Jerusalem Demsas on progressive obstructionism in blue states
July 23, 2021 5:23 PM   Subscribe

Jerusalem Demsas on progressive obstructionism which prevents Democratic-run states like California from building infrastructure and housing, making them outrageously expensive. "I thought that I was going to ride the Purple Line [a project that's been delayed for 20 years] when I was in high school. And that never happened. And people are really mad. So you have a situation here, where a very few people have managed to proffer up a bunch of facially neutral, race neutral, class neutral, explanations for why it’s a bad idea to build a public works project. And at the end of the day, the people who have suffered the most are domestic workers who are taking multiple bus lines, or having to figure out other ways to get to work every single day. And they’re bearing the cost of all of that."

Demsas discusses some alternative theories. Is the problem technical difficulty? High labor costs?
So her research — Brooks and her co-author Zach Liscow who’s at Yale — they look into this problem of, why is it that highways have gotten much more expensive to build? And it’s an interesting question separate from transit. Because with transit, we don’t do it that often. But we build highways all the time here. We lengthen them, we build interchanges, we keep them up, we maintain them.

So we should be very good at it. And in a lot of ways, we are. And they’re able to rule out a lot of the traditional explanations, things like, it’s either unions, or it’s the geography of the places that we’re talking about — it’s just getting more difficult to build, because we’re building in harder and harder geographies for whatever reason. And so, they rule out these kinds of explanations.

And what they’re left with is this concept they call “citizen voice.” And there are regulations that have been put in place, that a lot of times come from a good place. They’re saying the government should not be able to steamroll over communities — in particular marginalized communities. There are many instances in the 20th century of the government building highways through minority communities, and really destroying them, and creating a lot of negative impacts. And so, one of the big regulations that comes out in 1970 is the National Environmental Protection Act.

And this is meant to ensure that the government — if it’s either doing a federal project, or a project that is receiving federal money — needs to do an environmental impact statement, and make sure they’re engaging the community properly, so that you don’t get these massive harms accruing to these local communities, because the government’s just stomping through them. What ends up happening is what ends up happening a lot of the time when you increase participatory democracy at the local level. Which is that, it is not used by people who are marginalized.

It is [very infrequently] ever used by people who are really concerned about the fact that the government is not representative of their interests. Who it’s used by is, very frequently, individuals who are very wealthy, who are white, who are already privileged in the political system, to stop transportation, and to stop public works projects, or anything that might be broadly beneficial to the community, from being placed in their neighborhoods.
This is true even in progressive neighborhoods.

Demsas on infrastructure: Why does it cost so much to build things in America?

On housing: Covid-19 caused a recession. So why did the housing market boom?

Similar observations from Matthew Yglesias on the high cost of building infrastructure: We need more ambition in the parts of the country where progressives can win.
posted by russilwvong (21 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Another example, via Omar Wasow:
California developer planned 18 new homes for low-income families. Original build cost specced at $414K per apt. However, ”political, economic and bureaucratic forces converged.” Project shrunk in size by nearly half and build cost swelled to 1.1M per apt.
posted by russilwvong at 5:30 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]

"[T]he political philosophers of later Greek cities did not actually consider elections a democratic way of selecting candidates for public office at all. The democratic method was sortition, or lottery, much like modern jury duty. Elections were assumed to belong to the aristrocartic mode (aristocracy meaning 'rule of the best'), alllowing commoners -- much like the retainers in an old-fashioned, heroic aristocracy -- to decide who among the well born should be considered best of all; and well born, in this context , simply meant all those who could afford to spend much of their time playing at politics"-- a bit from Graeber and Wengrow's upcoming book, screenshots here.
posted by wuwei at 6:15 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]

(one of many) Money quote(s):

EZRA KLEIN: And an interesting counterpoint here, is that there are a lot of European countries that have better environmental — certainly better climate — track records than the U.S. And they don’t have the same issues, because — and I think this point is really important — they don’t enforce their environmental legislation through litigation. The enforcement mechanism is not that individual people sue the government.

I mean it's not as if powerful rich people in europe or elsewhere can't lobby (or suborn) the govt. to make an agency do a drawn out environmental review either.,...but the barrier to lawsuiting is so low (by design!), and the wheels so well greased and templates set for the upper-middle and above that it appears to be a particularly American disease.
posted by lalochezia at 6:23 PM on July 23 [15 favorites]

This is true even in progressive neighborhoods.
: We need more ambition in the parts of the country where progressives can win.

How will that help? We need democrats to realize that sometimes cutting regulations is ok [it totally depends on the regulation!], that sometimes 'progressives' on social issues aren't the same people as 'progressive' on housing issues, and to run people who are specifically 'progressive' on housing issues, which includes socialized housing construction and market rate. These policies are starting to have real negative impacts, with both CA and NY losing congressional seats.

From the slowboring link:
The idea here is that housing scarcity in California drives people out of the state and into more conservative areas, which helps Democrats fight Senate skew. I think this is probably wrong, factually speaking.

Probably wrong? Being forced away from your family, home, and local ties due to politics to somewhere else might not make you particularly interested in progressive ideas? Also, remember that per the XKCD about the election, there are more Republicans in California than Texas for example. Not probably wrong, it's very wrong for all the reasons stated and more.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:15 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Americans tend to be pretty damn parochial. It's one reason why it's so hard to get anything accomplished at the Federal level.

And the Democratic party's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Republicans in power will almost always toe the party line when it's asked of them, regardless of individual actors' values and beliefs. They reduce everything to a simple message (be it true or false or even irrelevant) and then every one goes out and sells it like it's Coca-Cola.

The Democratic party has become a catchall for "everyone who isn't right-wing enough to be a Republican." There are just so many different ideologies and values and philosophies that it's become increasingly hard to find one unified platform everybody feels they can stand on without compromising what they came there to do. No matter what a Democratic Federal administration, or majority-Democratic Federal legislative body does right now, they're going to be letting down some of the people who voted them in, which can be incredibly frustrating especially in the short term.

This was a really interesting article, though, and I feel it does a great job of laying out how we got to this place where things that are just fucking getting done in other countries seem like such Sysyphean tasks in the U.S.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:23 PM on July 23 [10 favorites]

Huh. I'd always assumed labor costs were driven by regional cost of living and that labor was a huge component of infrastructure projects. It's interesting to see another explanation.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:32 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]

Also, remember that per the XKCD about the election, there are more Republicans in California than Texas for example.

California and New York are so much alike in that regard. You get outside a major city or liberal college town, and it's all Farm Bureau types yelling about how nobody's going to come in and force them to paint their fuel and water tanks different colors, by God, (the avenging God, not the nice one) and how Sacramento and Albany just want to steal all their tax dollars to pay for welfare queens' crack and abortions and force their children into gay trans communist indoctrination camps but hey, some subsidies and corporate welfare would be nice because it ends up in the hands of "our kind" of people and Reagan proved it would all trickle down anyway.

Like, in the village where I grew up, the only person who dared to put up a Democratic election sign routinely had her house vandalized and her business permit applications mysteriously denied.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:35 PM on July 23 [14 favorites]

I prefer to blame the people with money.

How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country

Perhaps some problems are the cause of multiple factors? While rich assholes fighting transit doesn't help, I don't see how them funding anti-transit initiatives in Nashville and Little Rock as your article describes makes building rail in San Francisco and New York and Maryland wildly expensive and slow beyond any reasonable comparison. Sure, it's easier to blame the devil for everything bad in the world, but that both gives him more power than he deserves and absolves the rest of us of our sins.
posted by Superilla at 10:07 PM on July 23 [21 favorites]

ultimately it comes down to nimbyism, and it's far from just billionaires at fault. your average upper middle class person/homeowner is the one who is blocking density and public works in big blue cities and making them unaffordable. this is intentional on their part.

on one hand, this is destructive to those cities and those lower on the economic ladder. on the other hand, these nimbys actually live and pay high taxes in these places and are just exercising the political rights available to them--like by dominating neighborhood council meetings, voting, and striking fear into the local politicians come election time.

there is no way to square this while making everyone happy, or by finding a purely evil scapegoat we can blame. this is a zero sum game because the nimbys want the status quo, or at least to slow change to a crawl, to keep their cities static. someone's interest will, by definition, lose. it's not pretty, but there's no way around it. to defeat nimbys, states will have to take away local power, period, and subordinate local rights to the greater good. or accede to the nimbys and make it a policy to dissuade newcomers.
posted by wibari at 10:54 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]

I can't believe we're seeing yet another attempt to paint "we need to deregulate FOR THE POOR'S SAKE" in progressive colors.
posted by praemunire at 12:00 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]

Perhaps some problems are the cause of multiple factors?

So in the early 1980s, Boston's Red Line was originally planned to be brought beyond Alewife all the way out to Route 128 in either Bedford or Burlington. NIMBYS in wealthy suburbs like Arlington and Lexington protested, and the project was scaled back. But that's when the fiscal conservatives killed any possibility of extending the line in the future.

Because the goals of the project had been scaled back, it became an excuse to scale back all of the baked-in overhead necessary for the full build. At the other end of the extension, instead of connecting to the existing line with deep bore tunnels using a gentle curve, the state cheapened out and instead did it with a tight curve that trains can only negotiate at minimal speed. This is that intense screeching sound you hear just to the south of Harvard station, and it's become the limiting factor for the entire line because you can only move as many trains as there is time for each one to get through the curve.

Even though attitudes are changing and those wealthy suburbs might be more receptive to expanded transit now, the technical reality is it can't be done* because of the cost cutting that took advantage of their previous opposition.

* At least without a massively disruptive and expensive project to correct the original penny-wise, pound-foolish mistake.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:21 AM on July 24 [18 favorites]

I work in public construction and also live next to and regularly use a stretch of I 95 that's been being rebuilt the entire 10 years I've lived here and is not done. It's not the developer -created spectre of "nimbys" that makes these projects slow and expensive.

No one here has objected to the I-95 work. Neighbors made some attempts to remind the engineers that this is a neighborhood with pedestrians and public transit; PennDOT didn't seem to pause their process and mostly disregarded the input. People have been excited about the projects I work on. They're still slow and expensive.

Paying real wages with benefits and building things to last for 50 years instead of just long enough to sell is expensive. The complicated requirements and paperwork of public works adds overhead costs and reduces the number of contractors. Less competition gives you higher prices. It can also attract designers and contractors who know how to manipulate the system for extra profit, and remember that the companies doing projects like highways are big and have a lot of money, lawyers, and political friends. They aren't mostly like that but enough are that you need to build a process that takes it into account.

The approval side is also slow, not because too much is being reviewed, but because of understaffing, lack of coordination and sometimes poor management. I've seen the same review process take a week and take months, with the same level of actual review (not waving it through).

I realize rich or connected mostly white neighbors can oppose things for racist and classiest reasons but that's not driving this and we definitely shouldn't paint all opposition as that. I'm sure the developers would love us to turn against the rich white suburban people fighting the oil pipeline through their town and the poor black neighbors fighting against a power plant for trains in their neighborhood, "nimbys" all of them right?

I would like to see more coordination of regulation and processes to both reduce time and get better projects, and more-informed project oversight (less counting of screws, more technical and context understanding).
posted by sepviva at 5:10 AM on July 24 [23 favorites]

If NEPA and its state analogs are at the heart of the problem here, that should be fairly easy to quantify. Lots of states don't have NEPA analogs at all, and many kinds of partially-federally-funded projects don't have to go through the full NEPA process (or are creatively redefined so that they don't). So the time and cost issues should be present only on projects that are subject to NEPA or comparable state laws. They should also be dramatically higher in projects that require an EIS rather than just an EA. Maybe I'm clicking on the wrong links, but it doesn't look like the Niskanen Center has actually done this analysis, which seems odd.

NEPA's formalism is certainly the worst of both worlds; you can't stop anything (no matter how bad) but you can slow down everything. Characterizing it as a "citizen voice" law seems a bit off, since the only "voice" is the equivalent of an open mic at the end of a city council meeting. It's more like a classic example of the bipartisan American compromise of "we'll let powerful people do whatever they want as long as they fill out the correct paperwork." I can easily believe that such an ill-designed framework is the root of many evils, but it would be nice to see some clearer evidence.
posted by Not A Thing at 8:11 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]

Y'know what's really expensive?

Not collecting the billions in sheltered taxes that's supposed to pay for this stuff.

(...who's taxable value is made exactly by leveraging the public goods that we can afford to build)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:19 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]

In Nashville, we could have had mass transit anchored by light rail, but it was defeated in a 2018 referendum by a 2/3 majority. The areas where a majority were in favor of the proposal were lower middle class, middle class, the area around Belmont university, the hipster/gentrifying East Nashville, and the downtown (which swings wildly in demographics depending on what street you are on); the areas against were a different lower middle class area, middle-middle class (including my neighborhood, narrowly), upper middle class, and straight-up rich. If you lay a map of state senatorial districts over a map of which districts passed the referendum, a majority voted in favor in district 19 (Democratic senator), it was about 50/50 in district 21 (Democratic), and in district 20 (Republican) it decisively failed.

Another way of looking at the demographics is that it was typically under-40-yo's voting for, and over-40-yo's voting against.

Certainly the voices speaking out against the plan were local, but there's no reason to believe that the money was. About 3/4 of the opposition was funded by Americans for Prosperity (Koch) and Smarter Nashville Inc. which was structured so nobody knew who was providing their money; the other 1/4 was supposedly local but I suspect was largely from the Forest Hills/Bellemeade/West End folks, not areas I'd describe as particularly progressive (more like wealthy Republican, speaking very generally) and we know a major donor was Lee Beaman, a car dealer. A lot of their advertising lied about how the plan would work (e.g. they had maps showing where people would benefit that might as well have just been the map of the transit system itself, as though if you had to walk or drive for more than a block to get to it, you wouldn't be able to use it).

The money in favor was the chamber of commerce, lots of downtown businesses, and what the media referred to as "the city establishment" which I guess meant the mayor and some councilfolk. All of my progressive friends were in favor except a few who thought the plan didn't go far enough (I don't know how those folks voted though).
posted by joannemerriam at 8:50 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]

I can't believe we're seeing yet another attempt to paint "we need to deregulate FOR THE POOR'S SAKE" in progressive colors.

Regulation isn’t a moral good in and of itself, though. To give an example that is less contaminated by discourse about housing and developers, CEQA was historically routinely used by “neighborhood activists” to stonewall the construction of bike lanes, delaying them by years, or hecklers-vetoing them out of existence by making it too onerous for cities to comply. It’s hard to argue that this is really in keeping with the spirit of a law that is supposed to protect the environment.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:36 AM on July 25 [7 favorites]

Regulation isn’t a moral good in and of itself, though.

In fact, my comment is based on the actual history of the last few decades of "deregulatory" efforts in the U.S. rather than on an enthusiasm for the abstract concept.
posted by praemunire at 9:56 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]

I guess environmental legislation being used by NIMBYs to keep bike lanes from being built must not count as “actual history” 🙃
posted by en forme de poire at 10:49 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]

A pretty standard tactic for NIMBYs in these parts is to advocate that inactive rail lines be converted into bike paths because more bike paths is once a bike path becomes popular with the sort of upper-middle class suburban riders who use bike paths, it becomes much harder to take it back for transit. It's also much easier and faster to create a bike path, and bike paths have a net environmental good so they're easy to get backing.

People will use whatever means they have to achieve their goal. That doesn't mean that regulation is inherently good or bad, just badly written.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:34 PM on July 25

I guess environmental legislation being used by NIMBYs to keep bike lanes from being built must not count as “actual history” 🙃

Or the Faircloth Ammendment: (PDF)
The Faircloth Amendment states that the Department cannot fund the construction or operation of new public housing units with Capital or Operating Funds if the construction of those units would result in a net increase in the number of units the PHA owned, assisted or operated as of October 1, 1999.

so things you can build with federal funds:
highways/transit/rich people houses/middle class people houses/sidewalks/roads/businesses/farms/ranches
things you cannot: public housing, without tearing down other public housing first

Is that a good regulation helping the poor?
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:27 PM on July 28

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