Shipping up to Mailbag
The new Blue Dogs, the deficit, and trying to be self-aware about self-awareness
I’m heading to Boston — well, not exactly Boston, but near Boston — this weekend for my 20th college reunion. It feels like a real landmark in terms of being old. I hope Jared Kushner shows up!
This week’s good news includes a newly approved RSV vaccine, progress on self-driving taxis is real, the debt ceiling deal may have actually expanded SNAP on net (Galen Metzger called this), and school lunches have gotten better. I’m not 100% sure how this translates into policy, but this is a neat study about the value of informal mentoring of students by teachers.
This is not really good news, but the NYC sitcom map brought a smile to my face — I grew up in the Friends District, though actually closest to the setting of Mad About You, which is not on the map.
lindamc: Do you think that you’re more self-aware than the median person (or at least the median take-slinger)? If so, is that something you have tried to cultivate?
I am self-aware enough to know that I don’t really know how I measure up to the median person.
What I do know is that I’m more self-aware than I used to be, and I’m trying to settle into a Middle-Aged Mindset where I bring self-awareness to the party as an advantage.
City of Trees: So happy that this tweet is getting ratioed into the ground, and if I had a Twitter account for shitposting purposes I'd likely pile on with a simple QT that say “This looks...fine to me.” Some day I hope Matt addresses HOAs in more detail, they just continually irk me.
That tweet was absurd, and there’s a lot of absurd stuff happening in HOA-land.
That said, in some contexts, an HOA or HOA-like legal structure seems necessary. I lived for a while in a large condo building, and while you call the HOA of a big building like that a “condo board,” it’s a similar concept and you need it because the condo has common facilities and needs a mechanism to manage and govern them. Now, you still have problems. Meetings are dominated by people tedious and nosy enough to show up, so you often end up with a regime that tilts more in the direction of busybody-dom than is the authentic preference of the median unit owner. But how else are you going to run a building? Later, Kate and I lived in a two-unit structure that we shared with an upstairs neighbor. The “condo association” was very informal, but still existed as a financial entity that was responsible for the roof, the exterior of the building, etc.
Obviously, single-family homes don’t need to have that kind of structure. But if you’re doing greenfield development — even if it’s greenfield development of detached homes — then creating some common facilities is at least a plausible idea. A large shared pool is a lot cheaper to build than two dozen separate small pools, and some people would find it more fun as well. But if you want to have shared facilities, you need a homeowners’ association.
People ask me about HOAs because they want to know about strict HOA rules vs. YIMBY principles. But I think it’s worth stepping back to the minimum case for HOAs just to see that I really don’t think you’d want to do away with this form entirely. Meanwhile, at least one reason that a lot of HOAs are so psychotic is precisely the sentiment articulated in that tweet and the counter-sentiments articulated by its critics. Some people (sickos) have a strong personal preference for living in a community with strict HOA rules and are willing to pay a premium for it. Others find that sort of thing somewhere between pointless and harmful. So you end up with a certain amount of self-selection.
Personally, I do not approve of this lifestyle.
If I found myself moving out into the Great American Sprawl for whatever reason, I would not seek out an HOA-governed community to live in, would not pay a premium to live in one, and would therefore probably not end up in one. But there are lots of things that people are into that I don’t enjoy. I wouldn’t pay a premium to have access to great skiing or surfing and since lots of people would and do, I will probably never end up living someplace like that.
As a policy matter, do we need to ban or restrict HOAs? You could imagine the great wheel of history turning in a direction where that starts to seem like a good idea. But in the real world, I don’t really see it. In Houston, which famously has the most relaxed land use laws in the country, some people use HOAs to achieve some of what zoning proponents want. Nolan Gray argues that this makes the no-zoning status quo politically sustainable since it lets people who highly desire stability get it without them needing to overturn the whole political economy of the city. This does, obviously, constrain housing supply somewhat relative to a world where the zoning stayed the same and the HOAs went away. But my two key points on this would be:
Clearly Houston has, on net, some of the most elastic housing of any city in the country.
Even though Houston has “no zoning,” large swathes of the city continue to have other types of restrictive land use related to minimum lot size, parking, and FAR rules.
So the aggregate Houston policy mix is pretty good for housing supply and you could make the policy mix even more pro-housing without taking the step of scrapping the HOAs. So for the sake of maintaining an intellectually rigorous, consistent, and easy-to-explain posture, I think it’s best to advocate for strict and clear property rights to real estate: minimal non-safety rules about what you can build, but freedom to enter into contractual relationships with neighbors that create community governance mechanisms.
Badger Blanket: Do you think that there's an underachievement crisis among the children of the elite? I'm a recent college grad who grew up in an affluent, upper middle class neighborhood and it seems every time I catch up with one of the kids from my area, they say that they're bartending, or they left school to “figure things out,” or they're just flat-out living at home. These are the children of doctors and lawyers! They have every opportunity for success, but they seem unwilling to pursue any goal related to accumulating material wealth. Is this a real phenomenon, or do I just have an abnormal peer group? If it is real, what do you think is fueling this trend?
From the vantage point of age 42, I don’t actually think this is a new trend. I grew up in Manhattan and went to a fancy private high school that sent almost everybody off to good colleges, but if you caught us at our five-year reunion in 2004, you would have found the class of 1999 up to a lot of nonsense.