Against the rectification of names of the enemy

Since the beginning of this weblog, a particular tick that is common to humans emerges over and over. A tick that is seductive, inevitable, and which I periodically react negatively to (and surely do engage in). That tick is the one where peculiar or exotic terms, or common terms in specific senses, are deployed to demarcate ingroup vs. outgroup.

This is clearly illustrated by example. Libertarians will often call non-libertarians statists. In some ways, this is a defensible term descriptively. But statists never call themselves statists, and often are confused what that even means. Really the term “statist” is just a way you can tell other libertarians that this person is not of the tribe. It’s not about communicating with the statist in question. It’s about labeling them…a witch!

Another example is ally. This is a banal and general word, but on the cultural Left it’s become transformed into a very specific thing. If you are a white male, you are by constitution an oppressor with privilege, so you must by necessity aim toward being an ally. Ally here means those with privilege joining the struggle against oppression and the liberation of marginalized people.

Almost all of the above terms are pretty standard English words, but bundled together into that paragraph you know the perspective and Weltanschauung it’s expressing.

In the United States those who oppose the right to an abortion because they think the fetus is a person define themselves as pro-life.  Those who support the right to an abortion define themselves as pro-choice. Pro-choice people sometimes call pro-life people anti-choice, while pro-life people call pro-choice people pro-abortion. The terms themselves are not important as descriptions. Rather, they’re about tribal mobilization.

On occasion, I’ve seen the term TERF, for trans-exclusionary feminist. The people who are called TERFs never call themselves TERFs. Often people who are denounced as TERFs don’t see to be TERFs at all.

When someone brings up the term “civic nationalism,” I’m usually pretty sure that that person is probably a white nationalist, because that’s a term that they seem to use a lot (to describe non-racial nationalists). People who are civic nationalists don’t describe themselves as such in normal conversations.

Because my views are generally more conservative than liberal people on the Right often believe that I am aware of all the tribal divisions and lexical nuances deployed by conservatives today. Or, more honestly people who spend a lot of time reading and discussing politics online with the tribe. I have finite time, I don’t really really track of all the new fashionable terms. Political philosophy and history interest me, but the contemporary ephemera, not so much. One of the most irritating aspects of “Neoreaction” was that they had all those terms which made no sense to outsiders without a glossary.

This sort of behavior makes sense ingroup. But when you start spouting off in public forums with new-fangled vocabulary accessible to the initiates you exclude them. Which is fine, but you also make it clear you just want to hear yourself talk.

Though sometimes scientists are guilty of this sort thing, by and large the utilization of words in a peculiar context has a precise meaning which is clear and distinct. For example, the term heritable. Transformed into heritability, it is the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype. Now could say “the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype” every time, but it’s usually easier just to say “heritability.”

I’ve made it pretty clear I take a dim view of the prospects for this liberal democracy of ours over the next generation or so. A day shall come when you stand with the Frost Giants or you stand with the Aesir. There’s really no avoiding a choice. I would recommend on that day pick you pick the strongest side, not who you think is the right side. Power is truth, truth is not power.

But this day is not that day. Until then there is still time to listen and cultivate one’s mind. Let’s dispense with bleeding private language into public. It’s just unseemly.

The summer of ’99


Every generation has its nostalgia. Some of them have their year. For the boomers it’s the summer of ’67. For Bryan Adams it was the summer of ’69. For people born between 1965 and 1980, I will bet the summer of 1999 is that special summer. It was near the end of the long boom of the 1990s, and the United States of America was the hyperpower. We hadn’t gotten mired in wars, and terrorism seemed like a nuisance.

Without a sense of what is right everything is wrong

When I was a kid Halloween was my favorite holiday. First, candy! Second, costumes! Third, you could be a little naughty!

Finally, my parents were not the most inquisitive people and didn’t realize the pagan and Christian influences on the holiday. They liked it because unlike Christmas, at least to their perceptions, it didn’t have a religious connotation which conflicted with Islam. They allowed me to participate with any guilt.

I try not to live through my kids, so holidays for me are not about recreating my own childhood. It’s for allowing them to have fun. Holidays are a big deal for kids.

With Halloween coming up we’ve been giving thought to our kid’s costumes. My daughter and elder son have some opinions. There was some mention that perhaps my daughter could be Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. My daughter is not really too into princesses. I’ve heard her spend more time talking about dwarf planets than princesses (especially her favorite, Haumea). But she likes Tiana, and we’ve watched the movie together.

Ultimately we went with something animal related (in keeping with some previous years when she was a lion and a duck).

Nevertheless, this email I received from her elementary school today is deeply annoying to me:

It’s Halloween, but we can’t scare the kids too much? (fake blood does seem like it would be a huge mess so I can understand that) No masks, of course, nixes many costumes, but I guess I can go along with that for security reasons?

But the part about “No costumes representing an ethnicity, race, religion or culture, other than your own” kind of rubbed me the wrong way. My wife was livid. Our children are mixed race, so what does that mean for them? In fact, half of my daughter’s elementary school class is mixed race. Also, my daughter already knows she is an atheist. Does that mean she couldn’t dress up as a nun like Mother Theresa if she admired her? The whole email seemed to presuppose that the world consists of discrete and separable races and cultures. You simply identify with one, and that delimits your possibilities.

My daughter attends an Asian language immersion school where one of the teachers is a recent immigrant who clearly does not understand American culture very well. She wouldn’t have even known to write about much of this. This mandate was clearly written by an administrator. The aim of the whole email was to head off any complaints from parents. But it’s written in such a heavy-handed and general manner that it’s bound to cause widespread irritation.

We’re a diverse country with many ethno-racial, religious, and ideological groups. There are no common standards at this point on what is and isn’t offensive. Perhaps some Christian parents would be offended if a little kid showed up at a school-sponsored Halloween party as the devil? I strongly suspect that the race and religion bans above really target mostly white kids who dress up as racial minorities…but it’s written in a general way so as not to offend those parents too (but in the process irritates others).

Whatever we’re doing, it’s not making many people happy, though it is insulating administrators from making personal judgments. My daughter is a smart kid (she has shocked even me in her ability to infer general principles from specific cases), and my wife and I have already had conversations about how to insulate her or make her aware of the low level of intellect which now dominates our public ideologies. My wife has studied the Chinese language and the history of the Cultural Revolution, and though obviously there is a difference of degree she regularly contends that there are analogies between what is now happening in the United States and what happened in China in the 1960s. I do unfortunately believe that my daughter will grow into maturity into a country which is in many ways second-rate and mediocre in the things which our family values. We are thinking hard about how to prepare her for a different future than the ones we expected when we were children in the 1980s.

Why farming was inevitable and miserable

There are many theories for the origin of farming. A classic explanation is that farming was simply a reaction to Malthusian pressures. Another, implied in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, is that ideological factors may also have played a role in the emergence of sedentary lifestyles and so eventually farming.

I don’t have a strong opinion about the trigger for farming. What we know is that forms of farming seem to have emerged in very disparate locales after the last Ice Age. This is a curious contrast with the Eemian Interglacial 130 to 115 thousand years ago when to our knowledge farming did not emerge. Why didn’t farming become a common lifestyle then? One explanation is that behavioral modernity wasn’t a feature of our species, though at this point I think there’s a circularity in this to explain farming.

It seems plausible that biological and cultural factors over time made humans much more adaptable, protean, and innovative. We can leave it at that, and assume that the time was ripe by the Holocene.

Also, we need to be careful about assuming that modern hunter-gatherers, who occupy marginal lands, are representative of ancient hunter-gatherers. Ancient hunter-gatherers occupied the best and worst territory in terms of productivity. If territory is extremely rich in resources, such as the salmon fisheries of the Pacific Northwest, then a hunting and gathering lifestyle can coexist with dense sedentary lifestyles. But the fact is that in most cases hunting and gathering can support fewer humans per unit of land than agriculture.

The future belongs to the fecund, and if farming could support larger families, then the future would belong to farmers. Though I don’t think it was just a matter of fertility; I suspect farmer’s brought their numbers to bear when it comes to conflicts with hunter-gatherers.

Of course, farming is rather miserable. Why would anyone submit to this? One issue that I suspect needs to be considered is that when farming is initially applied to virgin land returns on labor are enormous. The early United States is a case of an agricultural society where yeoman farmers, what elsewhere would be called peasants, were large and robust. They gave rise to huge families, and never experienced famine. By the time the frontier closed in the late 19th century the American economy was already transitioning to industry, and the Malthusian trap was being avoided through gains in productivity and declining birthrates.

The very first generations of farmers would have experienced land surplus and been able to make recourse to extensive as opposed to intensive techniques. Their descendants would have to experience the immiseration on the Malthusian margin and recall the Golden Age of plenty in the past.

And obviously once a society transitioned to farming, there was no going back to a lower productivity lifestyle. Not only would starvation ensue, as there wouldn’t be sufficient game or wild grain to support the population, but farmers likely had lost many of the skills to harvest from the wild.

Finally, there is the question of whether farming or hunting and gathering is preferable in a pre-modern world. I believe it is definitely the latter. The ethnography and history that I have seen suggest that hunters and gatherers are coerced into settling down as farmers. It is never their ideal preference. This is a contrast with pastoralism, which hunting and gathering populations do shift to without coercion. The American frontier had many records of settlers “going native.” Hunting was the traditional pastime of European elites. Not the farming which supported their lavish lifestyles.

Many of the institutional features of “traditional” civilized life, from the tight control of kinship groups of domineering male figures, to the transformation of religion into a tool for mass mobilization, emerged I believe as cultural adaptations and instruments to deal with the stress of constraining individuals to the farming lifestyle. Now that we’re not all peasants we’re seeing the dimishment of the power of these ancient institutions.

The elves of our imagination and reality

In Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? the late Martin Gardner reviewed evidence for cannibalism and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was not a real phenomenon. He agreed with the interpretations of some anthropologists that cannibalism stories emerge in human groups as a way to demonize their enemies. For various genetic and archaeological reasons I think since Gardner wrote that chapter at least two decades ago, it has been shown that cannibalism did exist as a cultural practice.

In the year 2000 The Atlantic published a piece, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews”. The authors suggest, again in line with the theories of some anthropologists, that the crypto-Jewish identity purported to persist in some Hispano families in the American Southwest derived from a mix of internalized racism and Judaizing influence from Protestant missionaries. For a variety of reasons I think it is quite possible that actually, the Hispano populations did preserve some crypto-Jewish traditions through converso ancestors.

The point I’m making here is that contemporary “debunkings” of somewhat fascinating or titillating phenomena are not always correct. Heinrich Schliemann went to Turkey, and he did find the historical Troy.

Recently I came across a blog post, Neanderthals in Ancient Mythology*, which makes the case that our cousins are the source of the idea of beings such as trolls. For various reasons, I am skeptical of the theories and models in that particular post. But that prompted me to reflect: where do ideas of trolls and other such quasi-human beings come from?

Cognitive anthropologists would have an answer. There is an idea, evoked culture, which refers to universal phenomena which naturally develop at the interface of our minds and conventional stimuli. To give a concrete example of what I’m talking about, the idea of kings. One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

As it happens we’re pretty sure that the idea of the king has emerged independently at least twice. After the translation of the Maya Codex we know that these people had kings, as we understand them. Not to mention the fact that the Aztecs and Inca both had kings of a quite autocratic variety.

A more obvious case of evoked culture is the idea of gods. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer refers to these as “minimally counterintuitive” concepts, which makes them memorable and memetically contagious. In general, gods are not prosaic and banal. They have supernatural powers, and violate our ontological intuitions about what persons can do. But they don’t smash all intuitions. I once read a science fantasy story where a devout Jewish man dies and goes to heaven, and there he his introduced to G-d. It turns out that Hashem is a very dumb giant chicken.  This is not a minimally counterintuitive concept; it’s just weird. And so not a good candidate for a god concept which would be culturally contagious.**

Ideas of trolls, witches, and ghosts, then bubble naturally out of our cognitive landscape of memes. Has anyone seen a ghost? To my knowledge no. But the belief in ghosts persists, because it appeals to some intuitions. It’s a very attractive idea. One can say the same of trolls.

But just because an idea is evoked does not mean it has no basis in fact. The John Frum cult happens to believe in a religion which is probably wrong on many facts. But “John Frum” and other aspects of the religion are based on factual interactions with the American government and servicemen at a specific place and time.

Similarly, myths about trolls, elves, and witches, may reflect a combination of the fertility of our native imagination, and distortions of contact with different peoples. When Europeans showed up in the highlands of Papua their ghostly pallor made the locals wonder if they were, in fact, dead souls. We know that in places like Central Europe farmers and hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity for thousands of years, but did not mix much sexually. Additionally, it is highly likely that the hunters and farmers were physically distinctive, probably in complexion in Western Europe. Their genetic distance was equivalent to that between modern Northern Europeans and Chinese.

This does’t mean we can necessarily mine folklore to understand ethnography of the past. Rather, it just suggests that folkore is not just from our imagination, but may show influences from events and contacts in the real world.

* I rarely link to blogs anymore!

** The Christian idea that God had to be incarnated as a human being to connect well to us actually nods to this idea of minimally counterintuition.

Bringing back street kids

Just spent some time with a friend. He lives in a safe neighborhood, so I asked if there were any kids for his kids (they’re young) to play with. Apparently not really.

In this country today we have problems with racial and wealth inequality. There are huge debates about how we address these issues. And they don’t seem like they are going away any time soon.

But huge numbers of Americans adults grew up on the mean streets of the 1980s. We know there is a solution to childhood social isolation, because many of us grew up playing on streets, rather than being shepherded on ‘play dates.’ This is also an issue which most people agree on as a problem. We can solve this.

The past was not PG

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

Over the long term civilization matters

In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.

These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.

Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.

These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.

As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.

The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.

This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.

We need more housing for the upper upper middle class

$1.5 million dollar house in Palo Alto

When people talk about real estate affordability and gentrification often the focus is on housing for the poor. Myself, I don’t think this is the issue. People with means wouldn’t move into poor neighborhoods if there was housing they could afford elsewhere.

Most of the “multi-million dollar” houses in Palo Alto are not mansions. Many are not really worth that much because of the house; it’s just the land. These are modest homes which really are appropriate for middle class buyers. In fact they were often built with middle class buyers in mind.

But in places like Palo Alto they are now for two types of people: long-term residents (who also likely don’t pay much property tax), and those with very high incomes and/or wealth due to selling companies.

From an article published last year:

The average price of the Palo Alto homes that went on the market today is just over $3 million. With a 20 percent down payment and the state’s average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 3.77 percent, the average monthly payment on those homes would be a little over $14,000, two-thirds of the monthly income for a quarter-million dollar household.

It’s hard to imagine that two married Google engineers in their twenties could afford a house in Palo Alto. It’s beyond their means. But these homes are not luxurious in and of themselves. They’re all that the upper upper middle class have access to nearby.

In Silicon Valley they love to reimagine stuff. But only some people like the demi-god Elon Musk are focusing on concrete things, like cars and rockets. They need to re-imagine housing. There’s no reason the people coding the future should live in post-war ranch homes.

American cities need to grow up to solve the housing crisis

Martin Jacques observes in When China Rules the World that East Asian cities don’t have the organically evolved feel of European urban areas. He chalks this up to the rapid economic development of the “Asian Tigers” and Japan over the past few decades. Buildings were built, buildings were torn down. The rate of change didn’t allow for the accumulation of historical authenticity. There’s also another reason: many East Asian societies have built buildings out of perishable materials like wood and so not prized historicity of structures.

The oldest free standing timber building in China dates to 782. The Songyue Pagoda dates to 523, but it’s made of brick. In contrast great public buildings made of marble still exist in the Western world that date back to antiquity. The Pantheon became a church and so is preserved in nearly its full glory. Public buildings and historical architecture are great. But the valorization of the principle can come at a price.

Willamette Week has an article up on the attempt to “maintain historic character,” and how it prevents the emergence of affordable housing. Portland’s Laurelhurst Neighborhood Fights to Keep the Housing Crisis Out:

At the end of last month, residents of Laurelhurst turned out in record numbers to vote in their neighborhood association election for one reason: to get protection from developers.

The winning candidates pledged to bypass City Hall and ask the National Park Service to declare much of the 425-acre eastside neighborhood a historic site.

By being labeled “historic” the residents can block development, and preserve the state of their neighborhood the way they like it. They are very explicit about what they want to do:

By seeking to make the neighborhood a historic district, Laurelhurst residents are taking aim at what they see as the neighborhood’s greatest enemy: a real estate developer with a backhoe, bent on tearing down 100-year-old houses to replace them with apartments, a duplex or a huge new house.

“The whole street—it will look like Beaverton by the time they’re done,” says John Deodato, a longtime Laurelhurst homeowner who says he gets 20 letters a month from developers seeking to buy his home. “The city won’t do anything about it unless we do.”

Beaverton is a suburb of Portland. Though the analogy is imperfect, if Portland is West LA, Beaverton is Irvine. The connotation of this insult is clear to any Oregonian. It’s a sneer at those without refined sophistication and breeding.

Laurelhurst has a 14 to 1 Democrat to Repubican ratio, and median home value is $750,000. The median household income for the greater Portland area is $65,000. The median home value in Beaverton is about $360,000. I looked at Zillow and found an $800,000 home in Laurelhurst. You can see that it has appreciated nicely over the last 10 years.

The recent neighborhood association seats were contested. The outcomes were clear:

More than 800 people voted in the election—a record for the neighborhood, and more than 10 times the number of voters in the previous election. The vote went overwhelmingly for the historic district candidates. Pratt, the pro-historic district candidate for president, won just under 80 percent of the vote.

It is no surprise that the people who live in Laurelhurst are voting to protect their interests. Their implicit gated community, with its high property values. They may be progressive in their avowed values, but when their self-interest is at state, they make sure to take care of their self-interest and conserve what they have the way they like it.

There are of opponents to this trend of gentrified Portland neighborhoods. They profile an alliance between a developer and the head of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit which favors density over sprawl. Below is some of their rationale, along with what someone in Laurelhurst has to say about these men:

“The reasons we are involved with this bill has nothing to do with whether the home builders are involved with it,” says McCurdy. “The bill increases housing opportunities—diverse housing opportunities and affordable housing opportunities—all of those inside our towns and cities, which is part of the land-use deal that we as Oregonians have had in place for 40 years.”

McCurdy believes what’s happening in Laurelhurst is a “misuse of historic district designation to prevent change.”

Critics of the bill call 1000 Friends’ and the home builders’ support an unholy alliance.

“Gov. McCall would be spinning in his grave to see his beloved 1000 Friends of Oregon organization working side-by-side with the Home Builders Association, buying into the alt-right, fake-news theory of demolition as the cure for affordability,” wrote Tracy Prince, vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, in a May 17 letter to legislators.

In the early 2000s anything and anyone that self-styled progressives did not like was “neocon.” Today it is “alt-right.” Somehow this woman believes that allowing for development which would allow for an increase in the local housing supply and destroy some of the quaint town-like character of East Portland streets is “alt-right.” If she lived in the 1950s I wonder if she would accuse her enemies of being “Communists.”

The article has a definite slant against the Laurelhurst neighborhood association. The author of the piece lives in Northeast Portland, so she’s able to see through the pleading for the “special character” of Laurelhurst (in fact, records indicate that she is a recent transplant to the city from New York City, so her sympathies are likely not with the old-timers). At one point the author interviews a man who is living out of his pickup truck in Laurelhurst. He’s making $12 an hour, and couldn’t afford a place elsewhere in Portland, let alone Laurelhurst. She notes that “A Craigslist ad posted last week shows a restored attic in this neighborhood renting for $1,000 a month” in the neighborhood.

The piece concludes:

Pratt, the neighborhood association president, knows plenty about homelessness. A couple years ago, he served on the board of social services agency JOIN, which coordinates shelter beds.

Pratt acknowledges Portland needs to build more housing. But not too much of it in Laurelhurst.

“Everybody says the solution to homelessness is housing,” he says. “I don’t think the solution is that every neighborhood looks the same, and every neighborhood has everything, and your neighborhood [has] no uniqueness anymore.”

People have interests. But they don’t want to admit those interests in public. The Laurelhurst neighborhood association’s attempt to gain historic designation is regulatory arbitrage. They want to preserve their neighborhood and property values, and not let in the riff-raff have any space. Earlier in the piece there is a quote from the association president: “Pratt warns that if Laurelhurst isn’t allowed to decide what gets developed within its boundaries, the neighborhood will indeed become cheaper eventually—because it will become hideous.

Beauty is important. It has value. But if we need to sacrifice beauty for affordability, at some point the latter does have to overrule the former.

The political Left on the national level is at least waking up to the problem. Recently Mother Jones wrote Berkeley Says It’s Standing Up to Trump, But It’s Actually Busy Arguing About Zucchini. The title comes from this passage:

At Tuesday night’s city council meeting, which touched on a number of housing issues, this dissonance was on display in a resident’s complaint about a proposed new building that would cast shadows on her zucchini plants. The project was returned to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. The zukes live another day.

“Delaying or denying housing approvals suggests to Berkeley neighbors that their stalling tactics will work, and invites more of them in the future,” web developer Kevin Burke wrote in a letter to the council after the meeting, expressing his disappointment with the decision. “I would also much rather have a zucchini garden crisis than a housing crisis.”

The gut-punch is that an anti-development mayor has been elected in Berkeley. How “radical.” In San Francisco and San Mateo counties $105,000 a year for a household of four is low income. The average household income in San Francisco happens to be $105,000 per year.

Yesterday and today on Twitter there was a discussion about post-doc salaries. To a great extent this is a stage in academic life when the salary range is compressed because there are broad national guidelines and expectations. The median post-doc makes $46,000. The 10th percentile is $37,000, and the 90th percentile is $65,000.

So let’s compare some universities and their locales. In US News Stanford has the #2 genetics graduate program and Washington University in St. Louis the #5 program.

According to a cost of living calculator a “salary of $50,000 in St. Louis, Missouri should increase to $304,167 in Palo Alto, California.” This is because housing is 24 times more expensive in Palo Alto. So a hypothetical post-doc at Stanford that is paid $100,000 is equivalent to $16,000 in St. Louis. You might object that Palo Alto to St. Louis is apples to oranges, but the housing expense in the greater Bay Area means that you can’t just escape Palo Alto for relief. A Zillow check of Washington University vs. Stanford shows that houses within walking distance of the latter university are about 15 times more expensive than the former. The average assistant professor at Washington University has a salary in the low $100,000 range. At Stanford it is in the mid-$100,000 range. Basically a Stanford assistant professor makes about 1.5 times more in salary than a Washington University assistant professor, even though cost of living is going to be 6 times greater in Palo Alto.

At this point I could go into tangents about university housing for post-docs and faculty in the Bay Area (one of my friends is doing a post-doc at UCSF and had to have a subsidized apartment for obvious reasons). And obviously opportunities for consulting are more available in the Bay Area. But the point is not about academics and their careers. Rather, I’m using an illustration of the circumstances in which “winners” in American society, people with lot of higher education, can find themselves in financial stress.

There are genuine benefits of starting a career in the Bay Area. For an academic you have access to world-class institutions, with the Stanford, UCSF and Berkeley triangle, and UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz just beyond the horizon, and other institutions like San Francisco State to fill out the landscape. For a techie you know where the “action” is. If you are a single person, a $125,000 salary at Google won’t allow to you live luxuriously, but you can survive. Hopefully you’ll be able to make connections that help you later on, when you inevitably have to ask for a transfer because you want a house and a family.

This is the cycle of life now. But not for everyone. I lived in California for almost ten years, and there are those to the Golden State born whose families bought homes decades ago. The property tax regulations California are Byzantine, but there are plenty of cases where individuals are “grandfathered in” and pay very little tax on a very valuable property. And, these benefits can pass on to children. In other words you may have millennials paying tax rates on million dollar homes that date back to assessments in the 1970s, when their parents owned the house.

We can debate the merits of this system. One can make a case for giving those with deep lineage in an area privileges over newcomers. I lived in a house in Berkeley where the property owner told me once that he paid on the order of 15 times less tax than his neighbor, because the house had been in the family for 60 years. It was purchased by his grandparents, and owned by his mother, and it had passed on to him. His profession was as a part-time photographer and musician. Because his tax bills were so modest he could rent out rooms in the house and and survive in Berkeley even though his non-property income was irregular and not particularly high (when I lived in his house he would complain that he didn’t want to purchase health insurance due to the cost).

For those of us without those privileges if we want to live in the urban areas where our specialized skills return the greatest income and also where we can network and grow our career the best, we need to make sacrifices. For many people that means putting off getting married, putting off having children. Anyone who makes less than $100,000 a year will probably have to hustle in Silicon Valley. There are flophouses from San Francisco down to San Jose where young people of more modest means live together in a communal fashion in dormitories.

How did we get here? I think I’ve outlined a major part of how we got here. Many places people want to live are extremely expensive because supply of housing is constrained.

Houston has a great food scene, but quaint and charming is not something anyone would say about it. But it is very affordable. And, the fourth largest city in this country. It lacks zoning. In contrast San Francisco is beautiful. There is something special about it, from the feces on the sidewalks in the Tenderloin to the beauty of the Golden Gate bridge. Something would be lost if one allowed it to develop vertically. But do we want the city to become a playground for the wealthy and those born into old families of the city? Because that’s what’s happening with the choices we’re making in this country.

Our vision for the future used to be optimistic. We would live better. We would be space age humans. Much of it has come to pass. Our “phones” are amazing things. Electric driverless cars will transform our cities within the next generation. But the way we do housing in this country has not moved much beyond the middle of the 20th century. We need changes in culture, changes in technology, to make things better for future generations, rather than constraining them with the paltry opportunities of the present.