Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rochester Agonistes: the rule of thumbs

Metaphors, as we have seen, are conceptual in nature. They are among our principle vehicles for understanding. And they play a central role in the construction of our social and political reality. - Lakoff and Johnson, "Metaphors We Live By"

I don't care much for "balancing interests" anymore. Why? Because (a) people who say they are usually aren't. And (b) it's a pernicious metaphor wrongly associated with fairness. To be clear, seeking fairness is not wrong. But, insisting fairness is achieved by "balancing interests" is, if not wrong, at least misconstrued, ill-conceived, and not without consequences.

The very notion of balancing begins with divisiveness. Weights and counterweights. One thing set against another thing. The measure of one is set against the measure of another. As a metaphor balancing reduces fairness to portions purported to be measured out equitably.

Balancing assumes - usually falsely - that all things are or should be divisible and then divides them. Balancing divides them to portion them out and then claims to distribute these portions fairly as if fairness is only a matter of what you end up with. Is it? It sounds good. It sounds right. It sounds fair because that's what we have come to believe fairness is. What we miss is what all this balancing requires in the first place. What we miss is what is assumed to make balancing possible. The whole endeavor relies upon asserting a relevant calibration - a shared property - by which a balance can be achieved.
There’s a deeper problem, though: Embedded in the idea of the scales is a picture of a process for arriving at sound decisions—which if the metaphor is sufficiently pervasive we may come to think of as the only method for making sound decisions. A scale is a machine for reducing diverse objects—or in the metaphor, interests and values—to a single shared dimension. You might have items as varied as toasters and giraffes on the opposing plates of the scale, but all the scale cares about—or all we care about when we employ it—is that they both have weight and mass. Every other difference between the items in the balance is irrelevant so long as they have this one shared property, this one dimension along which they intersect, which allows us to quantify each in terms of the other.
It is the calibrating that matters most. Portioning is not impartial. In assuming that by careful calibration it can be impartial, balancing misconstrues fairness as simply a matter of distribution. It mistakenly believes that impartiality is even possible. Even worse, it is mistaken that impartiality is the point. Of course it is fair, we are told, it's impartial. But, calibrating is a very partial choice.

Interests are not balanced by the disinterested. Nor is it the disinterested whose interests hang in the balance. When it comes to balancing interests it's also important to look through all the finger pointing to see whose thumbs are on the scale.

image: M.J. Carlucci
Now if you are thinking that this metaphor doesn't matter all that much my guess is that you haven't tried to get a Holiday Inn built in Rochester recently. Or park a "mobile food unit" downtown. Or maybe you haven't applied for a position on a city board or commission. Or maybe you haven't tried to find a house or an apartment you can afford. If you had attempted or been party to any of these things you would have learned that "balancing interests" matters a lot. "Balancing interests" is the reason you've been given for why it takes so damn long to get anything done and why you end up with so little or nothing at all.

Is it surprising when citizens troubled by these outcomes take up the Old Testament remedy visited upon Adonibezek and start talking about cutting off thumbs? But as satisfying as that metaphor (it is a metaphor right?) might be for some to ponder, it leaves us within the same frame that "balancing interests" creates in the first place. Maybe we need instead something more New Testament - like the scales falling away from Saul's eyes. We should act rather than judge. We need to "reframe" the conversation.
In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry our policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.
Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.
As long as "balancing interests" frames our civic deliberations, our outcomes will likely remain all thumbs. And thumbs will rule.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Affordable housing: so what?

Certainly in the case of what the plant needs, the thought of the need will only affect action if you want the plant to flourish. - G.E.M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy" 

Let them eat cake somewhere else

When Neel Kashkari, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis was in town recently he met with some local nonprofit leaders. The meeting has become a bit notorious in some circles since then, mainly for Kashkari’s response to concerns raised regarding affordable housing in Rochester. Hearing that there was “cheap” property thirty miles out, he is reported to have concluded that the solution to the city’s affordable housing problem was clear: people who can’t afford to live here can live out there.

Kashkari is not alone in this view. Certainly one way to solve the city’s affordable housing problem is to conclude that it’s not necessary to provide it.

Surely we would have heard something

You could also take the view of some of the business leadership in town that if there was a problem finding affordable housing their employees would have said something about it to human resources. No one has, so there isn’t.

Of course these are businesses large enough to have human resource departments. Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, this view prevails.

But let’s say this view is correct - at least as far as these employers not having heard anything. The first question would be: did you ask? The second: why would they tell you? The third: how many of your employees are stressed about affording the house they are living in or the apartment they are renting?
US Census data illustrates the share of Olmsted County households paying too much for housing has jumped from 7,900 households in 2000 to 14,900 households in 2010. More than one in five owner households and more than two in five renter households pay over 30% of their income for housing. 

What do you need to buy a house for anyway

Kashkari is also said to have said, no one expects a waitress to be able to buy a starter home. OK. Let’s say that’s what no one expects. How about maybe just being able to rent a one bedroom apartment? Anyone expect a waitress to be able to do that? 60% of renters cannot afford the average market rent in Rochester.

So what

Knowing that a plant needs water to flourish does not mean you will water the plant. Unless you want the plant to flourish, you will not bother. Similarly, simply knowing there is a shortage of affordable housing in Rochester - and there's plenty of data to reasonably conclude there is - does not mean affordable housing will be built in Rochester. Unless Rochester wants to provide it, Rochester will not bother.

So: do we want the people who work in Rochester to be able to live in Rochester?