Blog #110a – Cultural Wars and a new Tribalism?

Blog 110a – Cultural Wars and a New Tribalism?

The Times Op-Ed page (on 3/2/18­­) was marvelously symbolic. On the left side, David Brooks reduces all the frightening disagreements about where our country is going, the battles over gun control , trade and tariffs, armaments, nuclear weapons, into manifestations of a “cultural war”,: in which the conservatives “have zero cultural power , but immense political power.” The big prize is not gun control. It’s “winning the cultural war, with the gun fight as the final battle.” Several days earlier (Feb 20,), he had written, “We don’t have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict…,” and the answer is, “just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off.” How? “Respect First, Then Gun Control.” If the Blues and the Reds simply respected each other, they’d settle their problems easily. His recommendation: Blues should stop shaming Reds.  Politics is not about who get what from whom and how they get it, but about how the left stupidly engages in “elite cultural intimidation , claiming “moral superiority.”

On the other side of the Op-Ed page, counter-symbolically the right side, Paul Krugman’s column is headed: “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed.” It’s a straightforward contribution to a policy debate about the new tax law. It gives some facts about whom it will help, whom it will hurt, and how political and economic power are being wielded to achieve what those that possess it want, for their own benefit, at a cost to the middle class. Not a word about a “cultural wars.” It’s about who get what from whom and how they get it

And symbolically between these two column’s is Mat Glassman’s column, which explains the “larger problem” behind the White House Chaos,” blaming it on the weakness of Donald Trump as President to his inability to attract a competent staff to advise him.  It’s a management problem.

What the “culture wars” argument does, as does “lamenting the ‘roots of the problem’ in ‘management skills,’ ” is to completely side step the very real factual economic and social and political differences that divide the country. For cultural theorists, there’s no moral difference between advocating for teachers carrying guns in school and asking for a ban on assault rifles; no more weight to be given to logically grounded analysis of tax policies than to the hurt sensitivities of those that support them. Tranquility is what’s needed, above all; never mind who’s goring whose ox, whether some go homeless while others thrive in mansions using their labor. Such evenhandedness violates any effort to shape public policies that promote the values of social justice and human rights.

Indeed there are troublesome cultural differences that exacerbate the problems in our society, but the real issues aren’t differences of opinion or how they are expressed, but how the wealth that  society produces is shared. We don’t have “big tribal conflicts” because all of a sudden some “tribal instincts ” have emerged from some repressed deep identities, or because  we’ve suddenly decided to these instincts on, having turned them off all these years.  Focusing on the symptoms of conflicts shouldn’t obliterate recognition of their causes.

And it obliterates very specific causes: any reference to inequalities of wealth or power, or to their use in exploitation or domination, to create very hierarchical divisions not simply differences at the level of what the divisions are about, not “souls committed to the basic democratic norms–respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe,” up against other souls who believe “what matters is the survival of your nation and culture.” [David Brooks, “Worthy is The {Conor} Lamb,” New York Times, 3/17/p. A27] That something as mundane as class or race might be playing a role in the divisions that divide “us” never appears.


Blog 106 – “winning” tax reform


(Re: “The biggest winner in the tax code rewrite…” New York Times, December 6, 2017, p. 1 and A34)

Winning is for losers, in the case of tax reform, if principles or rationally defensible policy is the measure. Winning on tax reform is what you boast about when you’ve failed abysmally to produce anything of merit, and all you can claim is that you’ve defeated any alternative in a fight for something – whatever it is. You already have the support of the wealthy, who support you because your proposals are to their very material benefit; but you want to get the votes of a wider constituency.

With the outrageous process of drafting a bill that could at least be called “tax reform,” the Republicans have come up with a monster whose only virtue is that it cobbles together legislation that would garner one more vote over the bare minimum needed to pass something – anything whatsoever, anything, whatever its content, that could let the Party claim “victory,” and proclaim that they are “winners,” when in fact they have lost any claim to have accomplished anything worth doing.

Having failed to do anything that meets the meaning of the words “tax reform” in ordinary English, rather than admit failure, the Republicans are left with the hollow title of “winners” when in fact they have surrendered any objective that deserves use of the words. if you look at the content, not the form, of what they have actually accomplished, and judge by the standard of service to the common good, the Republicans are the real losers in the battle for true tax reform.

“Winning,” in fact, is a mischievous word. As Donald Trump or the Republicans or often some meila use it, it in fact means conquering, and “losers” are meant to surrender. But it can also mean being successful in a competition to solve a problem to achieve a noteworthy result, as in most sports competitions, where some do better than others, but one’s success does not negate what others have scored. Fair competition can leave the losers intact, to continue to strive; unfair competition, winner take all,  is aimed at eliminating “losers” entirely from the competition.

Blog #104 – – An Incomplete but Useful Inconvenient Sequel

Blog #104 – An Incomplete but Useful Inconvenient Sequel

Al Gore’s continuation of his An Inconvenient Truth is an important contribution to the effort to combat global warming and pay attention to what is and what is not being done to the natural environment by largely unregulated economic development. It is a bit too long, a bit too much Al Gore, but on the whole a striking antidote to climate change denial.

But it has unfortunate weaknesses.

It stresses the human contribution to climate change, but leaves it simply at showing there is such a contribution, and lamenting it. Yet this is perhaps the strongest argument that the deniers raise: admitting there is climate change, but arguing that the human contribution is a minor factor in producing it. Yet at the end there is the admission that, even in the best realistically possible set of public policies, there will be climate change, it can be slowed down but not stopped. That cries out for some facts and figures on the proportional contribution possible from better public and private policies, and leaves open what can be done about the residue that is apparently admitted to be inevitable, regardless of human counter-measures. Even if exactitude is not within reach, at least some orders of magnitude, some reasonable estimates with their biases, would be very helpful.

Even more important, it is woefully inadequate on the political and economic forces that affect public action on that human input. The implicit if hidden analysis is that what is needed is greater understanding of cause and effect, more public education, evidence more convincingly presented of the evils of present policies, and then state actions, appropriate public policies, will follow as the day follows the night. It is, in this way strangely non-political, no doubt to avoid being accused of being “politically motivated.”

But there is a difference between partisan party politics and fundamental recognition of the political/public policy determinants of public decisions. Trump is barely mentioned at the very end, and then simply by showing his name and citing briefly his skepticism. There is little discussion of who benefits and who suffers from the reluctance to confront climate change: only passing reference to oil company profit and power, to the role of lobbying in making the relevant decisions, to the Koch brothers or Citizens United or official scare-mongering about government take-over of private personal choices. It’s not that Gore is ignorant of or unconcerned about all this; it’s that the overwhelming weight of his argument is on understanding, convincing, educating.

The implication is there, if not intended, but insidious: reason will prevail when it is clearly presented. And the clear presentation of reason is surely an important contribution to putting its results into effect. And even the mas protest that Gore properly sees as necessary for change need to be informed by reason in what they do, what they demand, what the protest, what they see as required for change. But, when all I said and done, there are major forces, both economic and political, that are threatened by climate control measures and that profit from activities resulting in climate -changing consequences, that oppose change for very concrete, profit-connected and power-connected reasons. They need to be called out more sharply.

Gore recognizes this, but touches on it only gingerly. We need to confront the realities of power in public decision-making, and the importance of ideologies in undergirding inequalities. If we have to wait till Al Gore convinces Donald Trump “to come to his senses,” we face a bleak future.

The Sequel is sub-titled “Truth to Power.” It needs a second Sequel: “The Truth OF Power.”


Al Gore on paths to climate change.

“…the pathway to solving the climate crisis is through the building of a massive grassroots army of men and women who will go out there and win the conversation on climate, and persuade businesses, and universities, and towns to switch to renewable energy and to reduce emissions. We’re gonna win this regardless.”
LEE COWAN: When you met with the president-elect at Trump Tower — and I know you don’t want to go into the specifics of the meeting — did you find him receptive, Mr. Trump, to your argument?
AL GORE: I found him attentive, and you can misinterpret that for being receptive. And I think he’s probably pretty good at that as a businessman. But yes, I did think that there was a real chance that he would come to his senses on this.


Blog # 83 – Housing Approaches in New York City: 5 Points in a Long View.

Housing Approaches in New York City: 5 Points in a Long View:[1]

The five points, in brief:

  1. Democratic government has to be big government

Because of the size and hostility of big business

  1. Privacy has two meanings. One meaning is “personal,” private as opposed to “open.”

It should be respected both by government and business.

  1. The other meaning is “private” as opposed to “public.”

Private in that usage means profit-motivated on behalf of individual beneficiaries.

It should give way to the public   sector in housing policy.

  1. “Public –private partnerships” are a hoax.

They are a partnership like that between a gladiator and a tiger in a Roma circus,           or between a hungry lion and a lamb in the wild.

  1. The current housing system is deeply flawed.

It distributes housing based on wealth, not on need, and requires strategic  change, perhaps sectorally focused, but with a vision for the whole.

The five points, in detail:

  1. Democratic government has to be big government[2]

Because of the size and hostility of big business

In the election campaign, there’s a fear of saying that on both sides. Even Sanders seems to accept the idea that government sold be as limited as possible, only where necessary to remedy failures of the private sector.

But the economy is by nature private, private is more efficient, private is the default way of providing goods and services, socially necessary good and services and luxury goods and services.

In the case of housing, private means the real estate industry, the complex  of land and building  ownership; public means public housing, which can include housing owned publicly by decentralized in management to its occupants.

  1. Privacy has two meanings. One meaning is “personal,” private as opposed to open.

It should be respected both by government and by business.

Privacy is a requirement for human dignity and individual freedom: areas of life in which each individual may decide for him or herself what kind of life to lead, what kind of relationships to have, what kind of priorities to pursue.

In the case of housing, a person home, in that sense, is his or her castle, personal, inviolate, private in the sense that most people understand home ownership [3]. In multi-family housing, coops, etc., it means full resident participation and decision-making in building matters.

  1. The other meaning is “private” as opposed to “public.”

“Private” in that usage means profit-motivated on behalf of individual or  non-resident corporate beneficiaries.

In the case of housing, that means it should give way to the public sector in housing policy. If the goal of public policy in a democracy is the general welfare distributing essential goods and services should be on the basis of need, not on the basis of ability to pay.

There should be a right to housing, as a human right.

  1. “Public –private partnerships” are a hoax.

They are a partnership like one between a gladiator and a tiger in a circus, or between a gladiator and a tiger in a Roman circus, or between a hungry lion and a lamb in the wild.

In such a partnership, it is in the private interest to reduce the number and quality of any benefits to workers (to residents, in the case of housing) to the minimum, and increase the costs that government will pay to the maximum. The interest of government is to increase the benefits to the occupants to a reasonable maximum, and to do it by lowering the costs it must cover to provide profits to the private partner to the minimum.

It is a permanent conflict of interest between the partners, where most benefits to one is a cost to the other. (Pure efficiency savings are an exception but are rare; each side will be striving for efficiency in what it does regardless of partnership or not.)

Legally, in a partner, each partner is personally liable for all the debts of the partnership. Hardly the case with public-private “partnerships.” Public-private partnerships are functionally essentially a cowardly way of not raising taxes for a necessary and publicly desired approved purpose.

  1. The current housing system is deeply flawed.

It distributes housing based on wealth, not on need, and requires strategic change, perhaps sectorally focused, but with a vision for the whole.

The housing system as a whole is today distributed on the basis of wealth, not of need, based on its exchange value as a commodity, not as a use value and necessity of life. It benefits the rich much more than the poor, the 1% more than the 99%.

It requires  radical change, including change in the capitalist system of which it is apart,  but only incremental change is politically possible today politically in New York City or on the necessary national level; the power of the real estate industry and the profitability of land speculation are too great. Incremental change needs to be pursued, perhaps best on a sectoral level.[4]

Brad Lander’s efforts on the City Council of New York may be close to the outer limits of what is politically feasible today. Such change should be part of a broader vision of what is fundamentally necessary desired.

If this leads to a pretty basic criticism of the capitalist   system under which we are working today, so be it. Listen to the pronouncement of one hardly vulnerable to being accused of being a socialist. Might it, or an equivalent statement of a general principle, serve as the preamble to any serous proposals even for modest reform?

“”the machinery of the current globalized economy [constitutes] …a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. [where] the limited interests of businesses [and] a questionable economic mindset [take precedence,] an instrumental logic that holds the maximization of profits as its only objective….the principle of the maximization of profits…. reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of the economy.” It results from a “global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effect on human dignity and the natural environment. [5]



[1] Expanded from and influenced by a panel discussion on “privatize!” atthe exhibit If You Can’t Afford to Live Here, Mo-o-ve!, in New York City on June  23, 2016.

[2] An expansion of this point will be found at, Blog #84: Big Business Requires Big Government, Contra Republicans and..

[3] For a discussion of legal aspects, see Peter Marcuse, “Homeownership for Low Income Families,” Land Economics, May 1972.

[4] Blog #60, Towards a Housing Strategy for New York, at, although from 2014, might also be of interest.

[5] Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis, May 24, 2015.


Blog #82 – Is “Radical – Islam” all Islam? A Grammatical Confusion Is Made Political

Blog #82 – Is “Radical – Islam” all Islam? A Grammatical Confusion Is Made Political

The trouble with Donald Trump’s use of the two words “radical” and “Islam” together is that he means them as a single noun: Radical-Islam. Not as an adjective describing one part of Islam, to differentiate it from another part, moderate Islam, or egalitarian Islam, etc. Two quite different meanings,and quite different political implications.

.When one acknowledges, “’Muscular weight-lifters’ make poor models for clothing fashions. You rarely see ‘weight-lifters’ in ads,” one recognizes that it’s not because ad agencies are looking for non-muscular weight-lifters, but because they assume all weightlifters are muscular. “Muscular weightlifters” in the sentence is simply an expanded word for “weightlifters,” not a subcategory of the group of weight-lifters. When one says “’dark-skinned Africans’ frighten Europeans because of the color of their skins,” and adds: “They shouldn’t; ‘Africans’ commit no more crimes than Europeans,” you’re implicitly assuming all Africans are dark-skinned. If someone writes: “God –fearing Christians and God –fearing Islam abhor violence; unlike God-denying  atheism ; Christianity and Islam are both  like  other mono-theistic religions in that regard,” the reference isn’t  to a sub-category of Christianity or Islam, but a uniform characteristic of each of them. But “American Christians are prone to violence” implies the opposite: non-American Christians also exist, and are not prone to violence.

So when Donald Trump says, “radical Islam is a violent religion and must be fought tooth and nail as the radical thing it is,” he means, and the language implies, all Islam is radical. If Obama says “radical Islam is antithetical to key pacifist currents in Islam,” he means, and the language implies, there is a non-radical Islam that is not prone to violence.

So when Donald Trump complains that Obama doesn’t  use “radical Islam,” it’s because Trump sees all Islam as radical; for  him,” radical Islam” refers to the same single object, Islam; all Islam is radical, in Trumps’ view. If Obama were to say “Radical Islam” indeed can be violent, but he would be intending to differentiate the Islam that is radical from the Islam that is neither. Trump is tarring all Islam with one stroke; Obama is describing a part of a complex reality.

Perhaps a knowledgeable grammarian could identify the two different formulations formally. Grammarians are knowledgeable about such things. (All of them? Or only the knowledgeable ones? Or are all grammarians assumed to be knowledgeable?)


Blog # 65 – The Scammification of Good Ideas

Progressive Planning and the Scammification of Good Intentions:
13 endangered ideas in urban affairs

“Watch what you say,” and particularly how you say it, if you want to make sure your meaning is clear. The language of urban planning and policy is full of treacherous terms, terms that are sometimes deliberately used to suggest a meaning the opposite of what their speakers actually intend — in short, language scams. A language scam is one that uses a term, a goal, a proposal, generally given a favorable democratic and social-justice- oriented term to cover over or even to justify actions that in reality produce injustice and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. In other words, to turn a good idea into a scam.
Listed below are some language scams in current use, often innocently, sometimes not. They include:
1. Affordable
2. Diversity
3. Exclusion/Inclusion
4. Discriminnation
5. Community Control
6. Participation
7. Participatory Budgeting
8. Infrastructure
9. Investment
10. Community Economic Development
11. Density
12. Community Land Trusts
13. Ethics

1. “Affordable.” Mayor de Blasio’s current housing proposal is intended to provide housing for low and moderate income households unable to afford market rate housing because of limited means. As used in his proposals for inclusionary housing, a certain percentage (more on this below) of new market-rate housing should be subjected to a requirement of setting aside for “affordable” units. But to count as affordable a household earning up to 130% of the area median income in New York City is. That means folks earning up to $$110,000 a year are considered low and moderate. That means able to pay up to $2,700 a month in rent. That is virtually identical with what the market would produce without the inclusionary requirement, In other words, it purports to help people needing help, but does so at trivial cost to the developers of market rate and luxury housing. That use of “affordable” is a scam. If the intent is to help those really needing he help, it might be better called “housing for low and lower income households ,”often taken to mean below 30% for the former, below 60% for the later, and based at local, not metropolitan, income levels.

2. “Diversity.” Most people would consider diversity to be a good thing in housing: having people of different races, religions, genders, family composition, living together. Indeed, even Federal legislation, in the use, establishes “protected classes” against whom discrimination in housing is prohibited. The intent is presumably to expand the range of opportunities for those with limited options because they are the subjects of actual or potential discrimination. But taken literally , it can either mean the greater inclusion of, say, African-Americans or Hispanics or immigrants in conventional private housing of the better off, or the entry of the better off within the dominant groups into the housing of those protected groups: specifically, gentrification to provide “diversity” by displacing them in favor of the richer. Ringing poorer folk into richer neighborhoods is good diversity; bringing richer folk into poorer neighborhoods, without more, is bad diversity. And that “more” means making their accommodation feasible and productive for the newcomers, promoting interaction. (See Exclusion/Inclusion” below).

3. “Exclusion/Inclusion.” Exclusionary practices are almost universally condemned, at least in theory. Opening up all-white suburbs to black occupancy has long been a goal of progressive planning. Its purpose is seen as expanding he opportunities of those opportunities otherwise limited. But affirmative policies to expand such opportunities produces opposition from those ending with reduced opportunities by being placed lower on the waiting list for a given unit. The goal is fairer inclusion of those otherwise denied opportunities. That’s simply the nature of the beast: for every inclusion of one there is necessarily some impact on the possibility of including another. Where the possibilities are limited, an exclusion of another. The point is whom the particular policy helps and whom it hurts; does it promote fairness or reinforce injustice. A policy that limits the displacement associated with gentrification to some extent excludes some who would like to gentrify.
Further, “Inclusion” can simply mean the being together in some larger scale of housing, say a building or a neighborhood, at the same time, often judged simply by a count of how many of this kind are in that unit of measurement compared to how many of the others, i.e. is it 10% to 90% white or 30% black to 70% white. But simple occupancy statistics do not reflect the success or failure of the effort to produce inclusion. Indeed some who would otherwise not such good housing do get something better than they would otherwise have. But that result by itself might be even better obtained, and at less cost, elsewhere, without being “included.” Quantitative inclusion, inclusion measured simply by the count and location of households is not desired result of inclusion—integration, contact, communication, mutual learning and mutual respect, enrichment of experience, greater knowledge of the world, is what is wanted. Perhaps “interactive inclusion” and “oppressive exclusion” would be more useful formulations.
4. “Discrimination.” Chief Justice Roberts of the United States Supreme Court has said, in condemning affirmative action to overcome discrimination based on race: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” meaning stop taking race into account in considering any actions. Catchy the statement may be, but it’s obvious nonsense. How can you tell if someone or some policies discriminates on the basis of race if you don’t look at the race of those affected? If taking race into account to end discriminating on the basis of race, so be it: it’s using attention to race to prevent discrimination, not to practice it. If in individual cases the facts also operate to deprive a member of a discriminating group, from benefiting from membership in that group , whether that result is intended or not, is consistent with most concepts of justice, and is an inevitable result of the existence of discrimination in the society at large

5. “Community Control.” The principle of community control” is widely , and properly, considered a core principle of progressive planning It has been developed as a form of planning, community-based planning,” and is logically being pushed as a reaction to police oppression in minority communities in the form of community control of the police. There is no doubt of the intent here, but its application in practice is potentially treacherous. Giving racist and exclusionary communities control of planning promotes oppressive exclusion; giving a white racist community control of police in its community would promote, not restrain, oppressive policing. Calling what is desired “equitable community control,” or “community control in disempowered communities” might be an alternative. In the 60’s, “people’s control” might have worked, or “populist community control.” The important point is that there needs to be equity-oriented discrimination either in what communities are given enhanced control or in centrally established and binding standards for what action at the community level are permitted and which are not, coupled with requirements of participation (see below) and transparency and democratic representation in the involved communities, would be part of a progressives interpretation of community control.

6. “Participation.” Participation is a core concept in democratic governance, a front burner issue since at least Paul Davidoff and the early 1960’s. But what participation accomplishes depends very much on who is participating, for what, and with what effect. The implicit assumption is that many even in presumably democratic societies are in fact excluded from participating, and if the excluded were allowed in, the results would be better and more equitable. But the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Communities United case allowing unlimited money contributions political issues can also be termed, as indeed it as by the Court, a move to expand the rights of participation, by the poor very rich who shouldn’t be prevented from participating to the full extent of their ability. But their fuller participation in fact reduces the meaning of the participation of the large majority of the non-rich. The slogan of “participation” is intended to bring those non-rich more fully into the political process. In that use, it is and should be a politically loaded term, and speaking of “democratic participation,” with the adjective emphasized, is perhaps a better language to convey its progressive meaning.

7. “Participatory Budgeting.” Participatory budgeting is a front-burner demand in a growing number of communities, and is aimed at allowing expanded democratic participation into a part of government that has decisive impact on what government does but is usually substantially removed from detailed influence by the many affected by it. In New York City each City Council member is entitled to direct the expenditure of a limited amount of of the city’s budget to purposes of his or her choice, with almost unlimited discretion as to how this is done. Co-ordinated organizing efforts succeeded in involving hundreds of residents in community meetings where real alternatives were discussed and real decisions made. In the larger order of things, the results were very small, yet they were positive examples of how democracy is supposed to work. But it took major efforts to achieve those results, and if they end up giving the illusion that democracy has triumphed and control over the city’s budget has shifted, the result can be less, rather than more vigorous, participation where it counts more. Again, speaking always of democratic participatory budgeting, and constantly pressing for its expansion to a larger and larger scope, can help preserve the good intentions of the movement.

8. “Infrastructure.” Investment in infrastructure is often put forward as an unquestionable good: it promotes economic development, provides jobs, should protect the environment, is non-political. But in fact it is very political; it promotes certain types of economic development, does nothing for others – helps real estate development, by-passes issues of education or criminal justice, by-passes and excludes other needs. It is community economic development, but for some communities much more than for others.

9. “Investment.” As with infrastructure, investment is generally considered in principle a good thing, and non-political, but, as with infrastructure , both public and private investment have very clear distributional results, helping some, often at the expense of others , as when investment in automation brings lay-offs and unemployment. Without equity-oriented cost-benefit analysis, socially-oriented investment cannot be differentiated from mere profit-enhancing investment, and the difference can be great.

10. “Community Economic Development.” Without clear definitions as to what is meant – generally, development assistance to those with restricted opportunities living in poor communities, the phrase can equally well be used to justify development activities that simply increase the value of real estate in a community, result in gentrification and displacement of resident,, profits for a few (bringing up average incomes, but not medians – watch out! – and is much more and very differently desirable in some communities than in others. Equitable community economic development might clarify the intent.

11. “Density.” In New York City, at least “density” is a term very much in vogue. Increased density is presented as a good planning response to desirable population growth, and indeed it can serve that purpose. But increasing density can also mean encouraging high-rise luxury condominiums and towers for the financial industry, on the one hand, and over-crowding in squalid housing for many others. Mumbai, in India, for instance, is a graphic example of producing both at once. In New York City, the support of the Real Estate Board for proposals to encourage density suggests who the expected beneficiaries are likely to be. Discussing “density” without discussing its racial and class implications , produced a very one-sided content for the term

12. “Community Land Trusts.” Community land trusts provide a legal form of land ownership that removes the ownership of land from the speculative market and provides residents opportunities for reduced housing costs and increased input into the management of their housing and strengthened integration with their communities through a democratic composition of their trustee boards to include neighbors as well as residents, with very desirable results. But they do not provide a solution to the big problems confronting a growing segment of the entire population, which have to do with unaffordable costs, many of which are incurred in a private market system in which the ownership of land itself is only one component of the profit potential the housing system opens up, in which the costs of financing, for instance, lay an ever increasing role. And community land trusts can be, and were often historically, used to exclude, by giving existing occupants control over in-movers, as well as to broaden democratic. If community land trusts are seen as the solution to the problems of housing the majority face, they can be diversionary rather than exemplary . They are one good alternative form of tenure within the larger housing system, but not a remedy for all its ills. They require different considerations for different types of communities, which may run from inclusionary to exclusionary, poor to rich, integrated to homogeneous. And their relationship to economic development poses other challenges; for instance, for manufacturing areas, what does “community” mean? Community land trusts are a tool, not themselves a goal, unless they are first steps in a campaign to decommodify land as such.

13. “Ethics.” No one would argue that ethical behavior is undesirable, or that corruption is a good way of doing things. But ethics is the term for a course of individual conduct, not the characteristic of a system a social order, an institutional arrangement, a distributional goal. In planning, the requirement that planners act ethically has been interpreted by its professional association in its Code of Ethics, thus far at least, as imposing enforceable obligations of transparency, allegiance to client’ interests and avoidance of conflicts of interest, technical competence, honesty in representations made to others. Ethics, as thus viewed, does not address issues of social justice, equity in results, desirable distributional impacts of planning decisions; those are at best considered in the Code as aspirations of the profession, their consideration not enforceable mandates. Without considering justice at least one substantive and enforceable criterion goal of all professional activity, speaking of ethics of planning addresses only issues of how things are done, not what is done, and misrepresents the standards by which good planning should be judged.

So all of the above terms are, as generally understood, rife with the values of social justice, equality, and democracy, but all are in danger of scammification, or perversion to achieve the opposite of what most take to be their intent .If progressive planning, is to Expose, Propose, and Politicize, the necessity to expose the ambiguity of such terms becomes a critical starting point—not to accept them as having an obvious and universally understood meaning, but rather to dig into them see what their real content is. Without clarifying their meaning when they are used they become hollow words, hollow concepts, and the danger of Scammification is great.

Progressive planning means practical radical planning that goes to the roots of problems as well as ameliorating their immediate undesired aspects. Therefore exposing what these terms, this language, actually means in any given situation, their potentials and their darker side, is an important and indeed unavoidable constant task for progressive planners. And it is not always an easy thing to do; the line between a well-intended but inadequately thought-through use of these terms and a scam is a sometimes a hard line to draw, but it has to be done.

Good planning, in our time, is still a very vulnerable baby, and its surroundings are full of hot air and very hot water. Scamification can scald it. Progressive planning can help protect it.


Blog #60 Toward a Housing Strategy for New York 1

Notes Towards a Housing Strategy for New York City

That there Is a housing crisis in New York City for the majority of its residents, and particularly severe for lower income and “discriminated-against minority groups,” hardly requires further documentation.[1] And there is an emerging consensus amongst housing advocacy groups and community-based and progressive political groups that strong measures, from administrative changes to even radical legislation, are needed to remedy the situation. It may be useful to try to put together what a comprehensive agenda for legal, political, and administrative change might look like, on whose substance common agreement might be developed. And the language with which we discuss urban issues needs to be looked at carefully, for the implicit bias much of it contains.

A. sets forth the premises of the strategy.
B. lists some of the concrete programs that might be foregrounded as demands.
C. lists some of the words that are often mischievously used in housing discussions.

A. The strategy accepts the following premises:

1. That there is indeed a crisis in housing, that it inequitably negatively affects particularly low-income and discriminated-against minority groups and inequitably favors higher income groups and profit-motivated suppliers of housing in the housing industry.
2. That the market, given the gross and inequitable inequalities of income reflects these inequalities, and cannot be expected to be a tool to end this crisis; its natural tendency is indeed to exacerbate it, and it requires radical control from government to act otherwise.
3. That community-based decision-making, accepting broadly-defined principles of justice, non-discrimination, and participation, is an essential element in developing a housing system that is equitable and free of crisis.
4. That, while some reforms may meet general approval and be win-win measures, any serious attempt to resolve the housing crisis will involve sharp conflicts of real interests, both material and ideological, and full consensus of serious reform is not to be expect. Rather, conflicts, in which grass-roots organizations and social movements need to play a critical role, are inevitable, and must be anticipated and planned for.
5. That the very words used in debates about housing policy can operate to vitiate meaningful research and be used as tools to influence the outcomes of conflicts over policy.

B. In outline, then, the measures that together might implement a serous strategy [3] addressing the housing crisis might include [2]:

2. Adopting public policies that predictably serve to reduce discrimination, reinforce equity, and help end the housing crisis, including :

a. Ending upmarket rezoning, which produces displacement, discriminates against the interests of those most in need of housing, and produces exclusionary communities.
b. Participatory budgeting, allocating significant sums for housing programs expanding options for affordable housing.[4]
c. Reinterpreting ULURP to required 4/5 majority of City Planning Commission and city Council votes to override a CB vote, thus reversing an opinion of the Planning commission’s counsel that the Charter Revision creating the Community Boards did not give their votes any legal force or effect. [5]
d. Revising City procedures for the handling of properties whose future use is within its power to influence, to give priority to uses expanding housing opportunities for lower-income households and development, to promote ownership and/or management by non-profits in the form of non-profit coops or condos or community land trusts or mutual housing associations community-based non-profit non-governmental organizations.
e. Amending the real estate tax system to serve social policy purposes as well as raise revenue, by increasing taxes for underused and speculatively-held vacant properties, imposing a speculation tax on the profit from rapid turnover of properties acquired for resale.
f. Requiring a registry of residential properties (lots, buildings, units) held vacant for over 3 months and imposing significant fees for late registration or failure to register, steeply increase with time, and authorizing filing of a lien.
g. Rent control, with limits pegged at the lower of tenant affordability and landlord break-even in the aggregate. Eliminating vacancy decontrol.
h. Public housing support and new construction, with continuing occupancy at proportionately increased rent if income increases over limits for entry.
i. Minimum wage and pro-labor organizing measures, with the understanding that they ameliorate the housing crisis, but do not establish an equitable housing system, and are ineffective unless coupled with rent and price controls. (Likewise, health insurance, unemployment compensation, and parallel measures).

C. In research and advocacy, avoiding language that cloaks serious issues or act as euphemisms for actions that would be recognized as undesirable if properly named.[6] Such terms, which often reflect implicit but heavily
Ideologically biased concepts, include:

a. Density, when put forward as if increasing density is per se a suitable goal for a housing policy, or as a simple way to produce affordable housing
b. Affordable housing, when used without recognizing that the definition of what is affordable must take into account that the need for housing becomes greater as incomes decline.
c. Market, when only the private profit-driven market in meant, rather than a system of shaping the distribution of goods and serves, and of public policies, to reflect varying individual and social preferences.
d. Up-zoning, rather than upmarket zoning
e. Wealth creation, if seen as a goal of housing policy for home owners, treating housing, not as a necessity of life valued for its use, but rather as a commodity invested in for it the profit to be derived from it
f. Government intervention, if suggesting there is a “natural” private housing system not fully dependent from the outset on governmental action.
g. Diversity, if used to encourage introduction of higher income or higher status households into lower income communities or communities of color.
h. Color blindness, if used to preclude examination of patterns that my reflect discrimination on the basis of color.
i. Environmentally Sustainable, when excluding the consideration of the social environment.
j. Displacement, when limited to the immediate eviction of households, excluding 1) precautionary or “voluntary” displacement undertaken ahead of but because of the immanence of rising unaffordable rents/costs or foreclosure actions, excluding 2) secondary displacement resulting from price changes in areas outside the immediate area of a given change but required because of it, and excluding 3) excluding prospective displacement, the prevention of households moving into -moving into a neighborhood desired by and otherwise affordable for them because of rising prices. [7]
k. Gentrification, when used as synonymous with neighborhood improvement, rather than its accurate definition as in-movement of higher income households into a neighborhood displacing lower-income households.
l. Integration, desegregation, mixed income, when used to support-movement of a white non-Hispanic population into a community displacing lower income and/or minority households. [8]
m. Growth, when used as a self-evident goal of public policy per se, neglecting what is to be grown and for whom, the relation between the various forms and directions of growth and social justice .
n. Competitiveness, when used as a desirable goal of city policy per se, neglecting questions of the net social desirability of aiding the competitive position of a given city against other cities in terms of the impact on social justice and the differential impact of economic competiveness on different economic and ethnic and racial goops.
o. City, as in ”the city,” when used to suggest that the city is an organic entity in which a benefit to any one part is a benefit to all, avoiding acknowledgement of the multiple conflicting interests in the city and the recognition that benefits for some, most frequently the upper income and elite, is likely to be at the expense of others, most likely the poor and minorities, e.g. wage levels.
p. Filtering, the assumption, contrary to fact, that benefits at the top of the income social, ethnic and racial ladder will filter down and benefit those below as well. As their higher-income residents move in, the tendency is rather to displace than to benefit lower-income ones. [9]
q. Transformative, unless used to separate radical from reformist proposals or policies. [10]

1. See, for instance, the several excellent studies of the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, the trenchant studies of many
3.For the distinctions between reformist and transformative proposals, see, “Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas”
4. See Marcuse, Peter. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting–Expansion.” In City Limits web site,
5. A vote of the City Council, or even a new Charter Revision may be necessary for this purpose, and might expand the Board’s access to information and revise Board procedures improving the availability of technical assistance outside of city government if needed.
6. Marcuse, Peter, 2006. Expert Report, In Mhany Management Inc., And New York Communities For Change Vs. Incorporated Village Of Garden City and Garden City Board Of Trustees, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Case 2:05-cv-02301-ADS-WDW Document 413 Filed 12/06/13 Page 1 of 65 PageID #: 10601, cited at page 41.
7.For a fuller discussion, see Marcuse, Peter, “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 28, 1985, reprinted in revised form as “Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in Nw York City” in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, eds., Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986, pp. 153-177, and in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, eds. The Gentrification Reader, 2010, London, Routledge, pp. 333-348.
8.As a sample of the mischievous use of the term: a chair of the New York City Planning commission argued: “gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth.. “ “Improvement of neighborhoods – some people call it gentrification – provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said.
9. Leo Goldberg’s draft for his research spells this out.
10. See, Blog #11, Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims.