Blog #97 – After Exposing the Roots of Homelessness – What?,


After Exposing the Roots of Homelessness – What?

I am deeply impressed by the contributions to this volume[1] and the debates that have led up to it, and happy that my little essay more than 25 years ago fed into them.  But at the same time I am saddened by it is still timely.

It is now clear that we know enough about homelessness and its causes and effects to understand how abhorrent it is within an affluent society, and further that we know enough to be aware of what is needed to end it, what can and should be done. I write “’we’ know enough;” at  least no one seriously argues today that  homelessness is inevitable as a natural and healthy phenomenon needed to keep society going, to provide an incentive for those too lazy or too stupid to get to work and take care of themselves.

So why do we still have homelessness in countries like the United States today? On the very day I write this, in today’s New York Times[2] is a story headlined   “Long Nights with Little Sleep for Families Seeking Shelter; it gives the number of persons in shelters as 59,373, a record. This is on the front page one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the country. It isn’t knowledge that is lacking that is preventing us from solving the problem . If there are still attempts to “neutralize” it, in the sense of the discussion here, it is not out of ignorance.

Why so little action, then? The picture that emerges from the articles in this book help us explain why. I think the argument can be summarized as follows.

To begin with, it costs money to remedy homelessness, and requires significant governmental regulation to solve it, and that in a variety of linked fields: housing production, management, location, urban planning and development, economic development, education, health care, criminal justice, media coverage, racial and ethnic discrimination, immigration – the detailed evidence is at hand. Admitting this means, at the very least, raising the money for the needed remedies, even just the shelter responses that are so obviously inadequate even in our greatest cities. That means taxation, and necessarily progressive taxation; when the 1% own more wealth than all the bottom 50% together, there are powerful class issues involved from the beginning. The results are apparent in the prevalence of the “lower taxes” slogan in current political campaigns. Claims for equity in taxation get neutralized too.

But look at the further implications of acting on what know about homelessness, pursing its implications in public policy formation. The money and resources that are needed to provide adequate housing for all must either come today – we live in a capitalist society – from the private profit-motivated sector, or from government. In the private sector that means raising wages and incomes substantially at the bottom and the middle; and in the government sector, raising taxes at the top. Clearly controversial. Power for either event does not lie with those pushing to solve homelessness.

But take critical analysis further. The reason redistribution of money and resources from the rich to the poorer is needed to provide decent housing for all is that housing is distributed through the market, based on ability to pay, i.e.based on wealth and incomes. That’s not inevitable, even within a capitalist system. Some housing could also be distributed by need, with public provision outside the market where the market will not provide it for lack of profit potential.  Public housing, housing subsidies, income subsidies, housing allowances, anti -speculation taxes, rent controls, community land trusts, inclusionary housing requirements, are all available tools. We know what can and should be done. Lack of knowledge or tools is not the problem; the problem is implementing our knowledge..

But taking an even further look at the implications of that conclusion: why does it only apply, mutatis mutandis, to homelessness issues – resources need to be redistributed, the role of the market constrained?? Indeed, could the conclusions really in any case only be limited to homelessness, or to housing policy generally, even if we wanted to narrow it that way? Wouldn’t  it, if we were being logical, apply to all of the linked areas mentioned above, from urban development to health care to racial discrimination, not only to poverty but to all issues of social justice and of equality?

And then it becomes hard not to examine the rationale for capitalism itself, and to ask whether or not alternatives ought to be considered. Admittedly socialism in its classic conceptualized form is hardly on the agenda, today, although Bernie Saunders may have made the word’s use a little more acceptable in polite society. If two key hallmarks of movement in that direction already accepted and in place, might be thought of, such as free public  education, public  police  and fire protection services, public roads and transportation, parks, for instance, might we not consider reexamining the appropriate  role the market vis-à-vis  democratic governmental provision and regulation in the housing sector? Couldn’t  we  use the levels of public funding and public regulation as  indications of where are compared to where we want to be on each, and keep their connection with broader economic, social, physical, and above all power, relationships very much on the table as well?

We are already, in the United States, at national, and at some state and local, into hard debates about the appropriate roles of the private sector and government, and inching towards a variety of compromises. Think of health care, going from subsidy and facilitation towards a public option, uncomfortably aware that other countries have much more satisfactory nation health systems. We have means-tested programs of public welfare assistance, some including direct public provision, others subsidizing private or providing direct cash allowances to be used in the market. Public health agencies deal with some health issues – the Zika virus is right now a clear public concern – but not o. We have unemployment benefits, economic development programs subsidizing private “jo creators,” but little direct public job creation. All of these programs deal with issues related to each of the others, but the campaigns for improvement in each are separate, and the political parties shy aware from any broad calls to link them in a reassessment of the roles of the involved private and public institutions and levels of government. Yet that is what all the widely available evidence point us to as needed.

Perhaps putting an analysis such as is provoked by the above summary under the rubric of a formal Right to Housing, such as is suggested in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,[3] might likewise help us help us broaden and deepen the approach we take to the problem of homelessness, its causes and solutions. Putting the situation in the global context in the national discourse might by itself be illuminating.

What needs to be done, urgently today and gradually but ultimately tomorrow ,  is really pretty clear.[4] Perhaps Trump also understands the logic of this , and that explains why he so staunchly opposes dealing seriously with and really funding any social programs dealing with an issue such as homelessness in his budget – if you start helping one set of “losers,” you’re going to have to start helping all of them, and where would that  lead us….

[1] Marcuse, Peter. 1987. “Why Are They Homeless,” The Nation, April 4, vol. 244, No. 13. Reprinted in Eitzen, D. Stanley, ed., Social Problems, Allyn & Bacon, and in Kennedy, Williams, ed., Writing in the Disciplines, Prentice Hall.

[2] Nakita Stewart,“Long Nights with Little Sleep For Families Seeking Shelter,” The New York Times , August 29, 2016, p.1.

[3] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available at, and Edgar, Bill; Doherty, Joe; Meert, Henk (2002). Access to housing: homelessness and vulnerability in Europe. The Policy Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-86134-482-3.

[4] A further discussion of the cause and some alternate approaches to “the housing problem ” may be found in David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing: the Politics of Crisis, 2016, Verso, London, , and in various  entries in my blog, Urbandpolitical, at

Peter Marcuse      July 20, 2018



Blog #94 – In What Ways is the Electoral College Illegitimate Today?

Blog#94 – In What Ways is the Electoral College Illegitimate Today?
The Electoral College itself is illegitimate and vitiates a key principle of constitutional law: “one person, one vote,” grounded in part on the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and arguably underlying the Fifteenth Amendment as well.[1]

Trump lost the 2016 election by a popular vote. He only won the Presidency because of the distortions of the Electoral College. The Electoral College distorts election results, and violates the principle of one-person one – vote, in the following ways:

1. Voting in the Electoral College is by states, not by counting individual votes. The number of votes a state has does not reflect the choices of its voters, but is skewed in favor of smaller states, who have three votes (paralleling the number of Senators and the minimum of one Representative each state has), and is thus skewed in favor voters in smaller states.
2. Voting in the Electoral College is by states, not by counting individual votes. In each state, all its electoral votes are cast in favor of the party with the majority of votes, and the votes of any member of the minority party in that state are disregarded, and without influence in the national result. It’s winner take all in the Electoral College vote count, which means losers’ votes don’t count at all.[2]
3. The Electoral College was provided for in the Constitution by the framers as a compromise with the interests of the slave -holding states, and with intent to insert a buffer between a popular vote and a theoretically more deliberative small body, out of an open fear of direct democracy.
4. The numbers show that the net effect of the Electoral College procedure is to give the vote of each African-American and Hispanic citizen in each state significantly less weight in the final election result compared to the vote of each of the majority white citizens. The votes of Trump voters counted more, per person, than the votes of Clinton voters.
5. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed during Reconstruction, may well be considered to void this Electoral College arrangement, opening up to questions of the legitimacy of its results in 2016.


[1.] See; “
An examination of the Supreme Court’s dilemmas and tensions as it stepped into the “political thicket” of voting and representational equality, establishing the practice of what has become a core American principle: “One person, one vote.” It has the echo of a core American belief. It rings with the same distinctively American clarion call for equality and individual empowerment that reaches back through the ages to the nation’s founding: “…of the people, by the people, for the people”, “All men are created equal” S But it wasn’t until 1963 that “One person, one vote” became a widely articulated core principle of the Constitution when it was first spoken by Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court.”
[2.] “For example, Blacks constitute about 36 percent of the Mississippi electorate, the highest Black voter percentage in any state in the country. About 90 percent voted for Clinton. But whites are 64 percent of the state’s votes, and about 90 percent of those chose Trump. Trump therefore handily won 58 percent of the state’s total vote and all [100 percent] of its Electoral College votes. In 2016, as for decades, the Electoral College result was the same as if Blacks in all the southern states except Virginia and Maryland had not votes at all.” Bob Wing and Bill Fletcher Jr., “Rigged, The Electoral College,” Z Magazine, January 2017, p. 2.

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Given that the conservative responses to unjust inequality essentially accept its existence, that the liberal  does something to ameliorate the results of unjust inequalities but does not address their causes, and that the progressive response does even more, but both within  severe limits that leave the production of such inequalities essentially untouched, and finally given that radical responses, although  they do address the causes of unjust inequality, are not  on the real world agenda anywhere in the world today, what can be nevertheless be done to achieve a more desirable handling of issues of equality than  our present system presents?

The suggestion here is to push for actions that are immediately possible, but that point transformatively to the more radical proposals necessary to eradicate unjust inequalities.. At least four modest but theoretically promising types of efforts in that direction are already under way, although their transformative potential is not always stressed: 1) transformative electoral activities; 2) transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena; 3) transformative  pilot projects attempting to model in limited practice solutions  that would be radical if comprehensively adopted; and 4) transformative educational efforts involving teaching , research, writing, public debates, on the real sources of unjust  inequalities and the possible steps to their eradication – and the development of theory. These might be considered four fronts in the effort to tackle the unjust inequalities that characterize our present societies.

1)      Transformative electoral activities.

The progressive democratic-socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders for the presidency in the United States would be an example. If it is seen simply as a normal campaign for the election of a particular individual with a particular attractive platform, it may have limited impact, and may not survive a likely electoral loss. If the electoral campaign is seen as accompanied by a political revolution, as its rhetoric in fact proclaims is necessary, it points to broader and deeper issues, and opens the door to consideration of radical possibilities going beyond the progressive.

Historically , the record of radically-oriented national election campaigns  has not been good, although they have a long tradition behind them, just this  century, the Socialist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, The Progressive Party, Jesse Jackson’s campaign, all had very limited influence.  Today, the Working Families Party is active in electoral campaigns in some states, but it remains small. In crass political terms, the experience seems to be that the more radical the platform the less effective the electoral impact. Efforts are beginning to evolve to have the Sanders campaign itself lead to some type of on-going organized involvement both in future elections and/or in current political issues. Whether it will be an exception to the rule remains to be seen.

2)      Transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena

The individual issues that are fought over in any even formally democratic society usually center on specific concerns, but may or may not be seen as parts of more fundamental societal arrangements, and may then, very much context dependent, have a transformative impact.  The criticism of the role of money in political campaigns could point to a full public funding of campaigns, with limits on private money going far beyond simple calls for transparency. Calls for a $15 minimum wage may open the door to an on-going push for a livable wage and beyond, to a truly equitable distribution of compensation for work done, and minimums set on the basis of an expanded definition of what such a wage should provide. Single-payer insurance provision to cover the cost of health care could raise the question of whether health care should not from the get-go be free, not provided on a fee-for-service basis but as a public good, as basic public education is provided, or police or fire protection or the building of streets and highways. Modest proposals for participatory budgeting could raise the question of whether all budgeting decisions could not be made with grass-roots democratic involvement. Support for the creation of Community Land Trusts as owners of land could raise the question of simple public ownership of all land, as a natural resource.[1]

Keeping Liberal and Progressive proposals expanded to their radical fullest regularly in sight, while still getting ones hands dirty in the struggles to achieve what can be done day –too-day, would be a way of making many existing political efforts not only more appealing in the present but also transformative to what might be done in the future to fully end unjust inequality.

3)      Transformative pilot projects attempting to model radical alternatives.

The history of utopian communities is extensive and rich. They are rare today. But the attempt to try out radical ideas on a limited scale, with the transformative goal in mind of leading to their wide-spread and comprehensive adoption, remains important. Indeed, utopian thinking and puzzling out what ideal cities or countries or neighborhoods might look like is an exercise that might be more important now than ever, now that any new idea is likely to be met with the charge that nothing like that has ever been done before, where’s the data to support it, let’s stick to doing things that we know can be done in the world that we have, not the world we want. In limited practice, solutions that seem utopian might in fact be tested and shown to work on a small scale, and would be very radical if comprehensively adopted. The work of Gar Alperovitz and the Democracy Project,[2] and the New Economy efforts, are provocative. Learning from such efforts could indeed be transformative on the way to broader change.

But there are severe limits to most pilot models, involving, viability today in the here and now. Dangers lie in the context of a competitive profit-driven society, with constant down-ward pressures on wage to maintain financial viability. Even short-term, internal democracy in e.g. co-ops, and more, may end up at risk. And how the transition might be made from pilot project to its broader environment. The  temptation and often apparent necessity of building fortified silos of justice in a desert of unjust inequality  to broad social change is under-discussed.[3], [4] Pilot models are a good and helpful step towards a just and equal society, but do not inevitably lead us there.

4)      Educational efforts and the development of theory.

Most of those reading tis blog, and certainly its writer, have not been brought to concerns about the unjust inequalities discussed in these blogs by their own material deprivation, by the kinds of physical exploitation and immiseration that classic images of revolutionary subjects evoke. As this is written, The New York Times headlines a front-page story about “How the G.O.P Elites Lost the Party’s Base” and describes how “Working Class Voters Felt Ignored by Republican Leaders.” The Republican Party having deserted its “traditional blue-collar working class base—“its “most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans.”[5] The descriptions set conventional social theory about class relations on its head.  But it reflects a current reality: the wide gap between undying material relationships of class and power, on the one hand, and the ideological interpretations and their psychological reflections that characterize so many political disagreements and rationalize the unjust inequalities that we see today. It is a gap that is ideologically, in the broad sense of the term, created, and it requires ideological counters if there is to be any hope of serious social change.

Ideological efforts to confront unjust inequalities have two aspects: one involving educational work, the other theoretical work.

Education is a somewhat awkward term for public information or savvy use of the media to tell a story, to convince readers or listeners or watchers, to convey the news in critical depth, to undo prejudices and stereotypes analyse conventional wisdoms. It may involve letters to the editor, journal articles, phone calls, panels, or, research, funded or not.

Theoretical work overlaps with the educational somewhat, but has a different audience and somewhat different audience: It may be educational, in the above sense, but it is also directed at those already concerned and active, and involve itself in clarify cause and effect relationships as a guide to strategy and tactics in ideological/political confrontations. Research of course has standard of logic and fact-finding that are necessary for credible work, but in the choice of subject matter and willingness to draw conclusions relevant to issues of equality that radical research show its usefulness. As the social psychological processes of one-dimensionalization grow in importance, the counter processes of logical analysis and exposure become ever more important.


Transformative might thus be the name of such blended proposals aimed at dealing with unjust inequality in a politically feasible fashion. . It would characterize ideas, demands, program proposals, legislative actions, social movement demands, which would marshal political power behind immediate demands for liberal or progressive measures coupled with a consistent and open consideration of the political feasibility of forwarding the goals of the Radical approach and building the foundation for struggles for radical action

A Transformative approach would add a recurring footnote, as explicit as the political situation will allow, to Liberal and Progressive demands. It can help to maintain awareness of the depth of the problem of Unjust Inequality and of the need for each individual program and proposal to recognize that the ultimate goal is actually the elimination of Unjust Inequality altogether. It can help keep pressure on the arc of history to bend ever more towards social justice and just equality..


ds Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.


[1] For further examples of potentially transformative demands , see my Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

[2] See and Gar Alperovitz “The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States”, April 13, 2013 Truth out News Analysis

[3] For my own views of the potentials and limits of the pilot project approach see Marcuse, Peter. 2015 “Cooperatives on the Path to Socialism?” Monthly Review, vol. 66, No. 9, February, pp. 31-38

[4] For a further discussion, see also Blog# 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands

[5] March 28, p. 1.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

A Radical response, in a traditional fully socialist view, would approach inequality in a quite different way. It would define unjust inequality not in terms of the quantitative mal-distribution of the wealth of society but in terms of the source of that mal-distribution, economically in the exploitation of labor by capital (which includes the maintenance of unemployment to create a “reserve army of the poor” at the bottom to buttress the power of employers), and politically in the oppression of the ruled by the rulers.  The injustice of inequality lies, in the Radical view, not in the quantitative dimensions of inequality, as in Piketty, or simply in the harm to those at the bottom, as in the Liberal view, to be dealt with by anti-poverty programming.The injustice  lies in how the mal-distribution of wealth and incomes came about in the first place — David Harvey formulates it that it was largely acquired  by the dispossession of the 99% by the 1% to begin with. Yet the Progressive view generally focuses simply in the quantitative differences in wealth and power per se, which are self-reinforcing and must be countered together. In the Radical view, by contrast, the injustice stems from the source of those differences: the actions of those at the top in depriving those at the bottom of the share of the common wealth which in a just society they should have.

Taking some of the wealth of the rich and using it for the poor is thus just, but it is not enough; it does not address the source of that wealth, the conduct of the 1% that created the inequality to begin with. Redistribution is a remedy that only ameliorates the consequences after the damage is done; it doesn’t prevent the damage. Ironically, it has similarities to the criminal justice system: it punishes the guilty and compensates the victims, but it doesn’t address the causes of crime.  It is fair, or, indeed, by definition, just, but it assumes the structural arrangements of the society in which it exists, in which exploitation and oppression are legally permitted, in fact essential parts of the system, if subject to some limits.  In the Radical view a revolution is needed really to address the structures that support unjust inequality, including such aspects as the definition and enforcement of property rights in the economic system and electoral arrangements in the political system that limit participatory democracy or render it ineffective. Radically, the argument goes.  A revolution is needed which continually seeks to end exploitation and oppression and regulate the conduct which creates them, going beyond simple amelioration of the unjust inequality which they quantitatively produce.

The Radical response to quantitative  inequality  is to seek it sources in the structures of the status quo, and to pursue an economic as well as political revolution to limit inequality only to just inequality.

The kinds of goals a radical/socialist answer to inequality might lead to might include (for suggestive purposes only!):

  • A guaranteed annual income to all, at a standard commensurate with the real capacities of the productive system, perhaps something above today’s Average Metropolitan Income;
  • Either direct government or non-profit voluntary private responsibility for the production of the goods and services minimally required for that standard of living;
  • Nationalization of all major productive enterprises, with compensation limited to non-financialized values or less;
  • Confinement of profit-motivated activities to minor production of goods and service over and above the necessary , and for research and development above that level;
  • A sharply progressive to confiscatory tax on incomes and wealth over some socially defined ceiling;
  • Education at all necessary social levels public and guaranteed free, above that voluntarily undertaken;
  • Cessation of productions of all munitions;
  • Procedures for fully participatory and democratic decision-making at all levels of public action, with public support for the necessary implementation;
  • Environmental standards set and implemented at levels to maintain fully sustainable levels of desired health for all;
  • Recognition that the unjust inequalities produced by exploitation and oppression are linked together, and must be treated as a whole, and the process of undoing them must be comprehensive in scope and depth;

And, importantly:

  • The issue of unjust inequality would then simply disappear, because, with all having enough for a really fulfilling life and limits established on wasteful excesses of privatized wealth, the incentive to exploit or oppress, would imply disappear, and there would be  no reason for concern s about  comparative incomes or wealth that logically fuel current concerns about inequality.

These are obviously utopian goals, and practically relevant only in so far as they may provide a standard for evaluating the desirability of pursing specific realistically achievable goals. But to thinking through and visualizing alternatives to the existing along the above lines – playing with reality-based alternatives  for an ideal society, as was common in critical parts of human history in the past but has virtually disappeared from today’s intellectual or artistic life, might indeed be a generally  welcome development .

In the context of the present presidential electoral campaign in the United States, no major figure would espouse such goals, but neither would any explicitly defend the level of quantitative inequality that exists today. The more moderate wing of the Republican Party and the more conservative side of the Democratic Party espouse a Liberal approach, differing from each other mostly in the extent of its implementation. The further left voices in the Democratic Party lay claim to a Progressive response, in rhetoric sometimes similar to that of the Radical, but pragmatically toned down, so that revolution is spoken as reform of the political system, not in basic economic structures.

Politically, on the electoral campaign the view on the Republican side is conservative and the existing inequality, if acknowledged at all, is not seen as a major problem.

On the Democratic side the Liberal position is widely seen as desirable in principle but subject to a touchy debate to be resolved by compromise in realistic political terms;

The Progressive position is seen to have significant popular support, but unlikely to gather enough political momentum to be implementable to the extent necessary;

The Radical position is not seriously considered, however idealistically it may be discussed at the fringes of present realities, and espousing it may in fact weaken even serious Liberal and Progressive attempts at change.

A different response is needed. Blog # 81e – Other Forms of Radical Responses: Towards a Transformative Approach to Unjust Inequality, will suggest a possible step toward such a different response.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.




Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality


Inequality today is usually equated with the extent of the gap between the 1% and the 99% that that the Occupy movement brought to public attention, or that Bernie Sanders highlights in properly criticizing the distribution of wealth and income in the United States. But this is a mischievously facile definition of inequality. Some inequalities are in fact fair, and result from differences in talent, physical strength, luck, and commendable effort. Gross disparities are a vivid indicator of a problem, but do not draw attention to its causes, which lie in critical social, economic, and political relationships,. To focus on the gap itself and to address it with remedial measures aimed at narrowing its extent detracts attention from those causes.[i]

 Just and Unjust  Inequality: Why the Difference Matters

Equality and inequality are deceptively simple concepts. In the modern era they came into prominence with the French revolutionary slogan of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,[ii] where equality meant political and legal equality, equality of “rights,” equality in relation to the state, as it did in the United States  Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” as to “certain inalienable rights.” [iii] Rights to the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Man Equality did not mean equality in incomes or wealth or in the distribution of goods and services, which were seen as dependent on equality of legal and political rights, Equality in material distribution of material goods was seen as a concomitant of social justice, not its center.

Comparing equality as a goal to justice as a goal[iv]  brings the realization that not all inequality is unjust. Not all differences are unjust. There is natural inequality, of physical and mental capacities: not all humans are of the same height or weight or prowess, not all are the equals of Einstein or Jacki Robinson or Martin Luther King. We consider some inequality in the distribution of wealth and power fair: it may derive from natural inequalities, it may be earned by hard work, or by social contribution, what Piketty calls the common utility, or be justified by different needs. In some cases unjust inequalities may be built on natural or earned “not-unjust ” inequalities, but their extreme extent then built on power, part of their wealth earned, another part not: Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Thomas Edison? Jeff Bezoz?  There is a balancing involved. Granted a Hollywood star or tennis champion or skilled artisan deserves to earn more than the average, how much more is just? A tricky question, but the answer can be one produced through democratic processes, and would, for instance, lead to decisions as to how progressive the tax structure should be. Similarly, a person who is ill, or suffering from a disability, or is limited by conditions end his or her control, might be entitled to more governmental support than the average, and again at what levels is an appropriate subject for democratic decision-making, leading to decisions as to the levels of welfare benefits reimbursement for health care expenses, and so forth.[v]

There is thus “just inequality” and “unjust inequality.” How does one generalize the difference?

What Is The Key Difference?

Inequality is unjust,[vi] I propose, if it derives from the exercise of power used for the exploitation or oppression of one person or group by another. The resulting distribution of goods and  services, of wealth and income , the gap between the 1% and 99% is unjust, not because of its size, but because of its origins. What is “just” is then a matter that is socially defined – Rawls’ definition of justice or fairness could be useful, what would be decided by people acting behind a “veil of ignorance” as to their own position.

The results of not-unjust inequalities in the distribution of goods and services can then e countered by appropriate public policies of redistribution of those goods and services, e.g. by taxes or public provision.

But the results of unjust inequalities need to be addressed at their source in the social, political, and economic relations among individuals and groups which skew the distribution of goods and services, and result from the skewed distribution of power.  Acting on the results of just-inequalities can be guided by democratic procedures, debates on over values, the use of reason. Acting on the results of unjust-inequalities necessarily involves dealing with the distribution of power, and durable consensus of those benefiting from unjust inequality with those suffering from it should not be expected, and should not be an aim of public policy.

Justice is a moral formulation for the prevention of unjust inequalities. Politically, dealing with all forms of inequality, just and unjust alike, through redistribution of their results is can be done by consensus reforms, and should be facilitated by democracy. But dealing with the bases for unjust inequalities likely requires more radical politics. This may be the difference between Hilary Clinton’s and Bernie Saunders’ in the political campaigns of the moment.[vii]

The issues around inequality are complex for practice, as well as theoretically challenging; the answers make a significant difference in matters of immediate policy as well as in philosophy and world outlook.


[i] For striking examples, see my Blog #48 Writing about Inequality, at

[ii] The 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of the Right of Man begins with: “art. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” [] considers egalite in terms of legal equality and merit-based entry to government (art. 6): [The law] “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

[iii] “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

[iv] As Susan Fainstein does in The Just City, for example, in a wide-ranging discussion. Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, P.   36ff.

[v] Rawls definition of justice or fairness as what would be decided by people acting behind a veil of ignorance as to their own position is I believe consistent with this approach.

[vi] Piketty uses a definition, benefitting most those most in need, akin to Rawls’ definition of justice, But he writes that fuller discussion of the meaning of justice is beyond the scope of his tome, and it is well beyond  the scope of this essay.

[vii] This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions

Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions

This Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions, then proposes some immediate remedies, and then some principles for real solutions.


Turning to remedies and solutions, one way of looking at the reasons to be restrained in celebrating the Court’s decision and the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation is to ask the question:

“If the Federal government itself were obligated by law to do everything within its legal power to affirmatively further fair housing, what would it be doing?”

There are some immediately available and known policies that could be of substantial help.

They are immediately practicable ideas that might be politically viable even today.

They include, just for instance:

  1. closing the loopholes in the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation,
  2. requiring a fair housing impact statement analogous to an environmental impact statement for all actions affecting housing provision;
  3. a housing speculation provision in the income tax law denying capital gains treatment or imposing progressively steeper taxes on profits from speculation in land ;
  4. expansion of public housing, housing directly and permanently owned by government, with increased roles for tenant participation in management;
  5. a federal housing trust fund, available to provide subsidies for location actions necessary to prepare and implement fair housing plans;
  6. legislative endorsement of the various Declarations of Rights of the UN;
  7. model local legislation on building codes, affordability, zoning, tax policies, eviction policies, comprehensive planning;
  8. Specific financial and technical support for the preparation of comprehensive local master plans covering land use and the key sectors of public engagement,[1]

[1] The new AFFH Regulations already contain provisions for such assistance, but are focused on data provision and analysis, not a comprehensive planning process.

But these are remedies; they operate in a situation in which discrimination in housing is recognized as part of the existing landscape. To be effective, however, such actions need to be based on a recognition of the causes of that situation, and incorporate specific substantive prnciples so that they do not become simply empty paper-work bureaucratic requirements. The next Blog, E. suggests what such further action, looking to solutions rather than just remedies, might look like.

To be effective, however, such actions need to be based on specific substantive principles so that they do not become simply empty paper-work bureaucratic requirements.

At least ten concrete principles could address the six weaknesses of the present court decision and governmental regulations:

  1. Close the loopholes in the law and the regulations and the Supreme Court decision that leave open to undesired interpretation terms such as “adverse,” “disproportionate ,” “legitimate purpose,” “reasonable alternative,” “racial” and “ethnic,” etc. Perhaps a blanket provision stating the constitutional priority to be given to the goal of eliminating discrimination in housing might suffice.
  2. Recognize the unjust and discriminatory way in which the housing system as a whole now operates, face up to the limitations of the private market as the mechanism for determining land uses and more broadly the direction of urban development, as matters of fundamental public policy., limiting the perks of private property[2] standing in the way of the development of alternatives.

Apply the standard used in defining fair housing, and the consequent affirmative obligations of government, to the other major policy areas involved in urban life, acting in recognition of the intersectionality of housing, education, environmental quality, accessibility, aesthetics, economic development, health care, security, the administration of justice, campaign financing, electoral procedures, essentially all sectors that ought to be under public control in a democracy.

Plan comprehensively, re-examining and expanding on the tradition of master planning and the experience in making such planning participatory and democratic. Intersectionality might suggest separate “sections” interacting; the reality is that each “section” is from the beginning entwined with all others from the beginning, and they should be planned jointly, not separately.

Provide the funds to implement fair housing goals. If the major problem creating unfair housing is the inequality of wealth and income, we have the power at least to ameliorate its consequences by redistributing some of that wealth and income, and the tax code is can be a major way to do that. By taxing at the top, with a steeply progressive tax system perhaps in this case focusing on income and wealth created within the housing system and redistributing the proceeds, perhaps through a targeted federal Low Income Housing Trust, adequately funding programs such as public housing which permanently take housing out of the profit -driven housing market, could go vastly further than it has – perhaps from 3% of all housing to 30-70%, in spirit from the 1% to the 99%.

Use the tax code to attack directly the maldistribution within the housing sector at its source by confiscatory taxation of speculative profit in the buying and selling of land and interests in land, monopoly profits from the ownership and management of housing, steeply progressive real property taxation of megahomes and ultra-luxury apartments.

Power must be explicitly taken into consideration. Given the obvious pre-existing inequalities in wealth and political, only exacerbated by the Communities United decision, any remedy for local governmental action must deal with the relations of power of the various groups involved, and minorities will generally , in the large picture , be near the bottom of the totem pole. If the undiluted warm welcome given the new Regulation is to be earned, the actions of the Federal government under the provisions of the FHA must deal with the distribution of power. It must be clear that the Federal government is indeed interfering in local matters, is indeed imposing standards of conduct meeting national priorities and national values. Indeed local input is vital, and necessary for effective implementation, but Federal rules must govern. Choices among decisions not contradicting the intent of the Federal law should indeed be left as fully local as reasonably possible, but it is entirely consistent with the distribution of powers among branches of government in the Constitution that issue of national concern, such as the full implementation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, be in the hands of the Federal government.

Recognize and welcome as positive the dominant role of the Federal government in setting the guidelines   for how housing should be produced, financed, managed, located, and distributed, and enforce those guidelines aggressively. Local discretion (but not autonomy.) is desirable within the framework of national if not global principles, e.g. an enforceable Declaration of Human Rights in Housing.[3]

Spell out, in theory and as implementable guides to practice, what values are intended to be covered by the general concepts of “fair”. Concepts such as justice, democracy, equity, diversity, growth, and sustainability are clearly involved, but their meaning and applicability to action public actions needs to be publicly debated and become ever present considerations in public and private actions.[4]

  1. Require social justice impact statement of all public actions affecting housing and land use, learning from the environmental movement the possibilities of having such statements, as well as an awareness of their limitations with enforcement measures behind them

These nine actions could virtually constitute an agenda for future fair housing and civil rights activity.

Such actions are recognizably not on the immediate political agenda of any social movement, political party, or advocacy group. They sound very theoretical and very idealistic, whether that term is used pejoratively or literally.

But these are actually radical proposals, if their implications are thought through. They call into question fundamental assumptions and values taken for granted in capitalist society, such as the sacrosanct rights of private property, the importance of growth, especially measured in economic terms, as a priority for governmental action, the profit motive as the most effective vehicle for securing efficiency in production and service provision, , the desirability of the market as a mechanism for the allocation of housing or any of the necessities of civilized life, the meaning of equality in the satisfaction of needs.

In Andre Gorz’s phrase, there are reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. These are reformist reforms; the six concrete principles suggested before them tend towards non-reformist reforms. Even more radical reforms, such as public ownership of all land, income based on need, work based on ability, government based on direct democracy, while perhaps still theoretically attractive, are hardly imaginable in countries such as the United States today.

Making the transition from principles to practice, from reforms to non-reformist reforms , is a major challenge to those critical of the status quo, and goes beyond the discussion here. But one simple suggestion might be useful. The difference between the two is essentially that reform still leave much more to be done; no-reformist reforms are more comprehensive, seek to address the roots of our problems, not just the branches – although those branches are what immediately hurts, and must be addressed before the roots can be gotten at. Making this point, and make it continually and emphatically, is perhaps a way of opening a door to the consideration of more, of non-reformist reforms   whose need is made apparent by the limitations of the reformist.

Some reforms lend themselves to opening the door more than others:[5] a speculative property tax on land begs the question of why profit should be made on the sale of land to begin with, zoning issues implicitly raise the question of the priority of exchange over use values, social welfare programs lead to the question of what standard of living we after all want to have everyone be able to have. How far this can be done in any given situation is a question of strategy; its desirability seems to me apparent.


This Blog is part of a set of five:

[Blog #68 – Evaluation of Recent Developments, examined the reception the Court’s decision and the AFFHR have received and their respective roles in dealing with housing discrimination.

Blog #69 – Fair Housing: Limitations of Supreme Court decision and AFFHR, took up the limited scope of the AFFHR, the weaknesses in the Court’s decision and the problems of implementation for both.

Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination, opens an analysis of the current causes of discrimination, and the attribution of causes to both the legacy of slavery and to the present actors behind discrimination, and then the structural context in which they operate.

Blog #72 – Beyond Fair Housing: Some Elusive Principles for Societal Change, will raise some questions about elusive general principles for societal change.]


[1] The new AFFH Regulations already contain provisions for such assistance, but are focused on data provision and analysis, not a comprehensive planning process.

[2] Michel Sorkin’s striking phrase.

[3] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be the beginning of such a process. For a comprehensive survey, see: United Nations Housing rights legislation, Review of international and national legal instruments, publications in support of the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure No. 05. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Nairobi, 2002 available at

[4] Susan Fainstein’s The Just City and David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City are current major steps in this direction. See also Peter Marcuse, James Connolly, Johannes Novy, Ingrid Olivo, Cuz Potter, Justin Steil, eds. 2009. Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

[5] Nancy Fraser has termed such reforms “transformative,” and I have used that term also from time to time. Susan Fainstein, in the opening chapter to her The Just City, has an insightful general discussion of a similar approach.

Blog #64 – Alas Poor Hamlet – a review

Alas Poor Hamlet…
All great art is susceptible to many interpretations. That’s certainly true of Hamlet. But a recent staging in New York City 1. goes rather far to undermine Shakespeare‘s own reading of the story and presentation of it in the play he actually wrote. In Shakespeare’s presentation, Hamlet is a deeply thoughtful individual, thoughtful perhaps to the point where action is paralyzed, but thoughtful about some of life’s great and real questions. Whether and if so then how, to avenge his father’s murder is the embodiment of his deepest philosophical and emotional concerns, and produces some of the most eloquent poetical language dealing with philosophical problems in the English language.
Let me call the New York presentation “Hamlet as Neurotic.” The fulcrum of the imaginative re-interpretation, perhaps unintended, comes from a simple change in the play: delete the ghost scene, in which Hamlet addresses his father’s ghost and is told that his death was murder and his uncle the murderer. Absent that knowledge, the motivation for Hamlet’s conduct becomes his mother’s too rapid remarriage after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet, unaware of the murder and its perpetrator, simply cannot deal with his mother’s conduct. Oedipus would understand; Freud could deal with it in one or two standard sessions on the couch. But Hamlet can’t get over it. He bemoans at childish length his mother’s unseemly speedy remarriage. Symbolically, an otherwise utterly irrelevant wedding cake, is never touched or even noticed by anyone in the cast, but hovers center rear stage throughout, presumably in the subconscious of the characters and the audience.
Pushing the reinterpretation – rewriting is perhaps the better word – Hamlet’s neurosis is acted out in modern dress. The men wear sports jackets, Hamlet is sloppily dressed, virtually in a t-shirt for much of the time, although always incongruously addressed as “My Lord” even by his closest friend, Horatio. The incongruity between the acting and the words, between the performance and the implications of the text, are constant. Hamlet is a balding teenager, petulant, verbose, undisciplined, impulsive simply unable to deal with his reactions to his parents’ behavior , shocked at his imaginings of their sexual behavior.
The setting is completely re-interpreted as well – not Elsinore Castle, but apparently a table in a white-cloth restaurant– in which the actors come and go quite unconcerned with where they are. Chairs are placed around the table, which is present throughout the play, and used primarily for the actors to lean on perhaps when their lines get to heavy for them to bear otherwise. On the other hand, the player’s great Hecuba speech is delivered by the player king sitting down on one of the chairs; when Hamlet later hectors the players on how to act, they all have to stand up.
Indeed, Hamlet is changed in the presentation from a sweet prince, and a deeply self-contemplative one, to a thoughtless balding young man displaying for all to see a neurotic relationship to his parents, spouting words at the top of his voice at a rapid pace without pause for breath, let alone thought, with a sense of humor up to making snide jokes showing off his wit but hardly with the corrosive impact revealing actualities below the surface, as the text would allow.
It just doesn’t work. One would expect Freud, not Fortinbras, to come in at the end to explain why those five corpses are lying there, and then clean the mess up. Shakespeare was dealing with great issues, public and private, of morality, religion, philosophy ambition, self-awareness, power. Modernizing the play to refocus its central issue from the relationship between thought and action to a focus on troubles with personal relationships within a family strips the play of its major, and still current, meaning. Reading the text after seeing the play shows how great the loss is.

The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.
1. The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.