Trump’s tweets about saving the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” explained
The annual Memorial Day Parade in New Canaan, a Connecticut suburb. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images White identity politics trump free market regulatory reform. Dedicated readers of President Trump’s Twitter feed were treated this July to a new theme, former Vice President Joe Biden’s supposed desire to “abolish suburbs.” Trump has warned the “suburban housewives of America” that Biden “will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” The tweets are dog whistles aimed at reviving a failing presidential campaign. But formally speaking, these are allusions to the administration’s plan to withdraw the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. On July 29, Trump tweeted that, thanks to him, suburbanites “will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” He claimed this initiative to make housing less affordable will guarantee that “crime will go down.” ...Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2020 At an event in Midland, Texas, later that same day, Trump further elaborated that under his watch “there will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.” “It’s been going on for years,” Trump said. “I’ve seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.” Narrowly, this is a fight about an Obama administration rule with few practical consequences. But it’s also about one of the most important issues in American politics, which is the systematic underproduction of housing due to excessive regulatory barriers. Trump’s campaign to rally suburbanites against the cause of increasing housing stock is important because it could shape how an influential voting bloc thinks about these issues. Somewhat ironically, the Trump administration itself had been on the other side of this fight until this summer. Most conservative economists think the Obama administration’s instincts on land use regulation were broadly correct. But then, Trump decided to turn a bit of regulatory quibbling into a culture war hammer. And conversely, many Democrats eager to jump on the president’s tweets and accuse him of racist dog whistling have yet to confront the reality that policy in their home states is often uncomfortably Trump-like in reality. House building is very heavily regulated An interesting lacuna to America’s mostly market-oriented economy is building houses. Most of the population lives in places where this activity is subject to a comprehensive regime of central planning, which states and which parcels of land can have houses built on them, what the minimum size of a parcel is, how many dwellings can be built on a given parcel (typically just one), how tall the building can be, how much yard space and parking there needs to be, etc. Some of the regulation of house-building is about safety — electricity needs to be up to code and sewage needs to be able to be disposed in a responsible way. But most of it isn’t. There’s nothing unsafe about a 12-unit, four-floor apartment building — it’s just illegal to build one in most places. Building rows of houses that share exterior walls is a space-efficient and cost-effective means of creating single-family homes, but it’s illegal to build them in most places. Big, shiny condo towers only make sense in places where land is very expensive, but there are some parcels of very expensive land where it’s illegal to build them. These rules profoundly shape the built environment in almost every American metropolitan area. But they are particularly significant for metro areas where land is in short supply due to a coastal location, proximity to mountains, or both. The basic problem is that land use regulatory decisions are made at a localized community level, which as William Fischel observes in his book, Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation leads to a kind of systematic undervaluing of the value of building more houses. Any new construction causes localized nuisances (more noise, more traffic, less parking) but the benefits of more abundant housing are fairly diffuse. In their recent book Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, Katherine Levine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer show this is exacerbated by the tendency of community meetings to empower a self-selected group that is whiter and richer than the population as a whole. The fundamental dynamic exists essentially everywhere, but it’s especially severe in big coastal metro areas that are also very politically liberal. While traditionally, criticism of this dynamic has come largely from right-of-center economists (the kind of people who love to complain about regulation), as Conor Dougherty details in his recent book Golden Gates: Fighting for housing in America, a new generation of progressive activists in West Coast cities have been fighting for change. A subset of the problems with American land use policy relates to race and segregation. Back in 1917 — long before the main era of civil rights victories in federal courts — the Supreme Court held in Buchanan v. Warley that cities and towns could not establish explicit racial segregation rules on their land use policies. As Christopher Silver explores in his article “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” this simply created a situation in which “cities hired prominent planning professionals to fashion legally defensible racial zoning plans.” In other words, zoning schemes were drawn up with the intention of de facto upholding patterns of racial segregation. As Jessica Trounstine explores in her book, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities, neither the Civil Rights Act nor the subsequent Fair Housing Act really ever accomplished much to alter the pattern of de facto housing segregation — in part because the systems that generated segregated living patterns were formally race-neutral dating all the way back to the 1920s. The Obama administration tried, in a modest way, to improve the situation. The Obama administration’s baby steps on housing The Obama administration clearly took the view that regulatory barriers to creating new housing supply were an economic problem. His Council of Economic Advisers put out a report about this, and Chair Jason Furman gave a speech on the topic and repeatedly highlighted it as an issue. In September 2016, the council introduced a “housing development toolkit” — a set of best practices for jurisdictions looking to reduce barriers. They also offered some technical assistance to local communities that wanted to rezone for more housing supply. In 2015, the council promulgated a new regulation — the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule — that essentially required local governments to try harder to comply with Fair Housing Act objectives. That meant, in practice, requiring local governments to identify rules that could contribute to patterns of racial segregation and develop plans to undo them. This was always controversial in conservative circles, but the controversy essentially took two forms. One, exemplified in this 2018 article by the Cato Institute’s Vanessa Brown Calder, was essentially technical. She wrote, “If policymakers are interested in determining the cause of racial segregation in cities, they don’t have to collect data and guess at it. A major cause of racial segregation is already known: zoning regulation. Zoning regulation segregates by race because race is frequently correlated with income.” She believed we should reduce zoning barriers, not create a new checkbox compliance process. The other, exemplified in this 2015 National Review article by Stanley Kurtz, took a culture war approach and darkly warned that “the regulation amounts to back-door annexation, a way of turning America’s suburbs into tributaries of nearby cities.” As far as critiques go, Calder Brown’s is much closer to the mark. As historian Tom Sugrue argued on July 29, the reality was that AFFH, the Obama fair housing rule, was having a marginal impact at best and scrapping it would not change much in practice. 15/The Obama administration's #AFFH rules, basically shelved by Trump's HUD well before this month's presidential twitterstorm, were never going to solve the problem of separate, unequal housing, housing unaffordability (especially in suburbia), and persistent discrimination.— Tom Sugrue (@TomSugrue) July 29, 2020 However, while the Trump administration’s Housing and Urban Development Department has always been critical of AFFH, this summer Trump has gotten personally involved with the issue — he’s switched the administration’s stance from Calder Brown’s technical critique to Kurtz’s demagogic one. The Trump administration used to agree with Obama Housing policy has not been much of a topic of public debate in the Trump years. But in its official statements, Trump’s HUD under Ben Carson has essentially agreed with the Obama administration’s diagnosis: Excessive regulatory barriers to housing construction are an economic problem for the country. In the fall of 2018, Carson vowed to “look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations.” ICYMI: @HUDgov is taking on the #NIMBYs. I agree with @Noahpinion that we must look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations. Zoning laws are holding back America’s cities. #YIMBY— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) September 12, 2018 A year later, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers diagnosed excessively strict zoning rules as a major contributor to rising homelessness, writing that “President Trump signed an executive order that will seek to remove regulatory barriers in the housing market, which would reduce the price of homes and reduce homelessness.” Like Obama’s actions on this front, Trump’s actions did not amount to very much. The federal government is a marginal player in land use politics and will continue to be one unless Congress enacts new legislation empowering more serious changes. Conceptually, Trump and Obama’s economic teams were reading from the same playbook — rules should be changed to allow denser development on expensive land, especially in the highest-priced metro areas. Joe Biden’s housing plan, unlike Trump’s or Obama’s, could actually make this a reality by calling for Congress to create a program that would link HUD and Department of Transportation grant money to zoning changes. Doing so and forcing jurisdictions to allow denser housing types would not, in the real world, “abolish the suburbs.” Most people would keep living in single-family homes under pretty much any regulatory scheme. But conceivably, America’s expensive suburbs could come to be dotted with sporadic clusters of townhouses or mid-rise apartments, increasing affordability and reducing segregation. Trump is now promising to save the suburban housewives of America from that fate. Democrats denounce this as racism or worse — with Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) calling Trump “a proud, vocal segregationist.” Oh my. I mean, it’s not even a dog whistle anymore. Our President is now a proud, vocal segregationist.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) July 29, 2020 But realistically, just as Obama wasn’t abolishing the suburbs, Trump isn’t creating segregation. He’s simply saying that he will let America’s local governments maintain the land use regimes they have — regimes that have created incredibly segregated patterns of dwelling in places like Murphy’s home state of Connecticut. Nothing that Trump says or does is preventing Connecticut’s Democratic state legislature and Democratic governor from tearing down those barriers. But they remain in place — as do comparable barriers throughout the suburban Northeast — because voters and elected officials have chosen to leave them there. Given the marginal federal role in land use issues, the biggest question going forward may be less whether Trump demagoguery convinces suburbanites to vote for him, than whether it convinces blue state suburbanites that the land use status quo Trump is defending genuinely reflects his values rather than theirs. On a conceptual level, after all, MAGA anti-immigration politics and progressive anti-development activists’ rallying cry of defending neighborhood character really do have a lot in common, and a lot of good could be accomplished if blue states decide that's a reason to embrace diversity and change practical land use policy in theory and rhetoric. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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For some people, when they hear about some bad corporate practice, their first reaction is to consider cutting ties to the company. And so it is not surprising that each time I discuss the democratic dangers of Facebook, Amazon, or Google, people always bring up personal consumer choice. Instead of policy (antitrust, data rules, outlawing arbitration), the conversation veers quickly into pride or guilt. One woman worries she can’t leave Facebook without leaving her social life. One man sheepishly says he quit Facebook for a few weeks and crept back when he missed his friends. At the heart of this conversation is a thesis: Using a service is an endorsement of its business model. Or more pointedly: If someone is not strong enough to boycott, she lacks standing to object to the behavior of lawmakers and petition them for change.This belief is wrong, bad strategy, and dangerous for democracy. It is based on a confused idea of our obligations as consumers. This belief does not lead to more boycotts, but radically dampens activism: Guilt gets in the way of protest, and complicated chains of self-justification take the place of simple chains of democratic demand. This consumer model is most problematic when it comes to the biggest monopolies. Most people can’t boycott them, precisely because they are governmental and provide infrastructure services. We don’t ask people to boycott libraries in order to change library rules; we don’t ask people to boycott highways to ask for them to be safer; we don’t demand that you buy only bottled water while protesting water-utility governance.Of course, a strategic, organized, well-thought-through boycott with political goals can be transformational. And there is nothing wrong with people personally quitting products when they can. However, ethical consumerism has taken too central a role in progressive thinking, and we shouldn’t require people to boycott essential communications infrastructure such as Facebook and Google in order to demand that they be broken up. The railroads were regulated by anti-monopoly protesters who depended on the railroads, and the same can be true for the next generation of trust-busters. Boycotts can play a crucial role in political change, but not when they serve only as tests of individual integrity.[Franklin Foer: The tech giants are dangerous, and Congress knows it]The reason for this is that boycotts replace tension in the political sphere with tension in the private sphere, putting the central axis of tension between the firm and the activists. Will they or won’t they change practices? As such, boycotts can lead to small changes, or tangential promises to provide other kinds of community support that are not in line with the initial purpose of the boycott. As author Nicole Aschoff recently argued in Jacobin magazine, “When consumers and environmental NGOs channel their desire for environmental justice through the firm, their desires get absorbed into business strategies for growth and expansion.” In this way, ethical consumerism relies too heavily on partnerships with corporations to make change rather than challenging the leverage they have in our monopolized economy.This post was excerpted from Teachout’s recent book.Boycotts do have widespread appeal. The Vox columnist Matthew Yglesias has taken a look at why, writing, “Consumer brands are a leverage point for progressive politics because there’s no gerrymandering & marketers care more about young people. Consumer marketing is almost the exact opposite of voting and a younger, more urbanized, and more female demographic carries more weight.”This logic may lead to a short-term sense of empowerment, but to longer-term disempowerment—the more progressives lean into their consumer power as the key point of leverage, the less they focus on exercising their political power, the less long-term collective power they will amass. In other words, boycotts allow people to import virtuousness into their life without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.Additionally, consumer politics is certainly less complicated than actually wielding power. The University of North Carolina sociology professor and Atlantic contributing writer Zeynep Tufekci argues that people “want to stay out of politics because they fear corruption and co-optation. They have a point. Modern representative democracies are being strangled in many countries by powerful interests.” But, she points out, the long-term impact of dropping out of politics may be to make individuals cleaner and the system dirtier.[David Dayen: America’s monopoly problem goes way beyond the tech giants]Today, there are hundreds of boycotts every year, and most do not have any appreciable impact. People lose interest, don’t maintain a public presence around a boycott, and the number of people involved is typically too small to make a market difference. What difference is made typically revolves around “the more modest goal of attracting media attention,” not the loss of income, the University of Pennsylvania professor Maurice Schweitzer says.The Chick-fil-A boycott, one of the largest in recent memory, came about when the Chick-fil-A CEO made anti-gay marriage comments. Organizers staged kiss-ins, and mayors said Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their towns. But Chick-fil-A ignored the protests, people forgot the comments after a few years, and little changed. As one commentator put it, “It is hard to stay mad at a ubiquitous and powerful brand.” While, in theory, people did commit to stop eating at Chick-fil-A until it changed its posture on marriage equality, the company outlasted the protest; it still rates a zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyers Guide, and LGBTQ people are not included in its nondiscrimination policy.Ethical consumerism—and its close relatives corporate accountability and corporate social responsibility—is especially poorly suited to monopolized economies, and a tragic misfit for disciplining companies that play a quasi-governmental role. By accepting big corporations as partners, and not challenging their legitimacy as our rulers, the consumer-boycott model allows for short-term victories that appear to be progressive, while the partner corporation is building sufficient power to become boycott-proof.If Chick-fil-A was hard to boycott, think about what boycotting Google would mean. First, imagine a one-person boycott, someone angry about, say, Google-enabled job discrimination. He would have to get rid of his Android phone and switch from Gmail. He’d have to stop using Google Search and Google Maps. He’d have to refuse to watch anything on YouTube. He’d have to get rid of Nest. If he owned a business, he’d have to avoid Google ads, which he might rely on to reach customers. He’d have to refuse to use municipal Wi-Fi in cities where Google is behind “free” Wi-Fi. If he had children, he would have to tell them to refuse to use the technology required to interact with their teachers.And even if he succeeds in doing all these things, Google will not boycott him. If he uses the internet, he will necessarily see Google-served ads, and his responses and nonresponses to those ads will feed into Google’s data bank. Google will still collect information about him when he walks by a LinkNYC kiosk. Google will still collect his tax dollars in subsidies.[Read: The tech companies already won]Now try imagining an effective organized boycott of Google, large enough to actually dent the company’s profits. There are more than 5 billion Google searches a day. Can we really imagine enough people switching to an alternate search engine or going without asking their question? Google will continue collecting information on those people regardless, and Search is just one part of the Google behemoth. As if that weren’t daunting enough, imagine a sector-based boycott of the data-collection practices of all the big tech companies—Facebook, Google, Amazon—for their shared behaviors.In a comic New York Times article, one reporter chronicled the social-media accounts that pushed boycotts using products from the companies they were boycotting. A quarter of the people who tweeted #boycottGoogle (a campaign organized to protest Google’s firing of the engineer James Damore) did so from Android phones. And people boycotting Amazon kept shopping at Amazon-owned Whole Foods. Cher protested Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal by leaving Facebook but remaining active on Facebook-owned Instagram. “I don’t know if I can get out of the ecosystem,” said one activist. “Where am I supposed to go?” said another. “I wish there was something else.”In 2019, the city of Richmond, California, ended its contract with Vigilant Solutions, a data-analytics company that does business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The city of Berkeley, following suit, debated boycotting all companies that provided services to ICE and Customs and Border Protection, including Amazon, because these federal agencies rely on Amazon Web Services. The Berkeley city manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, argued against boycotting Amazon, because it “would have a huge negative impact to the citywide operations.” Amazon helps manage city documents, and hosts housing and mental-health programs, and Amazon servers host many other tech companies that provide services to the city. People unwittingly using the thing they are supposedly boycotting to advertise their boycott can seem funny. But the lack of choice facing all boycotters actually represents a serious narrowing of the window of moral political behavior.[Read: The constitutional right to boycott]The change in effectiveness can be confusing for people who remember the successful boycotts in the 1980s and ’90s of companies such as Nike, which came under fire for using sweatshops. Companies have reorganized their supply chains in a way that insulates them from liability and protest. Garment manufacturers no longer have direct relationships with big companies, who build systems of deliberate ignorance into their purchasing. According to Professor Richard Locke’s research on Nike, workplace conditions in almost 80 percent of its root suppliers remained either the same or worsened between 2001 and 2005, though the company’s records may appear better on paper. Most important, every part of Nike’s supply chain is monopolized, with just a few major players, so boycotters have nowhere else to go. A serious boycott would involve buying no foreign-manufactured garments, rather than targeting particular companies.Growing consolidation of power interacts with the rise of social media, leading to more boycotts that are less effective and shorter-lasting. As Tufekci has argued, these actions tend to the ephemeral and episodic, instead of the effective and persistent. The result is a combination of hyperactivity online and decreased power. Boycotts gin up social-media presence on an almost daily basis. Unlike a demand for legislative action—where inaction by a lawmaker grows in meaning over time—the longer a company does not change in the face of protests, the more powerful it gets. The lawmaker becomes vulnerable to a primary challenger; the company has proved that it is strong.There are also strong class and social elements to boycotting something like Facebook. It may not be essential for an upper-middle-class man living in New York, with an existing strong network of friends who appreciate his eccentricities, to use Facebook or Instagram. But a young person looking for work, let alone friendship, might find it hard to check out of all Facebook-owned properties, because they are so central to social life, and the web of job connections. The human cost of social isolation is enormous, and while some people may have sturdy offline social networks, many people do not. I met one anti-monopoly activist who guiltily confessed that she stayed on Facebook because she wanted to check on her grandmother’s health.[Read: The people who hated the web even before Facebook]Yet we have somehow inculcated a belief that if someone fails to boycott a company, she lacks standing to object to political behavior or to petition Congress for change. People feel guilty about not boycotting, and that guilt gets in the way of full-throated political protest. In law, there is a doctrine called “exhaustion of remedies.” It prevents a litigant from seeking a remedy in a new court or jurisdiction until all claims or remedies have been pursued as fully as possible—exhausted—in the original one. In politics, consumer supremacy has led to a kind of exhaustion-of-remedies thinking, through which people adopt a hierarchy of modes of resistance, and feel they must first boycott, and only then ask lawmakers for change. It places consumer obligations over civic ones.We need to change the current habits of protest in a way that places public, electoral politics at the heart of how we interact with corporate monopolies. If your local pizza parlor starts treating workers badly, sure, boycott it. But when a monopolistic drug company hikes up prices, or a social-media goliath promotes political lies to make more money, the right response is not to beg Google or Facebook for scraps, but to march to Congress and demand that the practices be investigated and the power of these companies be broken up. And if your representative fails to act, don’t boycott her. Replace her.This article is adapted from Teachout’s recent book, Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.