Thursday, August 16, 2018

Socialism in the Democratic Party

Socialists in the Democratic party fall into two categories. Some, like Bernie Sanders, are old enough that socialism still seemed to be viable economically when they came of age and are too stubborn to learn from history. Others, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are too young to remember the collapse of socialism and apparently don't know the history. 
In the 1960s, when Sanders came of age, about one-third of the world's population lived in communist nations with economies that were totally socialist, owned and managed by the state. Many other nations, such as India, had economies that were partly socialist, with government owning and managing some industries.  Socialism claimed it was more efficient than capitalism: in 1956, Khrushchev told western ambassadors "We will bury you," meaning that Russia was growing more rapidly than the West, and the entire world would ultimately become socialist because of its economic success. 
It didn't work out that way. In the late 1980s, communism collapsed in eastern Europe because it was inefficient and the economies were stagnant. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason; economists agree now that it had rapid growth in the 1950s only because population was moving from the countryside, where productivity was very low, to cities where it was somewhat more productive, and after this movement ended, its economy stagnated.  India socialized parts of its economy after independence, but a stagnant economy led it to privatize in the late 1980s and early 1990s. China still calls its economy "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," but the main Chinese characteristic is a large market sector, introduced in the 1980s, which accounts for most of China's economic dynamism. 
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every nation realized that the market was more efficient than socialism. The few nations that remained genuinely socialist, such as Cuba and North Korea, became economic basket cases. 
A market economy is more efficient for an obvious reason. As a result of competition, more efficient businesses thrive and less efficient businesses fold, so the economy as a whole become more efficient. By contrast, when industries are state-run monopolies, they keep plodding along no matter how inefficient they become. 
It is easy to understand why some young Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are socialists. Since the 1970s, most of the benefits of America's economic growth have gone to the wealthiest 10%. The average person's earnings grew slowly for decades, and median income has not grown at all since since the year 2000. In 1970, inequality in the United States was similar to other advanced economies, but now the United States is the most unequal of all the advanced economies.
But history should teach us that the solution is not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Rather than replacing the market economy with a socialist economy that will lead to stagnation, we should distribute the wealth that the market economy creates more fairly. 
One key is overhauling the tax system. Raise taxes on the very rich. Lower taxes on the middle class. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for those with moderate or low incomes. Other things are needed, but using the tax system to reduce inequality is one key action that would let us bring back the widespread prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, when the benefits of economic growth were distributed fairly and incomes went up for all Americans, not just for the obscenely rich.

Monday, July 30, 2018


Since ancient times, there have been philosophers advocating hedonism, the idea that the good life is the life with the most pleasure and least pain.
But new technology should make it clear that this is not true. In 1954, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner were doing research on rats brains, and they accidentally placed an electrode in a rat’s pleasure and reward center, the so-called limbic system.  Later, they wired rats so they could press a lever and stimulate the brain's pleasure center directly, and rats did this as much as 5,000 times an hour. If they were allowed to, the rats would die of starvation, because they would continue to press this lever rather than eating. This study became the basis for later research about serotonin and dopamine, and the endorphins, the chemicals associated with pleasure. 
This sort of machine refutes the ethical theory of hedonism. The life that with the most pleasure would be a life attached to this machine, with constant stimulation to the pleasure center of the brain, and with intravenous feeding and other medical care to insure that you live as long as possible. But no one would call this a good life.  
In the past, some philosophers were able to believe that the best life is the life with the most pleasure, only because all pleasures were the side-effect of some natural activity -- such as eating, friendship, sex, or learning.  Once we see that it is possible to have pleasure detached from any natural activity, it is absolutely clear that pleasure itself is not the essence of the good life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

London and the Traffic Engineers

The traffic engineers have made London into one of Europe's most pedestrian-hostile cities.

On major streets, such as Marylebone Road, near where we stayed, they removed all on-street parking to increase capacity. Of course, the traffic increased to fill the new capacity, so the streets remained congested but became much less comfortable for pedestrians because there is heavy traffic right next to the sidewalk.

Marylebone Road
Even on streets with less traffic, such as Albany Street, where we stayed, they removed parking near every traffic light to allow for right-turn lanes. (Because they drive on the left in England, right-turn lanes are their equivalent of our left-turn lanes.)
Albany Street
The picture does not convey how aggressive the traffic is. If there is no traffic coming in the other direction, cars do not even slow down when they make a right turn. In addition, drivers to not yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, so it is up to the pedestrian to check before they cross and make sure no one is coming who might make a right turn. 
They also made life harder for pedestrians to protect them from the danger that they themselves created. There are islands for pedestrians in the middle of the street, but they require pedestrians to go out of their way: they cross one half of the street, and they have to go sideways before crossing the second half of the street, with fences to make sure that they do not just walk straight ahead when they cross.
Crossing on Albany Street
On all of these streets, the stop lights are timed to speed up traffic, which means that you usually have to cross one half of the street on one stop-light phase and then have to wait - often for a long time - before the stop-light for the other half of the street lets you cross. On streets with less traffic, of course, many people cross illegally rather than waiting for the second pedestrian green light - so these crossings are not as safe as they are meant to be.

Imagine if the traffic engineers had not taken over, and instead London had just left Albany Street as a conventional two-lane street with parking on both sides.  Cars would have to slow down when someone stops to park or waits to make a right turn.  The slower traffic would make the street safer. And so pedestrians would be able to cross the entire street on the green light, with cars yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, rather than waiting for two pedestrian greens.

London now has congestion pricing, so today's traffic engineers are turning away from the old idea of accommodating and speeding up cars as much as possible while ignoring pedestrians. But it is still extremely congested: it is hard to imagine how bad it must have been before congestion pricing.

There are a few exceptions, such as the Soho neighborhood, which is still a good place to walk because the traffic engineers did not overhaul the streets. But overall, London is the worst city for walking of all the European cities where I have ever been.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Liberalism and Idealism

According to conventional histories, nineteenth century liberalism in America was based on Locke's self-interest-based individualism and on laissez-faire economics, with its vision of gratifying as many desires as possible through endless economic growth.  But there was another idealistic side of nineteenth century liberalism that was more idealistic and more skeptical about progress and growth.
Idealism entered America through the writing of Emerson and the transcendentalists, who were liberals. In Emerson’s view, political reforms – from the Protestant reformation to the American revolution to the anti-slavery movement of his own day – were based on idealism, not on self interest: “The history of reform is always identical, it is the comparison of the idea with the fact. Our modes of living are not agreeable to our imagination. We suspect they are unworthy.” Reforms sharpen our consciences by exposing us to higher ideals.
Emerson believed that freedom was important because of its moral value: "Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience."  Emerson was an individualist - he wrote that “the nation exists for the individual” - but he believed in moral individualism rather than self-interested individualism.
 The transcendentalist Thoreau invented the idea of Civil Disobedience, which looks back to Thomas Aquinas’ idea that we have an obligation to disobey unjust laws, and looks forward toward Ghandi and Martin Luther King, who turned it into the most powerful political tactic of the twentieth century. Civil disobedience is based on the idea that we must disobey unjust laws because we have an obligation to a higher law: there is no basis for it in the theory that bases liberalism on self-interest. It derives from the natural law tradition of classical liberalism.
 Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism. For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was explicitly anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
 For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? ‘Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
These transcendentalist ideas do not fit into the conventional history of American liberalism, which traces it to Locke’s self-interested individualism and ties it to commercial values and economic growth. 
When Emerson speaks of an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, he is in the tradition of Jefferson, but limiting modernization was no longer a live political issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson’s day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time – he wrote “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us” – but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.
In practice, laissez-faire liberals dominated thinking about economics during the Victorian age, while idealist liberals worked on social issues, such as abolition and women’s suffrage. The idealists worked to extend freedom to groups that had been excluded, but they could not stop industrialization from eroding freedom, as the market economy did more and more things that people used to do for themselves.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dewey's Pragmatism and the Good Life

John Dewey’s pragmatism was the most important philosophy of American liberals during the first half of the twentieth the century. Like many others during the Progressive Era, Dewey believed that modernization was inevitable, and he hoped to find room for American values in modern society.
Dewey wanted to revive the sense of community that people have when they work together, but as a pragmatist, he did not believe that the community could base decisions on its moral beliefs. He thought that ideas were tools we use to manipulate the world, and that people were indulging in meaningless metaphysics when they asked what is the good life. 
In the chapter on ethics in Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey criticizes the Greeks for trying to replace traditional morality with morality based on reasoning about the good life: “reason as a substitute for custom was under the obligation of supplying objects and laws as fixed as those of custom had been.” Dewey rejects these fixed ends, arguing that “Moral goods and ends exist only when something has to be done,” so ethics should be redefined as practical work to solve problems:
...experimental logic when carried into morals makes every quality that is judged to be good according as it contributes to amelioration of existing ills. … When physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, contribute to the detection of concrete human woes and to the development of plans for remedying them, they become moral; they become part of the apparatus of moral inquiry of science.  … Natural science … becomes in itself humanistic in quality. It is something to be pursued not in a technical and specialized way for what is called truth for its own sake, but with the sense of its social bearing. …  It is technical only in the sense that it provides the technique of social and moral engineering.
Dewey turns the usual meanings of the words upside down when he says the search for truth is merely technical and specialized and the search for techniques of “social and moral engineering” is humanistic. 
His philosophy is obviously inspired by the dynamism of modern technology, which he expects to solve our moral and social problems. In his theory of ethics, Dewey says, “the process of growth, improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and result, become the significant thing. ... Growth itself is the only moral ‘end.’”
For pragmatists, reason can tell you the best way to reach a goal, but it cannot criticize the goal itself. Reason can never tell you to limit growth in cases where growth is not making life better. The community cannot govern itself based on a common idea of the good life.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Race and Gender - Or Aristotle?

The New York Times recently had an article about a program that conservatives funded at Arizona State University to counter the influence of liberals in academia. The program focuses on the classics: in one class (the Times tells us), students "pondered the concept of happiness as defined by Aristotle." In addition to hiring six conservative professors, it has acquired rare books, including a first edition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

It is easy to predict the objection that liberals raised: the Times quotes a professor who complained, “They don’t seem to be interested in looking at diverse political theorists in this country, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois ...."

You would think that university professors would be interested in ideas, but both the conservatives and the liberals seem to think of Aristotle and Adam Smith purely as symbols in today's identity wars, just a pair of dead white males.

Anyone who has read the classics seriously would know that Aristotle's ideas are very different from Adam Smiths - and are a fundamental challenge to today's economy and society, a much deeper challenge than anything Booker T. Washington ever wrote.

Aristotle's concept of happiness - or eudaimonia - is that the good life involves using your capabilities as fully as possible. And this view extends to his theory of economics, which holds that we should gain wealth to the extent that it helps us to live a good life, and we should not have the goal of accumulating unlimited wealth.

Aristotle says that, for some people, "the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit." (Politics I:9)

Adam Smith, of course, believed the opposite: desires are unlimited and the goal of economics is to gratify as many of these desires as possible.

And this same belief is at the root of our contemporary fetish of the gross domestic product and of economic growth. Every politician promises faster economic growth, and no one says that we should aim at the level of consumption that is needed to live a good life.

This is a key economic issue as we move from the scarcity economy that existed all through human history and prehistory toward a surplus economy. International surveys have shown that economic growth stops increasing happiness at about one-half the per capita GDP that we now have in the United States.

Universities are supposed to broaden students' minds by challenging their conventional ideas. Yet most academic liberals are so fixated on race and gender that they do not go beyond the most conventional wisdom of our society. Most students have been taught all their lives that racism and sexism are immoral, and most academic liberals devote their careers to repeating this conventional morality endlessly.

Of course, it is important to counter racism and sexism, and it is fine for students to read books by a variety of authors, including W.E.B. DuBois and Jane Austen.  But if you really want to broaden students' perspectives by introducing them to ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom of contemporary society, you should begin by reading Aristotle.

See the New York Times article here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Charrette for North Berkeley BART

I recently published this op-ed in Berkeleyside, a Berkeley news site, and it has gotten 241 comments so far. Read the original with the comments here.

Opinion: We can have a great neighborhood at the North Berkeley BART station. Use a charrette to design it
Berkeley should let the entire community develop a positive vision of what we want on the site.

North Berkeley BART parking lot

There was an immediate reaction after Mayor Jesse Arreguín tweeted, “Stay tuned for a town hall meeting with BART on development of the North Berkeley BART parking lot. I am committed to starting the process of building housing there.”

On NextDoor, some neighbors claimed that development on this parking lot would ruin their quality of life. One posted a picture of the high rise that will be built at the MacArthur BART station as a warning of what was coming to North Berkeley and added ominously that the MacArthur BART neighborhood opposed that high rise, but the YIMBYs came out in force and overpowered them. To top it off, a YIMBY group proposed building a 31-story high rise on this site.

Our usual development process breeds conflict. Someone proposes a project. Some members of the public oppose it, and others support it. And there is a battle between the two sides.

New Urbanist planners use charrettes to build consensus around development projects. Charrettes are intensive design workshops that bring in all stakeholders to develop a common vision of what they want for the site. They are visually oriented, based on drawings of possible designs rather than on abstractions such as height and FAR or floor area ratio. This visual approach helps to create consensus: residents might begin by saying that 200 units on the site would overwhelm their neighborhood, but after they have developed a visualization of what they themselves would want on the site, it might turn out to be dense enough for 250 units.

 Le Plessis-Robinson Centre de Ville (Francois Spoerry, 2000)
New Urbanists have designed many attractive neo-traditional neighborhoods. Le Plessis-Robinson is a neo-traditional development the outskirt of Paris, which I am using because I happen to have a picture of it that shows the sort of attractive neighborhoods that are still are being built today. You can see many attractive developments that New Urbanists have designed in the United States at the site of the Congress for the New Urbanism. 
Berkeley should begin the process of planning for North Berkeley BART by bringing in an experienced New Urbanist planning firm to run a charrette that will let the entire community develop a positive vision of what we want on the site.

A Word to the neighborhood

Neighborhood residents want to improve the quality of life, and so do I.

Some neighborhood residents have said that development on the BART parking lot would degrade their quality of life. I ask everyone to look at the two pictures above and to decide whether you have a higher quality of life with a massive parking lot in your neighborhood or with a development that adds a bit of Paris to your neighborhood. Of course, I have just used the Parisian picture as an example; in Berkeley, it might be better to design it as a bit of old North Beach or to use some other architectural style. It is up to the stakeholders to decide.

The development would have to include a parking structure that replaces BART’s surface parking, and it would have to use Residential Permit Parking as a mitigation that protects the neighborhood from spillover parking. With good design and careful planning, it could be an immense improvement in the neighborhood’s quality of life.

The quality of life in my neighborhood was improved when the Trader Joe’s building replaced the old Grand Auto strip mall at University Avenue and MLK Way. The strip mall was a blight on the neighborhood, and the Trader Joe’s building has made the neighborhood more attractive and more convenient. North Berkeley BART offers a bigger opportunity for improvement.

I also ask neighborhood residents to consider the larger environmental issues that are involved. To help us control global warming, California passed SB375, which encourages dense housing development around transit stations. If we do not build this housing, people will live in places where they drive longer distances and emit more carbon dioxide. Whether they move to suburbs of the Bay Area, or whether housing prices go up so much that they have to move out of this area, almost all of them will end up in locations where they emit more greenhouse gases than they would living in a transit-oriented development in California.

A word to the YIMBYs

YIMBYs want to build as much housing as possible to hold down housing prices, and so do I.
But they may be fighting battles in a way that make it harder for them to win the war. Calling for high rises on sites like the North Berkeley BART will just provoke more neighborhood opposition. Some North Berkeley residents are already opposing this project after seeing pictures of the high-rise approved at Macarthur BART. (But Arreguín told Berkeleyside that recent outreach to neighbors showed some support for development on the site.)

If a high rise is built here, it will provoke more opposition to smart growth in the future. For example, a walkable neighborhood should be developed on the vast parking lot of El Cerrito Plaza, right next to El Cerrito BART station.

One YIMBY group has proposed building housing, including a 31-story high rise, on about one-third of the site and using the rest for parking. You can see the proposal here. This proposal gives us the worst of both worlds: it is guaranteed to provoke massive neighborhood opposition, and it also provides less housing than we would get by building a traditional neighborhood on the entire site. It is also terrible urban design: the goal is to build walkable neighborhoods around transit, and people do not love to walk through surface parking lots.

I ask everyone to look at this proposal and at the picture of Le Plessis-Robinson and to ask himself or herself which would win more support for future transit-oriented development. Would people from El Cerrito would be more likely to support development at El Cerrito BART if they see monolithic high-rise built at North Berkeley BART lot or if they see a bit of Paris (or of old North Beach) built here?
I would like to see walkable neighborhoods developed around transit all over the Bay Area. If we build attractive, human-scale, traditional neighborhoods, there will be less opposition to transit-oriented development in the future so more housing will be built. If we build high rises right next to neighborhoods of single-family houses, there will be more opposition in the future, so less housing will be built in the long run.

A word about the future

Our housing crisis is becoming so severe that the state government is bound to do something about it. There have been several new state laws to make it easier to develop housing, and are even more radical proposals like SB 827 are in the offing. Changing demographics will increase the political pressure for more housing developments, as more and more new people move into the Bay Area and are affected by our astronomical housing prices.

Some anti-development advocates blame the problem on population growth or on Silicon Valley techies, but wishing is not going to make those things disappear. In reality, more new people will keep coming to the Bay Area, many of them will earn high salaries, and unless we do something about it, they will keep driving up housing prices and displacing existing residents.

We have two alternatives.

We can continue the current adversarial process of development. Support from YIMBYs will get some high-rise developments built, and opposition from neighborhoods will stop others. The Bay Area will become uglier, and people will continue to believe that new development is a threat to their quality of life.

Or we can begin working together to create a vision of attractive, human-scale transit-oriented development, making the Bay Area a model for development that improves the quality of life.
We in Berkeley can help the Bay Area move in the right direction by bringing in an experienced New Urbanist design firm to hold a charrette that creates a common vision for North Berkeley BART.