Hamsterdam, French "theory," and YIMBYism for normies.
Washington, D.C. has officially entered the “insanely hot weather all the time” portion of the year, so expect the takes to heat up accordingly.
Mark: Do you think we should bring back political patronage hires for police and other city workers? 1800s NYC was probably better off with Irish cops policing the Irish neighborhoods where they lived (even if they probably got their jobs through patronage) than 2020s Minneapolis with mostly white exurbanites who are “qualified” according to the standards of meritocracy and also have nothing in common with the people they're policing.
This is a fun contrarian take, but I think the reality is that old-time urban police forces were much more corrupt. When I read Alex Vitale’s abolitionist book “The End of Policing,” I was surprised to learn that despite his ideological commitment to the view that reform can’t work, even he thinks the Serpico-era anti-corruption drive was effective. Nineteenth-century crime is not particularly well-measured, but most sources seem to think the homicide rate was higher then, too.
There’s a version of this take that I probably agree with, which is that I would like to see elected officials be given more freedom in contracting and fewer ethics rules. Three mayors ago here in D.C., there was a big scandal where playground construction contracts had been given to the mayor’s fraternity brothers (or maybe the fraternity brothers of some aide or something) in contravention of the rules. But there was no allegation that the work was defective or behind schedule or over budget. By contrast, we have tons of examples of construction projects that are done perfectly by the book in terms of contacting rules but end up behind schedule and over budget. Judging these things more by the results and less by a checklist seems wise to me.
Philip Reese: Matt, a long time ago, you wrote a line that has stuck with me: “As far as sins go, hypocrisy is pretty weak tea.” I often think about it when I get mad over someone acting hypocritical. Like, calm down, we are all hypocrites — hypocrisy is weak tea. It's a pretty striking thing for a journalist to say! Do you still believe it?
I do! I mean, look, people should not be hypocritical. But also — they are.
Becoming a parent has only made me feel more strongly about this. Like the other night, I stayed up unreasonably late watching random YouTube videos. I’m not going to tell you that my first grader has never stayed up late or watched weird stuff on YouTube. But we would never in a million years let him go hours past his bedtime sitting on the couch going down a YouTube rabbit hole for absolutely no reason. That’s hypocritical of me on some level. But to bring our household rules in line with my own personal practice would be ridiculous. And while of course I should make better use of my time and manage my sleep habits in a healthier way, it would be absurd for a third party to be up on his high horse about how my parenting is hypocritical.
Estate of Bob Saget: Can we do questions for the intern on one of these weekends?
A Milan Mailbag could be fun, but folks should feel free to toss him questions in the regular threads.
lindamc: To what extent, if any, do you and the SB team see yourselves as fostering a community of like-minded people? By "like-minded" I mean interested in engaging with ideas in a particular way, not (necessarily) having the same views on those ideas.
I like to think that this is what we are doing — trying to promote a somewhat calmer, more rational approach to politics in a world full of expressive behavior and virality.
Matt L: What’s your take on the homeless encampments in DC? Im all for having some compassion and the city doing what it can to help, but there’s been relaxed enforcement of the prohibition on camping for a looong time now and the situation isn’t getting any better. The murder in the camp by the convention center a few days ago and another one in the camp in Thomas Circle a couple of weeks ago seem to have made this an even more serious issue lately.
Look, I am a humane person, so I don’t spend my time jumping up and down demanding camp clearance sweeps.
That being said, letting people camp out in what are supposed to be public parks is an absurd solution to homelessness issues. It is particularly absurd because we live in a society where it is illegal to build “substandard” housing units like the boarding houses, SROs, and cage hotels that used to shelter the economically marginal. So if I were actually in charge, I would make sweeping changes to housing policy and also clear out encampments. In a world where the housing changes aren’t being made, it’s a tougher call. But generally speaking, I think that it is appropriate for municipal leaders to make decisions that (a) improve the lives of a majority of their constituents and (b) make the city a more appealing place to live.
Amir Sagiv: Since you already mentioned America's Mayor, Tommy Carcetti, let's re-dig this one from The Wire too: What do you think of Hamsterdam? Was it a good idea in principle? Is it politically tenable?
Hamsterdam is an interesting thought experiment: could we reduce gang violence by tolerating drug sales conditional on non-violence?
I think a more realistic instantiation of this approach that I used to find very appealing is what’s called “focused deterrence.” Unfortunately, Jennifer Doleac has convinced me that the evidence for focused deterrence is actually very weak and discouraging. My interpretation is that Operation Ceasefire in Boston (the model for focused deterrence) really did work well, and that’s part of why there’s been so much enthusiasm for it. But this is the kind of thing that is challenging to scale up effectively — it’s similar to how many education interventions work as a small-scale pilot program with a highly motivated set of instructors who are fully bought into the mission, but it falls flat when you tell everyone across a whole city, “hey, copy that pilot program.”
Simon MacVicar: Are there any specific interest groups that you think are doing a good job promoting their agendas? Have you spoken to leaders of some of the interest groups that you’ve criticized and what have they said in defense?
I do speak to the people I criticize.
My view is that it’s best to keep those conversations off the record so that people can be frank with me and I can learn and improve my coverage. I generally think that most of the main actors in progressive politics are quite a bit more reasonable than they let on in public but are somewhat trapped in a miasma of bad incentives. I’ve even had people publicly denounce things I wrote based on tips that they themselves suggested!
My absolute least favorite journalistic topic is the “free speech on the left” debate, where we don’t mean actual legal freedom to speak freely but rather an informal sense that blah blah blah blah … you know the debate. But I do firmly believe that one major dynamic in progressive politics is that lots of stakeholders have (correct) pro-moderation views that they don’t want to articulate publicly because they fear cancellation, and this in turn leads others to underestimate how popular those positions are.
Zack: Can you provide examples of YIMBY arguments framed in such a way to make them convincing?
I struggle with this because saying things like “free parking is bad” wins almost no one over. I had a bit of success last week talking to a conservative friend about parking minimums. I told her that I think the government shouldn't make you build parking if you don't want to build it and she seemed fairly receptive to the idea.
My view is it would be good to see more research done on this subject because everything I know about formal research on message effectiveness in other areas is that intuition is a poor guide to persuasion. But in line with your anecdote, my general guess is that for most Americans, basic freedom/market reasoning is likely to be at least somewhat persuasive as this is a highly individualistic country. But of course it matters who you are talking to. If the argument is playing out in San Francisco, then a more lefty framing might be better.
But I do worry that, in general, YIMBYs are over-indexed on arguing with socialists in an effort to persuade people who are in the leftmost 10 percent of the opinion distribution. Most Americans understand that price controls on gasoline would generate shortages, that a $100/hour minimum wage would generate unemployment, and that if we mandated that all apparel be Made in the USA with union labor the price would go up. An over-regulated homebuilding sector generates the same kind of problems as you see with overregulation elsewhere.
Bennie: Is it just my imagination, or are the people who complain about the anti-majoritarian nature of the Senate and the Electoral College the same folks who advocate for a strong administrative state that can set policy with little interference from pesky citizens and their elected representatives?
I think this framing of the administrative state is wrong.
The idea of an empowered administrative state is not that it can operate with little interference from elected representatives, but that it can operate in a continuous and nimble manner without the need for constant legislative intervention. To take an uncontroversial example, if the FBI Director decides he needs to shift some agents out of Chicago and down to Houston or vice versa, he doesn’t go up to the Hill to ask Congress to pass a law — he just does it. If they need to send some Chinese-speaking officers to Phoenix, he does it. Now we live in a democracy, so if the FBI goes off the rails and is sending everyone to Houston for no good reason, Congress can tell them to stop.
But the normal course of things is for Congress to grant wide discretion to the FBI and there’s nothing undemocratic about that. And I think the real reason that granting discretion to other kinds of regulatory agencies is controversial isn’t any principled concern about democracy; it’s that there’s disagreement over whether or not vigorous regulation is warranted on the merits.
James: Why does Rene Girard, memetic theory, the scapegoat mechanism, etc keep popping up on the Silicon Valley corner of the US right wing? Is it just because they all want to get Peter Thiel to like them or is there some deeper salience for those opposed to modernity? I thought mid-century French Theory was to blame for society’s problems, not a solution? What’s up with that?
I do not have a good explanation for this, or for the similar tendency of conservatives making points about the overreach of the Covid hawks to start quoting Michel Foucault. Personally, the only French theory weirdo I was assigned to read in school was Julia Kristeva and I found her writing very confusing.
Kareem: In your post on guns from Tuesday, you mentioned needing a “tremendous expansion of police powers and incarceration” to enforce existing gun laws. But I also recall you noting (repeatedly, and probably rightly) that longer prison sentences don't actually (significantly) deter crime — what does is actual enforcement, i.e. cops making arrests. Can you clarify whether you meant slapping longer sentences on gun possession, or just that making more gun arrests would mechanically increase the number of people in prison without increasing the sentence? Also, would an approach where enforcement is greater (vastly more arrests) but with a lighter punishment (say, cutting the typical sentence for simple possession down to a few weeks or months) be effective? (That might be more palatable to blue constituencies, at the very least.)
Good clarification. Because, yes, this is an example of a situation where I think that trying a situation where illegal gun possession is rarely punished but then you punish it extremely harshly when you do catch someone is unlikely to work. What you need to do is punish a lot of people, hopefully not that severely.
As this Washington Post article makes clear, right now there are a lot of cases where people get caught with illegal guns and don’t get punished at all — to say nothing of the people who don’t get caught. I think that’s really bad.
Alexander McCoy: It seems very bad for the prospect of stopping Climate Change that the issue has sorted along partisan lines.
What kinds of things might “Secret Congress” be able to get Republicans to support that might actually help? If you were a billionaire concerned about Climate Change who wanted to fund efforts to appeal to more moderate or conservative voters, what would you do?
Secret Congress actually passed an important climate bill in December 2020, boosting funding for a variety of zero-carbon energy projects, so I don’t see this as hopeless. The big kahuna in terms of bipartisanship, however, isn’t a Secret Congress thing at all — it’s a carbon tax as part of a bipartisan deficit-reduction bill. Really, Matt, have you lost your mind?
Well, here’s my thought. At some point, maybe there will be a fiscal crisis that requires austerity. Democrats will insist on tax increases; Republicans will want to avoid soaking the rich. And what kind of tax increase avoids soaking the rich? Well, a VAT. But Democrats wouldn’t vote for a VAT. But a carbon tax? I could see it.
Francis Reed: Matt, can you name some examples of current popularist governments?
Some Nordic examples:
In Denmark, the Social Democrats got tired of losing so Mette Frederiksen had them move right on immigration and successfully poached votes away from the Danish populist right party. This ended up costing her some voters who defected to the Social Liberals (if you watched Borgen, this is Birgitte Christensen’s party), but since the Social Liberals support the Social Democratic minority government the aggregate vote shift helped the left.
In Norway, the Labor Party hoped to form a majority coalition with the support of the Center Party and the Socialist Left Party, but the Socialist Left insisted on endorsing curbs on Norwegian oil and gas production. Labor refused, so they just have a minority coalition with the Center now.
In both Sweden and Finland, the governing center-left parties ended up with unpopular leaders so they simply swapped the leader out for a fresh face who people liked more — in Sweden, this was paired with some tough talk on immigration.
None of the people involved are pure popularist politicians (I doubt any exist anywhere or ever will) but it just shows that a certain kind of commonsense politics where you do some pandering to what the voters think is actually pretty widespread.
Steve Botsford: Matt, how strenuous is it to record an audiobook? I ask because I feel the connection I have to the book and the message is much stronger when the author reads it themselves, especially when it is a voice I recognize. For example, when Ray Dalio stops his recording of his books, I inherently feel that the most important parts are now over since it’s not worth his time to read them to me and have never listened to one of his books to completion. Are there any avenues where someone can just read their book with the quality of their podcasts? Because I have found the many podcasts I listen to on Tyler Cowen’s new book to be more engaging than the audiobook even though the content is exactly the same.
I did not find audiobook recording to be all that difficult — doing the One Billion Americans recording took me to a full 9 to 5 day with a one-hour lunch break, then a second day where we recorded until lunch, and then a final half-day to redo a couple of problem areas. My only hesitance about doing it was because there were no Covid vaccines at the time and you sound bad if you record wearing a mask, so I worried a bit about getting Covid-19, but not about the hours on the job.
One advantage to authors doing their own books is that since it was my book, I felt entitled to make changes on the fly to make certain sentences more readable. A voice actor probably wouldn’t have felt empowered to do that, and I wouldn’t be comfortable letting them do it. But sentences that work on the page sometimes sound odd, and it’s good to be able to make the changes.