The Discriminatory Roots of Odd-Year Elections


Nationwide the 2015 election had the lowest voter turnout the country has seen in 72 years, 36%.  Countless state, county, city, and school races across the US went scarcely noticed by voters.  San Francisco held a hugely controversial election that many commentators said was a battle for the city’s soul, with millions of dollars spent on ballot initiatives aimed at the city’s spiraling housing costs and rapid gentrification.  Yet only 41% of registered voters cast ballots.  Closer to my home, the city of Santa Barbara held a historic election, its first since switching to city council districts, which promised the potential to shake up City Hall, yet voter turnout was 38%.

Why Odd-Year Elections Keep People From Voting

Local governments that choose to hold their elections in odd-numbered years typically see far lower voter turnout, often dropping by half, and the voters that cast ballots are overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than those who participate in general elections.

Imagine a working immigrant mother who recently became a US citizen.  She’s excited to vote, but has never done it before.  After working long hours cleaning houses, picking her kids up from childcare, cooking them dinner and washing the dishes, she realizes it’s election day and the polls close in an hour.  The local city council elections haven’t really been covered on TV, which focuses mostly on national news, and are rarely mentioned in the weekly local Spanish newspaper.  The candidates don’t bother knocking on doors in her apartment complex, where few residents are eligible or registered to vote, and even fewer turn out during odd-year elections.  She doesn’t know who is running for city council, what they stand for, or what issues are being debated.  With time running out before the polling booths close, she decides she’ll wait to vote next year, when she can cast her ballot for the president.

The gap between voter turnout in national elections and odd-year local elections has widened over the years, with a few potential causes:

  • Demographic change means there are more voters like the woman mentioned above, young people or immigrants who are new to voting and have less access to information about local politics.
  • Americans are working longer hours, which means they feel more and more strained for time to follow local politics, research issues, and vote.
  • As campaigns have become longer and more expensive, people living in cities or states where an election takes place every year feel overwhelmed and fatigued by trying to research and sort through information in seemingly endless election seasons.
  • Local newspapers and TV stations have declined, gone bankrupt, and laid off investigative journalists, while national cable news like Fox News and national online news sites like the Huffington Post have boomed, leaving voters with scarce access to information about local issues.

The problem with odd-year elections made national headlines after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where off-cycle elections are one of the primary reasons why the city government so starkly lacked representation from the majority black community.

The Anti-Irish History of Odd-Year Elections

But why do these off-cycle elections even exist?  What reason does a city have to hold an election separate from the state and national elections?  Why spend extra taxpayer dollars to run a separate election when it clearly leads to lower voter turnout?

The answer lies in history.  Off-cycle elections are mostly credited to Progressive Era reformers in the late 1800’s who saw them as a way to fight corruption in big cities.  But they were also a favorite policy of anti-immigrant political groups who blamed rapidly growing populations of Irish and other immigrants for using urban political machines to get jobs and services for their communities.

Sarah Anzia is probably the leading academic scholar studying odd-year elections.  While much of the attention on her work has focused on her suggestion that public employee unions are one of the major factors keeping municipal elections in odd years, I think something much more interesting is buried in her earlier examination of the history of odd-year elections.  Their original intent was primarily to break the backs of Irish political organizations in big cities.

Anzia found that by the 1890’s, when Progressive Era reformers took up the cause of off-cycle elections for cities, there had already been a long history of politicians changing the dates of city elections to manipulate outcomes.  There is no thorough national record of this history, but it can be dug up in case studies of individual cities.  Off-cycle elections emerged during the mid-1800’s through what Anzia refers to as “partisan power plays”, political parties jockeying to change the rules of the game to help them win.  Specifically in cities like New York and San Francisco, it was a result of an alliance between anti-corruption reform parties and nativist anti-immigrant parties who found a common enemy in the Democratic Party, which in many big cities had become dominated by a well-organized urban Irish voter turnout machine.

An Alliance Between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Corruption Activists

For many reformers in the 1800’s, Irish and corruption were synonymous.  The era was the height of a wave of immigration to the rapidly industrializing US from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe.  Immigrants lived in extreme poverty, worked under highly exploitative conditions, and received little assistance or rights from the government.  More than any other group, the Irish built political power in the US’s biggest cities in response to the intense racism Irish immigrants met when they arrived.  Tammany Hall and other Irish-dominated political organizations ensured immigrant communities access to basic services, jobs and emergency assistance, built infrastructure and charities, and were rewarded by a loyal bloc of voters.  Yet they also became a symbol of corruption, rewarding their supporters with government jobs and giving bribes to get what they wanted, especially under New York’s notorious Boss Tweed.

Of course history is written by the victors, and the late 1800’s political battles between middle-class Protestant whites of English descent and the working poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants are simplistically depicted as the good reformers versus the corrupt mobsters.  There was corruption in the urban immigrant political machines no doubt.  But poor people and immigrants voted for them because they provided basic infrastructure and human services in their neighborhoods and defended their rights, as opposed to the intensely racist treatment they got from parties like the Whigs or the Know Nothings.  As we make policy today, we should examine this history with a critical eye to separate real anti-corruption efforts like civil service reform from shameless attempts to break Irish political power like odd-year elections.

The reform movements of the late 1800’s certainly had their discriminatory undertones, walking the fine line between hating corrupt Irish political machines and hating Irish people.  Legendary reformer cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work is shown in this post, is credited in history textbooks with taking down notorious Boss Tweed but often depicted Irish people as drunken violent monkey-like creatures who had taken over the country.  The movement’s belief in rational scientific progress flirted at times with eugenics, the idea that keeping the poor and uneducated from breeding would further the human race.  And the push for alcohol prohibition was often tied to the idea that Irish, Russians and other urban immigrant groups were drunks who were ruining the moral fiber of American society.

San Francisco and New York

But in the case of off-cycle elections, the switch was often won through a direct alliance between anti-corruption reformers and anti-immigrant bigots.  In 1850’s New York, the racist nativist Know Nothing party allied with the Whigs (precursors to Republicans) in the state legislature to separate New York’s city election away from the state and national elections.  Voter turnout for city elections plunged, especially for Democrats, who depended on working-class immigrant voters who failed to turn out in off-cycle elections.

Irish who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush brought Tammany Hall-style political organization to the West Coast in the 1850’s.  The People’s Party, a local San Francisco party that drew its support from both the financial elite and anti-Irish nativists, was born in response.  During their decade of control of San Francisco, the People’s Party led a successful push to switch San Francisco to off-cycle elections by allying with Republicans in the state legislature to change the city’s charter.

These cities set the precedent for a trend that swept the country decades later.  Today, our cities are facing low voter turnout and unequal representation because of a policy rooted in anti-Irish racism.  There is no evidence now that cities with even-year elections have any more corruption than those with odd-years.  But the much greater threat facing our democracy, the power of unlimited corporate money, is made much more powerful in low turnout off-years, when voters are disengaged and tuned out, and it’s easy to buy an election.

Today’s defenders of odd-year elections say that if local elections are moved to even-years that local issues will be drowned out by national politics.  They say that the small turnouts for odd-year elections are actually a good thing—that a small group of citizens who are well-informed and pay attention to local issues are the ones who should make the decisions.

But is it possible that the “uninformed” voter has something meaningful to contribute to their community?  That a young person or low-wage worker who rides the bus every day might actually have a better perspective on the city’s public transit system than a member of the Chamber of Commerce who has seen a presentation by a city official on the subject?  That an undocumented immigrant or young black person may not go to the same dinner parties as city councilmembers and school board trustees, but they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of city police that the members of the Rotary Club have no idea about?  That while some people’s definition of local issues are limited to parking and potholes, the family who just got evicted because they can’t afford rent might consider raising the city’s minimum wage to be an important local issue?

Odd-year elections are driven by a fear of the people that tears against the fabric of our democracy.  It’s a fear that the people are too stupid to govern themselves.  Although it might be couched in more polite language today, it’s the same fear of the ignorant Irish masses, mindlessly mobilized by political machines.  Today’s defenders of odd-year elections should know the history of what they’re defending because they carry on its legacy today.


Is Paid Family Leave the Next Fight for 15?

Maybe it’s the #FightFor16 – the 16 weeks of paid time off from work to care for a newborn child that DC’s city council is considering offering to its residents.

While mandatory paid maternity (and often paternity) leave is nearly universal across the globe and broadly popular with policy experts and the public, it’s had difficulty gaining traction in Congress. But by learning from the lessons of the Fight For 15 movement that has increased the minimum wage in cities across the US, advocates could soon find this policy sweeping the country like wildfire, with DC as the first spark.

Why a Popular Policy Goes Nowhere in Congress

Much like paid family leave, the public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage, which has absolutely no effect on whether a congressional bill will be signed into law. Momentum for a higher minimum wage is being fueld by the combination of a political landscape dominated by a national debate over economic inequality and an economic landscape where a wageless economic “recovery” has failed to raise average workers’ incomes. Support for raising the wage is shared broadly across race, age, income, gender and even political party divides because for most people it’s a simple moral issue: no one who works full-time should live in poverty. Yet while few people support a low minimum wage, lobbying powers like the Chamber of Commerce and National Restaurant Association have managed to grind the issue to a halt in Congress. Corporate interests with deep pockets are able to hold Republican lawmakers tightly in line with the business agenda while also maintaining a firm grip on Democrats in swing districts seeking big money donors for tough reelection battles. In the gridlocked era where virtually zero meaningful legislation has been signed into law since the Tea Party wave of 2010, something like the minimum wage is dead on arrival, no matter how much popularity it has with the public.

Source: Council of Economic AdvisersPaid family leave has similar broad support, including a majority of Republicans—who would be against parents being allowed to spend time with their newborn children? Its growing popularity is tied to rising concerns about American work-life balance as the average workweek reaches 47 hours and American women’s presence in the workplace has stalled while continuing to rise in other countries. Major companies like Netflix have gained recent national attention and praise for adopting paid family leave for their workers (although they exclude their low-wage workers who need it most, showing why we can’t rely on the benevolence of our corporation-people-friends).  It’s become a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential election, playing a prominent role in the first Democratic debate and even getting lip service from Marco Rubio. Yet despite being one of the most popular kids at the public policy party, family leave faces the same impossible odds in Congress as the minimum wage.

Why the Fight for 15 Movement is Working Anyway

Despite a congress made dysfunctional by GOP obstruction and corporate money, the national movement to raise the minimum wage went in two years from impossible to unstoppable. When fast food workers first began striking in 2013, demanding $15/hour wages, serious journalists and political pundits inside the beltway dismissed the cause as laughable. But the labor and social justice organizers working to lay the groundwork of the FightFor15 movement knew what they were doing. The strategy had been tested already with a push for a modest $10 minimum wage ballot initiative in San Jose delivering a win in 2012. The first $15/hour minimum wage victory came in 2013 with a massive and expensive battle in the tiny town of Seatac, WA, whose economy is anchored by the Seattle-Tacoma international airport. Seatac was the perfect place to prove that 15 was possible. Meanwhile nearby, the $15 minimum wage debate had landed in the center of the Seattle mayoral race and after the election the city council negotiated an agreement with business interests to pass an increase, bringing national attention as the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. Wage increases continued to sweep the left-leaning West Coast, especially the many cities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moderate minimum wage hikes were put on the ballot across the country in the 2014 election, passing in four rural red states. When the Los Angeles City Council reached an agreement this year to pass a $15 wage in the second largest city in the US, raising up a low-wage workforce many times the size of Seattle or San Francisco, there was no denying that $15 had gone from pipe dream to national benchmark.

The strategy was a tectonic shift for the labor movement. Traditionally unions have invested massive resources into electing Democrats to Washington, DC and trying to push them to take a pro-labor stance on federal legislation, a strategy which has had little success on key issues like opposing trade agreements and removing barriers to workers unionizing. Yet over the past few years, organized labor has experimented with investing heavily in local grassroots organizing, including fast food and retail workers who face long odds of forming unions under current laws. They’ve pushed full steam ahead with minimum wage campaigns, often using ballot initiatives to bypass elected officials influenced by corporate donors and ride strong support among regular people to victory.

Fight for 15’s strategic brilliance is based on a few key concepts perfectly tailored to the political environment of the 2010’s:

  1. Going Hard: Winning these battles requires maximizing the one asset we have– people power. By staking out a position like $15/hour strong enough to actually excite and mobilize regular people (even if the conventional wisdom of political elites said it was impossible) Fight for 15 built an unstoppable movement from the ground up.
  2. Going Local: The farther away from regular people the decisionmaking process gets, the less power everyday working people have and the more power corporate lobbyists have. Pushing for citywide or sometimes statewide minimum wage hikes built grassroots momentum and kept the movement from being bogged down in Washington DC.
  3. Going Simple: Of the many policy ideas to address economic inequality, the minimum wage is one of the simplest, which paints the choice for voters in clear moral terms. The more this battle is fought out in broad daylight rather than in backroom negotiations over the wonky details of obscure policy, the more it draws a clear divide between corporate lobbyists and regular people.

Why Paid Family Leave is Next

The DC proposal for paid family leave picks up on all of these strategic elements. It’s the first time paid family leave has ever been done at a city level. It’s also far bolder of a proposal than any state has adopted, with no state offering more than 8 weeks or coming close to fully paying workers’ normal income during that time. (Here in California you can get up to 6 weeks at 55% of your normal wages by tapping into your state disability benefits). The DC plan is 16 weeks fully paid leave for workers who earn up to $52k a year, with half pay above that, and includes adoption and LGBT families. And while it’s a little more complex than a minimum wage increase, the overall concept is a simple one that makes obvious sense to the average voter.

While a majority of American workers earn above $15 an hour, only 11% of Americans have paid family leave.  Paid family leave makes the biggest difference in the lives of working-class women, but it also helps bring in the solidarity of professional-class women who know how precarious their own economic status can be and how awful family care policy is in the US. And it taps into a growing number of men, especially young men who came of age in a time of shifting gender roles, and genuinely want to be present in their children’s lives but are being held back by Stone Age workplace policies and cultures that don’t accommodate paternal leave. In fact, men doubled their share of taking family leave after California adopted paid family leave in 2004.

A good campaign can be led by the people who are most directly affected, brings in new people to the movement and energizes those who are already part of it, makes tangible lasting change in people’s lives, exposes the bad guys for how shitty they truly are, and ultimately shifts the balance of power. That’s what Fight for 15 has done and that’s what paid family leave has the potential to do too.

It’s part of something bigger

What’s happening right now is not just a series of campaigns to raise the minimum wage. It’s the revival of a labor movement that engages the vast majority of Americans who aren’t union members. It’s collective bargaining at a mass scale of not just one company’s employees, but the population of entire regional economies like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. It’s not just minimum wage increases that are being won by this strategy. Many of the ballot initiatives and ordinances have also included paid sick days and wage theft enforcement. San Francisco has even begun to lay out the right to a predictable, sane, work schedule.

In the 21st century, grassroots local movements are not just going to lead the way on increasing the minimum wage. They’re going to push cities and counties and states to pass stronger enforcement of existing wage laws, enact paid sick days, paid family leave, reasonable hours and scheduling, health and safety standards, and perhaps even equality for the most disenfranchised workers excluded from many labor laws like domestic workers and farmworkers.

Movements like Fight for 15 that raise standards for all workers from the bottom up are reminding us why we ever had a labor movement in the first place. They’re reminding us why fighting for the dignity of working people matters. They’re reminding us that when it comes to the national debate on economic inequality, workers outnumber and outvote bosses. They’re reminding us that when we organize, we win.

Your First Week of Econ 1 Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis


San Francisco has become a flashpoint in the national political battle over eye-popping rent increases in America’s cities.

San Francisco real estate developer Michael Cohen, who used to run the city’s economic development department, says “The single most important land use debate that goes on in San Francisco is whether you believe that the laws of supply and demand exist.”

This explanation hasn’t many satisfied longtime residents, whose swelling anger against gentrification and displacement has broken out into mass protests against new luxury developments in historically working-class neighborhoods and a ballot measure this fall to halt all new luxury development in the city’s Mission District.

Cohen, the growing SF Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF) and others, say more of these new developments are the only way to bring down rents citywide, because they will relieve the city’s chronic shortage of housing.  They say protests against new development are actually the reason for rising rents, as the city’s constrained housing supply is lagging far behind the demand of young professionals flocking to San Francisco and other urban centers to work in booming well-paid tech industries in recent years.  Others, largely led by community organizations like Causa Justa/Just Cause made up of longtime residents, predominantly working-class families and people of color, call this “trickle down housing” and say it doesn’t work.

So why are these Bay Area native folks so skeptical of basic economic theory?  Well maybe it’s because your basic economic theory is hella basic, bruh.  Economic models are about simplification of the real world—we need models to teach theories, but sometimes those simplifications become a problem when we apply them to real life.

The people who lived and worked and raised their families in low-income urban neighborhoods long before the hipsters thought it was cool, in the decades when the middle-class fled to white suburbia, have a lifetime of experience with the economic reality of urban housing markets, not the basic economic theory.

Here’s what they see:  The same neighborhoods that are seeing the biggest rent increases are those seeing the most new housing developments.  They see the East/West divide of the city of San Francisco: The densely populated eastern neighborhoods like the Mission and SoMa are booming with new development while facing eye-popping rent increases and overwhelming numbers of evictions.  Meanwhile, the western side of the city, with its many low-density middle-class enclaves that are hotbeds of NIMBYism, sees relatively little change.  They’ve seen a boom and bust cycle of interest in San Francisco by developers and yuppies:  the long flight of white middle-class families and employers from the city for decades, followed by a tech bubble in the 90’s that led to a development rush before popping spectacularly, and then a resurgence of the tech industry in the last few years leading to another cycle of development, gentrification and rising rents.  It’s hard to shake the gut feeling that development isn’t for them, that in fact it hurts their community.  They’ve been tossed around by this boom and bust cycle, families losing their homes, friends losing their stores, feeling like strangers in their own neighborhoods, in a story that just doesn’t align with that supply and demand graph.

Where new housing development is being built in SF

Median rents in SF

Housing cost increases in SF

Population density in SF

New housing developments being proposed in SF

For longtime residents, the basic supply and demand theory just doesn’t pass the bullshit smell test.  Maybe it’s not because they’re stupid and don’t understand economics.  Maybe it’s because thanks to their actual lived experience, they understand how urban housing markets work in practice better than the Patiently Explaining Gentrifiers understand them in theory.  So my dear Patiently Explaining Gentrifiers, the next time you roll your fixie past the black family in your apartment and they look at you sideways, please refer to this helpful guide to break down the economics that they understand and you don’t.

  1. Luxury housing doesn’t really substitute for low-income housing

Housing marketed at young urban professionals is not a perfect substitute for housing built for blue-collar families.  That means they have different markets setting their price, which are driven by different levels of supply and demand.  (Not to mention these two segments of the housing market diverge farther and farther apart the more economic inequality grows.)

Imagine a world where you could only buy two cars:  Cadillacs and Honda Civics.  Most people who own Cadillacs wouldn’t be caught dead driving a Honda Civic and most people who push a Civic can barely dream of owning a Cadillac.   So if GM decided to build a lot more Cadillacs next year, you’d expect to see the price of Cadillacs go down, but it probably wouldn’t have much effect on the price of Civics.

But that doesn’t mean the two prices are totally unrelated.  A bargain item can be a substitute for a luxury item, it’s just not a very good one.  Say for example, there’s a sudden rush of rich people wanting brand new Caddies.  They start buying up all the Cadillacs on the car lots, but the people who already own Cadillacs insist that to retain the “Cadillac brand” (and maybe improve the selling value of their car), GM must not produce more than a limited amount per year.  The resulting shortage sends Caddie prices sky high as the dealerships are swarmed with people trying to outbid each other.  But those who can’t get their hands on a Cadillac still need a car.  So the second-class yuppies (you know, the ones who work at instead of Google) start buying Honda Civics and tricking them out, adding heated seats and TV screens.  Seeing Civics have gained a new customer base with more money to spend, the Honda dealerships start raising their prices too.

Replace cars with housing and dealerships with landlords, and this is part of what we’re seeing with the housing market in cities like San Francisco, and it’s the basic argument of the folks at SFBARF.

So the natural solution is of course to build more Cadillacs (aka high-end housing developments) to address this problem at its root?

Yes, that’s true to some extent.  Solving the housing crisis will require building more luxury housing somewhere.  But there’s more.


2. Neighborhood speculation raises land values

We can’t just replace cars with housing and dealerships with landlords in a simple model of the world.  Because cars aren’t like housing.  If you park your Caddie in the spot next to my Civic, it doesn’t cause my monthly car note to get more expensive.  But with housing, only part of what you’re paying for is the physical structure, most of what you’re paying for is the location, the land, the neighborhood.

When you build expensive new condos next to low-income apartments, it has an external effect:  it raises the value of all the land in the neighborhood surrounding it.  (The same way if you put a toxic waste dump in a neighborhood it lowers the surrounding land values.)  Land is a speculative asset: unlike the buildings on top of the land, you can’t build more of it.  There’s a limited supply and the best way to make money from it is to buy up as much as you can get your hands on now if you think the price is going to go up in the future.  Developers start rushing to get in first on this hot new neighborhood, bidding up land values (“Did you see the New York Times wrote an article about this totally up-and-coming neighborhood??”)

Once the new residents move in, they create demand for someone to open up an artisanal kale wrap deli and kombucha bar next door and a barbershop on the corner that will trim your fixed gear bicycle’s decorative moustache.  Those new amenities create even more demand from yuppies and hipsters to live in that neighborhood.  The cycle of rising land values continues to spiral out of control.

So what the hell happened?  Why isn’t increasing the housing supply bringing down rents?


  1. Rising land values reduce the supply of low-income housing

Now if I’m a landlord who currently owns a fairly cheap apartment building and rents primarily to working-class immigrant families, when neighborhood land values rise, suddenly I own an asset that I’m not using to its full potential.  I’m better off completely shifting my business model of what kind of housing I’m providing on the land.  I’m basically burning free money unless I either sell the land to a developer or fix the place up myself and charge higher rents to new customers willing and able to pay more.  This will likely involve evicting my low-income tenants from their homes.  If my city has strong renter protection and/or rent control laws, I’ll have to do whatever I can to harass my tenants, threaten to call the police or immigration on them, refuse to make repairs, or otherwise make their life a living hell until they move out.  I might even convert my rental apartments into condos for sale using what’s called an “Ellis Act eviction” to evade tenant protection laws.  I’m reducing the supply of low-rent housing by converting it to a different type of housing.

Here’s a similar example: Say I grow wheat in North Dakota.  If shale oil is discovered in my region and everyone around me is fracking for oil, I’m sure as hell not going to keep farming my land for wheat.  But if I take my land out of wheat production and sell it into oil production, guess what that does to the supply of wheat?

And if I’m a developer looking to build cheap, low-cost housing marketed at working-class families, I’m sure as hell not going to do it anymore now that the first step is buying some premium priced land, which now covers every single neighborhood in cities like SF and NY.  New development of housing for working-class families basically grinds to a halt, because it’s not profitable to buy expensive land and then rent it for cheap.  Supply of low-income rentals is strangled, despite the fact that the booming growth of tech is also creating tons of low-paid jobs for janitors, landscapers, cooks, childcare workers, and security guards who are fueling rising demand for this type of housing.

Say I want to open a cheap sandwich shop.  I’m trying to decide between selling Mexican tortas for $5 or Vietnamese banh mi for $4.  Suddenly the price of wheat spikes, and bread now costs $3 a loaf.  My old business ideas would no longer turn a profit once you factor in the other costs, so I either don’t open my shop or I change my business plan and open up an Artisan Torta/Banh-Mi Fusion Deli and charge $15 a sandwich.  The higher price of an input, wheat, has restricted the supply of cheap sandwiches, just as a higher price of land restricted the supply of low-income rental housing.

That’s why between 2007-2014, San Francisco built over twice the amount of high-income housing than it was projected to need by California’s housing department, but only built half of what it needed for low-income families and a third of what it needed for middle-income households.

So as speculation raises land values in a neighborhood, landlords shift their buildings away from the low-income market and orient towards the high-income housing market.  And developers are unable to build new housing affordable to low-income families because land values are so high.  Both trends result in a massive sucking away from the neighborhood’s housing supply for working-class families.


  1. Yuppies gobble up more housing space per person

But it gets worse. This assumes a 1:1 ratio of replacement as developers and landlords shift from supplying low-income housing to high-income housing.  But blue-collar households tend to have more people in the same space than white-collar households.  Apartments that once held a working-class immigrant family of five are now being converted to become home to a young tech worker, his bandana-wearing pug, and his girlfriend who stays over sometimes to watch Netflix and chill.  That means landlords and developers are responding to speculation by taking low-rent housing supply off the market even faster than they’re putting high-rent housing supply into the market.

Every new high-rent development in a low-income neighborhood contributes to the cycle of speculation raising land values around it, bringing new low rent-development to a halt and converting the existing nearby supply of low-rent housing at an alarming rate into high-rent housing for people who demand much more square footage per person.  Thus a development that helps relieve the shortage of high rent housing can actually create a much worse shortage of low-rent housing.

That’s why residents of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District are protesting new luxury developments.  When you’ve lived through this kind of speculative development, you don’t need an economics degree to know the math.


But it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

We can increase the supply of expensive housing while also increasing the supply of affordable housing.  But we need to remove the factor of neighborhood speculation from the equation.

Before I go further, let me make abundantly clear that I agree that we absolutely need to build more housing suitable for young professionals in central cities.  In fact, we need a lot more of it.  Too often, social justice activists struggling every day to defend our communities’ right to live in their own homes forget that white flight to the suburbs in the late 20th century was one of the worst things that ever happened to low-income communities of color in the US.  It devastated funding for urban schools and social services as public resources were shifted out to suburban bedroom communities.  Rising economic and racial segregation widened income inequality, and reduced economic mobility, as the rich and poor lived in two separate worlds.  And the massive environmental toll of millions of commuters driving out to far-flung quiet neighborhoods every day manifested itself in the air pollution and climate change whose burden falls most heavily on low-income communities of color.  We need to ask ourselves:  What’s our endgame?  Maintaining the pre-boom segregated status quo?  Because that’s an awful future.

We know that the reversal of last century’s white flight is a good thing.  But not if it simply leads to displacement of the urban working-class and communities of color.  When the last affordable neighborhood in San Francisco and New York disappears, and the displaced families of the working class are all forced to leave cities and grow a ring of high poverty suburbs, both the economic isolation and environmental devastation will remain the same as it was before.


We need shared cities free of land speculation.

We can do this by building high-end housing in urban neighborhoods that are already historically middle and upper class, where it won’t lead to speculation that a neighborhood is “up and coming”.  Every city has these neighborhoods.  They’re on the west sides of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the north side of Seattle (I’m a die hard West Coaster).  They’re the neighborhoods in your city with the oldest median age, the lowest population density, the highest home ownership rate, the whitest residents and the highest incomes.  They’re the places seeing virtually no new housing being built right now.  Often strict zoning codes limit new building in these neighborhoods to two stories or single family homes, and the residents are fiercely opposed to denser apartments near them, using their abundance of free time to rail against the parking problems, crime and noise they will bring (often code for younger, poorer, or browner people).  The residents of these neighborhoods tend to be more well-resourced, well-organized and well-connected than those in low-income neighborhoods, who often face language and educational barriers and are too busy working long hours for low wages to attend planning commission meetings.  Developers quake in fear of their wrath and major new housing projects are rarely proposed, let alone make it to the review phase to be fought over.  These are the real NIMBYhoods and they need to be upzoned.  Simply changing zoning codes in the lowest density parts of cities to allow taller, denser buildings could lead to a housing development surge without raising rents in low-income neighborhoods.

It won’t be easy.  The mayor of Seattle managed to negotiate out an agreement with business interests to pass the first $15 minimum wage in any major American city, but when he backed ending neighborhood bans on apartment buildings by eliminating single-family-only zoning citywide, he met staunch opposition and withdrew the proposal.

As well as political opposition, there’s also a logistical problem.  These neighborhoods tend to have limited public transit service, (part of their exclusion of young people, poor people, and people of color) which makes it hard to add more apartment-dwellers, especially those dependent on public transit.  We’ll need to build out more transit between the NIMBYhoods and downtown areas where young professionals work.

But building high-end housing in already high-end neighborhoods is the only way to increase supply without triggering the spiral of speculation that raises land values and pushes poor people out.

Meanwhile, we need to ensure we’re also increasing the supply of housing for the working-class, which is bound to erode away if yuppies keep coming faster than our cities can build housing for them.

Longstanding tools that cities use to nudge developers to pay for affordable housing, like inclusionary housing ordinances and density bonuses, definitely help, especially as private development booms.  But alone they’re not enough to maintain the balance of different types of housing needed in growing cities where both software programmers and their janitors need a place to live.  With the sharp decline in affordable housing funds from the state and federal governments, this will require new sources of revenue.

A land value tax could finance public transit expansions into high-end neighborhoods while also creating a new affordable housing fund.  This fund could buy empty plots of land or buildings that go up for sale in low-income neighborhoods and add them into a Community Land Trust—publicly-owned land made permanently affordable to low-income families, where the benefits of increases in land values are captured by the public instead of landlords.  This kind of tax would fall mainly on landlords who are riding the wave of speculation, sitting on their land and extracting bigger and bigger profits by charging higher and higher rents to tenants.  It wouldn’t tax building more housing on top of your land.  And it could protect a large chunk of urban neighborhoods from the wild swings of speculation—or at least make sure that longtime residents actually reap their share of the benefits.

I won’t pretend to know all the answers and I’m not an actual economist (to be fair, neither is Matt Yglesias, the intellectual father of the movement to increase housing supply, whose book The Rent is Too Damn High is the only e-book I’ve ever bought).  I’m a guy who lived in Oakland as a kid and knows my rent would be double what I’m paying right now if I moved back there.  And I’d hate to be one of the kids in Oakland right now looking around and thinking maybe my city doesn’t have a place for me anymore.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A shared city is possible.  A city where people from a diverse set of racial backgrounds and economic classes cross paths in public spaces, learn from each other, and create things together.  A city where we all contribute to and benefit from the same school districts, transportation networks, libraries, parks and city services.  A city that allows more people to live lifestyles that are walkable and transit accessible, energy and water efficient, allowing us to sustain our planet.  A city where children can grow up, become adults and get good jobs and support their own families, and one day retire in peace.  But unleashing the animal spirits of unchecked speculation, much like the gold rush that once built San Francisco upon the violent displacement of its native inhabitants, will carry us down a much different path.


Reflections on Social Justice Work for Young Activists in a Changing World

I first started working for nonprofit organizations, elected officials and labor unions when I was a teenager, continued to do social justice work throughout college, and have been working as a community organizer for a few years now since finishing school. I’ve worked for local and national organizations, for a small town city council member and a White House federal agency, done grassroots organizing in the ‘hood and research surrounded by economists in suits, knocked on countless doors, recruited and developed unforgettable leaders, been on national TV, gotten arrested, won some campaigns, lost some campaigns and some I’m still not sure if I won or lost. I’ve been given more opportunities than most people, more than I knew what to do with, and had incredible mentors who shared their wisdom and experience by teaching me lessons that I mostly ignored and learned the hard way later or still haven’t figured out yet.

When I first started doing this work, like so many others, I spent too much time contemplating the changes I thought were needed and how to advance myself into a position where I could be a decisionmaker and not enough time listening to what others in my community wanted and how they saw my role in a broader struggle. I spent too much time lost in my own head envisioning the policies and programs in my version of the perfect world, and not enough time figuring out the groundwork it takes to actually grind out victories inch by inch. I spent too much time concerned with winning the campaigns in front of me at all costs within the constraints of current political conditions, and not enough time thinking about how to build organizations and movements to shift the balance of power itself.

As I write this, another crop of student activists are graduating from school, with many trying to find their place outside the college bubble, working within movements for social change, and hopefully figuring out a way to get paid to do so. So I’m taking the opportunity right now to reflect on my own experience with social justice work, the lessons I was taught, and those I wish I had learned faster. For me, it boils down to three things: Think long. No fluff. Remember who you work for.

Think Long

Everything– and I mean everything– we do should be seen through the lens of how it contributes to shifting the fundamental imbalances of power that are at the root of everything we fight against. No campaign is more important than building an organization that can carry out and win more campaigns. No organization is more important than building a movement that can birth and grow more organizations. No movement is more important than building power among everyday people who can launch and sustain more movements.

It is a hollow victory when we win a policy change solely through the advocacy of a few highly educated policy or legal experts, and fail to build the power, skill, confidence and capacity of the directly affected community to determine their own destiny. It is a hollow victory when we win an electoral campaign by following nothing more than the conventional wisdom of what a viable candidate looks like, what a reliable voter looks like, or what a safe message looks like, and never shift the realm of possibility of who can be elected and how. It is a hollow victory when we build public support around our issues by echoing our opposition’s worldview, winning an opinion poll on today’s incremental step forward by marketing it as more reasonable than the alternative of more fundamental change, failing to make a sincere case for real social transformation according to our values. Any victory is inadequate if it doesn’t grow our strength to win future victories.

As young activists, we often want the immediate win, getting a candidate elected or a piece of legislation passed. These short-term victories are critical to delivering meaningful change in people’s lives and building momentum for long-term movements. But long-term power building means spending much of our time and energy on things that feel less rewarding. Things like writing grants and raising the money to sustain our organizations, like coaching a nervous fumbling community member to speak instead of speaking for them, like building coalitions that can be frustrating and unreliable, or hashing out improvements to staff structure and wrestling with your budget.

It doesn’t come naturally to us to think first and foremost about how to build the organizations we work for. We often think of organizations as vehicles we are steering towards whatever it is we want to accomplish—we use them to go where we want and maintain them only when they break down. But organizations are the infrastructure of social movements, the pipes and roads and rails and cables upon which everything else functions. We are accomplishing nothing in the long run if we are not constantly working to build effective, sustainable, accountable organizations of regular people empowered to change the conditions of their lives.

Because the harsh reality is that right now we are playing a game that is stacked against us. Unless we are slowly, steadily changing the game itself, our paltry scattered victories will never be enough. The even harsher reality is that someday we are all going to die. Every powerful politician, every brilliant intellectual, every visionary founder of an organization, has an expiration date. And too many leaders leave us having failed to sustain something larger than themselves, their life’s work fading when they do. But when we build a tool that can outlast its creator, that’s when our work really matters in the long run. To think long means not just asking the question “What can I win today?”, but asking the question “What can I build forever?”

No Fluff

It is not enough to spend our days organizing educational workshops about oppression attended by a handful of the same people, 90% of whom are already involved in social justice organizations. It is not enough to spend the majority of our mental and emotional capacity deep in critical theory, posting long open letters to everyone and everything we have grievances towards. It is not enough to spend our days attending conference after conference in an endless parade of events, living on a diet of catered food and speaker panels, in a world invisible and inaccessible to ordinary people. It is not enough to live in isolated self-sustaining cooperatives and remove ourselves from systems of power to keep our hands and consciences clean. Because choosing not to participate as individuals in systems of power that make us feel uncomfortable does nothing to change the fact that these systems of power continue to determine the day-to-day conditions of 99% of the population’s lives. We owe it to the people we work for to make tangible impact on a scale that is greater than that. We have more than just a responsibility to feel righteous and pure, we have a responsibility to win. We are here to be relevant to our people by delivering results that matter to them. We have an obligation to strip the vanity from our work, to be about more than our appearances as intellectually innovative and brilliantly radical. We need to deepen our understanding of power, and be deliberate, methodical, strategic and intentional about building real meaningful power among those who have been robbed of it.

Theoretical purity is a luxury of the marginal and the irrelevant. The truly powerful forces of greed and intolerance that bring pain into the lives of the people we love, rarely see us as a credible threat, too often they laugh at us, if they are even aware of our existence at all. At the end of the day, feeling good is a poor substitute for being effective.

Our generation of activists has brought some great things to the movement: a strong commitment to self-care and personal sustainability, a sharper awareness of the racism, homophobia, patriarchy and other forms of oppression that can exist even within our own movements, and an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the structure and funding of our nonprofit organizations. But young organizers also need to channel the ruthless pragmatism and fierce discipline of an older generation– we may not face the same degree of violent suppression directed towards labor organizers of the 1930’s or civil rights organizers of the 1960’s, but that’s no excuse to allow our work to become feel-good and fluffy, insular and masturbatory, or lofty and theoretical. We cannot yoga our way out of systemic oppression and inequality. Scale matters. Tangibility matters. Immediacy matters. Our generation of activists needs to grow up and abandon the fluff, because the stakes are too high for our bullshit.

Remember Who You Work For

As much as we’d all like to fantasize otherwise, no one wants you to work on your own agenda for social change. Whether you like it or not, your work is part of a broader agenda set by people other than yourself. And that’s actually a good thing: a million arrogant visionaries, each with their own detailed utopian plan for social progress, would ultimately produce nothing. Those of us in the business of changing the world don’t get far without being team players. But we can go far in the wrong direction if we’re not careful whose team we play for. The nuances aren’t always visible at first glance, but at the end of the day, we are all pulled by invisible lines of accountability: Who signs your paycheck? Who gets a vote on what you do? Who are the constituents, the members, the core base of supporters you couldn’t function without? Don’t think of these lines of accountability as shackles. If our lines of accountability are our ties to our communities, rather than feeling like burdens, they can be the only thing keeping us grounded, honest, and effective.

In the public sphere, the world of politics and policymaking, there are very few truly evil people, who sit in dark rooms cackling and smoking cigars, who are actually driven by a fundamental desire to exploit the poor, destroy the earth, and oppress the vulnerable. But there are many people whose invisible lines of accountability to those with power and privilege are tighter and firmer than their accountability to those without.

All of us, good and bad and everything in between, must operate in an all-encompassing environment, where the political debate is overwhelmed by the voices of the wealthy, and policy priorities are driven by the needs of the powerful. This is the water in which we all swim, which has a powerful current that consistently pulls us in one direction. Without actively struggling to swim against that current at every moment, we allow ourselves to be swept up in it, sometimes not realizing until we have drifted far from where we started. As we all flounder and try to keep our heads above the surface, those lines of accountability are what anchor us. And when tough decisions need to be made in times of crisis, our actions and our priorities will depend on if we are firmly tethered to the people in the fishing village on shore or to the oil tanker drifting slowly in the deep water.

People in communities struggling with poverty, violence and pollution, with lack of health, education, and political voice, have become accustomed to watching the regular ebb and flow of consultants, academics, nonprofit professionals and other people in suits who think they know how to solve the community’s problems. They parachute in, answer to committees of distinguished experts far away, write long reports that no one from the community can read, disappear when their grants end, and ultimately are nowhere to be found when shit hits the fan. Many young idealists eager to make positive change encounter skeptics in the communities they work in and wonder “Why can’t these people see that I’m here to help them?” These people were here long before you came and expect to be here long after you leave. The trust of a community isn’t earned easily, you have to work for it daily, to prove to people that when push comes to shove, your work is truly accountable to them. Accountability is about always remembering, from the all-or-nothing moments of heated political conflict to the day-to-day mundane decision-making of negotiation and compromise, who you really work for.


California’s Bullshit Drought Response and the Politics of Climate Adaptation

We’re tinkering at the margins of disaster, putting 40 million people in jeopardy because we’re terrified of upsetting politically powerful corporate interests.

While the news has been buzzing with Governor Jerry Brown imposing California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions in response to the catastrophic drought, what often goes unspoken is that the new constraints leave untouched the state’s biggest water consumer by far: agribusiness.  Agriculture uses 80% of California’s water, yet the only thing Brown is requiring agricultural companies to do is provide more information about their water use.  Gov. Brown’s response to criticism?  “Some people have a right to more water than others.” 

This is a preview of the broader politics we’ll see unfold as America struggles to adapt to climate change.  On a global scale, climate change is primarily being caused by the unchecked consumption of the rich and the reckless path of the powerful.  Meanwhile, the people harmed most by drought and sea level rise here in California, and other negative impacts all over the world, will be the poor and powerless.  Much like during our recent economic disaster, as we face environmental disaster, lawmakers and other very serious people will tell us that we all need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices for the greater good in a harsh new world.  Yet at the end of the day, it always seems that the only sacrifices made are from everyday people whose contributions are metaphorically and literally a drop in the bucket.  Meanwhile, the wealthy interests that lie at the root cause of the problem sail along with their profits, subsidies, and guarantees intact.

The people of California didn’t cause this drought.  The people of California are not luxuriously long shower-taking germophobes who have crushed our environment beneath the weight of our excessively detail-oriented dishwashing.  This drought is the result of generations of poorly managed water policy driven by the political heavyweight of big agribusiness’s lobbyists who demand ultra-cheap water rates.  This drought is the result of a housing bubble driven by real estate developers and banks who financed endless expansions of suburban sprawl across the scorching heat of inland California for families who could no longer afford to live in increasingly expensive coastal cities.  This drought is the result of hopeless inaction on climate change, where overwhelming warnings from the scientific community are being screamed down by the political megaphone of the fossil fuel lobby.

A real drought response would focus on the root causes of our water consumption.  It cannot be emphasized enough that 80% of our water is used by agribusiness and much of the rest goes to golf courses and country clubs.  But even our residential water consumption is not equal:  The majority of residential water use (and the vast majority not directly used to keep people alive and healthy) is used for outdoor landscaping like lawns.  Single family homes have twice the outdoor water use of multifamily apartments, and rich neighborhoods use three times the water of poor neighborhoods.

Here’s what a real drought response might look like if we weren’t so afraid of powerful special interests:

1)  Build sustainable affordable housing in coastal cities

In the peak summer months, an average San Francisco resident uses 46 gallons of water a day.  Other coastal cities range around 50-100 gallons, while inland cities average around 200-500 gallons a day per person.  It takes massive amounts of water to keep lawns green in suburban subdivisions sprawling out from scorching hot inland cities.  We need housing growth policies that encourage dense, affordable, water/energy-efficient multi-family housing in cool coastal urban areas rather than McMansions in the hot inland parts of the state.   But right now our housing regulations do the exact opposite:  it’s easy for developers to build cheap new housing in Bakersfield, Palmdale or San Bernardino, not so much in San Francisco, Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara, where longtime wealthy homeowners are vehemently opposed to higher density apartments being built in their neighborhoods.

Although more people are migrating out of California than in, our population is still inevitably growing as more children are born here.  So unless we want some sort of draconian policy restricting childbirth, the question is not whether more people will live in California, but where they will live.  Unfortunately, because of the crushing unaffordability of California’s coastal and urban areas, the vast majority of population growth has been moving to inland areas like the Central Valley, High Desert and Inland Empire with cheaper housing, but much higher water needs.  Promoting dense infill development of affordable housing in coastal urban areas would help increase economic opportunity for working families while creating the serious systemic reform we need to manage California’s water resources long term.

2) Keep fracking from endangering our water supply

Land is rapidly being snatched up across the Central Valley and Central Coast to open new oil wells above the Monterey Shale.  Fracking uses significant amounts of water (70 million gallons in California last year), but the bigger problem is that it threatens to pollute our limited water supply with the undisclosed chemicals used in new drilling methods.  Fracking produces massive amounts of toxic wastewater, with the challenge of wastewater disposal becoming a ticking time bomb which could contaminate our dwindling clean water supplies.  Oil companies have shown a blatant disregard for California’s weak regulations, with hundreds of illegal wastewater pits being discovered right next to farmland and above groundwater supplies in rural California.  Yet along with agribusiness, the oil industry  was also given a free pass on Governor Brown’s new water restrictions.

But even worse, oil in the Monterey Shale is as dirty as the Canadian Tar Sands.  Fracking California’s shale creates the potential to put over 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, nearly as much as the Keystone XL pipeline, driving forward the climate change that is fueling this extreme drought.  The science is clear that climate change increases the frequency and severity of catastrophic drought in California.  There can no longer be any doubt for drought-stricken Californians that the climate is changing, and if we want to keep it from getting worse, we need to stop the relentless digging for more dirty energy.

3) Stop subsidizing water-guzzling agribusiness

While agribusiness uses 80% of California’s water, not all farms are created equal when it comes to water consumption.  Growers choose between planting different crops, some of which use many times more water than others.  Even within the same crop, different growers choose to use more and less efficient irrigation methods.  Like any business, California’s growers are making basic mathematical calculations of how to maximize their profits.  So when agribusiness is provided artificially cheap water by the government, typically at lower rates than you and I pay as residential consumers, growers pick profitable but thirsty crops, and cheap but wasteful irrigation methods.

Anyone who’s passed an intro economics class would tell you that when you have a shortage of something, the price is naturally supposed to go up.  But agribusiness, with its powerful lobbyists in Sacramento, has long been coddled by lawmakers and protected from actually paying fair market prices for water (big business is always all about the free market until they’re not).  By keeping agricultural water prices artificially low, the government is directly massively subsidizing drought-causing industries like almonds and cattle.  It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond and 10% of the state’s water goes to the almond industry alone.  A pound of beef takes 2500 gallons to produce, and one hamburger is about as much water as you use to shower for a month.

I’m sympathetic to the concern that raising the cost of water as an input to growing food will raise costs at the grocery store for struggling families.  It wouldn’t be hard to design a simple policy to keep overall food prices low while shifting growers to more drought resistant crops.  California could put an emergency drought surcharge on the sale of water to agribusiness, then take that revenue and use it to subsidize low-water-use fruits and vegetables at the point of sale to the consumer.  A grower then faces a different calculation to decide whether they should plant another crop instead of almonds, or whether they should invest in that new irrigation system.  This would shift the behavior of both food consumers and food producers towards more drought resistant foods, as prices of water-intensive foods go up while prices of water-efficient foods go down.  For example in Ventura County where I live (the 10th biggest agriculture producing county in the US), that could mean land shifting from water sucking strawberries, to other major local crops that are more drought resistant, like lemons and avocados.  A policy like this could even effectively make it easier for low-income California families to afford healthy foods, a major challenge facing poverty-stricken communities.

We need to step up and take real responsibility for a serious long-term water management plan if we want to sustain life for 40 million people in California and growing.  There is simply no way to protect our water supply for future generations without meaningful systemic reforms addressing agricultural water use, oil drilling, and housing development.  Yes, they would raise howls of protest from some of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful political interests: agribusiness, oil companies, and real estate developers.  But allowing money and corporate interests to control our politics is what’s got us stuck in this climate change mess in the first place.  At some point, we have to stop fucking around with our planet, put on our big kid pants, and do the right thing.

Is Feminism’s Resurgence the Key to Fighting Economic Inequality?


From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public.  This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.

The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color.  Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor.  This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.

This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women.  And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.

Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken.  Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left.  But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality?  Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.

If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history?  It’s hard to know.  But what is important is the question before us now:  If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?

For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers.  Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite.  As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win.  While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role.  (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.)  So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members.  The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.

But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue.  Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households).  An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force.  The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector.  There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)

As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with.  This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color.  Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.

The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity.  In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare.  Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace.  Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.

It’s a smart move for Democrats.  There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful.  What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party?  More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?

But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context.  From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen.  But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart.  Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart.  If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.

Times Like These


There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together.   Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy.  The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.

The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times.  Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever.  In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.

Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s.  The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era.  In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.

I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian.  I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times.  We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s.  We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country.  From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.

At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system.  Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color.  A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the worldWe can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up.  Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before.  Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system.  They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.

A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs.  After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics.  They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing.  Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil.  New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class.  This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions.  And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.

In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality.  I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening.  The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce.  Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”.  The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century.  For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people.  Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”.  Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books.  This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers.  What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers?  All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics:  What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation.  Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave.  And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota.  Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.

Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals.  After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement.  But two things happened.  When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies.  And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement.  Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants.  While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible:  First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens.  Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities.  Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities.  With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.

But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality.  The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right.  But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved.  Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”.  On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty.  But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.

After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape.  But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement.  A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support.  And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape.  Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan.  And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s.  This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations.  But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,

long the most powerful force on the left.  A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now.  Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach.  Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining.  Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states.  The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances.  It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers.  The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors.  It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.

These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era.  Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism.  Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change.  And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.

But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too.  That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas.  That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything.  That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs.  That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them.  That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.

But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity.  It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now.  We have no choice but to stand by our values.  Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time.  Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now.  We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.

We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned.  We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King.  But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.

The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling.  We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history.  But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”