2017 (Books)

Every day of 2017 has felt like one sliver of species-death, that sliver slowly-extracted in the most painful and least explicable manner, that sliver drawn to cause pointless suffering for as many people as possible, that sliver drawn to clothe those most lavishly clothed, feed the fullest, empower those most powerful, and so on. There are no gods: there is no threading a needle with a Camel, for there is no Kingdom of God; there is no omnipresent goodness, no brilliant diversity reflected in all things; no balancing of accounts both mechanical and psychical meted by benevolent provenance. Yet, we feel dread: every day’s dread is a senseless understanding, an acute awareness, sharpened daily, that we are witnessing our own kind betrayed for no purpose other than fleeting material gains. In our extinction event, may we find solace that soon the earth will be nothing other than cats and rats scurrying through rotten decays of civilization. This is no solace whatsoever. This dread is ethics, as each day’s absurdity sharpens our perception of loss, of impending death, of pointless suffering, of fat rent-seeking parasites overstuffing their bellies, it is impossible to ignore our coming suffering, our collective loss. So we protest, fight, oppose this unnecessary and obscene power through as many avenues as possible.

The belief that life can be better, a belief stated amidst our greatest extinction event, a belief stated during yet another American imperialism, is a recognition of futility as much as a recognition of our shared fate. Mechanically and technically, it is pointless. Psychically, it is necessary to avoid to complacency, to avoid being targeted as one of the bloated powerseeking scum as the rats run over our decay. When we return to the dirt of the earth, will the earth accept us? If the City of God is out of balance, if there is no arbiter of the mechanical and psychical aspects of reality, we retain more weight to act ethically, or not, and to balance the materials of the earth ourselves. Thus far we are failing miserably, and the geopolitical distribution of those failures, the segregationist distribution of those failures, is painful to see. So we protest and search for a better way.

So went every single day of 2017. Every single soul-sucking day.

  • Philip E. Tetlock & Dan Gardner. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (New York: Crown Publishing, 2015).
  • Timothy Geithner. Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).
  • Susan Elizabeth Hough. Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  • Annelise Riles. Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financing Markets (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Each day of this year has weighed on me so heavily. Our current American imperialism sapped all value from my outlook. Strangely, through this nihilism grew new hope, a laughable paradox. I’ve found solace in probabilistic thinking exercises, learning how to dissect phenomena, value / price / quantify those phenomena, and then think about the future for those phenomena. For our own belief that the world can be a better place, or even the most straightforward belief that we must fight the resource-grab of the current American imperialism relies on a sense that we can gauge some type of probable alternative future. Otherwise, we are simply relying on cosmic justice, seeking a sense of metaphysical reckoning that we won’t ever see, hear, feel, know, or even intuit. We cannot wait for the meek to inherit the earth. In our fight against imperialism, against racial and ethnic segregation, against sexism, against homophobia, against classism, against resource hoarding, must be as methodical as possible, in order to avoid the inevitable blowback of any mistake (for we are fighting a better-armed, better-funded, better-marketed, better-promoted foe; they will demolish us exponentially for each of our minor missteps or miscalculations). Learning about Afrofuturism has also helped round out the quantitative and methodical edges of thinking in terms of probabilities; understanding time as cyclical, futures and past messily wound together, repetitive, and pregnant helps to see the symbolism of the past projected into the future, as well as our desired symbolisms of desired futures carrying the past to term. Time is not linear; if we truly seek to shroud our minds in this particular sensory death, we will have a significant advantage in our fight to achieve emancipation and justice.

Probabilistic thinking is a tool for considering future events across a range of probability, rather than focusing either on vague statements about certainty or ideals about fate. By considering a range of probability, one is ideally able to fully incorporate ideas about uncertainty and volatility into predictions, and ideally create a robust forecast that is more precise (due to its embrace of ranges of probability and uncertainty). I focused on this type of thinking while working in an Economic Development Analysis course during the Fall 2017, which included a segment on forecasting with Nate Silver’s famous Signal and the Noise that lead me to the work of Philip E. Tetlock (political psychology & social science design methods) and Susan Elizabeth Hough (seismology? & earthquake science methods).

Tetlock and Hough are both known for work on the methods of prediction, and their books are quite complementary. Hough weaves tales of disastrous earthquakes, government agencies seeking the Holy Grail of prediction, and the individual bootstrappers throughout the history of earthquake prediction that formed certain battles and debates. What Hough does particularly well is match discussions of the finer points of prediction science, and the uncertainties / difficulties of forming a body of knowledge in seismology (or certain areas of geology), with historical investigation of forces of authority or political climates that clash, engage with, or help to form bodies of knowledge. It’s difficult to say whether Hough produced a “social study of science” as commonly known, as the author is certainly writing from an “insider” perspective in the field (albeit an effectively critical insider). But, Hough demonstrates where political and social forces may impede knowledge, and how in general the political and social reception of knowledge is not well-suited for gray areas of something like earthquake prediction. Tetlock’s book, on the other hand, reads as a cross between the best type of pop psychology page-turner, statistical methods, and intellectual history, which makes it as much of a thrilling page-turner as Hough’s work. Although Tetlock is writing on the occasion of discussing results of the Good Judgment tournament design, and particularly what makes a good forecaster, the author also swims deeply into territories of discussing motives for decision making, intellectual habit-forming, and general states of mind that can be applied to organizational or individual contexts. Uncertainty is embraced at every turn, be it through the significance of knowledgable humility & self-criticism or practices of revision and flexibility in the face of changing facts and social uncertainties.

Silver discusses the Fox and the Hedgehog, and Tetlock expands on that analogy in Superforecasters as well: the Hedgehog is a person who knows “one big thing,” which basically is used to stand for an intuitive, ideologically inflexible thinker that collects facts into their broader worldview; but the Fox knows “many things,” which is used to stand for scrappy, ideologically flexible thinkers that adjust their mindsets and forms of thinking with changing facts. Tetlock understandably emphasizes that this dichotomy is not entirely useful, and like everything there are shades of gray between. But the analogy is quite useful for intellectual aspiration during trying political times: we will not succeed in resistance or protest if we are Hedgehogs; the flexibility and tenacity of the Fox will be extremely useful and important for processing divergent facts in a fractured and dysfunctional (malfunctioning) political process.

In retrospect, two additional books that I particularly loved throughout 2017 fit within the spaces outlined by Hough and Tetlock. Timothy Geithner was Secretary of the Treasury during President Obama’s first term, and Stress Test was recommended to me during a chance elevator conversation with a banking executive. I wasn’t sure how I’d like the book, but Geithner goes into fairly solid detail about many of the most difficult decisions made during the Financial Crisis (as well as the other crises faced as a Treasury civil servant and Federal Reserve head in New York). What I found challenging was to set aside my own politics about the crisis, and think through each disaster that Geithner faced: I highly recommend the book for that reason, to think through difficult scenarios, use hindsight to assess some of them, and to think of alternative solutions. Annelise Riles writes in the field of anthropology of law as it overlaps with finance and technology, and Collateral Knowledge is a fascinating dive into the technical forms, professional networks, and regulatory regimes required of one peculiar (arcane) corner of global finance (through the lens of banks in Japan). By thinking through Riles’s detailed analyses, the reader can find critical insights into regulation that dismantle the common debates about regulation in the USA. This approach to knowledge places our common language about finance and markets upsidedown, insofar as it forces the reader to grapple with myriad senses of interests, authority / enforcement, and technical practice necessary to form a profession through both public and private realms. A more useful conclusion, perhaps difficult for those in Planning or Policy professions, is that there is no clearly defined “public” or “private” realm that stands in its own right, which is a useful way to deconstruct many orthodox political and financial debates in municipalities and, more broadly, the USA.

 

  • Kim Phillips-Fein. Fear City: New York Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017).
  • Heather Boushey, J. Bradford Delong, and Marshall Steinbaum (eds). After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
  • Lisa Servon. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
  • Samuel Bowles. Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, Princeton University Press, 2004).

 

For the last year, while interning in various Community Development realms, I’ve had one particular intellectual challenge in mind: problems do not exist. There are not problems. Particularly, there are not urban problems. I work on this internal mantra as a way to sneak around the ideological and often coded uses of “urban problems” that planners face (from residents, pundits, policymakers, etc.) and often promulgate themselves (“what’s the planning problem here?”).

 

Moreover, simply speaking, I don’t like what the ideal of “problems” contains; “opportunity” would be a great substitute for most colloquial uses of “problem” anyway (one of many good choices), and a problem often evaporates when one unravels its component parts. Is the underfunded pension in Illinois a “problem”? If so, where; is the problem politicians’ historical insistence of borrowing from the pension without plans to pay it back, for decades and decades and decades; is the problem structural designs within the instrument itself (again, for decades) that would ensure a deficit even if the investments had performed to specification; or is the problem the Constitutional Amendment, passed after these other facts were known mind you, that guarantees pension payments? These are only three examples of questions, but the basic point can readily be made that there is no “pension problem” in Illinois, but rather a convergence of multiple political and financial circumstances that were progressively unaddressed (hilariously so!) by responsible parties for decades that have now simply neared a more probable point of crisis. Each previous historical circumstance, from borrowing away the pension to writing the Constitutional amendment to designing a terrible pension structure featured its own probabilities of default; it is worth challenging whether those probabilities of default were increased on the very days of those actions in the 1960s and 1970s, to say nothing of each subsequent year that’s passed on without serious pension reform.

That’s not “a problem,” and by unpacking the “problem” into its composite parts, one can combat common sense news discussions and (hopefully) engineer sound policy to solve the deficit. Problems don’t exist; where one finds a “problem,” chances are one will find a diverse set of circumstances that can usefully be parsed out into many different realms.

So “urban problems”: I’ve been thinking about this for the last year, there are no “urban problems” insofar as what one commonly would identify as urban problems in the USA are in fact broken into “shortcomings of capitalism” and “shortcomings of Federalism.” Where the shortcomings of capitalism converge with the shortcomings of Federalism, you’ll probably find many things, and one of them is what people commonly name the common “urban problem”: here, I’m most interested in thinking about austerity and poverty.

 

Both poverty and austerity are structural in integral ways. Austerity is structural insofar as its implementation follows a perfect chain of command down the Constitution, from Federal refusal to fund robust community development programs to State refusal to find solutions to the lack of Federal community development programs, to Cities’ insistence of responding to these circumstances by turning to bondholders and financiers to form the political realm. Thus, we get laudable “public private-partnerships” like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which indeed spurs some incredible housing developments that are creative in their allocation of scarce resources, design elements, and spatial disposition. This is just one example of an outcome of austerity that is so deeply entrenched it now has its own industry of critiques, apologists, professional forms, and ideologies. Austerity becomes structural in such a manner that those very structures of starvation from the public realm, starvation from community development goals, are shrouded within plain sight, so obvious that we fail to acknowledge its sighting each day we see it; it’s the middle class question, “what do we do with the poor?” if it’s asked at all, or worse, “what do I owe the poor?” Austerity has been such an effective structure that it has caused plenty of working and middle class households to haughtily tighten their own belts while insisting they tighten everyone else’s, too. We’re all suffering (it’s 2017!).

Poverty is structural insofar as capitalism needs a dump drive; I don’t know any other way to say that, other than that living in such an absurdly wealthy society, one hardly needs to be a communist to find the criminal inequality to also be violently inefficient and devastating to the human form. But, capitalism needs a dump drive; it thrives on rent-seeking behavior, and unfortunately this instantiation of rent-seeking behavior requires extremely wealthy rentiers and a large population beholden to their whims and (most importantly) wage requirements. Capitalism needs poor people; it requires poor people in order to function in its current form. Coupling narrow-minded, compulsive, and inefficient rent-seeking behavior with the refusal of a political hierarchy to fund social programs produces “urban problems.” I have become fond of thinking, there are no urban problems, there are only Federalist and Capitalist structural inefficiencies.

The trouble is, these problems are so ingrained in our way of speaking, that the inability to implement their rather obvious solutions is equally devastating. To this end, several of my favorite reads throughout 2017 helped me work my way around the “urban problem,” and dive deeper into the structural deficits of Federalism and Capitalism in order to see the raging inferno that’s burning out the earth from under our feet. I’m not yet finished with Fear City, but so far it’s a page-turning thriller about New York City’s brutal brush with bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, during which time the bond underwriters in the financial district simply determined that they were no longer going to purchase the debt instruments needed for the City to remain solvent. This was their chance to seize political control of the City, and tackle many institutions that threatened their vision for society: a free university system, robust welfare networks and housing, and cheap public transportation, among others. Of course, the City also faced the impending doom of budget shortfalls due to openly racist practices of white flight and landlord abandonment (complete with widespread arson), and therefore a reduced tax base, at the very moment that the City’s industrial base vacated for the suburbs, too. This is not a problem, it’s not even a set of problems. This is a shift in power, a transfer of wealth from one group of people (in the form of services) to another (in the form of rents). Phillips-Fein’s book comes highly recommended for a blow-by-blow account of how the bond underwriters turned on New York and Washington turned a deaf ear to its country’s largest City during an acute time of need for Black, Latino, and working class residents, undoubtedly a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the late 20th Century and early 21st Century USA.

Urban planning professor Lisa Servon tackles “urban problems” from a different angle, presenting a welcome “pop” entry into the ethnography of finance field. Servon’s The Unbanking of America places the researcher behind the counters of payday lenders and check cashers in Oakland, CA. and Bronx, NY, respectively, in order to explicate the social and financial structures of “unbanked” persons. By coupling ethnographical sequences with survey and historical research into banking trends and low-to-moderate income life, Servon effectively portrays the motivation of Americans to handle their money outside of the formal banking system. What is most compelling are Servon’s minute details gained from working directly with customers and workers at these financial institutions, in order convey that poor residents might prefer to use a check casher for their upfront, open presentation of fees and services (as opposed to a typical consumer banking branch, where fees are usually hidden in the fine print and assessed “after the fact” in the most devastating combination possible. Servon explains that this reality is thanks to deregulation legislation that allows banks to assess and “reorder” fees in the most profitable way possible for them, rather than to follow the explicit order in which offending events occurred).

The Unbanking of America is highly recommended specifically for the purpose of shedding stereotypes of check cashers and payday lenders as predatory institutions, with the benefit of simply viewing the full consumer finance system in the USA as “predatory,” with varying degrees of predatory practices ranging from payday lenders to standard consumer banks. By shaping this new lens for viewing and assessing financial institutions, one can come to understand how institutions of finance that are presumably in a position to help all American residents build wealth and manage assets are in fact engaged in conflict with low-to-moderate income Americans. The reader is compelled to consider community responses to finance, and armed with this knowledge of deplorable banking practices, the community development financier can attract customers by openly criticizing and countering standard consumer finance practices.

One reason that our dialogue of “urban problems” encourages society to fester without addressing concerns of Federal austerity of Capitalist rent-seeking behavior is that microeconomics as a genre is not typically aligned to assess these aspects of reality. Any student of common economics will understand the caricature of a discipline concerned with “The Rational Economic Man,” and the requisite assumptions about possessing complete information for decision making, or operating in perfect competition, or even finding equilibrium in matters of supply and demand (or other aspects of pricing). These types of economic assumptions are effective tools to maintain structural austerity and poverty, for they form a complete system of thought that builds a vocabulary of power while operating completely outside of the messy reality that maintains actual economies. For example, actors never have complete information prior to making a decision, and there are very few industries that operate within competitive markets; this builds an assumption for Americans to believe they live in a “market society” where competition can determine efficient economic outcomes, while the actors within the actual economy operate on a rent-seeking basis that completely pulls reality out from under Americans who believe they’re working within a free market society. Elite actors are simply playing a different game, and the sooner we realize that, the faster we will be able to address those alternate economic assumptions.

To this point, the work of Samuel Bowles and Thomas Piketty offer two different (and disparate) systems for assessing issues of inequality, inefficiency, and other aspects of the rent-seeking, monopolistic economy of capitalism. Bowles’s Microeconomics is a slog, a truly tough read that is worth every effort to read and re-read; throughout the spring and summer, it took me two or three rereadings of the initial chapters to get into Bowles and rewire my assumptions to this vocabulary. Once you put in the effort to stick with Bowles, however, the author repays the reader in genius treatments of cooperative ownership, disequilibrium games, social contract theory, and behavioral and institutional approaches to allocation of goods. Bowles provides the best possible spin on the classic genre of microeconomics, as the accomplished author can speak fluently to the common assumptions about “Rational Economic Man” while offering detailed logical proofs and models to test alternative economic hypotheses.

If Bowles pushes the reader to the edge of economics where they are prepared to shift from questions of efficient allocation to questions of equitable distribution, the popular economist Thomas Piketty presents an empirical basis for attacking matters of distribution and inequalities of wealth. If Piketty’s Capital is a worthwhile masterwork for many reasons, not the least of which is having presented an eminently readable and enjoyable economic treatise, After Capital is a rogue counterpart that engages in honest criticism and conversation with “The Master” in order to design a robust research agenda for the social sciences following Capital. This collection is not as coherent as Piketty’s original work, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the researchers show that Piketty’s understanding of growth, wealth, and inequality can be taken in many directions depending on whether one focuses on shortcomings / oversights of the original work (such as geopolitics, slavery, the workplace, and feminism) or more narrow technological or theoretical concerns with Piketty’s model. After Piketty is a gnarly social science collection in the best possible way, as the reader can tread vastly different waters every 20 pages or so, which in itself presents a great opportunity to build intellectual curiosity and theoretical flexibility. Both Bowles and Piketty push those outer limits as well, which means that the planning or policy professional has numerous vocabularies to attack austerity and capitalism. We need not be tied to “urban problems,” just as we need not be tied to classical rational microeconomics in order to solve those so-called problems: once you reach the chasm where questions of efficient allocation reach questions of equitable distribution, where will you turn?

  • In the queue: Brenda Parker, Masculinities and Markets: Raced and Gendered Urban Politics in Milwaukee (University of Georgia, 2017);
  • I promise some day I will read? Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change; Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom; Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Telecommunications the City; Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.