being convenient.
The logic here is that amenities (subway stops, parks, etc.) are not distributed uniformly across the landscape.  If people chose where to live based solely on those amenities, you would expect the most expensive neighborhoods to have the nicest amenities, or the highest concentration of amenities.  But in fact, because people care a lot about the people they live near, it is possible for there to be a stable equilibrium with rich people clustered together in expensive neighborhoods that don't necessarily have the best amenities.  By the same token, some affordable neighborhoods may have excellent amenities.

Gentrification, in this framework, is a process in which the equilibrium shifts and areas with good amenities become expensive.  In other words, it is a shift toward what we would expect to see if people cared about amenities but not about neighbors.  So we might say that in the short term, people will take neighbors into account in picking neighborhoods to live in, but in the long run the expensive neighborhoods will converge on the nicest amenities.  The exact dynamics of this are complicated and will depend on how "sticky" neighborhoods are, how quickly amenities change in value, how frequently amenities are created and destroyed, etc.

In my next post I'll examine the claim that the "undesirable neighbors" framework is "actually a theory of why gentrification isn't faster."  I think it's a tricky question!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The "Undesirable Neighbor" Theory of Gentrification

Gentrification is a complicated phenomenon and I don't hope to come up with a comprehensive framework to understand it.  But let's start with a simple model and see where it takes us.

The key insight, I think, is that you are not indifferent to who your neighbors are.  Neighbors could be good or bad neighbors for several reasons.

1.  In the most extreme example, no one wants to live near people who are prone to violent crime.  That is, people who victimize others are very bad neighbors.  (I highlight violent crime because some kinds of crime, like tax evasion, don't have a particularly strong effect on the neighborhood—presumably all taxpayers, not just ones living nearby, are affected.)  A neighborhood characterized by high rates of violent crime and property crime is almost certainly going to be regarded as an undesirable, "bad" neighborhood.

2.  You want to live near people who interact with you in positive ways—people you want to socialize with, generally.  Note that unlike example 1, in this case there may be different tastes, and so you can imagine a neighborhood that is neither "good" nor "bad" but rather good for some people and bad for others.  A Chinese-speaking neighborhood might be great for some people but not so great for others.  Likewise for a neighborhood with lots of people in their 20s, or lots of people with babies.

3.  You also want to live near people who are "good consumers"—that is, they support the kind of businesses and other institutions that you would like to see in the neighborhood.  (This is similar to example 2, except that you never need to meet these people—you experience their presence through the variety of businesses etc. in your neighborhood.)  Picture a neighborhood with a lot of people who like bánh mì and know what good bánh mì is.  In a neighborhood like that, there is a decent probability that there will be one or more good bánh mì places.  If you like bánh mì, then having neighbors like this is probably a good thing.  (There is some possibility that if you have too many bánh mì-loving neighbors, the local bánh mì restaurants will be over-crowded and over-priced.  But unless there is some kind of barrier to entry, the long-term result should just be a lot of bánh mì places.)  Note again that unlike example 1, it is possible to have different conceptions of what makes a good neighbor.  If you despise bánh mì, then you probably won't be thrilled if all your neighbors love it.  On the other hand, you may enjoy having beautiful churches in your neighborhood even if you aren't religious.  So it's not strictly that you want to live near people who are like you.  It's that you want to live near people who support the existence of things you want to see in the neighborhood.

Okay, so, you care who your neighbors are.  But there is no true "market for neighbors."  You generally can't pay people to live near you or to move away.  The real estate market functions as a rough proxy for the "neighbor" market (which, again, doesn't exist).  And in fact, I would say for many urban neighborhoods, the "neighbor" shadow-market overwhelms other considerations.  Sure, you care about things like mass transit access, parks, that kind of thing.  But you also care tremendously about the mix of businesses and the safety of the neighborhood.  There are good neighborhoods in New York City with relatively poor access to public amenities, while until recently there were bad (or at least cheap) neighborhoods right next to Prospect Park.

We can see how two kinds of neighborhood can emerge.  First, an easy case:  if people want to live near other people who are like them, they will form distinct clusters.  So there are ethnic neighborhoods, young neighborhoods, etc.  These neighborhoods aren't necessarily good or bad, they are just different.  (A related point is that ethnic neighborhoods may disappear as the ethnic group becomes affluent and accepted in the community.  So the existence of an ethnic neighborhood may be an indicator of some problem with society.  Similarly, gay neighborhoods may go into decline as gay equality advances.  But that is beyond the scope of this post.)

You can even imagine a "good" sense in which rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods emerge.  Rich people want to shop at fancy organic stores, yoga studios, that kind of thing.  Poor people want cheaper stores, cheaper apartments, etc. and rarely shop at luxury stores.  So we might not be overly concerned to see hugely unequal neighborhoods—people are just sorting according to their preferences.

But there is a darker possibility.  We could observe segregation by wealth because people are essentially buying proximity to good neighbors (or distance from bad neighbors).  Now, this is a delicate area, so I want to be very precise.  Poor people can be excellent neighbors, and rich people can be terrible neighbors.  But some of the worst neighbors are criminals, and relatively few affluent people are street criminals.  (I'm not saying that rich people are less prone to crime than poor people.  Recall that some kinds of criminality, which may be more prevalent among wealthy people, have much smaller effects on the criminal's immediate neighbors.  I would much rather raise a family next to an inside trader than next to a violent criminal.)

So one way to make a neighborhood "good" is to make it expensive.  This doesn't guarantee great neighbors, but it largely eliminates the worst neighbors, the violent criminals.  Rich people are playing a coordination game in which they cluster together around the best public amenities (parks, museums, subway stops, good public schools, old trees, beautiful buildings).  Poor people are left not just with smaller apartments (that is next to inevitable given their lower incomes), but with less public safety, worse access to public goods (including good schools), worse access to transportation (and therefore worse access to good jobs), etc.

So it's a very unfair process.  It basically stamps the class system onto the physical geography of a city, so that which neighborhood you grow up in plays out outsized role in determining your opportunities.  But I am getting ahead of myself, so I will stop here, and in my next post I will look at the process of gentrification.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The "No True Anarchist" Fallacy

This is just some stream-of-consciousness philosophizing, not intended to be rigorous.  And, importantly, not intended to be original.  I apologize if I've unintentionally replicated someone else's idea, no doubt expressed better there than here.  (I have, luckily or unluckily, almost no education in this area.)

Start with a sort of cynical premise.  People generally treat each other according to their respective power (which might vary depending on context—in the courtroom, the judge is more powerful, but on the golf course he commands less respect).  When people treat each other well, it is out of self-interest and not magnanimity.

This may not matter much, except as an attitudinal matter.  Humanity is still humanity.  I'll quote from Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line, which is set in Soviet-era Russia.  A character has visited the U.S. and is recounting his experience to other Russians, who quiz him:

"But, tell us, was there no freedom there either?  And freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, as they write in our newspapers?  Tell us."

"Yes," I responded, "and freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, and the people, thus, have become so used to it that they almost don't notice.  Just think, they don't have—I walked around a lot and observed them closely—not in a single grimace or gesture or remark do they have anything like the awkwardness to which we have become accustomed.  On every rotten face there is as much dignity expressed in a minute as would last us for our whole great Seven Year Plan.  'How come?' I thought, and turned off Manhattan onto Fifth Avenue and answered my own question:  'Because of their vile self-satisfaction—nothing else.'  But where do they get their self-satisfaction??  I froze in the middle of the Avenue in order to resolve the thought:  'In the world of propagandistic fictions and advertising vagaries, where do they get so much self-satisfaction?'  I was heading into Harlem and shrugged my shoulders.  'Where?  The playthings of monopoly's ideologues, the marionettes of the arms kings, where do they get such appetite?  They gorge five times a day and always with the same endless dignity—but can a man have a real appetite in the States?' "

"Yes, yes, yes," old Mitrich nodded his head.  "They eat OK there, but we almost don't eat at all . . .  all our rice goes to China, all the sugar to Cuba . . .  so what will we eat?"

"Nothing, Pops, nothing . . .  You've already eaten yours, it's a sin to talk like that.  If you get to the States, remember the main thing:  don't forget your Homeland and don't forget its goodness."
Okay, I probably could have ended the quotation a bit earlier, but I love it.  Anyway, the false dignity of those self-satisfied North Americans is perhaps not so bad as the Russian propagandists had implied.  In other words, maybe you can grant that human interactions are mostly self-interested without huge implications for the world.  "False" humanity may be just as good as the "false" dignity of the North Americans.  Another analogy may be free will:  one can, perhaps, grant that human affairs are deterministic/random without major implications for traditional notions of responsibility etc.  In fact this may be more than an analogy, since my supposition is that altruism is essentially mechanical.  Who cares if, on some level, your mother loves you for biological reasons, which are in some sense arbitrary?

But I don't buy it.  For one thing, the blessings of humanity are not equally shared, and that is mostly because of the way power works, not because of human hearts.  In other words, if you want to think about how people experience fairness and unfairness, you'll do well to focus on how our institutions shape power and self-interest rather than on more high-minded concerns.  The slaves were freed by force of arms, Little Rock Central High School was desegregated at bayonet-point, moral authority grows out of the barrel of a gun.

And so appeals to morality can seem empty, or rather, they can seem like mere power plays in a corrupt, disgusting game.  Even when raw force is abandoned in favor of gentler or more subtle exercises of power, it comes to the same thing.

And so the possibility of justice as a concept seems to disappear.  Justice can still happen by coincidence, but it has no substance.  It is an interpretation of the world, a property ascribed to the world, not a thing in the world.  (I don't mean this in some deep sense.  I mean only that justice has no explanatory power in terms of what we observe.  We can apply it as a label only.  What they did was just.  But they did not do it because they were seekers of justice.  Rather, because of some sort of power dynamic.  There may be debates about what is just and what is unjust, but those debates will be won by the more powerful, who will call the result justice.)  And so we might be tempted to abandon justice altogether as a pointless abstraction.

I think this is wrong.  Let's turn to a highly artificial example, a sport.  Our sport has rules, both formal and informal, and it has people charged with enforcing those rules.  Without pretending that there will ever be a game with perfect rules or perfect enforcement, you can see how something like justice can play a meaningful role in the design of the game.  And, crucially, you can see how norms of fairness might emerge that are strong enough to overwhelm the usual might-makes-right dynamic.  In other words, everyone agrees that it's unfair to break the rules in a particular way, and so there is no point in trying to rally the troops to force a different outcome.  Even the rule-breaker might agree that what he did was wrong and should be punished.  The sport itself might have emerged out of some kind of power struggle, but within the logic of the game you can meaningfully speak of fairness and rules and (if you get a little carried away) justice.  Something good can come directly from the concept of justice—we don't just take something good and label it "just" after the fact.

We haven't really escaped the power-determinism that we assumed earlier, we've just seen that in spite of it something like justice can emerge as a real thing in the world.  And it doesn't have to be limited to the insides of sports games.  In submitting to an institution designed to achieve fairness, people willingly give up their ability to exert power in any particular case, and submit to the demands of justice.  Moral authority doesn't have to grow out of the barrel of a gun anymore, it can grow out of some kind of garden that we have agreed to cultivate far from the battlefield.

And so here is what I take from all of this:

1.  Justice is conceptually distinct but functionally inseparable from the power that protects its domain.  You need power brokers, Lincolns, LBJs, to carve out space for these cultivated gardens, and then to defend them.

2.  There are many forces that tend to tear apart our justice-promoting institutions.  I use the metaphor of a garden because that is what it is like.  Justice is not what happens when things are left to themselves.  Justice is highly artificial, even if not all of it is subject to human control.  (A well-designed economy will be largely decentralized, but a truly unregulated economy is a fantasy.  You don't just say that this amount of rice goes here, and that amount of copper goes there.  That would be micro-managing, trying to build a garden up molecule by molecule.  But you also don't abandon it to the weeds.)

3.  A good life and a good society are both concerned with building these gardens, preserving them, and articulating the rules that govern them. A major concern of politics is the extension of justice beyond small units like the family and the church, to ascribe moral status to everyone and to encompass the whole world within the domain of justice.

4.  You are called to join the struggle.  You must do your part.

5.  This is no excuse to be judgmental.  In fact, quite the opposite, you must respect other people's ways of seeking justice.  If they are seeking justice, and they are at all sane, then you are on the same side as them and you must try to pull together.  One of your most important duties is to understand other people and make yourself understandable to them.  The people who are against you, however similar to you they may be, are those who put themselves above the demands of justice and flout the rules or deny that we should be guided by rules or burdened by moral duties.  These people would build a society where justice is a luxury good to be enjoyed by the powerful and the affluent in their private gardens, and denied to everyone else.  Don't let their cynicism and affected world-weariness divert you from your duty.  To quote a line from Spanish Civil War-era propaganda:  "True Anarchists are against the false liberty invoked by cowards to avoid their duty."

6.  To quote Churchill:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

There Will Never Be Enough Justice

An important undercurrent in the #CancelColbert debate, I think, is that there is an inherent scarcity of justice in the world.  Or another way of putting it is that there is a gap between what people deserve and the costs that can reasonably be imposed on other people.  A good society deals with these issues in an equitable way, and if that isn't happening then the disfavored group deserves a hearing.  In my mind that is the best defense that you can mount of the #CancelColbert movement.

To put this another way, when make a determination that justice demands something, this implies both that someone deserves it and that someone else is obligated to bring it about.  Not all unfairness gives rise to a legitimate claim of injustice.  To give a trivial example, there's nothing fair about aging—it is a brutal thing.  But there's no way to avoid it, or even delay it much, at any reasonable cost, and so it is not a matter of justice.  (Of course access to healthcare is a matter of justice, but even the best healthcare won't protect you for long.)

So now consider Colbert's joke.  He said a bunch of very insensitive stuff about Asians, but the real target of his joke was Dan Snyder and the Washington, D.C. NFL team that he owns.  And so we have costs to be allocated here:  should Asians bear the cost of this joke?  Or should Colbert's show be deprived of a vivid way of making the point?

And this is a legitimate discussion, especially if, as has been plausibly claimed, Asians are disproportionately burdened by these kinds of racial jokes.  And especially if the subjective experience of watching Colbert mimic Asian stereotypes on TV is particularly hurtful.  (Note in this connection that it doesn't particularly matter whether this subjective experience is "logical" or "rational."  The point is that it exists and it deserves to be taken into account.  You can't respond to a claim for justice by telling someone how he should feel.  Anyway it is perfectly natural to be disgusted by stereotypes of this kind.)

In general I think there is not enough appreciation of just how hard these tradeoffs can be.  In all the shouting back and forth, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course you should be able to make any joke you want, however hurtful, as though we have some principle that people's feelings are strictly lower-priority than humorous point-scoring.  And on the other hand, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course if people have a legitimate feeling of being offended, then the show must be canceled.  This resulted in a lot of talking-past-each-other.  The truth is that there is probably no way to accommodate both impulses, and so where we draw the line is a legitimate and important discussion for a good society to have.  I don't think we had that discussion, on the whole, but maybe some real engagement came out of this.