The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

Links: To house or not to house, Dostoevsky in Love, everything is not broken, and more!

* Should I buy a house? Maybe not: most people don’t consider that the alternative to a housing unit is investing in the stock market, which may produce superior returns—and has, over the last century. Almost no one thinks on the margin.

* “Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi review – unpredictable, dangerous and thrilling: His marriages were disastrous but his words were so rousing they made strangers embrace … a superb study of the Russian novelist.” Pre-ordered.

* “Atomic Heat in Small Packages Gives Big Industry a Climate Option.” On fission small modular reactors (SMRs).

* Stop reading books like a critic. I’m not sure most people do, but I agree, in part, though I find reading like a critic pleasurable.

* Companies working on direct air capture (DAC) of CO2. The article’s framing is poor—what’s the alternative to working on this problem? The status quo?—but the basic idea is good, and progress is good. You, reader, can also sign up for a Climeworks CO2 removal subscription. Relatedly, humans aren’t going to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 celsius, so now what? The article attempts to answer the “now what?” question, and carbon capture and storage are a big part of “now what.”

* “A Cupertino elementary school forces third-graders to deconstruct their racial identities, then rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege.'” One hopes this is an isolated example; there are around 3.5 million teachers in the U.S., so on any given day something outrageous is probably happening somewhere, and that given thing shouldn’t be given too much prominence. So is this a trend, or a one-off?

* Ross Douthat on “The Case for One More Child: Why Large Families Will Save Humanity.” Maybe.

* “Was novel born [in,] and died with[,] the bourgeois society?” Plausible, but also ignores the desire for storytelling in other formats: radio, then film, then TV, and now on the smartphone.

* Beating up baby boomers, which is mostly fine with me.

* Everything is Broken, a journalistic screed—journalism has seen something like half of its jobs and revenue disappear over twenty years, which may contribute to the tone of a lot of journalism. Some of the essay advances the myth of the golden age (when was it, exactly?). It also doesn’t mention housing or zoning policies, or the growth of the medical insurance industry (which destroyed price signals). Lots of blame for Silicon Valley, but not nearly enough for housing restrictions. Blaming Silicon Valley is easy, but there’s very little looking in the mirror. The author and her husband are journalists; if most people demanded rigorously reported and important stories, they’d be produced. But most don’t. There are dubious causal claims, like, “Most consumers don’t know that by using internet-based (or -generated) platforms—by buying from Amazon, by staying in an Airbnb, by ordering on Grubhub, by friending people on Facebook—that they are subscribing to a life of flatness, one that can lead directly into certain politics.” Ordering from Grubhub doesn’t causally create “flatness,” whatever that means, and “flatness” doesn’t causally lead “into certain politics.” Not everything is political; sometimes you just want some pad thai.

Despite everything “being broken,” we’ve seen the fastest vaccination project, ever, succeed in a quarter of the time of the next-fastest example. That alone is a sign of resilience, isn’t it, despite the political process preventing new housing and transit construction? “CorNeat Vision’s First Patient Regains Sight Following Artificial Cornea Implantation at Rabin Medical Center, Ending a Decade of Blindness.” Is everything broken? Maybe national politics, journalism as a profession, and fair housing markets are broken—but some things aren’t.

Links: Many deep dives

* Dan Wang’s 2020 letter, which is mostly but not exclusively about his life in and observations about China. He writes, “This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world. Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence.” See also “On cultures that build;” for some reason, American culture has de-emphasized building and making things, to our collective detriment. We have lots of veto players and too few doers.

* “How Biden Can Rebuild a Divided and Distrustful Nation: Americans Must Get to Know One Another Again.” From it: “The United States’ two political parties are sorting into distinctive groups based on who they are rather than on their policy preferences” and “Because partisan sorting is no longer primarily about one’s policy views but instead about one’s deepest values or identity, the ‘other party’ is no longer just the opposition but the enemy; and politics is no longer about finding compromises that can address common problems but about winning a war for one’s own side.” It may turn out that having religion be about one’s deepest values or identity, or family, is a much better belief system than having politics in their place. It is strange, though, to see one party attack the fundamentals of democracy itself, since democracy is supposed to be the foundation of American politics.

* “America Can’t Even Produce the Things It Invented: The United States can bring manufacturing back — which will bring back good jobs and protect national interests.”

* “Worse Than Treason: No amount of rationalizing can change the fact that the majority of the Republican Party is advocating for the overthrow of an American election.” Anyone remember a few years ago when the Republican Party thought democracy so important that it was worth invading another country for? No?

* The factories in the Xinjiang camps: China’s slave labor force?

* “Experts on how to fight America’s disinformation crisis.” I’m not convinced this can be “fixed” per se, because most people are not interested in epistemology, and (relatively) free speech and zero-cost distribution means that people can develop fantasy worlds easily. When a small percentage of the population does this, it doesn’t matter much, but we’re trying to figure out what happens when a much larger percentage of the population does this.

* “Charter schools deliver extraordinary results, but their political support among Democrats has collapsed.” I notice this: “They instill schoolwide cultures of respect for learning and orderly environments, so that one or two disruptive students can’t bring classes to a standstill,” which is something many of my friends who are teachers talk about: one student can often veto 30 other students’s experiences. This also tells us something important about the gap between rhetoric and reality regarding race: “Polls show that the backlash against charters has been mainly confined to white liberals, while Black and Latino Democrats — whose children are disproportionately enrolled in those schools — remain supportive.”

As with the links above (and posted over the last several years) regarding our inability to build, I suspect we’re suffering from “good enough” syndrome in schools. “Good enough” and “I’ve got mine” breeds complacency, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Will we find that complacency breaks down eventually? Or that it is already breaking down now?

* “WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: Share data with Facebook or stop using the app.” Time to switch to Signal?

* “Making policy for a low-trust world” is a boring title for an essay that ties lots of policy, social, and other ideas together; it’s hard to pick one as being most important, but the example of the extremely slow coronavirus vaccine rollout is useful. We should prioritize doing things fast, and we don’t, and that has many negative consequences.

* “CO2 already emitted will warm Earth beyond climate targets, study finds: ‘Committed warming’ is 2.3 C, higher than previous estimates; but it can be delayed.” Time for that Climeworks subscription.

Links: The nature of expression, the best books of 2020, the social reality, and more!

* Tyler Cowen’s very best books of 2020, and I’ve found this as well: “Finally, I will note that the ‘best books lists’ of other institutions have grown much worse, even over the last year. A good list has never been more valuable, and please note my recommendations are never done to fill a quota, ‘achieve balance,’ right previous wrongs, or whatever. They are what I think are the best books. Scary how rare that has become.” Book reviews, including the NYT’s, have become dramatically less useful in the last few years, and book bloggers have mostly disappeared (do you know of any I ought to follow?). Goodreads has never been a favorite for me, and it’s been widely neglected by Amazon.

* Data suggests significant COVID-19 protection with some vaccines, even without a second shot. If studies prove that’s true, it could be a game changer. This should obviously be studied, now. “First doses first” makes a similar point: given the efficacy of the first dose, we should get first doses to as many people as possible, then worry about second doses. If we had a two-dose regimen that was “only” 90% effective, or even 80% effective, we’d still be ecstatic.

* “When I went to college, almost every course was serious. Even ‘Physics for Poets’ was intended to convey important knowledge. Now if you want a rigorous education you have to select courses carefully.” See also Paying for the Party, an essential book for understanding higher ed, which makes a similar point although in different words and using different emphases; Academically Adrift is also good, and I’ve not seen serious rebuttals to it.

* “The Veterans Organizing to Stop Trumpism.”

* “ How and why I stopped buying new laptops.” A reasonable and interesting point in many respects, but, at the same time, having a computer die unexpectedly is annoying, common, and disruptive. And high-definition screens are amazing: mine, for example, is 5120 x 2880.

* Congress is about to ban most surprise medical bills. Good. I’d love to see price transparency but there seems to be almost no constituency for healthcare price transparency, outside of nerds and economists.

* “The Internet is for Porn,” and note that this is an essay. The stigma around the subject still exists, though, and stigma around a popular field means opportunity. It’ll be interesting to see whether the credit card processors’s actions help drive the cryptocurrency economy, as some have predicted.

* “100 Tips for a Better Life.” I notice: “Deficiencies do not make you special. The older you get, the more your inability to cook will be a red flag for people.”

* Eyes Wide Shut, explained. Explaining it may not make it a good movie, however.

* If you think the CDC has been incompetent, if not abysmal, here is more evidence supporting that thought.

* “Tell Only Lies: Americans are increasingly afraid to express themselves honestly.” Maybe, but can’t we express ourselves anonymously more easily than ever?

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past — J Storrs Hall

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past tries to answer the question in its title, and the short answer proposed is some combination of “centralized funding streams” “bureaucratic inertia,” “cultural malaise and indifference” and “regulation.” In his own words, Hall says that “cultural reaction and regulatory ossification have combined to dam up the normal flow of experimentation in high power technology.” Are these the right, complete answers, though? The most-right answer seems to be “flying is hard, consumes a lot of energy, and has catastrophic outcomes when done wrong:” humans are bad enough at driving in two dimensions, and Hall describes flying’s challenges. The normal flow of experimentation may have been dammed up, but it may be dammed up against fundamental problems. Despite this uncertainty, Hall asks the right questions, which too few people are asking, and he stimulates a lot of thought. For that reason he should be read: yet, with almost every field he cites, I wonder what an expert would say. He takes optimistic science fiction seriously and looks at it as inspiration.

We’re supposed to have flying cars, clean nuclear power, and so on. Instead, since the ’70s, we’ve seen many positive trends flatline, as Hall writes:

We are used to prices going up because of inflation, but there are some things—typically the most important things—whose costs keep stubbornly going up in real terms, i.e. even adjusted for inflation. Housing costs twice as much, on average. Primary education costs three times as much as in the 60s, and children are not learning more. Until the Seventies, health care costs and longevity in the US grew at about the same rates as in comparable developed countries; since then longevity has grown more slowly and costs have grown much faster. Medical care now costs six times as much as in the 60s: in 1960, the average worker worked ten days to pay for his health insurance; today, 60 days

This is a scandal but it’s not consistent front-page news. We should be massively debating what to do about it and how to end the relentless cost inflation, but many people can’t even get the diagnosis vaguely right, and anti-market bias is common. Hall’s work is consistent with, and cites, The Great Stagnation, as well as Peter Thiel (both of whom are cited). As a society, we’ve seen the costs of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and housing, balloon. We’re not much committed, as a society, to trying to fix those issues. Maybe we’re too wealthy to bother.

Hall says that “within a decade or two [. . . .] We will begin to make machines that can make ‘absolutely anything,’ in the sense that a printer can print any page or a 3-D printer can make any shape in its plastic, but in a wide range of engineering materials and with atomic precision.” One hopes so. The optimism is refreshing, but why, beyond bureaucracy and inertia, if the claims about what could be are true, are the miraculous things Storrs sees possible in aviation and other fields not currently true.

Hall is least convincing when discussing why we shouldn’t worry about greenhouse gas emissions; he correctly identifies some incorrect previous climate predictions but ignores the fact that some incorrect predictions were made does not mean that all future predictions are incorrect. We also have good data on previous global mass extinction events, and five of the six are linked to rapidly changing carbon levels. Paul Ehrlich was notoriously wrong in The Population Bomb, yes, but we do face real challenges that must be addressed technologically; it’s true that many “environmentalist” groups are hypocritical at best and counterproductive at worse, but that also doesn’t mean we aren’t facing real and severe problems related to carbon and methane emissions.

I’m not a fatalist in this respect and you shouldn’t be either: we need to develop negative emissions technologies (which is why Climeworks subscriptions, for example, are important). Hall also makes overbroad claims like “Cars, trucks, and highways were clearly one of the major causes of the postwar boom.” Were they “one of the major causes?” Or was the truly major cause the large-scale destruction of most of the rest of the industrial world, coupled with large swaths of the world being controlled by communists? The link between “Cars, trucks, and highways” and “the postwar boom” is not clear, and we can’t re-run history to find out whether this causal link exists. There are many such assertions. Hall critiques some bovine aspects of modern culture and cultural malaise, but he may be showing his own acculturation: people who were born before the extreme costs of traffic and air pollution (see, for example, “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot“) were loved and still love cars; those who were born after, don’t.

Infrastructure costs, though, whether for highways or subways, have outpaced inflation for decades, meaning that we can’t seem to collectively build either. I’d prefer subways, but the political and legal world inhibits either.

Regardless of one’s position on cars and highways, something, or somethings, happened in the ’70s, and we’ve not recovered from that period. Maybe we’re recovering now (it’s notoriously hard to judge the present). Hall is describing the technological and cultural problems that became apparent in the ’70s, but are their roots primarily in culture, primarily in science, primarily in institutions, or in all of the above?

Some of Hall’s techno-cultural comments have unexpected resonance:

Perhaps the most enduring and popular champion of the “world of tomorrow” throughout the actual postwar period was the avuncular Walt Disney, with offerings ranging from Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom to his planned Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, i.e. EPCOT. Fittingly, after his death the Disney company built EPCOT as a kind of permanent World’s Fair.

Today, Disney is notable for its relentlessly supplicating behavior towards the world’s largest totalitarian government (yesterday’s post covers this subject as well); as Sonny Bunch said in Disney’s Bob Iger shouldn’t be ambassador to China. No Hollywood executive should be,” Iger and Disney have spent decades kowtowing to China, to the point that, “Under [Iger’s] watch, the company’s Marvel division recast a Tibetan character from the Doctor Strange movies as a Celtic woman.” Consider Disney’s silence on Uighur genocide:

Disney executives had thought that the original “Mulan” would please both the Chinese government and Chinese filmgoers. But because Disney had distributed “Kundun” (1997), a film glorifying the Dalai Lama, Beijing restricted the studio’s ability to work in China. Disney spent the next several years trying to get back into the party’s good graces. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing ‘Kundun,’” the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner told Premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Disney makes many films and other products about the ability of plucky rebels to overcome large empires: but when it comes to its real-world behavior, Disney is on the side of the massive, super coercive empire. Who knew that Walt Disney’s “world of tomorrow” would include what can be described, at its most charitable, as ignoring totalitarianism and genocide?

Where Is My Flying Car? could, and should, be tightened by a careful editor, and it’s organized strangely, with discussions of the flying car, for example, interrupted and then returned to—but the conclusion that many of our problems are fundamentally caused by a failure to invest intelligently in fundamental technologies and a failure to get out of our own way may be unattractive to the dominant discourse in publishing. Someone famous like Peter Thiel can get away with such a book, while someone less famous can’t.

The phrase “Perhaps the most” occurs twelve times in the book, and “the bottom line” occurs more than twenty. Too many quotes adorn the start of every chapter (“Heinlein” is mentioned more than two dozen times—but not as often as the word “obvious”). The editing is not great, but, while I don’t know the book’s publication history, perhaps being unpalatable to commercial publishing houses is consistent with the book’s thesis. Publishing houses increasingly specialize in “woke” or “social justice” issues: not in envisioning what a brighter future might be like, or how to get from here to there. For that, we have to turn on self-publishing on Amazon, where the editing is worse but the ideas more vital. If you know other self-published books I should be reading, please let me know.

Roots of Progress has a good review of and essay on Where Is My Flying Car? I read “Aviation Outsider Boom Builds Supersonic Jet for Transatlantic Flight” after I’d finished the first draft of this essay, and Boom’s supersonic airplane is the sort of thing that, conceivably, we should have had earlier—but we don’t, to the detriment of all of us. Faster travel around the globe would not just be a boom but a boon, and the kind of boon consistent with Hall’s vision.

Links: Fighting over “fiction,” self esteem, Mike Tyson on medieval history, Instagram socialists, and more!

* “Why We Fight Over Fiction.” We might say we’re very rarely fighting over just fiction. Social ideas with potential status and reproductive consequences get people worked up.

* “Political lying as tribal signaling: It’s like getting a tattoo to prove you’re in a gang.”

* “ How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America.” We live still with its legacy. Every complex social issue or ailment has a solution that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong. How the preceding sentence applies to ideas today is left as an exercise to the reader.

* “And this world’s a fickle measure,” on Mike Tyson on medieval history.

* “Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller.”

* Mushrooming in Ukraine.

* Why New York’s mob mythology endures.

* “The rise and fall of the Oxford School of fantasy literature.” Would fantasy have exploded as it did, and taken more or less the path it has, without Tolkien and Lewis? Were the conditions ripe for fantasy, like a scientific discovery that would have happened in that time frame even without the specific discoverer? Or, without Tolkien and Lewis, would fantasy not really exist as it does, or as it has? I’m inclined a bit more towards the former, given the popularity of magic and supernatural tales throughout human history, but the counterfactual question is by its nature open.

* Applied Divinity Studies is going on hiatus already, sadly. Read the footnotes.

* “Reinventing Racism—A Review.” I remember back when the dream was to judge a person based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

* Related to the immediately above, “Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction.” I’m also curious what level of debt the average and median Haverford student graduates with; Haverford’s website lists comprehensive tuition and fees for 2020-21 as $75,966.

* Why Big-City Dominance Creates Some Incentive Problems for Democrats. The best line: “Instagram socialists are highly educated, but not necessarily high-earning, urbanites who shop like capitalists and post like Marxists and frequently do so in adjacent tabs.”

Briefly noted: The Precipice, Lost and Wanted, Hidden Valley Road

* The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: A very good book about what it claims to be about, namely, whether we’re going to escape the present moment’s extinction possibilities (nuclear weapons, pandemics, and climate change are all possible extinction vectors—the book was published before COVID) and move into a future where energy is ubiquitous and clean, consciousness is understood and readily emulated, and humans or post-human consciousnesses can live in space. We seem to be on the verge of technologies that will dramatically increase human robustness, if we can avoid screwing things up in the next couple decades. How often do you read books that really cover the long view?

Ord says, “safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.” Yet I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say as much—can you? Halfway through, Ord reiterates: “We need a public conversation about the longterm future of humanity: the breathtaking scale of what we can achieve, and the risks that threaten all of this, all of us.” In some ways, one would think coronavirus might inspire this conversation, but it seemingly hasn’t.

The book is printed on strangely crappy paper, for a work about eternity.

* Lost and Wanted: A Novel, by Nell Freudenberger. Great premise but the opening pages had too much standard politically correct stuff, which makes it boring. Some good essays have been written about it, but they omit what I just foregrounded. Maybe I should have persevered. The boring standard politically correct stuff feels like reading a nineteenth century novel and getting slammed with a bunch of Catholics-vs-protestants, or why religion is essential for a healthy society: a bunch of irrelevant, extraneous, and distracting material. The 200 or so novels from the nineteenth that normal people might still read today mostly eschew this kind of thing.

* Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker: The story of the Galvin family; parents Don and Mimi had 12 kids between 1945 and 1965 on what was an essentially middle-class salary. If everything had gone perfectly, maybe they could have pulled that feat off, but many things did not: “Six of the Galvin boys took ill at a time when so little was understood about schizophrenia.” Not only was little understood, but Freudians still had some stature within psychiatry, and, insanely, people denying the biological aspects of mental illness held many positions of power. In some ways we get a story of the history of the bent mind: “In the beginning—before anyone turned the study of mental illness into a science and called it psychiatry—being insane was a sickness of the soul, a perversion worthy of prison or banishment or exorcism. Judaism and Christianity interpreted the soul as something distinct from the body—an essence of one’s self that could be spoken to by the Lord, or possessed by the devil.”

Things have improved in many ways, but we’re still closer to “a sickness of the soul” than many of us would like to be. A few years ago, a psychiatrist could legitimately ask, “Does Psychiatry Need Science?” Or, to take another review, “Can psychiatry be a science?” We’re still a bit wobbly on the answers. Kind of like we’re a bit wobbly on why, deeply, Don and Mimi have so many kids; Catholicism is one answer, but 12? Don and Mimi needed access to contraception: many of their boys would still have developed schizophrenia, obviously, but the amount of attention available had to have been stretched, particularly because Don and Mimi couldn’t readily draw on family or community resources due to distance and fear. Denial played a role, too: “Nothing may have been more important to Mimi than a flawless Thanksgiving.” A flawless Thanksgiving stems from real, positive family relationships. Take those away and Thanksgiving will always be the stuff of New Yorker short stories.

The book’s second half is more compelling than its first, and, like a lot of stories, part of it is about accepting what we can change and what we can’t: “From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable.” Mimi’s drive for a flawless Thanksgiving is one such attempt to build the bubble. The reality of their situation, however, is much stronger than the bubble fantasy.

The big downside to Hidden Valley Road: it’s an incredible story, but you won’t learn much; I started by being against schizophrenia, as well as the various other very bad things that occur, and I came out against them too. I’m curious about the history of developing alternate drugs to treat schizophrenia, and the extent to which different mental disorders bleed into one another: we get some information about this, but that’s where my attention was drawn.

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America — Conor Dougherty

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America is up there with The Rent Is Too Damn High, where it foregrounds what should be if not the top, then one of the top policy issues in the country. “Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build: When California’s housing crisis slammed into a wealthy suburb, one public servant became a convert to a radically simple doctrine” is an excerpt that gives much of the book’s flavor. While I personally like books and papers that use abstract reasoning to make their points, most people don’t, and need stories to understand the world: “Build Build Build” uses Steve Falk’s story to explain why even liberty-shy Californians are sometimes coming around to letting the state change a bit. Most importantly, a baby boomer like him began to see that his own kids’s lives were being constricted by the odious zoning monster that almost all municipalities in California have fed:

Mr. Falk began his career on the local control side of that debate. But somewhere along the Deer Hill odyssey, he started to sympathize with his insurrectionist opponents. His son lived in San Francisco and paid a fortune to live with a pile of roommates. His daughter was a dancer in New York, where the housing crunch was just as bad. It was hard to watch his kids struggle with rent and not start to think that maybe Ms. Trauss had a point.

New York and San Francisco are strangling their young, and even their middle-aged, in ways that many local politicians aren’t adequately grappling with. Golden Gates expertly surfaces ideas about what is or should be “normal” and whether those things should be normal:

Patterned on the American mind, in ways we rarely stop to notice, are layers of zoning and land-use rules that say what can be built where. They are so central to how American cities look and operate that they have become a kind of geographic DNA that forms our opinion of what seems proper and right.

But what is perceived as normal—what is “patterned”—may not be “proper and right,” even if what’s regarded as “proper and right” gets unfairly mapped to normal. The “layers” of zoning and other rules occur at the neighborhood level, city level, sometimes the county level, and sometimes the state level: each veto point chokes off potential projects and creates a kind of suffocating conformity that has drained cities’s vitality, without many people noticing. Somehow, preventing anyone from doing much of anything almost anywhere is said to increase vitality: instead, we get suffocating rents, millennials who are now themselves reaching into middle age and yet often feel they can’t afford to have kids, because who’s going to pay the rent, let alone the health insurance and the student loans?

We need more freedom and greater liberalization—or at least that’s the framing that I’d choose, using the thinking behind George Lakoff’s work on the language of political ideas. Oddly, though, the most reactionary groups in local housing fights tend to frame themselves as preserving freedom—the freedom from having other people make any changes in their neighborhoods. The result, as Doherty writes, is that “In effect, we shattered urban regions into a constellation of smallish cities and reactionary single-family house neighborhoods whose influence over local land use decisions give them an astounding amount of control over how much shelter we build, where, and at what cost.” The problem goes back decades—”City planners started documenting the urban housing shortage in the 1970s, and in the decades since economists have shown that many of the country’s highest-income regions have become so expensive that they have all but gated out middle-class jobs and people”—but problems that compound enough over time become enormous and menacing.

Housing can’t be both a good investment and an affordable place to live. Preferring one goal intrinsically compromises the other. For the last five decades, we’ve tried to make housing an investment that yields above-market returns: consequently, it’s now incredibly expensive in many productive cities. Perhaps the biggest way we may see changes in this dynamic is through changes in the composition of renters versus owners. Invitation Homes is now one of the largest landlords in the country, and it specializes in buying single-family houses (or “oneplexes”) and renting them out. That’s it. The company has realized that the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon is also a business opportunity. Airbnb exists in part because most cities forbid hoteliers from building sufficient hotel capacity—so renting private housing units is an arbitrage on those rules. Canvas Co-Living is a startup that is working to allow “facilitated shared homes.”

Golden Gates’s best story may be that of Sonja Truss, a woman who was tired of the Bay Area’s relentless housing cost increases—so she decided to do something about it:

But for a young adult with no obvious signs of intoxication to show up at a midday city meeting to say she was just generally in favor of housing because San Francisco didn’t have enough of it? That made no sense. Nobody attended eight-hour city meetings if they didn’t have to, and while the planning commission was a place of arguments and strange behavior, it was also a place where people at least knew where each other’s lanes were.

She decided to scramble the lanes, by arguing that the problem isn’t too much housing but too little. She finds herself in weird ideological waters, because many people who proclaim their progressive bonafides are more conservative, in many ways, than the current occupant of the White House. Labeling one’s opponents is a big deal in Bay Area politics: “Only in San Francisco would a gay man who opposed the death penalty and marched in the local BDSM festival in leather straps have to argue he was truly of the left.” There are lots of racial politics involved too: many of the kinds of people who want to proclaim themselves to be opposed to racism nonetheless support housing and development policies that are racist in practice and effect.

Another chapter discusses Factory_OS, a company that’s trying to do modular building. Housing is expensive for many reasons, with zoning at the top of the list—but the actual cost of construction is high, and, in many high-cost metros, the zoning drives up the cost of construction. Why? As zoning artificially restricts housing construction, the construction workers who build new housing have to pay more for existing housing, which means that they have to be paid more by anyone trying to build housing. One gets a kind of perverse ratchet that, again, ends with absurdities like San Francisco. Modular housing, like cross-laminated timber, promises to reduce the cost of building. Unfortunately, building a housing factory is expensive up front, and the returns are spread across many years—leaving a wide space for bankruptcy. Previous efforts at modular housing have tended to fail when the market turns and the maker goes out of business. Dougherty points out that a recession could doom Factory_OS and its competitors. As of this writing, we’re already likely in the worst recession since 2008, and that was the worst since the Great Depression. What happens with the COVID Recession remains to be seen (the recession is made worse by many laid-off people being stuck with expensive leases and mortgages, due to decades of failure to build enough housing). One of the best ways to be successful in business is to start while a rising economy naturally lifts your company. Many business geniuses are really people with lucky timing—which isn’t to knock them: I’d love to have lucky timing too. As of July 23 2020, it appears that Google has promised to invest more money in Factory_OS, so the company is still presumably alive. But it has an ominously small number of mentions in the media over the last year.

One major thing might break the zoning logjam: by now, intellectuals and investors know the single-family zoning racket and know that single-family zoning is designed to enrich property owners. It’s not hard to figure out how to profit from above-market returns, as Invitation Homes has: buy the asset. But as investment funds buy single-family properties, the composition of renters versus owners will change, and more renters will be part of the voting pool. If renters can figure out how supply and demand work—a big “if,” given anti-market bias—they’ll vote to expand the supply of housing. So far, we’ve not seen much of this dynamic, but, as the costs of housing continue to increase, we might see more of it as people go looking for answers. Voters can ineffectively blame landlords and “greedy” developers, or they can effectively look for solutions. Golden Gates is part of the solutions firmament, if enough people read it and change their behavior based on new knowledge. That’s a big “if,” however.

To me, it remains strange and interesting that many people who are superficially interested in lowering housing costs won’t believe that the obvious solution, known for centuries—since the time of Adam Smith—to high prices is greater supply. Any solution that is not “more supply” will entail shortages. We can’t legislate away supply and demand. Yet a common urban trope involves blaming the people attempting to respond to price signals with more product for being “greedy.” The ineffectiveness of this response is obvious, but until recently there’s been no organized political response to the problem. Dougherty is chronicling that response—and telling the stories of the people responding.


A review in an interesting venue. There should be bipartisan support for zoning reform.

Briefly noted: Inadvertent, Normal People, and Un-wifeable

* Inadvertent (Why I Write), by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Lots of subtle ideas in this one, and those ideas have been stated before, but they’re stated well here: “Literature is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out. For the answer to the question —that I write because I am going to die – to have the intended effect, for it to strike one as truth, a space must first be created in which it can be said. That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.” I’m not sure about the run-on in the first sentence, but the idea that literature not being about “truths” (plural), but about being “the space where truths play out” seems accurate: once you get away from the hard truths of math and physics, and get into the squishy contingent truths of jostling human societies, there isn’t “a” truth—there are a bunch of them, many rivalrous with one another, and part of art is the wrangling of those truths.

Finnegans Wake and Mallarmé are mentioned on one page (63), Game of Thrones (64) the next. Why does he keep watching? For emotional ideas, yes, but, also, “What we seek in art is meaning.” Are we seeking that in social media, too? Is Twitter art? Why or why not? The problem with talking about art is that it generates infinitely more talk about art. Or maybe that’s a solution. This book has lots of truths, or, if they’re not truths, idea-generating statements.

* Normal People, by Sally Rooney: It’s a much better book than the first one, Conversations with Friends

There’s much about social power in the novel—”If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it,” but most of that social power goes unused. If the protagonists could care less about what other people, who they don’t care about, think of them, they’d get on quite well, but there’d also not be a novel. The bits observing adolescence are sharp, like “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away.” “Real life” gets mentioned four times. “Weird” gets used 32 times: there’s nothing worse in modern upwardly mobile life than being “weird,” it seems. I found myself drifting back to thoughts of Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One, where he speculates that part of the reason successful startup founders often are on or seem to be on the autism spectrum is because that enables them to ignore what other people think and pursue novel ideas other people make fun of. Learning to ignore other people might be a very useful skill in a massive, globally connected world where one can come into contacted with ignorant strangers constantly—including the ignorant strangers at school.

Normal People‘s climax—this is not giving anything substantial away—involves Connell getting into an MFA program, no doubt expensive, in New York. It’s like watching the student loan monster, holding a knife, creep up on the protagonist in a Stephen King: Connell is going to end up being 30, with a bunch of degrees but no assets or marketable skills, like many thousands of other “bright” people of his age and class. Somehow, I think this climax is supposed to be a triumph, rather than a tragedy. No one seems to understand that accumulating pricey degrees in one’s 20s is not necessarily a thing to aspire to. It was, maybe, 30 or 40 years ago, but the world has changed.

I read another novel, The Glass House, in which student loans are among the villains, and the student loans that plague so many people of my generation mirror the ponzi scheme propelling and perpetrated by Jonathan Alkaitis. That’s a more realistic depiction of the academic system. In The Glass House, Alkaitis’s job is fraud and Vincent’s job is sex work, although being a trophy wife is never quite described as such. They’re both good novels, but Normal People feels like a fairy tale—not because of love’s triumph, or maybe adulthood’s triumph but because of institutional arrangements, while The Glass House feels grittily real; student loans and attitudes towards schools are the key differentiators.

At the end of Normal People, Marianne is brushing the knots from her hair, but really she’s trying to brush the knots out of her life—which is probably impossible, but worth attempting.

* Un-wifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Being at the edges of the celebrity economy sounds really unpleasant—even being in the center doesn’t sound real pleasant. Lots of celebrities have said and written as much, but somehow it sinks in more here, when we’re seeing the sort of person who writes the pointlessly mean celebrity takedowns. The persons doing the takedowns have something poisonous in their own lives and souls, naturally, and Un-wifeable is, among other things, a chronicle of the poison. I have my problems, but next to Stadtmiller’s stories they seem minor.

Some of the lessons are obvious, like “getting drunk is also often bad, particularly around strangers who don’t wish you well.” And not only for Stadtmiller: “How many times have I said cruel things—including to my ex-husband—that I may not even remember because I was in a rage blackout? I need to turn everything around. I cannot continue this cycle of victimization.” One admirable part of this memoir is that Stadtmiller doesn’t primarily cast herself as a victim, which she could have; the temptation was probably there, but she resisted.

New York has no glamor in Un-wifeable, unless perhaps you recognize the various celebrities named. Stadtmiller finishes her decade or so in the city with tons of credit card debt and no family, although she doesn’t seem to want the former and does seem to want the latter. I don’t understand how Stadtmiller drinks as much as she does and writes, though, to be fair I don’t understand how Fitzgerald or Hemingway did either. Drinking and writing are incompatible for me.

A lot of Stadtmiller’s stories are about the downsides of no boundaries. People, and especially children, need boundaries and connections. Stadtmiller lacks the former and that impedes the latter. Her parents are unconventional, to the point that they’ve “studied at the Esalen Institute, birthplace of the human potential movement,” like characters in a Houellebecq novel. Did you read “A Bellow From France” carefully? Have you read Houellebecq? Stadtmiller is a female Houellebecq character, except that instead of giving up and shrugging, she still cares and is struggling against herself (“The column affords me the perfect way to superficially seek love while never exploring the more difficult questions about what true love for oneself and others really takes.”) As a culture, I don’t think we want to explore “the more difficult questions.” I don’t, mostly.

One takeaway might be, “Don’t move to New York if marriage and family are important to you.” Obviously people in New York get married and have families, but the city is not geared for that, and Stadtmiller is pushing against the hardest gear to get herself uphill. Ideally one chooses to do a hard thing the easiest one way can, rather than attempting to do a hard thing made harder by environment.

Bringing Up Bébé – Pamela Druckerman

This is really a book about how to do things, and about how the way we do things says things about who we are. Fiction is often about culture and so is Bringing Up Bébé. Cross-cultural comparisons are (still) underrated and we should do more of them; you can think of Michel Houellebecq’s work as being about the dark side of France and Druckerman’s as being about the light side of France (noting that she’s a transplanted American). Bringing Up Bébé is a parenting book, yes, but also a living book—that is, how to live. I bought it, let it sit around for a while, and only started it when I couldn’t find anything else to read, only to be delighted, and surprised. Let me quote from a section of the book; each new paragraph is a separate section, but put them together and one can see the differences between American-style families and French-style families:

French experts and parents believe that hearing “no” rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires.

As with teaching kids to sleep, French experts view learning to cope with “no” as a crucial step in a child’s evolution. It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.

French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.

Walter Mischel says that capitulating to kids starts a dangerous cycle: “If kids have the experience that when they’re told to wait, that if they scream, Mommy will come and the wait will be over, they will very quickly learn not to wait. Non-waiting and screaming and carrying on and whining are being rewarded.”

“You must teach your child frustration” is a French parenting maxim.

As with sleep, we tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.

Since the ’60s, American parents seem to have become less inclined to say no and let kids live with some frustration, and yet we need some frustration and difficulty in order to become whole people. I’m sure many teachers and professors are reading the quotes above and connecting them to their own classroom experiences. The tie into Jean Twenge’s book iGen and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind is almost too obvious to state; Haidt and Twenge’s books concern what smartphones are doing to the state of education, educational discourse, and educational institutions, and, while they cover smartphones and social media, those two technologies aren’t occurring in isolation. Excessive permissiveness appears to create neuroticism, unhappiness, and fragility, and excessive permissiveness seems to start for American parents somewhere between a few weeks and a few months after birth—and it never ends. But most of us don’t recognize it in the absence of an outside observer, the same way we often don’t recognize our psychological challenges in the absence of an outside observer.

In Druckerman’s rendition, French parents are good at establishing boundaries, saying “no” and, with babies, implementing “the pause”—that is, not rushing to to the baby’s aid every time the baby makes some small noise or sound. She writes about how the way many children are “stout,” to use the French euphemism for “fat,” comes from not having established mealtimes but instead of having continuous snacking, in part because parents won’t say “No, you need to wait” to their kids.

Failing to create reasonable boundaries from an early age leads to the failure to develop emotional resilience. “Reasonable” is an important word: it is possible to be strict or to let kids struggle too much, just as it’s possible to do the opposite, and the right mix will likely depend on the kid or the situations.

French parenting culture spills into schools:

When Benoît took a temporary posting at Princeton, he was surprised when students accused him of being a harsh grader. “I learned that you had to say some positive things about even the worst essays,” he recalls. In one incident, he had to justify giving a student a D. Conversely, I hear that an American who taught at a French high school got complaints from parents when she gave grades of 18:20 and 20:20. The parents assumed that the class was too easy and that the grades were “fake.”

The whines I got from students also make sense: in many U.S. schools, there’s not as strong a culture of excellent as there is a culture of “gold stars for everyone.” I understand the latter desire, having felt it myself in many circumstances, but it’s also telling how important a culture of excellence is once the school train tracks end and the less-mapped wilderness of the “real world” (a phrase that is misused at times) begins.

I routinely get feedback that class is too hard, likely because most classes and professors have no incentive to fight grade inflation, and the easiest way to get along is for them to pretend to learn and us to pretend to teach. Real life, however, is rarely an “everybody gets an A” experience, and almost no one treats it that way: most people who eat bad food at a bad restaurant complain about it; most people whose doctor misses a diagnosis complain about the miss (and want excellence, not just kindness); most people prefer the best consumer tech products, like MacBook Airs or Dell XPS laptops, not the “good try” ones. Excellence itself is a key aspect of the real world but is often underemphasized in the current American education system (again, it is possible to over-emphasize it as well).

In my own work as a grant writing consultant, “good job” never occurs if the job is not good, and “you suck” sometimes occurs even if the job is good. Clients demand superior products and most people can’t write effectively, so they can’t do what I do. I’m keen to impart non-commodity skills that will help differentiate students from the untrained and poorly educated masses, but this demands a level of effort and precision beyond what most American schools seem to expect.

Having read Bringing Up Bébé, I’m surprised it’s not become a common read among professors and high school teachers—I think because it’s pitched as more of a parenting book and a popular “two different cultures” book. But it’s much subtler and more sociological than I would have thought, so perhaps I bought into its marketing too. There is also much to be said for how to teach and think about teaching in this book. The French are arguably too strict and too mean to students. Americans are probably not strict enough, not demanding enough, and don’t set adequate standards. The optimal place is likely somewhere between the extremes.

Druckerman is also funny: “I realize how much I’ve changed when, on the metro one morning, I instinctively back away from the man sitting next to the only empty seat, because I have the impression that he’s deranged. On reflection, I realize my only evidence for this is that he’s wearing shorts.” Could shorts not be an indication of derangement? And Druckerman cops to her own neuroticisms, which a whole industry of parenting guides exists to profit from:

What makes “Is It Safe?” so compulsive is that it creates new anxieties (Is it safe to make photocopies? Is it safe to swallow semen?) but then refuses to allay them with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, expert respondents disagree with one another and equivocate.

Bébé is a useful contrast from the France depicted in Houellebecq novels. Same country, very different vantages. In Druckerman’s France, the early childhood education system works fairly well, not having to have a car is pleasant, food isn’t a battle, and pleasant eroticism seems to fuel most adults’s lives—including parents’s. “Pleasant” is used twice deliberately. In Houellebecq’s France, empty nihilism reigns, most people are isolated by their attachment to machines, and and most actions are or feel futile.

So who’s right? Maybe both writers. But Druckerman may also point to some reasons why France, despite pursuing many bad economic policies at the country level, is still impressively functional and in many ways a good place to live. The country’s education system is functioning well and so is its transit systems—for example, Paris’s Metro is being massively expanded, at a time when the U.S. is choking on traffic and struggling with absurdly high subway costs that prevent us from building out alternatives. New York’s last main trunk subway line was completed before World War II. Small and useful extensions have been completed since, but there is no substitute for opening a dozen or more new stations and 10+ miles at a time. Improved subway access reduces the need for high-cost cars and enables people to live better lives—something France is doing but the U.S. seems unable to achieve. AAA estimates the average total cost of an American car to be $9,282. If French people can cut that to say $3,000 (taxes included) for subways, the French may be able to do a lot more with less.

France’s bad macro policies and overly rigid labor market may be offset by good childcare and transit policies; Bébé could help explain why that is. Druckerman says, “Catering to picky kids is a lot of work” (“cater” appears four times in Bébé). If the French don’t do that, Americans may be spending a lot of hours at work, rather than leisure, that the French aren’t spending—therefore raising the total quality of French life. Mismeasurement is everywhere, and, while I don’t want to praise France too much on the basis of a single work, I can see aspects of French culture that make sense and aspects of American culture that, framed correctly, don’t.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: