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How to Spot the New Right-Wing Talking Points

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You notice it in the comments on some online article.  A casual conversation with a neighbor.  Your friend’s argument with their uncle on social media.  You see the same words pop up again and again, the same stories:  “Safe spaces” and “participation trophies” and “snowflakes”.  The problem these days is everyone’s become so coddled” and “entitled”.

In our world of filtered feeds, it’s getting harder to figure out what the other side is talking about– interpret their latest vocabularies and mythologies– talking points bouncing around an echo chamber you’re not quite part of.

Here’s what’s going on:

The political right sees the dangerous tide of the Millenial generation, the future of American culture, shifting unstoppably to the left.  But they’ve got a playbook for times like these:  Facing the whirlwind of social change led by young Baby Boomers in the 1960’s, Nixon’s strategists developed a counter-message that helped win a conservative era of government for decades. They spoke for the “Silent Majority”, the god-fearing, hard-working, patriotic, real Americans, isolating progressive youth culture as out of touch and dangerous, wild with drugs and sex and communism, an existential threat to American values.

Today the right is pushing a new set of talking points through their media echo chamber of AM talk radio, Fox News, and conservative sites like Breitbart, to build popular resentment and scorn towards young people.

Their message is this:

Brainwashed by college professors and celebrities and coddled by participation trophies, kids these days have become fragile little snowflakes whose feelings need to be constantly protected.  To keep themselves safe from any ideas that might trigger them, they’ve tightened the clamps of political correctness on any free speech they find offensive.  Thugs create carnage in the streets because police are afraid of being called racist, immigrants bleed us dry because we can’t say “illegal” anymore, men prey on little girls in the bathroom claiming they’re “transgender”, terrorists massacre innocent Americans because we’re too damn PC to say “radical Islam”.  And then these whiny crybabies are so entitled they think the rest of us should pay for their sociology classes and birth control, because they don’t know what it’s like to put in a hard day’s work.

The right excels at making their political messages deeper, more subconscious, almost more cultural than explicitly political.  You’ll hear lifelong Democrats repeating their buzzwords without realizing it, as if they organically thought them up on their own, perhaps even as observations about their own children, rather than echoes of talking points written by conservative communications strategists.

Coddled/Entitled/Whiny Snowflakes

The 1960’s attacks on progressive youth culture described them as “radical”, “subversive”, “dangerous”, etc.  But young people take pride in being called dangerous rebels.  Calling their counter-culture radical pours fuel on their fire.  Conservatives realized they had to reframe young activists as a threat to America due to their weakness rather than their strength.  They’ve deliberately shifted towards labels like “coddled”, “entitled”, and “whiny”.  Snowflakes: the young, diverse, and sensitive who think they’re all so special and unique.  Fragile, handle with care!  Don’t offend these kids or they’ll melt!

This also helps build a counter-counter-culture among young conservatives, who don’t have to feel like the dorky church camp kids anymore.  Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer rebrand themselves as the bold, edgy, “alt-right” rebels, unwilling to conform to a youth culture that mindlessly celebrates diversity.

The “Snowflake” label even challenges diversity itself as an American value.  Young people assert that they represent the future of America, in its beautiful mix of identities and experiences.  But the new right messaging says that in the end, all those unique special snowflakes melt into the same grimy puddles, unable to withstand the slightest heat.  Newsflash, kiddos: You’re not special.  No one is.

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

The appropriation of “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” is fascinating.  These terms originated in lefty student culture, but were limited in use prior to the right-wing media assault against them.  Try to remember: how many times have you actually seen a trigger warning or safe space in real life prior to the barrage of blogs and thinkpieces and TV commentators decrying them?  Not only is the widespread use of trigger warnings and safe spaces a myth perpetuated by the right, but the use of these terms has been distorted from their original meanings.

“Triggered” comes from the field of trauma recovery.  Trigger warnings might be given before showing a college class a video depicting rape.  Since 1 in 4 college women experience sexual assault, more than a few in a lecture hall of hundreds could publicly relive their trauma in front of their peers.  A warning lets them step outside or at least mentally prepare themselves.  Trigger warnings are still rarely used even on college campuses, but have become central to right-wing mythology of why young people are coddled and unable to handle debate with opposing viewpoints.  The term “triggered” has now evolved into a derisive sneer at people who show signs of being emotionally hurt or angered during debates around race or gender, topics rooted in traumatic life experiences to some, while only abstract intellectual play to others.

Similarly, “safe spaces” originally described rare places where queer people could feel safe from the ever-present danger of being harassed, assaulted, or even murdered for holding the wrong person’s hand or dressing the wrong way.  It’s now become a buzzword meaning college campus bubbles where students avoid hearing right-wing perspectives, particularly ones perceived as racist, sexist, or homophobic.

These terms are now used far more often by conservatives to explain what’s wrong with kids these days than they ever were on college campuses to protect marginalized students or survivors of trauma.  But the intended audience for these talking points was never college students themselves, so an accurate depiction of university life isn’t necessary.  These myths have taken on a life of their own within a larger story.

Participation Trophies

Participation trophies are a critical piece of the new right narrative: they connect the right’s social message with its economic message.  It’s the idea that Millenials grew up in the era where all kids in group activities like AYSO soccer leagues were given trophies, even the losers.  So they’ve grown up unable to handle the harshness of the real world and entitled to being given rewards for no effort.  Thus, not only are young people incapable of dealing with diverse opinions like “black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists”, but they are also ill-equipped to face the realities of a free market economy where you have to work or die.

Somehow, this generation whose entire life has been in the rubble of a collapsed economy, left with only low-wage service jobs and saddled with exploding college tuition and crushing housing costs, are magically transformed into a generation of lazy entitled brats who had everything handed to them.

The right knows that young people who grew up in an era of horrific economic inequality simply don’t believe in the American Dream myth anymore.  They fear a whole generation turning towards Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism.  The “participation trophy” story is a bullet aimed at the heart of the economic populism of American youth. 

There is of course no real evidence that links accepting a participation trophy for being bad at sports when you’re 8 years old to future inability to succeed in a capitalist economy.  Yet this narrative has become deeply embedded in the public’s conventional wisdom.  That’s how effective messaging works.

Each of these buzzwords are attached to stories, narratives, mythologies that are evoked in the subconscious mind whenever they are uttered.  Each repetition reinforces these myths as general truths about the way the world is, parroted over and over at dinner tables and break rooms, met with knowing grunts and sage nods.

Central to this new right message is the idea of progressive thought as “political correctness”, and political correctness as a violation of free speech.  This allows the right to reframe maintaining white supremacy and misogyny as an issue of freedom.

The reactionary right can no longer say “all _____’s are lazy, stupid, violent, etc.” like in generations past.  However, they can imply that maybe not all, but most or many are.  Controversial, but not completely taboo.  When those assertions are challenged, they respond that they are being oppressed by the denial of their free speech rights.  Even worse, they say, not only is left-wing political correctness violating our freedoms and threatening American values, but it’s crippling us from tackling important problems like crime and terrorism because we are so wrapped up in not offending anybody!  Thus the new right-wing talking points turn a defensive position, of being out of touch with an increasingly tolerant America, into an offensive one, where they are the champions of freedom and our very way of life.

This act of verbal jujitsu not only maintains overtly racist beliefs, but shuts down debate about them, by claiming disagreement is a violation of free speech. 

For example:

Conservative: “Sure, of course not AALLLL Muslims are terrorists, but let’s be honest, whenever there’s a terrorist attack on TV it’s a Muslim.  How come we can’t talk about that?  We can’t even say who wants to kill us?  What happened to free speech?”

Progressive: “But more Americans are killed every year in terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists than Muslim extremists.  Groups like ISIS are to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity.  You can’t just slap that label on all Muslims.  That’s racist!”

Conservative: “Now I’m a RACIST??  Oh I’m sorry did my opinion trigger you, snowflake?  Do you need a safe space from all these offensive words?  This PC crap is why ISIS is killing us.”

But the real intent of this message is to build popular resentment against the “woke” youth culture of the 21st century, with a few different audiences:

1) Provide talking points for older core conservatives. Shifting attention to the crazy kids these days allows men who grew up in the Jim Crow era to avoid the uncomfortable contradiction of their intolerant beliefs losing touch with an evolving society.  They absorb these talking points and become their biggest promoters.

2) Make inroads with middle-aged and working-class moderates.  They see themselves as tolerant people but sometimes clash with a youth culture that can be harsh towards those who don’t keep up with national conversations about race and gender playing out on social media and college campuses.  Their frustration at feeling attacked for not knowing the right things to say can be manipulated to drive a wedge between them and progressive young people.

3)  Tap into a new group of young people to replace their aging base. The alt-right targets disaffected young white males in online spaces like Reddit and 4chan to find new recruits who wouldn’t connect with older conservative messages like “family values”, but feel alienated by their peers, where progressive “wokeness” is social capital.  Their resentment is ripe for recruitment and radicalization.

This message isn’t just spread through their old top-down channels like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, or even newer voices like Tomi Lahren aimed at young people.  It’s also disseminated through viral marketing tactics– intentionally provoking controversy and protest to circulate a message faster and wider.

This is Milo Yiannopolous’ whole thing.  He goes to a progressive college campus to say horrible shit knowing protests will inevitably erupt, maybe preventing him from speaking in-person to a small handful of conservative students, but meanwhile exposing his ideas to millions of non-students as news of the controversy spreads first to the local area on TV and then virally on social media to a far wider audience.


But it’s one thing to see your opponents’ strategy, it’s another to know what to do about it.  So what now?

We can’t just ignore these rapidly spreading messages and hope they go away.  Refusing to feed the troll lurking under the bridge isn’t a winning strategy once the troll has climbed up to stand directly in your path, dragging its club along the cobblestones.

We also can’t reinforce our opposition’s frame by trapping ourselves in defensive arguments against it.  Our message has to be more than “Hey, we’re not snowflakes!”

We have to lead with our own message.  We need to tell our own story about the problems in our society and our own vision for how to solve them.  We need to define who we are, what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.

Above all, to contradict their message, we need to make our most visible battles about substance rather than language.  We have to make undeniably visible the impacts of systemic inequality on the daily conditions of people’s lives. 

This was never about being offended by words we disagree with.  This is about the families torn apart by prison cells and deportations.  This is about the poisoned air and water making children sick.  This is about the grandmothers evicted from their homes.  This is about the people toiling for poverty wages at dangerous jobs.  It has always been about a system that puts corporate profits over the lives of human beings who are considered disposable because of who they are or where they’re from.

How could such savage inequality not offend us, not offend our very humanity?  The real act of coddled entitlement is turning a blind eye to injustices that cause us discomfort.  Instead, it is an act of radical bravery to dream of a better world and fight for it.  It is nothing less than the most fundamental responsibility of every generation: to look with wide open eyes at the rights and wrongs of the world we inherited, and commit ourselves to building a better one for those who come after us.

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Jobs, Automation, and the Human Revolution We Need

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  1. We should believe tech tycoons when they tell us that their automation will continue to lead to massive job losses and economic disruption.
  2. The economists are probably right that this won’t mean the end of jobs, but rather a shifting into work that is resistant to automation—but this might be a lot harder than we think.
  3. Human development services like healthcare and education aren’t automating, not because of temporary technological barriers, but permanent human resistance.
  4. There’s something else unique about this human services sector: the private sector does a terrible job of supplying it.
  5. Shifting into the next era of human work could require massive structural change away from a profit-driven economy.
  6. This kind of radical reshaping of our society is terrifying and hard to comprehend, but the stakes are too high if we mess this up.
  7. Building a new economic system on top of an old one doesn’t happen overnight, but the decay of old systems provides fertilizer to grow new ones.

We should believe tech tycoons when they tell us that their automation will continue to lead to massive job losses and economic disruption

Sometimes it takes angry backlash to make quiet suffering visible to those in power.  The hard and sudden rightward lurch of the old manufacturing regions of the United States has finally drawn the concern of political elites to what is happening economically in these communities.  Unfortunately, the establishment political solutions, a pinch of job retraining programs here, a handful of tax subsidies there, don’t seem to be enough to cope with the level of economic suffering people are experiencing, which pushes voters towards more radical solutions on all ends of the political spectrum.

Towns across the Rust Belt, entire regional economies built around a job that is no longer necessary, are becoming hollowed out shells, devastated by unemployment and poverty, abandoned homes and storefronts, and falling tax revenue bankrupting local budgets.

While demagogues direct public anger towards foreigners and immigrants, the real problem for working people in the industrial heartland of the country is that their jobs are being replaced by robots.  In fact, total manufacturing output in the US has continued an almost uninterrupted steady climb upward, even while jobs in manufacturing have plummeted.  New factories being built in the US or “saved” from outsourcing are simply shifting to heavily automated processes that require few workers.

Scarier than the political backlash we see now is that these towns might be the canaries in the coal mine, their early death warning us of a greater death lingering in the air, economic disruption at a deeper level than we can imagine.  It’s not just the vast majority of manufacturing jobs at risk of being replaced by robots.  The corporate sector is itching to replace the consumer service industry with touchscreens.  Even a huge portion of white-collar office jobs could probably be done by algorithms.  The tech tycoons of Silicon Valley are warning us this is coming.  We’re writing about things like Uber as the future of work, while Uber itself clearly seems hell-bent on automating and laying off their entire workforce faster than anyone can stop them.

The economists are probably right that this won’t mean the end of jobs, but rather a shifting into work that is resistant to automation—but this might be a lot harder than we think

Economists often laugh off the fear that “robots will take all of our jobs”, pointing out that it wouldn’t be the first time most of the human population’s work became obsolete.  They note that the vast majority of humans once worked in farming, but after technology replaced most of that work, we created new jobs that agrarian societies couldn’t have even imagined.  We’ve adapted before and we will again.  Productivity increases in one sector of the economy allow more resources to flow into others.

The harder question is not just what will be the jobs of the future, but can/will our current political/economic system create them?

We’ve built our entire economy on most of the human population spending their days making and selling consumer goods.  Yet automation is advancing at a faster pace than new job creation, and the biggest economic disruptions, like basic artificial intelligence and industrial 3-D printing, are looming just over the horizon.  If we invent machines that can easily make and sell all the crap human beings used to make and sell, what will we do all day?

Some, particularly in the tech world, say it will be the end of work.  They say the human race, liberated from our old boring ass miserable jobs, will get to live free, frolicking about the planet on a universal basic income.

It’s a seductive idea.  I went through a phase where I was really into it.  But I’m not so sure.

People have been predicting the end of jobs, the end of work, for as long as human thought has been recorded.  And yet it hasn’t happened.  If anything we work even more.  Humans like to invent new tools to get us out of whatever sucky task we hate doing.  But we’re also restless creatures.  We always want more and better, and we get bored easily sitting around all day.  We’re not satisfied with a life of playing with our toys.  We find it meaningless and frivolous.  As soon as one task is filled by the tools we create, we find another to occupy our days, seeking another desire one step higher on our pyramid of needs.  Throughout human history, we’ve adapted to technological innovation not by relaxing, satisfied with our accomplishments, but by shifting human resources to do whatever our machines can’t do for us.

But what economists conveniently fail to mention about the Industrial Revolution is that we didn’t just smoothly usher in mass technological change and all just switch jobs together.  We needed to completely re-order our societies to provide for human survival in the new economic era. 

Before this transformation, people sustained their lives by working the common land their families had lived on for generations, self-producing almost everything their households needed to survive and trading for a few specialty goods.  Now we sell our labor to a company owned by investors in exchange for wages we use to buy all of our necessities from other corporations.  How did that all change?  It wasn’t by accident.

From Britain to Japan and everywhere in between, the massive economic and technological change of industrialization was only possible coupled with massive social and political change that kicked out the old lords and chieftains, sliced up the common land into private property, and pushed farmers out of their villages and into the tenements of smog-choked cities.

Hundreds of years later, it seems we are finding ourselves needing less jobs extracting fossils and metals and wood from the earth and turning them into stuff we don’t need and convincing people to buy them and use them and throw them away.  These jobs made up the core of our old economy and they are being replaced by robots, because the work itself is fairly mechanical.  The remaining jobs in manufacturing are paying worse and worse wages, as the owners tell us if we don’t work for cheap, they can replace us with a robot, or somebody poorer and hungrier in some distant corner of the world who will do it for cheaper.

Human development services like healthcare and education aren’t automating, not because of temporary technological barriers, but permanent human resistance

As manufacturing jobs continue their long steady decline, the service industry has boomed in its place.  But the service industry is a lazy concept, a label economists slapped on everything that wasn’t building physical stuff.  It’s not really one type of work, but two:

One is consumer services.  This is basically just selling the stuff made by the old economy, the millions of jobs being created in retail, food service, etc. These jobs are here for now, as customers struggle to find the barcode on their apples at the self-checkout line and try to explain to the self-serve kiosk that they want their burger with exactly four pickle slices.  But these workers are now constantly under threat of being replaced by machines, their bosses warning them not to ask for decent livable wages or they’ll be tossed aside, their human faces swapped out for touchscreens that are getting smarter and smarter.

The other is human services, the millions of jobs in healthcare and education, from the university professor to the childcare supervisor, from the brain surgeon to the homecare aide.  While theoretically some of this work could be automated, something deeper, something fundamentally human in us, pushes back against it.  The much-heralded online education MOOCs, that promised to revolutionize education and destroy the traditional classroom, years later have proven to be a complete and utter failure.  Turns out people want to learn from and interact with real human beings as teachers who help and challenge and inspire them, not watch scripted videos.  Similarly in medicine, people scared for the health of their loved ones, making tough decisions that may be life or death, or just worried about something that feels wrong that they struggle to describe, want to talk face to face to a real doctor or nurse.

While some predictors of the future claim these jobs too will be automated soon enough, I say they’ve been watching too much sci-fi.  As a general rule, if something is done by robots in a horrific dystopian fictional world, it’s probably not something we’ll want to automate in our real life economy.

My best guess is these service jobs in human development are the jobs of the future.

The Industrial Revolution was our great transformation from the majority of our population farming basic subsistence needs like food and clothing to the majority of our population making and selling consumer goods, luxuries and conveniences.  But within our lifetimes, we will be able to produce all these wonderful consumer goods with a fraction of the human labor, just as we learned to feed the world with a fraction of the human labor.

Perhaps the next economic revolution we need is a human revolution.  We need jobs taking care of our own bodies, minds and souls.  Our survival instincts and our material wants met, this will be the next step our human desires reach for.  These are the fundamentally human things that won’t be replaced by machines.

I know this sounds like hippie nonsense.  But it’s fairly widely accepted among mainstream economists that education and healthcare are much of the future of human work.  They even have a term for it: “Eds and Meds”.  Dying Rust Belt cities are advised to attract hospitals and universities to bring “eds and meds” employment into their regional economies.  Cities like Pittsburgh that managed to do so are celebrated as the alternate future to ending up like Detroit.  Workforce development programs and community colleges encourage teens to train for fields like nursing and child development.  Even during the recession, these were the only industry sectors where employment kept growing uninterrupted, without even a dip.

While other sectors may have a shrinking need for human work, in these sectors the need for people keeps growing and growing.  It’s not just teachers, but instructional aides, play-based early childhood educators, daycare workers, extracurricular activity coaches, counselors, vocational training teachers, prison and military reentry counselors, special needs teachers, college professors, research assistants, museum curators, afterschool program workers.  It’s not just doctors, but nurses, medical assistants, dental hygienists, mental health providers, addiction specialists, trauma specialists, behavioral therapists, diet and exercise coaches, physical therapists, paramedics, midwives, homecare workers, nursing home attendants.

There’s something else unique about this human services sector: the private sector does a terrible job of supplying it.

These are great jobs.  There is huge need for them.  They require a broad diversity of skills, aptitudes, educations, and experience levels.  They tackle deep problems in our society, create investments in our mental and physical well-being, in our health and productivity.  There are tons of people who want to do them.  They’re fulfilling, intellectually challenging, meaningful, interesting, skilled jobs people can be proud of and find personal growth in.

But the economists forget about one problem.  There’s another unique thing about healthcare and education.  The private sector does a terrible job at providing them.  It always has.  They’re what economists call “public goods”– things that our society wants at far greater levels than for-profit corporations are willing to provide. 

Education benefits the individual recipient of that schooling, but its real benefits are to the whole society whose innovation and productivity grows.  Healthcare benefits the direct recipient of that care, but it has far greater benefits for the society whose basic functioning improves when people aren’t sick and spreading diseases all the time. As a society we have a nearly unlimited desire for more education and healthcare, but as private customers we can and will only pay so much.  This is even further limited by the fact that those who most need education and healthcare are those with the least ability to pay: the very poor and the very sick, the very young and the very old.

So despite being massive and growing segments of our economy, they’re faced with chronic underinvestment because they’re not actually that profitable for Wall Street.  And in an economic system where people are only hired to do a job if a corporation can make a profit from it, not nearly enough people are being hired to provide public goods like education and healthcare to our society.

The vast majority of hospitals and schools are either run directly by the government, or by nonprofits who rely heavily on government aid to allow their patients and students to afford them.  For-profit colleges, for example, are generally considered to be somewhere between a joke and a scam, while the nation’s most elite private universities are all nonprofit organizations.  Even the parts of these sectors that are occupied by private corporations, from the pharmaceutical industry to textbook companies, really only survive because of a parasitic relationship with the public sector, utterly dependent on government funds and protections to make their business model work.

Another thing economists will say about eds and meds is that their costs are ballooning.  They seem dumbfounded that education and healthcare somehow seem stubbornly resistant to the “improvements in productivity” you see in consumer goods and services.  What they really mean is we are witnessing the effect of our natural human instinct to push back on these fundamentally human things being replaced by robots.

We don’t mind so much if our phone or our shirt was made by a robot, but we don’t want a robot teaching our daughter how to think, we don’t want a robot helping our brother who’s struggling with depression and addiction, we don’t want a robot taking care of our ailing grandmother.  This resistance to the machinelike automation of the care of our loved ones is hardwired into us.  It’s a concept economic models will always fail to calculate: love.

Their simplistic models of economic behavior can’t explain it.  They can’t figure out why every year the cost of college tuition and health insurance goes up without an end in sight. They constantly say we have shortages of nurses, shortages of teachers.  Yet according to their theories these things are not supposed to happen.  There are not supposed to be constant shortages of any things we need, there are not supposed to be prices that can’t stop rising.  Isn’t this the supposed beauty of the free market?  That the invisible hand will take care of these things?

Shifting into the next era of human work could require massive structural change away from a profit-driven economy

The signals are already here.  You can hear them if you listen closely, the sounds of the strain on the old system, creaking among the planks of a slowly sinking ship.

Our profit-driven system hasn’t found a way to re-allocate our resources towards human needs that can’t be replaced by robots.  On one end, we’re experiencing economic suffering from a lack of quality jobs for human beings who want to work.  On the other, there are huge numbers of people who need access to healthcare and education that isn’t being provided to them.  Somehow our financial system seems unable to connect the two.

It’s a simple problem of resource allocation.  A profit-based financial system doesn’t devote enough resources to these human development services to meet our society’s demand.  We’re not hiring enough people on the ground to do these jobs at a reasonable workload or paying them enough to attract the skilled workforce required.  Our teachers and nurses are underpaid and overworked, the symptoms of a strained and starved system.  Not enough people are willing to do this work under the current conditions, and those who do often quit early under stress.

Talk to anyone working in any of these jobs and they will tell you of the chronic shortages, the understaffing, the frantic pressure of trying to provide adequate care with too many people in need and never enough hands to help.  We desperately need more human beings doing these jobs.  

Yet Wall Street is not shifting their investments in that direction.  They are investing in the places that make the most money for shareholders:  High risk and high reward new financial gambles like mortgage-backed securities.  New methods of extracting untapped resources from the ground like fracking.  New more efficient ways to produce material goods, like automating factories with robots.

After all, the motive of Wall Street is not to benevolently serve humanity.  Wall Street makes investments that maximize profits for shareholders, full stop.  Any benefits to workers and communities this produces are incidental side effects.  If a massive wave of automation means the interests of workers and shareholders become increasingly aligned in different directions, a profit-driven system will move towards the direction that generates the highest returns for stock owners, even if it threatens the survival of millions of human beings, abandoning whole regions of the world like the post-industrial towns of the Midwest.

And yet what do the Gods of Wall Street do for us, that we as a society have decided to compensate them so richly for?  Why did we decide they should be the richest men among us?  I was taught in my economics classes that their job is the most important in our entire system: to efficiently allocate resources.  Their job is to take all of our immense collective wealth that humanity has ever created, look at the vast sum of human economic activity, and invest that wealth in the most productive places it can be used.  This, I was told, would benefit all of us.

They had One. Fucking. Job. 

It seems that maybe that job is beginning to outlive its usefulness.  If it’s true that the big task before us as a society is to massively shift our resources, to move the majority of the human labor from producing consumer stuff to providing human development, then our current financial system will not get us there.

It’s so hard for us to imagine that our profit-driven system could fail to allocate the resources of our society towards what we need.  Yet the evidence is all around us.

This kind of radical reshaping of our society is terrifying and hard to comprehend, so we just live with a cognitive dissonance and avoid it, but the stakes are too high if we mess this up.

This economic system is not just what we’ve always lived in, but what our parents and grandparents lived in, all any of us have ever known.  But we have to remember that human beings existed before this system.  We cannot allow ourselves to lose the memory that we came first.  That before this system, for the vast majority of human existence, we had other ways of life.  The times when we roamed the open land in tribes and lived off it together in balance.  The times when our families farmed whatever land we called home and made everything we needed with our own hands.  We should never pretend we can go back to these times, but we must never forget them.  Because in each of these times we reached points of crisis when we decided that we needed new systems, new rules, new ways of life to sustain the human race.

Now again we are a society in economic crisis.  It’s been a slow crisis building for decades, but the great crash pulled back the curtain and revealed it.  As Wall Street broke farther and farther away from the daily realities of the rest of humanity, the social contract unraveled.  The stock market and corporate profits continued to reach new heights while everyday people struggled.  The high-wage union factory jobs of an old manufacturing economy were tossed out.  The jobs that replaced them were the jobs we as a society had never valued before.  The shop clerks and waiters and cooks and maids and nannies.  The kind of jobs that an old society had handed to women and kids and immigrants and slaves.  The jobs we had decided weren’t worthy of a decent day’s pay or healthcare when you got sick or retirement when you got old or enough to send your kids to college for a better life.  Now we see that this work was always undervalued by our sexism and racism, but it might be too late.  The millions now doing this work, including many of the old decimated middle class, are under constant threat that they will be replaced by glittering screens if they ask for too much.  The financial crash was the wake up call, when the top-heavy gold-plated casino came tumbling down, and the house still won anyway, while everyone else was left holding the bag.  But now, as we struggle to pick up the pieces, we feel the longer, slower crisis.  We don’t see better days over the horizon.  We only see the same old problems stumbling on.

And when a society is in an economic crisis, when our little monkey tribe finds less bananas in the trees, we turn to one of two solutions:  Redistribution or exclusion.  We come together and change the rules to make sure every monkey has enough bananas to survive, knowing even if it slows us down, our tribe is stronger if we stay intact.  Or we narrow our circle and cast some of our monkey tribe out into the forest to either fend for themselves or die.

And here we are.  Staring each other down in the jungle, wondering which choice we take.

In the last great crisis of our economic system, almost 90 years ago, we fought this battle, and although it left behind scars, redistribution won.  This kept our system going, patched up some of the widening inequality and economic suffering for a time.  But although our most recent crash was less severe than that time, our slow crisis now looms even larger.

If only our monkey ancestors could see us in such misery after inventing machines to make more bananas than they could have ever imagined, they would hoot and howl in monkey laughter.  Only in a crazy upside-down world would that be a problem.  But here we are, in this crazy upside-down world we’ve created, with too many bananas and not enough jobs for banana-pickers.

Building a new economic system on top of an old one won’t happen overnight, but the decay of old systems provides fertilizer to grow new ones.

We may have to remember deeper, the last time this happened.  Not the crisis of 100 years ago, but 300 years ago, as we learned how to produce more food than ever before with a fraction of the human labor.  Rather than creating a land of plenty, it created misery.  Peasants turned into paupers.  Those who had worked the land of their ancestors for generations, ensuring them a basic level of survival, found themselves with nothing useful to contribute to the new society.  The new unnecessary human beings stayed in their ancestral lands as they always had before, begging on the cobblestone streets of their towns, putting deeper and deeper strain on the old system, until society had to rewrite its old feudal rules to kick them out of the streets of their villages and force them into the booming cities of iron and coal to work in the new factories who needed them.

In time, the disruption of this new system created wealth beyond what the old peasants could have imagined.  Free from the daily labor of farming the land to produce the most basic necessities of food and clothing for survival, human beings began to make more and more new things to buy and use, new gadgets and toys, life’s little luxuries.  We created a society built on this consumerism, the making and buying and selling and using and throwing away of material things.

The industrial revolution also left behind a fraction of the former massive human workforce of subsistence farmers, sharecroppers and peasants.  This skeleton crew of farmers could produce as much food as ever before, and continue feeding a planet teeming with human beings doing other things.

Similarly, the consumer economy and all the beautiful fun consumer goods it produces won’t go away, just like the land-based economy and the food it produced haven’t gone away.  But at some point in the future, this consumer economy might not be the primary occupation of the daily lives of most human beings on the planet.  It could require a fraction of the people, a skeleton crew.  Three or four people in a factory or department store, watching screens, analyzing, troubleshooting, stepping in when needed.  Fifty in a corporate headquarters office, the people whose jobs couldn’t be done by algorithms.  People who research and invent new things.  People who write the code needed to make them real.  Enough to make and sell just as many consumer goods as ever before, with a fraction of the human labor.

And of course some jobs always survive mass economic disruptions, the ones that seem as old as human society itself.  The chieftains’ advisors and the drummers and storytellers.  The royal court and the bards and jesters.   Law, criminal justice, and government policymaking.  Arts and entertainment.  Sectors that play too important and complex a role in human life to be handed over to machines.

But just as most of us moved from the farms to the factories, it’s possible that over the next century the majority of the human population will have to move from a consumer economy to a human development economy of healthcare and education.  Perhaps in the future, free from the drudgery of spending our days making and selling material goods, we can devote our lives to our next calling, our next human desire– improving our bodies and minds in a human revolution.  I believe the next great need for our work is to care for, inspire, heal and teach one another.

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t a single event that uniformly changed the entire economic system worldwide, where one day everyone woke up and everything was different.  A human revolution wouldn’t be a quick and seamless transition either.  It would have to be slowly built atop the old system, growing as the other dies.  Green shoots beginning to sprout on the decaying trunk of a fallen tree.

But nothing provides better fertilizer for new growth than old rot.  Whenever hugely disruptive technological change displaces millions of people from their old work, it also creates immense new gains in productivity, leading to unimaginable new wealth.  The tricky part is capturing that new wealth from an old system and redirecting it to grow a new one. 

All life is born of capturing the energy from old death.  Our sun, a cloud of gas that collapsed, burning until it goes out, radiating energy out into space, is the source of every living thing you or I have ever known.  And yet it seems to be a rare miracle in our lonely universe to find a planet where something actually evolved to capture that energy and convert it into new life.

If the Industrial Revolution’s technology had advanced while leaving the old feudal system in place, we would have been left with nothing but increasingly wealthy lords sitting atop peasants bound by law to toiling on their land that was far more productive than ever before.  There would have been no one to work in the factories, and the new industrial system would have starved in its infancy as the old feudal system grew fat, and collapsed under its own weight.

The new has to feed off the old, but that requires evolution.  If exploding productivity continues to result in more and more wealth accumulating in the hands of the owners of machines, we will need to take that wealth to make public investments in a human development economy.

The ones who truly reap the benefits of automation will not be the upper-middle-class engineer or software programmer, but Wall Street, those who ultimately own the technology they create.  We have to tax the true owners of wealth—through capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and closing their loopholes and deductions.  We need to use this capital to invest in unprecedented expansions of the healthcare and education systems.  Providing universal pre-K and free higher education.  Hiring more teachers and counselors in public schools and hiring more nurses and doctors in public hospitals.  Adopting Medicare-style single payer for all.  Expanding underserved parts of the medical system like mental health and reproductive health.   Creating reentry programs for former inmates returning from prison, readjustment programs for veterans returning from war, rehabilitation programs for former addicts in recovery, retraining programs for the unemployed reentering the job market.  We need to target these investments in the places that have been abandoned most by the peeling back of the old consumer economy.  The urban industrial neighborhoods and rural factory towns that have been suffering for decades.  The places literally dying from the inside out, with rising mortality rates from poor health and lack of economic opportunity, crack and heroin addiction, suicide and youth violence.

If the level of economic change coming will truly be as disruptive as the titans of tech predict, then we cannot paper over the flaws of a profit-driven consumption-based economy that hurtles us towards economic apartheid and ecological disaster.  We have to build on top of the old consumer economy a new human economy.  We have to redirect our energies towards investing in each others’ human development, spending our days helping each other heal our sufferings and reach our aspirations.  That’s the revolution I’ll sign up for.

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

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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 Ask.com 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.

 

How I Learned to Love Ventucky

If you drive up the 101 from Los Angeles, radio tuned to 105.9, there’s a place where the music begins to crackle back and forth between hip-hop from LA and country from the Central Coast. It’s a little known stretch of coastline between Malibu and Santa Barbara mostly untouched by tourist development, that holds what might be the last blue-collar beach towns in Southern California. When you see the Boot Barn, you’ve reached the Ventura city limits. Some call it Bakersfield-by-the-Sea, I prefer Ventucky.

Ventura sits along the Santa Clara River, the largest river in Southern California that flows freely rather than encased in concrete. The Santa Clara seeps down from its valley and into the broad Oxnard plain, which boasts some of the most fertile soil on Earth and some of California’s last remaining coastal wetlands. In the late 20th century, as sprawl swept outward from Los Angeles, the wave of parking lots, strip malls and cookie-cutter housing tracts fell just short of paving over the farmland and open space of Western Ventura County. Perhaps it was the enduring political coalition of environmentalists who didn’t want to see their community turn into Orange County and rural folks who didn’t want to see their community turn into LA. But as other coastal Southern California cities embraced tourism and booming real estate, the Ventura County coast built its economy instead on oil, farming, and the military.

When I first moved to Ventura as a teenager, it felt like a foreign place, having spent most of my childhood in Oakland, a diverse port city the New York Times once dubbed the last refuge of the radical left in America. At first it felt strange to live under a giant cross at the top of the hillside (a popular makeout spot for teens), hear racial slurs dropped casually in conversation, or realize the ancient Spanish mission was not just an artifact of colonial mistreatment of Native Americans but a bustling church where immigrant families gathered to worship. But as I came of age in my adopted community, it began to feel like home.

Eastern Ventura County is made up of the farthest reaches of suburban white flight from the urban core of LA, and is one of the wealthiest places in the country. But Western Ventura County is working-class, rural (a relative term in densely populated California), and majority Latino. The city of Ventura itself, at the western edge of the county, is mostly blue-collar white families, in part due to a history of displacing other ethnic neighborhoods, with only murals to commemorate long forgotten communities with names like China Alley and Tortilla Flats.

Ventura is an odd cultural mix of hippies, rednecks and Mexicans, united by mutual interests like Sublime and backyard chicken raising. People are drawn to its historic downtown on the weekends from a 25 mile radius to drink, and a 100 mile radius to go thrift store shopping.  You can ride a trolley bought secondhand from Santa Barbara. The county fair is kind of a big deal. It’s a place that produces great fish tacos, potent marijuana, and lots of bros who wear flannel shirts, tattoos, trucker hats, and long black Dickie’s shorts with high socks. Lifted trucks with “SoCal” written in Old English lettering across the back window are the preferred method of transportation.

When I left to go back to the Bay Area for college, like most other university-bound young people, I assumed I would never return to Ventura. Working towards a career in politics and public policy, at the time I saw my hometown as part of California’s conservative backwater, a place with few opportunities for someone like me. If I wanted to do cutting edge work surrounded by inspiring people and innovative projects, my future would lie in New York, the Bay Area, or Washington DC. But a brief stint in DC left me feeling empty– disconnected from the real people affected by the policies I researched and wrote about all day, surrounded by ambitious talented young people in suits searching for the next happy hour to network with other ambitious talented young people in suits.

As I finished my education, I started to see places like Ventura County as the frontier: a onetime conservative stronghold with rapidly shifting demographics that promised immense political transformation. Over the last few years, Ventura County had become both majority people of color and majority Democratic voter registration, with old political leadership that failed to reflect the new reality of the diverse younger generation. The very community I had left was the one where I had the most power to create change. It was here where I understood the day to day issues affecting people I knew and cared deeply about. It was here where I knew the dynamics of power and what needed to be done to alter them. It was here that I was not just another political hack interloping in a community that was not my own with big ideas about how to solve someone else’s problems. I decided to move back home and started doing policy research, communications, and community organizing for a local social justice organization. I produced analysis on voting rights and economic inequality, recruited and trained youth activists to work on campaigns to improve schools and protect the environment, and developed messaging to persuade the public on affordable housing and immigrants’ rights.

When I talked to many of my peers, mentors, and loved ones, they expressed concern about me living in Ventura. Sometimes people talked about it as if I had agreed to a death sentence. Settling for obscurity and isolation, the ultimate punishment for the capital crimes of insufficient ambition and wasted talent. “So how long do you think you’re going to stay there?” was the inevitable question.

The fact that so few people made that choice was the very reason I felt I needed to do it. People come from all over the country to the Bay Area to do social justice work– in places like Ventura County it’s just the opposite– a steady, relentless brain-drain of locally-grown activists who leave to go someplace else. After a couple years, I couldn’t have asked for a better job– meaningful, intellectually engaging, creative, a critical role in a growing organization. But it was lonely work. I met few other young people who shared a similar place in their lives and careers. I felt isolated and restless. At the beginning of 2014, I told myself that if I still felt this way at the end of the year, I would start looking into possibilities elsewhere.

But over the course of the year, I realized that Ventucky wasn’t the only place I felt disoriented and out of place. I began to feel a growing distance between myself and my peers from college, who now lived lives so dramatically different from mine. They spent their days surrounded by well-educated young professionals who Uber-ed through America’s great metropolises, toasting every night to the thrill of ultimate geographic and economic mobility. Their social circles were people whose relationships to the communities around them were relationships of consumption. Places like my childhood home of Oakland and my birthplace of Brooklyn were being packaged, marketed and consumed by the millenial bourgeoisie, with the insatiable hunger of hipsterdom that feeds off authenticity even as it devours it beyond recognition.

And at the same time, I was coming to a deeper understanding of my own choices. It wasn’t about settling, it was about learning to love something not for what you want it to be, but for what it is. It was about finding value in things that others didn’t. I appreciated Ventura’s unpretentious natural beauty and laid back pace of life, an utterly sincere lack of trendiness that sort of smiled and shrugged at the outside world, drank another beer, ate another taco, and curled its toes deeper into the warm timeless sand.

IFile:Ventura County Fair.jpg realized that if I didn’t quite fit in here, it was not because there was something wrong with this place. I had never fit in anywhere in my entire life. I was a new guy in school, a mixed-race kid, a boy raised by women. That experience had made me stronger, confident in my identity, able to fluidly navigate through different worlds and speak in different dialects. I don’t know what it feels like to be in a place where most people are like me, but it’s not something I need to be happy. I can still love this community in all its differences from me.

When I first moved to Ventura as an angsty teenager, I hated the smell of manure that would blow over the city from the fields on late windy nights. Maybe they changed the fertilizer, but now I don’t notice it anymore. I love driving through the strawberry fields, lemon groves and avocado orchards, bordered by breathtaking mountains on one side and sweeping coastline on the other. I love living in a hundred-year-old apartment in a walkable downtown that always seems to have streets closed down for some sort of festival involving Johnny Cash, motorcycles, surfing, beer or classic cars. I love walking down to the empty beach at night, surrounded by total silence except the slow rhythm of the waves, with the dark ocean melting into the horizon marked only by the lights of oil rigs glowing dimly between the islands like invading warships.

It’s only now that I’ve come to appreciate how Ventura has shaped me and my work. I learned here not just to drop the obnoxious front of cosmopolitan smugness I walked in with as a teenager, but to try to bury the underlying impulse of always trying to find ways to superficially set myself apart from other people, a vanity that made me ineffective. It was living in Ventura that taught me that the true challenge is not the ability to speak the exclusive vocabulary of left-wing academic one-upmanship, but rather being able to sincerely convey my values to others in everyday language. It was here I stopped being in such a hurry to get where I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, and came to understand that deep change is often the art of quietly playing the long game. Here I learned the critical distinction between the appearance of importance, in titles and awards and institutions and halls of power, and actual meaningful impact, which often lives in obscure corners of the world.

The poet Khalil Gibran wrote “Work is love made visible”. If that’s true, then I want the nature of my work to reflect the nature of my love for the people around me. I want my work to be rooted and grounded, tangible and accountable to the people in my community. Here issues like fracking, drought, and pesticides are not abstract ideas on an environmental organization’s online petition, but daily realities that are both inextricably linked to people’s livelihoods and slowly poisoning our communities at the same time. When I speak or write about the rights of low-wage migrant workers and opportunities for their children, I’m not talking about census data, but about families I know. Political divisions are wide here, and the stakes are high, and at the end of the day when we win or lose, the consequences are felt by people I call friends in the place I call home.

A year ago, I was filled with discontent about the choice I had made. I gave myself a year to think and came to the conclusion that contentment is not what I’m looking for at this moment in my life. That I’m at my best in a place that challenges me. And perhaps what is most challenging to me is not what’s unknown and unexplored, but rather what’s deeply familiar, something that I’m part of and that’s part of me whether I like it or not, forcing me to reconcile its contradictions and embrace its imperfections. It’s easy to chase someone else’s life, what’s hard is learning to love yours.

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Schools in Poor Communities are Buying Every Student an iPad. Here’s Why it Won’t Close the Digital Divide.

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The hottest trend in education right now seems to be buying an iPad for every student, especially in high poverty schools.  By providing tablets to students who may not have computer access at home, the theory goes, we can ensure all children in America have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.

But the sudden popularity of iPads among school administrators despite opposition from many teachers and parents should raise questions:  Are iPads actually the most effective tool to bridge the digital divide?  If our education system is preparing low-income children for the 21st century, what role are they being trained to play: producers of digital content or consumers of it?

Working at a community group engaging the public in major decisions on spending new funding in several California school districts, I’ve encountered mostly negative reactions to the iPad trend.  Teachers bemoan distracted students (LA schools recalled their iPads after students figured out within a week how to unblock access to sites like Facebook and YouTube).  Parents worry that children will get jumped walking home in rough neighborhoods with iPads in their backpacks.  Most students are happy to get a free iPad, but often say they think it’s a waste of money when compared with other more urgent school needs.

With such thin community support, why are they being adopted at such a ferocious pace?  Part of the answer is Common Core, new education standards where testing is now done on computers.  Another part is strong marketing from Apple, who reaps major profits by controlling a staggering 94% of the market for school tablets.  (While building long-term brand loyalty from a huge future customer base.)  Finally, superintendents face an incentive to spend funds on things like iPads for everyone, which are highly visible and often generate positive media attention, rather than something like restoring furlough days cut from the school calendar, which is barely noticed by the public.

None of this is to argue against school districts investing in technology.  I believe in integrating technology in schools and I’ve personally benefitted from these efforts.  My elementary school in the 90’s was stocked with donated Apple computers, which I remember exploring with awe.  I attended a technology magnet high school that had classes from video editing to web design to computer repair, as well as a mandatory tech literacy curriculum, which included learning to use Excel, Powerpoint, Publisher, Photoshop and even create basic Flash animation.  I rolled my eyes at being forced to learn these programs then, but now use most of them on a regular basis at work.

Schools should be making targeted efforts to close the digital divide.  More and more, college classes and middle-class jobs assume a basic level of computer skills.  A lack of familiarity with Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint can cripple the career success of people from low-income families.

Digital differences   Pew Research Center s Internet   American Life ProjectBut the digital divide is more complicated than it appears.  Surprisingly enough, smartphone ownership in the US is actually higher among blacks and Latinos than whites.  We live in a society that’s difficult to participate in without the internet and many low-income families who can’t afford home computers or wi-fi use smartphones as their primary source of internet access.

The real digital divide isn’t about unequal access to mobile technology like smartphones and tablets.  It’s about unequal access to real computers.

Here’s the difference: computers are producer tools, tablets are consumer tools.

If you teach a kid from a poor family how to use a tablet to surf the web, he/she has learned how to be a consumer of online content.  But if you want him/her to learn how to make a webpage, rather than just look at one, they’ll probably need to learn on a computer, not an iPad.

But this isn’t just about teaching children to be web designers and software engineers.  A major barrier that shuts low-income people out of white collar jobs in general is lack of more basic computer skills like being able to make a slideshow presentation for a meeting, design a simple publication about a topic, analyze and manipulate a spreadsheet of data, or even type quickly on a keyboard.  None of these are skills you learn on an iPad.

It’s hard to predict the advances of technology, and maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and think this was naïve of me to say.  But at a fundamental level, the whole point of a tablet is simplicity and mobility—it’s a product intentionally kept simple to allow it to be small, slick and mobile—which means it’s meant to supplement computers, not replace them.  A tablet’s main purpose is to easily access content that’s actually created on a computer.

Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do here:  What’s the deeper shift we’re trying to create through these school tech initiatives?  Are we trying to widen the consumer base for the tech industry by making it possible for more people to watch videos and read articles online?  Or are we trying to create a world that opens access to low-income communities of color as not just consumers, but producers of digital content as well?

It’s not only more cost effective, but more useful to invest in shared computer labs at school sites where students can learn to actually make things:  Whether it’s writing code, editing videos, doing graphic design, turning data into charts and graphs, or making powerpoints and posters, these are 21st century skills that empower rather than commodify students.

If we’re about real meaningful access to the 21st century economy—about kids having a fair shot at living wage jobs and getting out of poverty—iPads for everyone is not the answer.

The 5 Most Interesting Things I Learned From Twitter Today

alltypesontwitter

Ok, after Day One of actively using Twitter, I’m sold.

Here are five great links I read today from Twitter that I wouldn’t have read otherwise (they wouldn’t have shown up, even in my Google Reader, which pulls from about 50 different blogs and news sources).

Study shows college professors are not as liberal as people think

Black Americans waited twice as long as white Americans to vote last November

Organizing workers outside traditional unions is needed, but the current models are unsustainable

Climate activists publicly wonder “What do we do when the Democrats suck?”

Talking about female candidates’ appearance, whether positive or negative, hurts their chances of winning

P.S. follow me: @lucaszucker

My Inner Turmoil Over Twitter

Graph courtesy of blogger Nick Beaudrot

Graph courtesy of blogger Nick Beaudrot

 

About a week ago, I made a Twitter account out of curiosity just to see how many friends of mine were on Twitter and what they were talking about.

My reactions ranged from this…

To this…

I’m having social media angst.  Facebook, having swallowed Instagram, seems to be gradually becoming it.  Their News Feed algorithm increasingly favors photos and downplays links.  This sucks, because I want to use Facebook to read interesting things my friends post, and post things I think are interesting for my friends to read.  I don’t want to see any pictures of your fucking food.  That’s fine if you use Facebook primarily for promoting your cat’s existence and how silly it looks doing things.  The great thing about Facebook is it’s versatile.  I do me, you do you.  I just feel like Facebook is becoming biased against literate dialogue.  Even national conversations about social and political issues on Facebook are being reduced to quotes from B-list celebrities next to their pictures.

So I’m flirting with the idea of picking up a little Twitter on the side.

I like social media because I like to write and I like to read.  But to be honest, I think books are a pretty limited way to write and read.  They mostly have to be written by “experts” that have made it through the approval process of some publishing company, take forever to produce and so are never up to date, and have to be about 300-400 pages long because some Unelected Gods of Bookery decided so, even though most interesting ideas can be concisely expressed in 3-4 pages.

On the other hand, I think my friends are pretty smart and they’re a lot more diverse of a crowd than the world of published authors and they read blogs and news sources I don’t and share the good stuff on Facebook.  Social media also gives me a way to write quickly and whenever I feel like it and share ideas and links to things that I think are interesting without having to get a book deal.

Twitter seems like a pretty good platform for that in general.  But it’s also kind of a wasteland of mindless blabbering you have to wade through to find things that you actually care about.  Here’s how I look at it.

Upsides of Twitter:

  • It’s mainly text based.  You can link to pictures, but they don’t take up all the space
  • You’re part of an international dialogue that can include important people whose thoughts you’re interested in but you’re not personally friends with
  • You can spread your readers to people who aren’t already your friends, which is useful for things like promoting a blog

Downsides of Twitter:

  • The character limit means most things posted on Twitter are witty, snappy soundbites made to get as many retweets as possible, but it’s harder to convey interesting ideas with real substance
  • The culture of Twitter involves posting many times a day.  This makes people more willing to post stupid shit, because they don’t have a filter between their brain and their thumbs.  It also means Twitter is more time consuming to keep up with
  • Way less people are on Twitter.  About 2/3rds of Americans use Facebook, only 16% use Twitter.  And among my friends it feels like even less.
  • The hashtag thing is so fucking annoying

 

So friends– what do you think?  Do you use Twitter?  Why or why not?  Share your wisdom with me.