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.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Inequality in the US and Europe


I have been saving the article from the New York Times that includes this graph, because it shows so clearly that America's rising inequality and stagnating middle-class incomes are not inevitable.

In 1980, Europe was a bit more unequal than the US. Then the US became steadily more unequal while inequality did not increase nearly as much in Europe.

Both the US and Europe face pressures from globalization, which drives down wages as their workers compete with much lower paid workers in the developing nations.

The United States reacted with a series of tax cuts for the rich, begun by Reagan in the 1980s and supported by Republicans ever since.  As a result, the top 1% doubled their share of national income since 1980, while the share of the bottom 50% declined dramatically.

By contrast, Europe generally kept higher taxes and more transfer payments.  As a result, the share of the top 1% increased much more slowly than in the US. And the share of the bottom 50% in Europe is as high now as it was in the US in 1980.

I recommend reading the complete article in the New York Times.

Monday, November 27, 2017

David Hockney Doesn't Observe

Art critics will cite all the historical schools that influenced it, but this David Hockney picture actually shows that Hockney does not observe the world around him.

David Hockney, Domestic Scene, 1963

Anyone who is not an art critic will react to this painting by thinking that water just doesn't behave in this way. Water from a shower does not remained contained in a narrow space that will let it fall into this sort of small basin.  It would end up all over the floor. The error is so blatant that it prevents most of us from seeing anything else about the painting.

Hockney has written a book saying that the old masters could not possibly have created their realistic paintings without using optical instruments, such as the camera obscura, and tracing the image they cast on the canvas. This "Hockney-Falco thesis" doesn't make any sense because they created equally realistic sculptures, such as Michelangelo's David, and their optical instruments could not possibly have cast a three-dimensional image for them to trace.

The evidence shows that some of the old masters used optical instruments, but there is no doubt that their realism was also based on close observation of nature and on a system of apprenticeship that built their skills. For example, Michelangelo studied anatomy, and this knowledge about nature helped him to create realistic images of the human body.

The change in western art during the twentieth century is similar to the change that occurred many centuries earlier during the shift from the classical to the Byzantine period. Artists stopped observing nature carefully and lost the skills needed to imitate nature, so they stopped creating realistic art and began creating icons - art that symbolizes the subject rather than accurately depicting the subject.

Hockney does the same thing here, using a blue outline to symbolize water flowing from a shower. He couldn't depict water flowing from a shower because he obviously has never observed it carefully.

We can do better. The Art Renewal Center has a large number of artists who do the sort of realistic representation that that the old masters did, even though Hockney says it is impossible.

The question is why we don't do better.  Why do all the art critics ignore the real artists and lavish praise on the David Hockneys of this world, whose art obviously involves the same sort of cultural decline as Byzantine art?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Good for the Economy, Bad for People

A recent article in the New York Times about rapid economic growth in the third quarter provides a perfect example of the upside-down way that we think about the economy:
"After the shock dissipates, the recovery from an extreme weather event can help the economy by creating new reasons for consumer spending, which represents roughly 70 percent of national output. After the damage is done, people must often rebuild their homes or replace their cars, an effect that began to show up in the third quarter and will most likely continue through the end of the year."
Destruction is supposedly a good thing, because people have to spend more to rebuild and that spending is good for the economy. Of course, the people are not better off after their old house is destroyed and they spend much of their money to build a new house - after hardship and displacement, they end up with a house that is no better than the one they always had - but the economy is better off because of the increased consumer spending. 
Rather than thinking about what is good for the economy, we should think about what the economy is good for.  The goal of the economy is to provide people with products that they need or want, so people are comfortable and well off. Rebuilding after a hurricane leaves people no better off than they were before.  Even if it is good for the economy, it is not good for the people whose well-being is supposedly the goal of the economy. 
The Times quotation is here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My New Book - Trumpery: Lies and Alternative Facts of Donald Trump

Do you know that Donald Trump once said that the United States' Gross Domestic Product was less than zero? Yet anyone who understands elementary economics realizes that the total value of everything the United States produces cannot possibly be less than zero.

Do you know that Donald Trump once retweeted an image that said, "Whites killed by blacks--81%"?  The actual figure is 15%, not 81%. It turned out that the image originated with a neo-Nazi whose Twitter account said he admired Hitler and used the name "Non dildo'd goyim."

Do you know that Donald Trump claimed to be 6-foot-3, though his driver's license says he is 6-foot-2? At 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, he is obese. At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, he just barely qualifies as overweight rather than obese.

My book, Trumpery: Lies and Alternative Facts of Donald Trump, tells the stories of Trump's fifty most blatant falsehoods. It retells the story of Trump’s plunge into politics from a different perspective, as a series of falsehoods with the factual background for each - from early statements, such as his support for the claim that Obama was born in Kenya, to recent self-contradictory statements about his contacts with Russia.

You can read selections at http://www.omopress.com/Trumpery/
Preview or buy the book on amazon at this page.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Greenhouse Gases Coming Home to Roost


The media is reporting on the devastation that Hurricane Harvey is causing in Texas, but they do not mention that global warming has made the disaster worse.


Hurricanes get their energy from the heat of the ocean, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 5 degrees warmer than usual because of global warming.  In addition, warmer air can hold more water, which means heavier rains. So, global warming has given us a fiercer, more destructive storm, with higher winds and more rain.

Texas does much more than its share to cause global warming.  The average Texan emits 26.29 tons of carbon dioxide per year.  The average Californian emits 9.26 tons, less than half as much.  And the average person worldwide emits 4 tons.

Texas has always resisted attempts to control global warming and has voted for climate deniers.  Fossil fuels are a mainstay of its economy, and the hurricane is headed for Houston, a center of America's oil and gas industry.

The chickens are coming home to roost. There will be much more destructive storms in a few decades unless we wake up and make an intense effort to control greenhouse gas emissions.