Archive for December, 2018

Lebensraum

December 27th, 2018

My attitude about real estate development is summed up by the old joke about the Vermonter showing his flatlander cousin, up from New York for a weekend visit, around the family hill farm.  After climbing through woods, they reach a small meadow with an expansive view across the valley.  “Beautiful!  Great place for a house,” says the flatlander.  “Great place for a meadow,” says the farmer.

In my book To Join the Lost, a takeoff on Dante’s Inferno, while walking through the grove of suicides we encounter a real estate developer.  He’s hiding in a pile of used clothing, like a homeless street person trying to keep warm.  As we bid him good-bye, a pack of wild animals finds him and begins ripping at him with their teeth:  “something scorned exacted revenge.”  So much of the way we treat the land is ultimately self-destructive.  Sooner or later the meadow, and the wildness and beauty of which it is the placid seeming face, will have their way with us.

Other, more anthropocentric values are implicated, too.  Once in a while I receive a card or a latter in the mail from someone who’s canvassing my neighborhood looking for homes to buy and flip.  They buy it, they upgrade it, they sell it at a profit.  I write back and tell them that they are opportunistic scum, destroying neighborhoods with absentee ownership and artificially inflating property values so that housing is ever less affordable.  I tell them that what they are doing should not be legal.

Ken Schatz, Commissioner of Vermont’s Department for Children and Families, recently announced that homelessness is worsening in Vermont, despite all our creative policies and the millions of dollars we’ve poured into programs to address it.  (Ken, I hasten to add, is one of the best, most competent, conscientious, good-hearted, and hard-working public servants I’ve known.)  Homelessness is a multifaceted problem.  There’s not one single magic wand solution.  However, experience has shown that one of the major, most effective things that can be done about it is to – wait for it – put people into houses.  Yes, if people have housing that they can afford, they tend not be homeless.  One thing we could do to enhance the availability of affordable housing would be to discourage speculation in housing stock.  Mommy and daddy should not be allowed to buy a house for Biff or Buffy to stay in during their four years at UVM, with a view to either retaining it as a rental income property or selling it at a profit after the little darling graduates.  Colleges should be required to provide adequate on-campus housing for their students, so that the transient student population doesn’t eat up the affordable housing stock, driving up rents and depreciating the physical condition of the dwellings and the neighborhoods.  All forms of speculative investment in real estate involving housing should be subject to severe discouragement through confiscatory fees and taxes, calibrated so as to allow residents to upgrade the properties they live in while denying rewards to flippers and absentee owners.  Conversion of owner occupied properties to absentee owner rentals should be particularly strongly discouraged.  The point is not so much to privilege owning a house over renting it, as to combat the practice of treating a house as a profit center.

If we were in the midst of a famine, we would not permit speculative investment in staple foods to heighten scarcity and drive up prices.  Why do we allow this with housing?  People fill the homeless shelters and routinely exhaust the funding for emergency motel beds.  Families sleep through the winter in their cars.  A house isn’t just a financial asset.  We shouldn’t allow housing to be treated that way.  Homelessness is one result of something scorned, exacting revenge.

 

Ten Questions for the New Year

December 20th, 2018

  1.  What would happen to Trump’s support if, after being indicted or impeached, he were to seek asylum in Russia or Saudi Arabia?  (In contemplating this question, it may be helpful to remember Sabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth century “mystical messiah.”  He won a huge following in the Jewish world of that time, many of whom held fast to their faith in him even after he disavowed his messianic mission and converted to Islam.)
  2. Why do we still occasionally hear the phrase “enhanced interrogation” used to describe torture by U.S. operatives?
  3. With so much happening in the world that is worthy of intense discussion, why would Mary Louise Kelly of NPR devote her most vigorous questioning of Amy Klobuchar to followups designed to wheedle an indication that she is going to run for president, after Klobuchar already told Kelly she’s “considering” it?
  4. Even if “wanting your children to do better than you did” may have been at one time a component of the “American dream,” why would a parent want his children to do better than he did if he had given them a comfortable, privileged start in life?
  5. Why are Americans nostalgic for a snickering mediocrity who lied us into an unnecessary war of aggression that resulted in the worst disaster for American foreign policy since 1812?
  6. Why is it considered important, among the news media, for us to know almost everything that Donald Trump says, leading almost every newscast with his latest tweets when it is as well established as could be that literally everything he says is either abusive, false, or misleading?
  7. Why does so much of the national media’s political journalism consist of speculation about what may happen, or what may be said, or what the effect will be on one political party or the other, instead of telling us what the political class, individually and collectively, are actually doing?
  8. Why do American reporters in the national media never challenge stupid, false, misleading, or outrageous statements by major politicians, in contrast to the BBC, whose reporters do not hesitate to interrupt heads of state and tell them to their face that what they are saying is not credible?
  9. Why do American journalists persist in pretending, in the face of all the evidence, that Donald Trump has any substantive reasons for anything he does, other than impulse, ego, financial self-interest, and nativist racism?  To put it another way, why does “journalistic objectivity” create an ethos of willful stupidity?
  10. Why do we rarely or never hear, in reporting on the marijuana legalization  movement, about the impact on costs and other aspects of the mental health and substance abuse treatment systems?