Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?


Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?

The Agents of Inequality The Agents of InequalityThe Processes of Inequality: Exploitation, Dispossession, Incorporation

I have argue here and elsewhere[1] that

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%, who have the power to impose it through the processes of exploitation, dispossession, and incorporation. Inequality is inevitably a matter of conflict, roughly between the 1% and the 99%. Any serious effort to reduce inequality must deal with this simple and obvious fact.

(It should be clear that we are talking about social inequality, inequalities in social relations reflecting hierarchies of power and wealth, not individual differences or inequalities in strength, wisdom, inherent abilities, virtues. It is of course what Jefferson meant in the Declaration of Independence’s ringing declaration: “all men are created equal.” They obviously differ in size, weight, talent, strength, desires, etc.; it’s the social relations among them that is in question.)

But what are the concrete processes that create social inequality, that permit the 1% to impose social inequality in society, to their benefit?

The answer, again, can be given in a few words: Exploitation, Historical Dispossession, Capitalist Dispossession (Expropriation), and Incorporation

Historic dispossession actually came first, in primitive societies and pre-feudal monarchies and empires and autocracies. The 1%, the established rulers, chieftains, monarchs, simply were entitled to take possession of what they wanted from anyone in their power. They did this through the exercise of brute force: slavery, where the masters took possession of anything of the slaves that they wished, war, where the spoils of the war were simply taken by the victors from the losers as their spoils.. The practice persisted well into feudalism, with the divine right of kinds (even Mozart built on its recognition in Figaro’s objection to the exercise of the Rights of the Seigneur in 1786!). And the dispossession of villagers’ use of the traditional commons for grazing, what we would now call privatization, was a significant part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.[2]

Exploitation is a widely understood concept, and understood as a constitutive component of capitalism in the form of the wage relationship in production. , and focuses on the processes by which one person or group obtains the benefits of someone else’s labor through the payment of wages that do not equal the value of that labor. The profits accruing to the employer in that relationship accrue to capital, are a “return to capital” in Piketty’s sesnse, a conspicuously non-judgmental phrase for a relationship that could raise some questions of justice but which clearly benefit the 1% and the expense of a major part of the 99%, and contribute to a mounting inequality as capitalist forms of production expand and go global.

Capitalist dispossession, however, accompanies the drive to ever-increasing profit (what Marx calls primitive accumulation and David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession[3]). Colonialism is its manifestation at the international level, but is paralleled by national practices. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “The right to take possession, oppression, looting, are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and implemented by force if necessary.”[4] But in its mature capitalist form it is put forward as a right, and a right available to anyone, not merely of a chieftain or king exerting a hereditary or divine right to its exercise.

Foreclosing on a mortgage effectively dispossesses the “owner” of the house of his occupancy of it, and expropriates the house to the bank or financial institution that holds the mortgage. And the force behind it is state sanctioned and applied, if not under specific legislation then by execution of judgments in courts of law. The Sheriff will enforce the order of eviction a court grants, and forcefully puts the owner’s property on the street.

Contemporary dispossession (expropriation) differs from both its preceding forms, historic and capitalist, in two major ways;

  • Contemporary dispossession is much less focused on physical dispossession, and involves a whole range of broader goods and assets, including property rights in all sorts of values which are included when one speaks of inequality. Contemporary dispossession might more properly be called expropriation, the taking of some key rights in that bundle of rights called ownership, key rights that go into the composition of wealth and power that Piketty, unlike Marx, lumps together in the term capital. The most obvious, of course, is the right to income or a share in the profits from an investment. Expropriation here is not the taking of the physical stock certificate, but the justification for not honoring a supposed “right” to a proper return on the investment. The right to an education, the right to health care, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to security of the person, the right to the sanctity of the home free of trespass, the right to vote, are all rights the 1% take for granted, but that large parts of the 99% find in practice not or barely available to them. The effective elimination of those rights in practice leads directly to the relative reduced wealth and income of the 99% and the expansion of the wealth and income of the 1%, increasing inequality by the most conventional of measures, and in a quite fundamental way. As an (critical) example, every reduction in the progressivity of taxes used to make such rights meaningful goes directly in the pockets of the 1% and the expense of those in need of those rights.
  • Contemporary dispossession in fact largely creates those very rights and values it then expropriates. Ironically, when the “owner” of a home among the 99% loses it in foreclosure, his or her very ability to purchase it was enabled through high credit by the institutions of the 1%, who end up unharmed by the foreclosure. The bank owner, surely among the 1%, itself enabled the creation of the owned homes of many of the 99% which it helped finance, and then through foreclosure dispossesses the homeowner of that home to its own benefit, widening the gap between the two. The whole process of financialization, and the credit bubble it engendered has caused harm to the 99% from which the 1% have benefited, so that their share of the society’s wealth has increased while that of the 99% has decreased. It is a case of private dispossession/expropriation.

How could the 1% get away with this, in an advanced democracy? It couldn’t happen without support, including much active support, from a large part of the population, at least in the so-called “advanced democracies.”

Incorporation is the best term I can think of for the answer. Not in the sense of forming a corporation, of course, but in the sense of absorbing any potential resistance within it, making the resistance itself part of the system it attempts to criticize. Co-optation might be an easier term, but it is co-optation at a fundamental level, deliberately provoked and nurtured out of self-interest. But then internalized as natural, inevitable, and indeed desirable by the majority whose interests are in fact badly served by it. If the key cause of inequality is what was theorized at the opening here:

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%; who have the power to impose it.

The question becomes how have the 1% amassed that power, and why are the 99% not able to resist it?

But that question is simply missing from mainstream discussions of inequality, and rarely raised even in critical discussions in economics even from the left, where it might be expected but where it seems to encounter a blockage that requires understanding. Instead what critical analysis exists is incorporated in a mainstream analysis that neglects fundamental conflicts and instead pokes at the edges of the problem sometimes with sensible but limited suggestions for reform that are incorporated into the mainstream of reform discussions, but shy away from even acknowledging the deeper issues of conflicts of interest that a more iconoclastic discussion would engender. And as the discussion veers away from these conflicts at the ideological level, the political attitude towards inequality likewise veers away from unsettling proposals and ends up incorporated within the mainstream in at best mild reforms at its edges and at worst celebrating its existence.

Such incorporation into the mainstream is produced by the combination of two factors:

1) at the discourse level, suppression of the acknowledgement of conflict: the domination of public discussion of the issues by ideological analysis incorporated into an acceptable mainstream blind to the conflict-laden causes and alternatives, and spread through media practices and institutional support into the popular consciousness; and

2) at the political level, consumerism leads to acquiescence: the strong lure of artificially induced consumerism, as reality and as hope, smothers criticism and incorporates the potential critic into the mainstream of acquiescence.

At the discourse level the public discussion of inequality is strangely limited. It not only circles around partial or simply wrong answers, discussed schematically in Blog 55, Inequality is indeed spoken of in public, and even makes the best seller lists, viz. Piketty, but the public discussion almost always simply fails to address the right questions, fails to push superficial if plausible answers to their roots, to consciously recognize its roots and consequences, to acknowledge the conflicts of interests and motivations.[6]. At both the discourse and the political levels, both effectively suppress or sidetrack.

Blog #55c – The unasked questions about inequality   gives three concrete examples of this blockage of the discourse.

CONCLUSION

How is the foregoing discussion relevant to a concern about inequality? If the analysis is right, a very practical political conclusion. If inequality refers to how the pie is divided, and if inequality is to be reduced, the 1% must give up some of it to the 99%. But the acknowledgement of conflict is suppressed, not because the facts aren’t clear, but because of a simple acquiescence in things as they are, a hard wall that stops both the avowedly liberal and the hard-eyed conservative from extending the implications of their own analysis to the recognition that it will take a serious thwarting of the rich to effectively reduce the inequality of the poor.

The first conclusion: remedying inequality involves a fight, before a search for broad consensus can begin. The causes of inequality are not technical failures, or found by focusing singly on action aimed at improving the lot of the poor, or by changing the poor by education, moral suasion, example, or similar measures. Inequality is the result of real conflicts of interest. In the long run it may be to everyone’s interest, in common, to reduce inequality, but certainly in the short and intermediate run, reducing inequality will involve significant conflicts. It may not be entirely a zero sum game: the advantages of reducing inequality may include greater productivity, less social tension, more effective policy making; but it will also result in some winners and some losers. So the first conclusion: be prepared to fight, challenge the means by which the !% get their greater share of the pie to begin with, seek consensus as far as possible but only around a just answer and realize consensus is not likely to happen except at a very superficial level.

The second conclusion: The forces supporting inequality not homogeneous; the majority can be converted. In the unavoidable fight, figuring out who is on what side is key. As of this writing, it seems clear that a large number of folk, not simply defined by their economic position, support measures that buttress or even promote inequality. Taking the Tea Party, and the conservative wing of the Republican Party as examples, they support lowering taxes, reducing public services, undermining unionization, avoiding minimum wage legislation, increasing security by policing and incarceration, privatizing public services from education to garbage collection to health care, indeed to anything out of which the private sector might make a profit. And in these positions they are supported by a large part of the leaders of public discourse, not only in the media but also among pundits, academics, many religious leaders, grounded in some deeply embedded racial prejudices and social mores.

 But those who objectively end up supporting inequality can be separated analytically. and some can be significantly aroused to recognize their own interests politically. They might be separated, based on the analysis here, into at least two quite different parts: those whose interest these position serve, and those who are in reality adversely affected by them but have been incorporated, willy-nilly, into a pattern contrary to those own interests. In the first group, of which the Koch brothers are perhaps the most conspicuous example, their very material interests are served by inequality: they benefit from the inequality of the others. The 1% benefit directly from the inferior position of the 99%. But they are seduced into supporting the 1%, not only by the media and the doyens of public opinion, but also by their own benefits – their fear of losing those benefits which they already have, even with their limits, in favor of an alternative that is hardly visible on the horizon. They have been incorporated into a system harmful to their own interests by the various processes discussed in this piece. The challenge therefore is to break through those processes and convert even the bulk of the Tea Party supporters into supporters, rather than opponents, of greater equality.

Blog #55a gives an outline answer to why is there inequality.

This #Blog 55b explains why Inequality has so much Popular Support

Blog #55c gives examples of the blockage of key questions.

 

————————–

[1] Blog #55

[2] Marx spoke of dispossession of the commons in the transitional phase from feudalism to capitalism as “primitive accumulation,” essentially the same thing.

[3]What Marx included under the concept, n Harvey’s summary, is included in Appendix A. Harvey’s trenchant discussion of its new form is in Harvey, D. 2004. “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession.” Socialist Register 40: p. 73..

[4] The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg, quoted by Harvey, D. 2004. p. 73..

[6] Freud can be helpful here, but going beyond the general concept of mass psychology. See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization

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Blog #53 – Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan


Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Some Cautions on  the           de Blasio Plan.

Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan is a far better plan than anything we’ve had since LaGuardia, and worthy of full support. But there are four large issues that need to be addressed, some in its principles, some in implementation: Density, Growth, Equity, and Comprehensiveness.

Density leads to gentrification and displacement, if not controlled [1]. There is a natural tendency look to the market to determine where increased density will work, to support increased density by zoning decisions, infrastructure investment location, tax policies, eased building height and FAR requirements, support for mega-projects, where the market indicates there is effective demand. That means, specifically, where there is the proverbial rent gap: where increased real estate values, particularly land values, suggest higher profits are to be gained by improvements, whether modernization and upscaling or higher and more dense new construction. Permitting such “improvements” thus is synonymous with increasing the prices of housing, not only in the locations made more dense, but in their surroundings. That in turn means one of the principal causes of gentrification and displacement is is advanced by public policy.

But there are good ways and bad ways of increasing density, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permitting demolition of low-rise low-rent housing in favor of denser more expensive housing.
  • Permitting new housing in public housing sites for occupancy at market rates, where low-rent, i.e. subsidized housing could be built. Increasing density in already gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Permitting densification without neighborhood rent regulations, fair and strictly enforced.
  • Permitting open and undeveloped space to be built on without regard to existing neighborhood use and needs.
  • Disregarding unbiased neighborhood opposition and community-based planning goals.
  • Increasing congestion and pollution without adequate transportation provision.
  • Providing bonuses permitting development beyond existing planning limitations

Good:

  • Increasing density by requiring that partially-occupied and vacant properties being held off market for speculative purposes be made available for occupancy, at affordable rents.
  • Improving public housing.
  • Increasing the supply of subsidized housing.
  • Controlling against the displacement effects of gentrification by rent regulation strictly enforced.
  • Make every program increasing density subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.
  • Investing in remediation of brownfield sites while preserving compatible industrial or commercial uses providing benefits equitably distributed.
  • Complying with community and city-wide planning standards regarding contextual development, light and air standards, accessibility provision and congestion avoidance.

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided. Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development, because it will require a greater cross-subsidy, hence higher market rate units, hence even more likely non-Hispanic white. . And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which result in a net increase of the proportion of high-income uses in the larger community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select the tenants providing meting inclusionary requirements, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[2]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing.
  • Make every program subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

A good Housing Plan requires long-term considerations beyond its immediate measures.Desirable provisions of a housing plan for New York City might include a city-wide housing plan developed as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process, that would deal with goals and standards for decisions on the location of housing and population distribution and density. Such a plan should deal explicitly with issues of segregation and equity among income groups and by race, color, ethnicity, age and gender. Zoning should be an important part of the implementation of such a plan, and specifically should include consideration of income-targeting land use allocation, as in providing income targets in the definitions of residential zones.

It should be comprehensive, and consider issues such as: zoning regulations facilitating for low income housing; Rent regulations. Tax action policies, taxing profits fairly, holding down depreciation deductions to match reality, surtaxes on flipping housing units, taxing quick turnover sales as ordinary income, making real estate taxes progressive, conforming to binding 197-a comunity plans, calling for equity impact statements on planning decisions, adopting clear city equity standards.Make a housing plan part of the city’s planning process, including goals for an agreed-upon equitable distributing of locations for housing development.[3] Adopt anti speculative warehousing legislation to deal with the full use of vacant units. Give due weight to the need for open space and active public political uses as well as recreational and passive. Integrate with regional considerations.

A general concern with the plan may arise from the process envisaged to put it into effect. The de Blasio Plan states:

“the City will conduct the analyses required for development of a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that satisfies sound land-use planning and legal principles, then will engage a broad group of housing stakeholders to solicit their input into the modifications and expansions of the Inclusionary Housing Program, and will work with stakeholders moving forward to ensure that the program functions smoothly to support development while also meeting the needs of communities” p. 31.

But if all “stakeholders,” regardless of their position, resources, and needs are treated as equals, equity is ill served, and inequalities are as likely to reinforced as reduced. A more robust arrangement for public participation is required, in which community and grass-roots active participation is supported.

A comprehensive look at the extent of the long-term over-all need for better affordable housing will show that the de Blasio plan is only one step, although an important one, in meeting the full need.[4] The private profit-driven market should be brought in to contribute. But to rely on public-private partnerships to solve the problem is ultimately a refusal to recognize that it will not do so, and cannot be expected to do so. Ultimately public provision is an inescapable necessity. The private housing sector should contribute to the necessary resources, by tools like mandatory inclusionary zoning, and certainly by progressive taxation, but the responsibility to pursue equity in housing is a public, not a private, responsibility.

Growth is not per se desirable. There is an underlying assumption running through the plan that considers growth to be a value for itself, development to be per se a good thing, even though it is often qualified as having “serving community needs” or “serve low and moderate income households.” It is an assumption that deserves examination. New York City today is a city where “growth” is largely led by its financial sector, whose prosperity becomes a threshold factor in the establishment of priorities.

Growth, generally, is desirable that reduces inequality.[5] Is growth desired if it increases inequality? Or increases segregation? Both short and long term factors come into play, and perhaps complex economic analyses, but should equity not be of fundamentally importance, rather than growth for its own sake?

Framing an equitable plan for housing is a complex process. De Blasio’s plan is a major step forward. But there is more to be done.

[1] For a look a the historical treatment of density in New York City’s development, see Marcuse, Peter. 1993. “Density and Social Justice: Is There a Relationship? A Historical Examination” Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory (D), vol. Three, pp. 50‑87.

[2] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

[3] The plan speaks encouragingly of following policies “that [satisfy] sound land-use planning and legal “Principles; p. 31. They need to explicitly deal with issues of equity and segregation. ”

[4] The data in the Plan itself support this conclusion, as well as the detailed figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey and studies of the Furman Center and a number of other sources.

[5] Reducing inequality is well known as a key de Blasio concern, and that is reflected frequently in the plan, e.g. p. 26, but requires concretization in application.

Blog #50 – Inclusionary Zoning: Good and Bad


Blog #50 – Inclusionary Zoning: Do’s and Do-not’s. —

[Slightly revised version incorporated in Blog #53, Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan]

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided.Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development. And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which , net, increase the proportion of high-income uses in a community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select tenants providing inclusionary benefits, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[1]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

[1] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

Blog #47: Anti-Poverty Measures Alone Won’t Do


It’s good that the Nation[1] calls attention to shameful way in which our economy exploits the poor and how inadequately our government responds to the problem. But calling the problem “poverty” focuses on just half of the problem. It accepts the idea that the poor are responsible for their own problems, and government needs simply to be ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work” to let them “climb the ladder of opportunity” (Obama in the State of the Union address). But that skirts the fact that then you have to confront the other half of the problem, the fact that the poor are so poor because the rich are so rich – the two-sided problem of inequality.

Inequality isn’t wrong per se. People are different; they don’t all have the same abilities, the same interests, the same motivations, some are able to do more than others, some have greater natural abilities than others, some need more than others for a decent life. We wouldn’t want everyone to have exactly the same incomes; that would be unfair. But we don’t want anyone to be homeless, or sick, or uneducated, or excluded from the benefits of a socially just society, just because they don’t have an adequate income. And our society is rich enough that it can afford a good bit of inequality and yet provide adequately for all. Why doesn’t it?

What makes inequality an appropriate concern for public policy is not just how much inequality there is, but what its mechanisms are and what the justice or injustice of its effects is – a sort of cost-benefit analysis of inequality. “Inequality”  is not an actor, a thing; beware the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Inequality is the result of the actions of a variety of actors, they produce ine1quality by their actions, and then inequality in turn affects others.

The gross disparity between the rich and the poor is intuitively shocking. Without reflection, most of us believe (using Rawls’ approach to defining justice) that having one person get 1,000 times more of what society produces than another person gets is on its face unfair, inequality can’t conceivably be justified at that scale by any moral standard or rational analysis.

But that intuition needs to be examined. As to moral standards or values, there’s no magic number for what the range should be. Most of us would look at the criteria by which some get more than others, the reasons for the inequality, not simply the extent of it. The question is partly one of analysis: why some are so poor, is it their own doing, are they poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or incarcerated or discriminated against when they could rectify their situation through their own efforts? If so, attention should be focused on the characteristics of the poor and how to influence their behavior. If their poverty is not subject to their remedy, if they are to a significant extent the victims of conditions outside their control, then as a matter of policy  we as a society should be concerned to make sure every individual really has the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

There is I think a general consensus that such a right exists and should be implemented by e effective public anti-poverty policies. That’s one question. How we shape policies to deal with it depends further on rational analysis of the causes of the problem. Public policy will undoubtedly either increase or decrease inequality, but it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether a given measure leads to more or less inequality.  It’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality. The discussion on this question is what the debate about anti-poverty policy and it successes or failures is all about – see Blog #43. Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Poverty is only half of the issue of inequality. One person can be poor all by him or herself, but it takes two to be unequal. The relative wealth of the rich compared to the poor must take into account not only whether the poor deserve their poverty but whether the rich deserve their wealth. Again, it’s both a matter of the analysis and the moral and justice evaluation of the result.  It’s quite possible that, as a matter of analysis, it doesn’t matter to anyone else if the wealthy have private yachts and 100-room mansions, so long as the poor are not poor below some level considered adequate for a rich democracy. Having great wealth is not in itself bad or unjust.[2] ; It’s rather the social consequence of that wealth, how it was obtained, and the equality or inequality of its distribution, that should concern public policy. The question for analysis here, then, is whether it matters to the poor how rich the rich are.  Are the poor more poor because the rich are so rich, or might it even be that the poor are less poor because of the wealth of the rich, who are the “job-creators?” Again, it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality.   The discussion on this question is what the debate about inequality should be all about, but unfortunately is not. (yet?)

An exclusive focus on anti-poverty measures targeted at the poor can shift attention from exactly this discussion and its policy implications.  Addressing the role of the rich in creating and maintaining the poverty of the poor smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth that increasing productivity provides .It’s no wonder such questions are rarely raised. What’s wrong with inequality is not only that increasing wealth bypasses the poor, but that it increases their poverty.  Seriously addressing poverty requires addressing inequality at both ends, the wealth of those that have as well as the poverty of those who have not, reining in the rich as well as uplifting the poor.

An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud.

Peter Marcuse[3]


[1] Greg Kaufman, “Building an Anti-Poverty Movement,” The Nation,  [February. 2, 2014]

[2] Although some religions seem to so hold: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

[3] This is a substantially revised version of a letter in The Nation, Marcuse, Peter . 2014. “Call It Anti-Inequality.” March 3, p. 26.

The discussion is extended in blogs from Blog #43 on, and will be extended in Blog #48, .What’s so Wrong About Inequality.

Blog #44 – Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?


Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

The language in the slogans used to address what most see as the basic social problem in the United States varies significantly. The key terms run from “war on poverty” to “ladders of opportunity” to “upward mobility” to “fight against inequality.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in his inaugural address as Mayor of New York City called on the City “ to put an end to economic and social inequalities,”[1] President Obama before his second inaugural wanted to make inequality the “defining issue” of his second term,[2] but that language changed to creating “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address.

Do those different terms all mean the same thing, or what difference is there among them? Lots.

The War on Poverty (see Blog #43 on the phrase), in fact as well as in words, addressed itself to the condition of the poor: lack of educational opportunities, weak family structure, discrimination in employment, residential segregation, gender discrimination, inadequate workplace safety, predatory ending. It contained an undercurrent focusing on encouraging the poor to help themselves, “empowerment,” enabling the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. That undercurrent becomes the dominant theme in the conservative Republic answer to poverty through education and job training of the poor, “making the workforce investment system more responsive to the needs of employers.”[3]

The ladder of opportunity” language to which President Obama has turned at least permits the image of a ladder with both a bottom and as well a top. De Blasio’s language of inequality pushes that image to recognition of the fact that those at the top are in fact responsible for the fact that others stay at the bottom. Recent research on upward income mobility similarly raises the question of the inability of the poor to improve their relative position over several generations.

The conclusion, then, if inequality rather than just poverty is the focus, is that something must be done about what keeps some so rich, as well as what keeps some so poor.  Calling in “inequality” is easily mistaken for substituting a measurement for a cause. The conservative challenge that inequality doesn’t cause poverty is quite right. But the conclusion that limiting the wealth of the rich won’t help the poor is quite wrong. It raises the question of the relation between rich and poor, exactly the question that the language of the War on Poverty or the enabling/opportunity approach conceals.

For in fact it is indeed the way the rich obtain their wealth that accounts for the poverty of the poor. A short piece like this is no way to engage that issue fully, but the outline of an answer may be suggested: The specific mechanisms are known:

  • Exploitation at the work place. Keeping the pay for workers as low as possible is an inherent part of running a business and making a profit: the lower wages are, the higher profits are. Employers are “job creators” only against their will; the fewer workers they need use to produce a different product or service, the better off the employer is. The high pay for business executives and dividends to shareholders are directly at the expense of the workers in their businesses. .
  • Exploitation at the consumption end. Increasing the demand for ever more consumers goods, of course necessarily paid for out of wages, increases the profits of the producers of those goods and the wealth of the owners of the firms that produce them. Inducing demand artificially, through advertising and the wide array of cultural patterns of the kinds long documented by sociologists and economists,[4] supports the consumption exploitation of poor (as well as middle class[5]) consumers, to the benefit of the rich.
  • Exploitation at the financial end. Where, after all, do extraordinary profits of hedge fund managers and bankers come from? Ultimately, of course, from the prices paid by the purchasers of the goods and services they are financing. Their interest and dividend incomes and high salaries are really based on the profits of those making their money from more direct exploitation of the poor.
  • Exploitation of the benefits of land ownership, an obvious and pervasive monopoly, paid, as economists put it, by rent not for anything that the recipient of rent payments has produced or done, but solely extracted by him through the possession of something in limited supply for which there is demand. Property owners and developers are among the richest of the rich (think Donald Trump), in large part because they are able to benefit from the speculative increases in the pries of land which they own.  Ultimately, those benefits are paid for in the prices consumers pay and the rents that tenants pay, a regressively distributive system enriching land owners at the expense of all others.
  • All four of these forms of exploitation are among the primary causes of poverty and, centrally, inequality.

Digging deeper into what a war on poverty ought to be about would lead to examining, not only how the poor might be directly helped, but also how the rich might be constrained in those actions that keep the poor in poverty. Digging deeper into how inequality might be reduced would lead not only to measuring the extent to which it is reflected in income inequality and be ameliorated by boosting the incomes at the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity but would lead also to the same concern for limiting the way the rich get to the top of the ladder to begin with.

The dispute between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over the financing of preo-kindergarten for poor children a vivid example of the difference, Cuomo’s insistence on paying out of general funds, does help to alleviate poverty, but it also avoids de Blasio’s proposal for  paying through a dedicated tax on incomes over %$500,000 addresses inequality directly. Thus Cuomo may alleviate poverty but de Blasio aims further to directly reduce inequality, looking both at the top and the bottom of the ladder. Reducing poverty is much less controversial than reducing inequality, which confronts more basic vested interests.[6]

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[1] Text at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/nyregion/complete-text-of-bill-de-blasios-inauguration-speech.html.

[3] Republican Senator Tim Scott, setting out h is bill to implement the war on poverty, at http://www.scott.senate.gov/press-release/senator-tim-scott-introduces-opportunity-agenda.

[4] See the work of writers such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Thorsten Veblen, and many others.

[5] It should be clear that exploitation is not limited to “poor”  workers, but is drawn from the contributions of the unemployed, the excluded, as well as the “idle class,” in the multiple ways they contribute to the functioning the system that perpetuates the unequal division of wealth.

[6] The debate between David Brooks who has the same political analysis as above and comes to the conclusion we should all focus “on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/opinion/brooks-the-inequality-problem.html?_r=0 and Robert Reich,who concludes “The concentration of power at the top — which flows largely from the concentration of income and wealth there — has prevented  Washington from dealing with the problems of the poor and the middle class,” http://robertreich.org/post/73764746576, reflects almost exactly the above discussion.

Blog #38 – Community Land Trusts: Empty, Moderate, and Full-bodied.


Community Land Trusts – Empty, Moderate, or Full-bodied?

Community land trusts,[1] as a legal form of ownership of land, can come in three different forms: empty – available to any group for any purpose; moderate – to deal with serious but limited problems for a limited group, or full-bodied – handling both immediate problems but with a broad social justice perspective pushing transformative content and actions.

The differences are significant. Community land trusts can simply be an expanded form of co-operative ownership used by those protecting an already strong position in the housing market, insulating its members from outside influences by exclusion. The legal form of land trust is available to all, and ”community” can be interpreted restrictively by the well-to-do as easily as broadly by less well-off users. Thus, community land trusts as an empty form.

At the other extreme on a scale of social justice, community land trusts have the potential to play a transformative role in our housing systems, favoring lower-income households and all those ill served by existing markets, including poor households, the homeless, African-Americans and ethnic minorities, many women, households diverse by gender relations, age, and background.  -justice focused community land trusts can whittle away at the dominance of the private market as a method of allocating housing. Community land trusts can be models of democratic governance, both internally and at a larger scale of governance. And they can help in the political processes by which public resources are allocated to establish and implement a meaningful right to housing for all. Thus, necessarily, full=bodied community land trusts .

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz. having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

In between these two extremes lie a wide variety of variations in form and content. The exclusionary use of community land trusts would presumably be rejected by most. There is a danger of co-optation by interests posing community land trusts  as an alternative to public housing or rent regulation or subsidies or favorable tax treatment for those in need. Presumably, also, a formal commitment to principles of social justice and serving those in need would be part of any mainstream moderate position. But how sharply to focus their immediate goals, how widely or narrowly to devote their energies, how to use limited resources, with whom to ally and who to confront in adversarial fashion, how far and in what manner to be politically engaged, are all matters in which strategy as well as principle. Compromises will be inevitable. Thus, moderate community land trusts.

Where in this spectrum of possible community land trusts  a given effort stands seems to me to depend on three factors.

  1. How seriously is “community” taken? Community land trusts can be simply a legal form of holding title, used for tax and financing purposes, but in daily use essentially a management company, negotiating with utilities, contractors, maintenance staff, etc. Or it can be seen as a part of an effort for form and maintain a communal level of social interaction, involving not only collective democratic decision-making but a sharing of activities, of information, of social responsibilities, of political involvement. It can affirmatively work on positive relationships with its outside neighboring community, having not only neighborhood representatives on it boards but helping integrate its residents in its community, more widely defined, sharing facilities, activities, information, as circumstances suggest. Likewise, it can affirmatively look to achieve and make use of a diversity of residents, including both levels of recognition and of assimilation comfortable to each.
  2. How, and how clearly, is the constituency of the community land trust understood? A community land trust has control over who its members are, can have processes similar to those of cooperatives in interviewing potential new members. But there are general principles that must be established, and they will influence not only who is in the community land trust but what its relations with its outside community and government will be. Specifically, income levels and household composition can be defined as criteria.
  3.  If the principles of social justice are followed, it also becomes more likely that the community land trust will operate as a full-bodied trust.
  4. How does the community land trust see its political role? Every community land trust except an exclusionary one of the well-to-do faces the reality that many to whom it would like to be open cannot afford even the non-profit real costs of decent housing. The need may go from an immediate need for help even with basic costs or special needs to an on-going concern about rising costs or changed incomes limiting what a household can afford.  That inevitably means a concern with governmental subsidies, levels of taxation, utility costs, building codes, public services, public facilities. But the problems community land trusts  face are shared by a large part of the population as a whole. If the community land trust sees itself as part of a broader movement to achieve social justice in the provision of housing, perhaps as part of a broad right to housing movement, it will be more and more a full-bodied community land trust both in its inception and its ongoing daily activities.

A note on the ideological and economic aspects of community land trusts:

The idea of community land trusts resonates with an old theme in economics: that of land as a common natural resource, one not the product of human efforts, and therefore not to be appropriated by individuals for their private use, but to be shared among all. Community land trusts can be seen as an implementation of that view, at least on a small scale: no individual has the legal right to dispose of his or her interest in a community land trust for personal gain. Yet, theoretically, the ability to sell an interest in a building built on land in a community land trust at a price for that building fixed in a private market will take into account that that interest is made more attractive by its ground lease. Thus a likely profit can in fact ensue to the seller of a community land trust unit, amounting to an ability to make a private profit from a natural resource,. The market value of a building or unit in a community land trust building is technically the price of a commodity.. The land itself may be decommodified, but the right to use it is valuable, and could be realized by a sale of what is on the land and benefits a private owner from its common ownership. The land is decommodified, but not necessarily the building on it, to which the value of participation in the community land trust accrues.

What makes the typical community land trust radical is not the separation of land from building and its character as natural resource, but rather the restrictions that the classic community land trust, moderate to full-bodied, imposes on those leasing the right to occupy from the trust. Those restrictions typically regulate the price at which a housing unit in a community land trust can be sold. In these community land trusts , the leases to occupant members either prohibits the occupant from selling the unit except at a price established by the board of the trust, or gives the trust itself the right to buy at a fixed and limited price if the unit is put up for sale. . In this way community land trusts operate as would a limited equity co-op; the separation out of land ownership is simply another way of controlling collectively the price of units in it, as well usually as the characteristics of new buyer occupants. It is the restrictions in the permitted sales of units in a community land trust which make it an ideologically radical idea, and the terms of that restriction set the extent of the radicalism. If limited to an original price, originally set not aiming at a profit, and usually increasing only to the extent of the occupants own investment of money or labor in the unit, that makes it radical, for it effectively takes the unit out of the housing market and eliminates its use as a provider of private profit. A resident of a classic community land trust has virtually all the rights of a home owner, except the right to sell at a profit.  It turns housing into a set of use values, rather than of exchange values.[2]

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz.having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

All this has two implications. One is that such a community land trust cannot be seen as a “creator of wealth.” The opportunity to benefit from a speculative increase in the value of land is denied the owner. That may make a community land trust less attractive to some, but may be welcomed by others, and should in any event be clear in the use of the community land trust form of ownership. The other implication is the need for thoughtful consideration of how permitted sale prices are established. While the principle of non-speculation is clear, its definition is not quite. Specifically: typically, the seller is allowed to recover his or her purchase price plus investments. But usually that purchase price is adjusted by some formulae, such as changes in the cost of living, benchmarked to some measure of the rate of inflation, at least on the up side. That means it has some characteristics of an investment that does have market advantages: it is protected from erosion by inflation. It has the additional market advantage, the more full-bodied the community land trust is, of having collective backing against personal misfortune; foreclosure is technically impossible and eviction for non-payment of rent is handled more humanely than it is in the market, again to varying degrees. That benefit is of course realized to some extent in directly market terms when it comes to financing; a bank is likely to recognize the stability provided by the collective responsibilities and spread out risk inherent in the community land trust form as opposed to conventional single-family home ownership.

So “decommodification”  is not complete, but is certainly ideologically challenged by the use of the community land trust form, and its extent will vary with the details of the trust instrument and the leases given pursuant to it.

And if the above economic analysis is right, it provides some solace for potential participants in a community land trust that, while they may not accumulate speculatively-driven wealth by participation, they do achieve definite economic advantages in terms of security, both of occupancy and of return of original investment.

My own take, again if the above analysis is correct, on implications for community land trust practitioners:

Be clear who your constituency is. (Point 1 above.)

  1. Stress the “community” in community land trusts when presenting them. (Point 2
  2. Be clear and up front where you stand on the importance of social justice in the spectrum between moderate and full-bodied community land trust.  (point 3)
  3. Be politically active in coalition formation with other social justice oriented organizations and actors, and join with them both in obtaining the necessary support and subsidies for community land trusts  and in supporting other housing rights organizations program proposals for governmental action in the housing field, particularly on financing and rent regulation and affirmative non-discrimination. (Point 4.)
  4. Be up front about community land trusts’ impacts on wealth accumulation (minimal) and its other economic advantages: security of tenure and investment.  (Note on ideological and economic aspects.)

pmarcuse.WordPress.com  Blog#38.

[1] A community land trust is a legal form in which the ownership of land is held in the form of a trust and separated from the ownership of any structures that may be on it, which are privately (often in the form of a co-op or mutual housing association) built, occupied, and managed, subject to the term of a land lease from the trust. The trust is typically controlled by a board in which the actual users of the buildings on it are the primary members, together usually with representatives of the neighboring community and/or relevant government representatives. The leaseold interest with the users of the building have can be sold  subject to the provisions of the lease from the trust, which typically limits its resale price and must approve the buyer. An excellent fact sheet,  which also contains further useful links,.is at http://picturethehomeless.org/publications.html,,

[2] The myth that home ownership per se is a reliable way to accumulate needs to be dispelled. Home owners accumulate wealth only through two aspects of home ownership: one is savings, the other is speculation. The savings are essentially the forced setting aside of money to pay off a loan, the mortgage. Alternate investments of savings might do even better, and be subject to less risk. The other source of additional wealth creation from home ownership lies in the possibility of capturing the increase in the value of the house, which is fundamentally of the location on it is built, for the physical building itself depreciates. Again, that’s a speculative investment, and not always a safe one, as today’s economy shows. And see the historical experience recounted in Sclar, Elliott, Matthew Edel. and Daniel Luria. 1984. Shaky Palaces: Home ownership and Social Mobility in Boston’s Suburbanization.  New York Columbia University Press 1984.

# 34 — Un-Natural Disasters, Recursive Resilience, Unjust Compensation, Visionless Planning


Un-Natural Disasters, Recursive Resilience, Unjust Compensation, Visionless Planning

Summary: The “disasters” we care about are not “natural,” but social, and they are different from the disasters of previous eras. “Resilience planning” recursively accepts their recurrence, and often uses them to further already desired urban restructuring rather than preventing them. Vulnerability to the damages and compensation for the suffering suh “disasters”  cause are both unjustly distributed. No vision informs disaster planning policy, and participatory planning to deal with them is badly under-developed.  Good, democratic, equity-oriented planning is badly needed. [1]

Un-natural disasters. There is no such thing as a “natural” disaster.[2] A natural event, and earthquake, is only a disaster if it affects people, socially arranged. Vesuvius was only a disaster because Pompeii lay in its path; a tornado in an uninhabited desert is not a disaster.[3] (Bishop Berkeley, are you listening?).   Today, most disasters resulting from the forces of nature are avoidable; even building in earthquake-prone zones can be regulated, within the limits of advancing scientific knowledge. Today, disasters are caused by social-and economic arrangements, the forces of market capitalism – climate warming, filling in of wet lands for development, inadequate provisions for durable building ,  polit6ical terrorism, the unequal distribution of incomes leaving  poor people, particularly in the global South, to settle on undesirable, therefore cheap or empty erosion-prone sites and only the better off to build on desirable but hurricane-susceptible land or sites in desirable but flood-prone zones.[4]

Calling socially avoidable harm caused by natural events “natural disasters” is a politically-loaded evasion of responsibility.

Recursive resilience. Not only the causes, but even more the responses, to disasters are dictated by the existing economic and political structures of the society. . Obviously planning for resilience is accepting the inevitability of that to which resilience is the response, in this case including un-natural disasters. In the real world, the choice between dealing with the causes of a disaster, on the one hand, or on the other hand, accepting them but mitigating their consequences, is a matter  of cost-benefit analysis, weighing the costs and benefits of the alternatives against each other. But costs and benefits are not distributed randomly. Some consequences may even be desirable, and fit in with the on-going restructuring of urban space that is a feature of mainstream economic development policy in most cities today.

Two examples: In New Orleans after Katrina, resilience planning served to accentuate processes already under way, desired by the power structure, and facilitated by the hurricane damage. 4,5000 units of public housing, long neglected both by the City and HUD, although badly damaged by Katrina, have been totally demolished by the city with HUD approval, although many participants considered them quite  salvageable. But, as Louisiana’s Republican Congressman Richard Baker said a week after Katrina: [5]

‘We finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn’t do it, but God did.’[6]

In the waterfront areas of New York and New Jersey hit by Sandy:

Homeowners and landlords are eligible [for loans and grants] if their primary residence was damaged, using a contractor chosen by the city or picking their own contractor within government-set cost limits.

Homeowners also have the option of selling flood-prone properties to the city and relocating elsewhere.

“It is true in some cases, based on the level of damage and other factors, owners may want to voluntarily sell their homes and relocate,” Bloomberg said. “The city will work with the communities and developers to strategically redevelop those properties in a smarter and more resilient way.”[7]

The new result may well be that in desirable beachfront locations, lower-income households, many of whom moved there and built there when the area was remote and undeveloped, will take the money and move, wealthier ones, arriving later and benefiting from extensive development and public infrastructure provision,  will take the loans and grants and rebuild. Net result: The public amenity that is the beach will become what the market would have it, a semi-exclusive preserve of the well-to-do, with even more beach available for their own use. And the future of damaged public housing is still very much in abeyance.

Unjust Compensation. The bias in the distribution of the costs and the benefits of the public governmental response to disasters might be most egregiously seen in the handling of compensation to the victims of disasters. Again, an example: After 9/11, the families of those who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center were provided compensation by special congressional legislation, administered through a Special Victims’ compensation Fund administered by clear standards rigorously applied. The measure was the loss of income from the victim that the victims’ families would have received had he (less often she) survived.

The formulas were spelled out and based on the loss of earnings that would have been received had the victim lived, so that the higher the income, the higher the award,  with a cap on that calculation if the earnings were above the 98th percentile of earners, or $231,000 [8]  In addition, “each claim received a uniform non-economic award [that is, independent of earnings or need] of $250,000 for the death of the victim and an additional non-economic award of $100,000 for the spouse and each dependent of the victim.”

By comparison, no such fund was established for the victims of Katrina, and the maximum required payment to the families of the victims was the coverage of funeral expenses! [9]

Think of how FEMA funds would have been distributed between New Orleans’ District 9  and New York’s financial district if the criteria were human need, rather than financial loss.

Visionless Planning. Good planning is supposed to start with a clear statement of the goals of the plan. Here, the challenge would be beginning with what measures might be taken to address the destructive forces creating the problem, and then develop an idea of how areas likely to be subject to those natural forces should be handled,. For the former, dealing with climate change would be an obvious priority. It is remarkable how little the big question of the causes of climate change have been linked to disaster planning. Obviously climate change is a long-range issue, and its causes will not be in hand in time to affect more immediately feared disasters; yet one would think it would produce a major upsurge in attention to what could be done, legislation would be debated in Congress, regulations proposed at all levels of government, funding for research hugely provided, to prevent the connected un-natural disasters from occurring and to deal with the complex legal problems requiring legislative solution involved in any serious planning efforts. This is not happening.

Relatively little long-range land use planning is going on at the local level.. The issues are indeed complicated, with all kinds of difficult trade-offs needing to be evaluated, long, medium, and short range. But some principles of a vision might be useful to structure a vision:

The amenity value of many fragile locations is high, e.g. beaches, river banks, marshes, etc. Such natural amenities should be available to everyone, and direct public ownership might be the default arrangement.

  • Permitted uses should be only those not requiring permanent structures, so that evacuation in a predicted danger could be simple and fast.
  • Relocation would undoubtedly be necessary, and the distribution of its costs is tricky. But the principles of social justice should be prominent criteria where government assistance is involved. Need should be a dominant factor, and loss of community and social networks, and possibilities of maintaining them with relocation, would be desirable.
  • Complex legal problems attend any comprehensive implementation. As it stands,planning needs to take into account, and intervene in legal and legislative discussions affecting:
    • definition of the zone, now up to “normal” high tide”, that are publicly owned;[10]
    • Definition of the next inland zone above high tide that is in public trust and  “subject to public trust uses”
    • Definition of the property rights of the holders of private title to land in flood-prone or environmentally sensitive areas where regulation now becomes a “taking” requiring compensation if no economically viable use of the affected property remains.
    • Flood plain regulation by and large will not be a taking if an economical use for the affected property remains.[11] Thus, disaster-vulnerable zoning should permit temporary uses, e.g. camp grounds, recreation, farming, in carefully defined zones.
    • In any event, for any plan, a social equity statement should be required, spelling out in detail who is affected, both on the cost and on the benefit side, and be a major consideration in any decisions; and
    • Procedures need to be worked out to make decisions on the many trade-offs involved democratically, not simply at the neighborhood and community levels –if only there, segregation by income and likely ethnicity will be perpetuated – or at the city-wide level – and not simply there, or active participation and local preferences will be ignored.[12]

 

Participatory Planning: Solutions will be complex, and much work needs to be done to arrive at the best combinations, which will vary widely from place to place and time to time. Structuring real participation is also complex, because there are multiple levels at which it is needed. First and foremost, of course, is participation by the immediate community affected. But that’s not enough; decisions and resources from higher levels are inevitably involved, and planning at those levels, and importantly even at the Federal level, is necessary. At the initial level, planning needs to respect the needs of those most directly affected, let them be involved in the rebuilding or removal decisions, and if removal, how and where, with community networks respected. At the city level, major resource allocation decisions are involved; likewise at the national. Regional plans are almost inevitably important. No technocratic report can take the place of participation a these levels, although the technical information needs to be readily accessible at each.

To say, as Mayor Bloomberg has:

“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it,”

doesn’t cut it. “our waterfront???”  No. “Whose waterfront? “  must be a central part of any analysis, and “whose costs” and “whose benefits” a central part of any solutions. In the New York City case, there is a well-developed Uniform Land Use Procedure in place, and the city has an experienced city planning department and competent staff. But the Bloomberg Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency was kept in the Mayor’s own office, and its report [13]does not even list the City Planning Commission or the Planning Department among the agencies they involved—not to speak of ignoring the ULURP process entirely.

Conclusion: Treating all disasters as alike, and un-natural ones as natural; limiting planning to increasing resilience; allocating resources, whether compensatory or developmental, without regard to participatory procedures or social justice; and doing all this without a constructive vision for the ultimate results desired – these are the wrong ways to go.

Good, equity-oriented, participatory planning is badly needed.

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[1] This piece grew out of a productive discussion at the Planners Network national conference: “Beyond Resilience,” at a panel chaired by Norma Ratisi, participated in by Thom Angotti, Erminia Mericato, Nabil Kamel and, and Dick Flacks, as well as myself, New York City, June 9, 2013.

[2] Chester Hartman and Gregory Squires, eds.  There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, Routledge, New York,.

[3] I owe the example to Nabil Kamel..

[4] Ermenia Mericato has explicated some of these cases.

[5] Jordan Flaherty, “Post-Katrina Reforms in New Orleans Continue to Disenfranchise African-Americans,” Wednesday, 29 August 2012 00:00, Truthout | http://truth-out.org/news/item/11192-reform-and-its-discontents

[6] “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” Washington Post, 10 September 2005, A4, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901930.html  (Thanks to Jay Arena and Bill Quigley)

[8]. Special Master’s Final Report, p. 8

[9] Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. Slightly differenct version in: “Ignoring injustice in disaster planning: an agenda for research on 9/11 and Katrina” at http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse.

[10] See, for a good historical discussion, http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/378/378mass629.html.

[12] Indeed, some proposals, such as the sea wall with gates, would require multi-state review of their lop-sided expenditures running up to $20 billion dollars. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=russian-flood-barrier&page=2

[13] Hurricane Sandy After Action, May 2013, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/recovery/downloads/pdf/sandy_aar_5.2.13.pdf