Pluralistic: 14 Jun 2021

Today's links

American slums of yesteryear.

The Rent's Too Damned High (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column "The Rent's Too Damned High," an essay about the economic incoherence of making home-ownership the path to economic security and a middle-class life.

Obviously, home-ownership does allow for intergenerational wealth accumulation (simply compare the wealth accumulation gap between Black families who were excluded from home subsidies like the GI Bill and white families who weren't), but that's not the whole story.

Owning a home is a good way to insulate yourself from a landlord's whims and a good place to stash gains from the labor market, but when a nation turns to asset appreciation – not labor – to increase prosperity, almost everyone loses within a generation or two.

Without strong labor rights, guaranteed pensions are replaced with a mandate to pump your savings into the stock market casino, where you will always be the sucker at the table. The insufficiency of America's 401k-based retirement savings is grimly comic.

When workers surrendered employment-based security for asset-based security, we lost the bloc that fought for adequate Social Security and affordable tuition. That means that your parents' house needs to fund their retirement and your college tuition.

It's likely not adequate for both, but even it is, it's not going to be enough to pay for your own downpayment, which you'll need if your parents are going to liquidate their sole major asset to keep themselves from burdening you while you enter the labor market.

That means homeowners' kids are overwhelmingly likely to end up tenants, and that's the second whammy. You see, the most reliable way to increase the value of owning a house is to make tenancy worse.

The fact that the home your parents bought for $30k is worth $1.5m today can't be explained by the new roof, the finished basement, the cool neighborhood boutiques or the people who want to move to your hometown for work.

The main driver of real-estate appreciation is that being a homeowner is better than being a tenant – so everything that makes tenancy worse makes homeowning better, which makes houses worth more.

It's not just tax-advantaged shelter (homeowners can write off half their monthly shelter bills, tenants can't). It's also the fact that every time a house sells, the market rate is set by bidders who are buying the house as "income property" – that is, to rent it out.

Just as in labor markets, shelter markets are zero sum. When you have the income security that comes with the right to a regular shift, your boss has the cost-insecurity of having to pay you when business is slow.

Likewise, if you have the right to force your landlord to fix the roof, the rental is worth less. If your landlord can quickly evict you when a better tenant comes along, the rental is worth more. If rent increases are set by law, the rental is worth less.

If your landlord can charge usury interest, or force you to use an ISP that pays a kickback, the rental is worth more.

Everything that's better for tenants is worse for landlords – and the worse things are for landlords, the less they're willing to spend on income property.

The more a landlord is willing to spend to buy a house, the more everyone else has to spend to outbid them. Everything that makes life worse for tenants makes homes more valuable.

Convincing America that home ownership would increase the middle-class also created a large constituency who'd simp for landlords in order to increase the value of their single major asset.

The joke was on us. Now that Wall Street is using the trillions the Trump stimulus pumped into the financial markets to pay 15% above asking, in cash, for every single-family dwelling that hits the market, everyone who doesn't have a home won't ever get one.

All those home owners' kids will be tenants, and will be subject to every depredation that home owners backed in order to protect their kids. Karma's a nasty thing.

America once had strong labor markets, whose dividends were turned into sturdy homes. When we threw in our lot with our bosses on labor rights, we walked into a trap that would cost us our homes, too.

Here's the podcast episode:

and here's the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, who will host all your stuff for free, forever):

Here's the RSS for my podcast:

and here's that original article:

Collapsed bridge; Harris & Ewing, photographer; between 1921 and 1923; Library of Congress.

Highway to Hell (permalink)

The infrastructure bills are working their way through Congress, and Republicans are indiscriminately blocking them. Take the surface transportation bills: $547b over five years, that passed with only one GOP vote in favor.

That might seem like a lot, but it's just a re-authorization of existing spending. It doesn't authorize a single cent of new maintenance and upkeep – it just continues the existing level of spending. Without it, America would stop maintaining its infrastructure altogether.

In other words, the entire GOP caucus (except Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA) voted to zero out America's infrastructure maintenance programs for the next five years.

But don't get too smug. Congressional and Senate Dems are also playing games with infrastructure, voting to let America's rail, highways and bridges continue to crumble.

Take the bipartisan "Problem Solvers Caucus," composed of Republicans who think they're still in power and Democrats who wish Republicans were still in power.

They've announced a "compromise" infrastructure bill worth $1.125T – but it's a scam.

That sum includes the existing budget for infrastructure (the inadequate sum that the GOP just voted against), bringing the true total down to $761.8b over five years.

This pattern – inadequate sums that are even lower than they seem at first, thanks to deceptive accounting – is repeated in every "bipartisan" effort to create an infrastructure budget.

The Senate "gang" of 5 Dems and 5 Repubs claim they've agreed to $1.2T in spending, but only $579B of that is new spending.

That Senate deal is such dogshit that it would be laughable, except that it's being treated as serious. For one thing, it claws back covid money that's been allocated to the states…for infrastructure spending, and it imposes a tax on electric vehicle drivers.

To top it all off, McConnell has said there's "no way" the GOP will support it. To sum up: it's a wholly inadequate sum that confiscates state infrastructure budgets and depends on taxing people for switching to electric cars, and it's got no chance of passing.

And they call us unrealistic!

There is no chance of getting the spending America needs through Congress with "regular order." If the agenda Americans voted for is to be realized, Dems will have to abandon bipartisanship.

Unfortunately, the Dem establishment are basically Republicans. As AOC told CNN, the betrayal is coming from inside the House (or rather, the Senate).

"I do think that we need to talk about the elephant in the room, which is Senate Democrats blocking crucial items in a Democratic agenda for reasons that I don't think hold a lot of water."

"Do we settle for an infrastructure package that has been largely designed by Republicans in order to get 60 votes, or can we really transform this country, create millions of union jobs, revamp our power grid, get people's bridges fixed and schools rebuilt?"

AOC singled out Joe Manchin for taking positions that align with the Koch network and dark-money priorities: "There's a reason the Koch brothers are really doing victory laps about Joe Manchin's opposition to the filibuster."

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago ORBS spam blocklist goes dark

#10yrsago WIPO boss: fair use is a "negative agenda," rights for blind people are a distraction, let's make more copyright!

#5yrsago Steeplejack: diverse YA fantasy driven by expert plotting

#5yrsago Appeals court: FCC has jurisdiction to impose net neutrality on ISPs

#5yrsago Cable industry wants you to know that competition is bad for its customers

#5yrsago Goldman Sachs bribed Libyan officials with sex workers, private jet rides, then lost all their money

#5yrsago Peter Thiel’s lawyer threatens Gawker for talking about Donald Trump’s “hair”

#5yrsago Air Force loses access to database tracking fraud investigations to 2004

#1yrago LA schools returned grenade launchers, kept assault rifles

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 264 words (5483 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)
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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla