Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This Is Why Your Rent Is Going Up. Here's How We Can Stop It.

Photo Credit: Y. Sawa
Writing for The Atlantic Cities. James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz complains that it is very difficult to stop gentrification. The problem of rising rents, increasingly expensive commodities, and the displacement of minorities is a problem that Boston knows quite well. These trends and their connection to gentrification are deeply worrying, but they are also broadly misunderstood.

What confuses most people about gentrification is that they think that it is gentrification that is the problem. To see why this is wrong, one need only realize the most obvious solution to gentrification itself: make the city a worse place to live. 

If the problem is that wealthy young professionals are moving to a neighborhood and driving up rents, there are countless ways to discourage them from doing so. Prohibit the launching of new businesses. Require all bars to close by 7:00pm. Fire half of the sanitation department and police force. Sure enough, fewer people will want to live in your city, and rents will not go up.

Of course, these proposals are ridiculous. No reasonable person wants to actively make a neighborhood or city a worse place to live. Most people want to improve their neighborhoods. The problem is, once an area becomes a better place to live, more people want to live there, and rents go up.

We should realize that, in this sense, gentrification is a good thing. Gentrification means that the quality of life for a given area is improving. What we want is for the benefits to be enjoyed by all, not just the wealthy who can afford it.

In his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, Matt Yglesias describes how we can do exactly that. The problem of gentrification is not that a city becomes a better place to live, but the fact that not enough people can live there. The real solution to the problems of gentrification is to ease the zoning restrictions that reduce the supply of housing.

What, exactly, does this mean? Allow for taller apartment buildings in the downtown. Allow for narrower lots in the suburbs and for more multi-family structures. If we curb legislation that reduces population density, developers will build more places for residents to live, and rents will come down. A broader portion of the population will be able to enjoy the benefits of a modern city.

This is the quintessential case of supply and demand. Rents are only high when a lot of people want to live somewhere, paired with housing scarcity. Those who can use their higher incomes to gain an advantage do, and those without much money to spare are priced out. If there were a greater supply of housing, the increase in competition from landowners for tenants would drive down rents.

This doesn’t mean, as some worry, that we should abandon of public goods. We can still have parks, libraries, (some) historical structures, and we don’t have to live next to nuclear plants. Some zoning laws justified. 

But where residential structures are permitted, there is no reason to, as the city of Boston’s web page suggests, protect neighborhoods from the development of residences that “do not into the context of a neighborhood." Whether it is intentional or not,  protecting a neighborhood's "context" results in keeping poor people out. 

Many people defend the virtues of smaller, less-dense cities, and for these reasons favor restrictive zoning laws. But if someone wants to live in an area of shorter buildings, they can move out of the areas with the highest demand for housing. All housing choices involve some trade-offs, and it is not fair to use city regulations to essentially turn neighborhoods into highly desirable, and deeply inegalitarian, country clubs.

Some on the political left deride the market-based ideas I’m advocating with the the dreaded epithet of “neo-liberalism.” But their counter-proposals of rent-control and low-income housing zoning have well-known problems. And though there are clearly cases in which market solutions are likely not the best solution (such as in health care or education), there is something fundamentally democratic about market-based solutions. When a market is working well, individuals have the power to decide for themselves which trade-offs they want to make for their own lives.

This problem is even more pressing than it might first appear. Lower rents mean higher take-home income, which can be a very big deal for struggling families. Even better, an increased housing supply makes it easier to get highly desirable jobs within the city itself, giving residents access to opportunities they might otherwise have missed. And the easing of zoning regulations can be a boon to the construction sector, which will have many positive spillover effects.

The rise of the micro-apartment, while a small contribution to population density, is a symptom rather than a solution. It is clear that Boston needs to get serious about housing policy, and we can be a leader in the right direction for the rest of the country. If we really care about making our city a more inclusive, budget-friendly, and welfare-oriented metropolis, then we must learn to love a taller, denser Boston.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why Should We Protect Copyright?

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan
Dean Baker, over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, raises the fantastic point that government enforcement of copyright law enables small groups of individuals to become very wealthy in our economy. He points out that "an increasing share of sales of music is going to a relatively small number of big hit performers," and that this is because our government has decided to prioritize the enforcement of copyright infringement that happens via new technologies.

The most important thing to recognize about this line of argument is that this state of affairs is a policy choice. It should not be our default assumption that copyrights need to be stringently enforced, but these policies have been put in place because people with a strong interest in them have considerable weight to throw around.

It is far from clear that the current policy is optimal. The reason we protect copyrights is that we want to incentivize the production of creative works. But, especially in the domain of the arts, there is hardly a dearth of creative production. One point I often make is that people seem to like making art for its own sake, so we should be skeptical about claims that artists need excessive incentives.

To a lot of people, it just seems fitting and obvious that artists producing popular works should have very high compensation. But this is simply because we are used to the status quo, and don't see this state of affairs as the reflection of decisions made by our society. If we wanted, we could have very different practices when it comes to protecting creative work.

Consider my line of work, teaching students with behavioral challenges. For a particular student, I might come up with a treatment method or behavior management technique that is particularly unique and effective. We can imagine a society in which this kind of activity, coming up with new approaches to treat behavioral conditions, was strongly encouraged by using copyright law to restrict the implementation of this new method. From then on, if parents wanted to use this method, or other teachers wanted to use it, they would have to pay me.

I think there are pretty good reasons the world doesn't work this way. But the fact that the world works the way it does is a choice we make, and we could have made a different choice were we to find different reasons compelling. And we should be willing to re-examine our the reasons we have for certain policy decisions, especially if those policies are most strongly supported by individuals whose interests are favored by the policies.

We should be concerned when that copyrights are making some individuals very wealthy, and imposing costs on others. And the fact that we restrict the distribution of creative works impedes our society, potentially in ways that are counterproductive to our goals for creating these restrictions in the first place. If the world with strict copyright protections is one in which creative works generally are shared less, developed less, and enjoyed less than a world with more relaxed regulations, then we are really just shooting ourselves in the foot.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

You Can't Force Yourself to Believe in God


Noah Smith, guest-posting over at Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal, argues that you should go ahead and believe in God, if you want to.

 Smith endorses a form of pragmatism, a theory about truth according to which the "truth" and "falsity" of beliefs corresponds only to whether or not those beliefs are useful or not useful, respectively. For instance, according to pragmatism, I believe that fire is dangerous because it is useful to believe this. If I didn't believe this, I probably would have been burned at some point. Since it is better for me not get burned, I believe that fire is dangerous.

Pragmatism has a rather recent history. It began in 19th century with Charles Pierce, and was further developed by William James and John Dewey. It is notable for being developed largely by American thinkers.

There are deep echoes of James's work Smith's post. Smith's defense of religious belief, however, is not one I take it most religious people would want to accept. It is essentially the assertion that it doesn't really matter whether God exists, it only matters how better or worse it would be for you if you believed that God existed. Smith appears to be writing to people he assumes are atheists, or at least on the fence, and giving them a permission slip to become theists. But if religious people read Smith's account, it's hard for me to believe most of them would endorse it. It seems to be, contra Smith, that religious people in fact really do care about whether or not a God exists.

What's especially problematic about his account, however, reveals itself when we imagine the perspective of somebody who does endorse the account. Suppose I agree with Smith that what's true is what is useful, and that it's useful to believe in God. It's hard for me to see how I'm go from accepting those two claims to accepting that God exists. I might wish it were true, or even wish that I could accept it, but I don't think I could force myself to accept it.

Smith seems to think you can. He says, "Pick and choose your religious beliefs. Yes, we are all born with the ability to do this." I am perplexed by this assertion, personally. I think it gets the phenomenology of belief all wrong.

Of course, Smith would say this is because I'm not a pragmatist. Indeed I'm not, and I don't want to be. But I can imagine wanting to be, but I can't see how I could get from there to actually believing in God (or pragmatism, for that matter).

I believe people self-deceive, all the time in fact, but they cannot do it consciously. If they could, it would be plain to them that they were trying to deceive themselves. Some people claim to be able to deceive themselves self-consciously; however, it is when they make these claims, I believe, that they are truly self-deceived.

My objection to Smith comes down to this. There are different kinds of reasons. Some reasons are reasons for belief, call them epistemic reasons. Some reasons are reasons for action, call them practical reasons. Smith's argument confuses the two. He believes that because we (might) have reason to make ourselves believe in God, then we can just believe in God. But the reasons we have to make ourselves believe in God are practical reasons. The only kinds of reasons that can actually convince us of anything are epistemic reasons.

We might be able to do certain things that would cause us to start believing in God, non-rationally (i.e. without any reason). This is what Pascal thought we should do, given his argument known as Pascal's Wager. We might start attending Church, going to confession, reading religious texts, etc., and perhaps eventually we would start believing in God. I have strong doubts this could work, but I grant that it might. (In a sci-fi scenario, we could imagine taking a pill that caused us to believe in God--this case is interesting, but my purpose her is only to discuss real-world considerations.)

However, this undermines a primary part of Smith's argument, which is that we should choose which religious beliefs we have based on whatever would be most useful. We wouldn't want to become hateful theists, or misanthropes. But since the process I've proposed of acquiring religious belief is non-rational, it's doubtful one could safely guard against these problematic beliefs. Since the presence of these beliefs could significantly change the accuracy our prior assessment that believing in God would be useful, it seems the pragmatist account would offer little guidance under these conditions.

All of which suggests that it's only rational to believe in God if there are, in fact, good reasons to believe that God actually exists.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How To Lose A Debate By Entering It

Screenshot courtesy of YouTube
Mark Stern and Phil Plait both published articles on Bill Nye's recent debate about evolution with infamous creationist Ken Ham. Plait argues that these kinds of debates have the potential to do some good, by giving us a platform to educate the large percentage of Americans who believe in creationism. Stern, more accurately, recognizes that Bill Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and that such endeavors are fruitless.

The reason we should avoid well-publicized debates about the fact of evolution is rather simple. These kinds of debate are all that the creationists want. They don't want to find the truth, or better understand their opponent's position; often, it seems, they're not even really interested in convincing their opponents. What they want to do is undermine the established scientific theories of evolution by natural selection and the verified estimates of the age of the earth. They want Biblical creation myths to be seen as plausible alternatives.

We know the is what they want, because they have told us over and over again. When creationists challenge the teaching of evolution in school, rarely do they advocate throwing out biology textbooks and replacing it with the Bible. In an inspired PR campaign, they endlessly declare simply that we must "teach the controversy."

But scientifically speaking, there is no controversy. Evolution by natural selection, and 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, are not subject to challenge in any serious scientific journals. Details about the theories are contested constantly, but that's the point. Everyone studying these theories in an empirical way accepts their basic veracity. They only argue over the finer points.

By appearing in a formal debate with a creationist, however, Nye reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate debate going on. There is certainly a cultural debate going on that surrounds these ideas, and many others, but all that nuance is lost in the spectacle of the arguments. The message that is sent is that there is someone Nye believes is equally deserving of audience consideration, with whom a reasonable discussion can be had.

Unfortunately, Ham does not deserve the attention he gets, and does not even desire to engage in a reasonable discussion. He's interested in affirming his faith and promoting his organization.  He is skilled at debate, insofar as he can reply evenly and calmly reply to any criticism, and utter complete fallacies with beaming confidence. In the theater of debate, these skills are at least as highly valued as persuasive argument.

Those who support Nye's entrance in the debate have replied that given the large numbers of people who believe in creationism and doubt evolution, we must do our best to reach them on their own terms. But many serious scientists have debated creationists before in large forums. Despite failing to provide any rational case for their views, creationists now point to these debates as evidence that legitimate disagreement exists.

Generally speaking, I'm not in favor of formal debates. They are often explicitly polarizing and present false dilemmas. The biggest problem is that the debaters themselves are incentivized to obscure and sensationalize, because their objective is to win. This encourages red herrings, plausible-sounding logical fallacies, and erroneous emotional appeals. These features of debate are to the detriment of audience, as many see the structure of the debate falsely as a model for rational discourse.

A better way of learning is socratic discussion. Instead of each individual trying their best to win, everyone participates in a collaborative effort to come at the truth, by questioning one's own an others' assumptions. There are problems with this under some conditions (see: Groupthink), but the priority need not be to reach a firm conclusion. This is only what we should be aiming at. Given time-constraints, we should never be assume consensus will be reached. We should be satisfied to simply make progress towards the truth.

If egos derived from a desire to win are put aside, then the fallacies can be left at home, or at least easily disposed of once they're pointed out. When two intelligent individuals who disagree try to figure out what's true, rather than who can score the most points, it is much more likely that everyone will benefit. (For a fantastic example of this, see Ayer and Williams in one of the best videos on YouTube) Unfortunately, this cannot happen when debating avowed creationists, or for that matter in most debate settings. When the goal is to impress rather than clarify, confusion is compounded upon, rather than cleared away.

But this is not to say we don't have any options for education and outreach. Since adults are much harder to convince, most of our efforts should go to ensuring accurate education for children. And we continue to do this, by fighting attempts to bring creationism and other pseudoscience into science classrooms. Richard Dawkins, very wisely, wrote a book that, rather than setting itself up as a response to creationism, simply presents the tremendous amount of evidence for evolution.

And we should do our best to resist the notion that there is a legitimate scientific debate going on. This does not mean giving up on education about important scientific truths, but it does mean refraining from dignifying absolute nonsense.