Why am I so mean?

In the past week I’ve been asked twice why, essentially, I have to be so mean:

Steven [sic!], I’m struck by how well you couple true insight with meaningless insults that undermine your credibility to those who don’t share your point of view.

Stephen– I like your work here quite a bit, but I find the tone is sometimes accusatory and demeaning rather than informative. I think you should explain why the NY Times is “wrong” rather than saying they “utterly humiliate” themselves.

First of all, I apologize for not giving these topics – and many others – the time they deserve. Up until early January I was unemployed and had a lot of time to write, and this blog really grew, but since I started interning at Reason I’ve had much less time. Beyond that, I certainly won’t deny that I’m more bombastic and harsh than most land use bloggers. But why?

One reason is that I think that the issues that Adam and I write about are far more important than they’re given credit for, and, quite honestly, it makes me angry. There are plenty of people who make a living writing about green energy, about racism and tolerance, and about culture, but few people recognize the land use origins of all of these debates. Would we have gay marriage by now if zoning and state road building projects didn’t turn us into a suburban nation? To what extent do our land use decisions impact our energy consumption and the forces of global warming? To what extent does anti-density zoning affect racial segregation? These are all interesting questions, but they aren’t ones that are often asked by journalists and commentators, who instead choose to spend their time rehashing tired but news-worthy themes.

A second reason is that I become frustrated by the liberal insularity of the land use/transportation world. While there is a conservative/libertarian wing of the planning blogosphere, represented by New Geography and the Antiplanner, it is very much segregated from the much more vibrant liberal wing. This lack of disagreement fosters a relative complacency – liberal tenets like inclusionary zoning, participative democracy, and the general need to regulate desired outcomes into existence are challenged too rarely.

I should probably also address the issue of the New York Times and journalism in general, since both comments were made in response to something negative I said about the Times. As the paper of record in one of the most important and real estate-obsessed cities in the world, it really lets me down in terms of its coverage. And while I’m able to take a step back and analyze the incentives facing developers, politicians, community groups, and even think tank writers in a detached manner, I think I most identify as a journalist (in spite of how wonkish this blog is), and it’s harder for me to see the incentives that conspire to keep most of journalists covering land use so ignorant. I think it comes from the necessary belief (at least, necessary to my sanity) that they can be convinced and changed and that there isn’t some sort of inevitable, inherent force holding them back. I’m less inclined to hurl epithets at, say, Bertha Lewis or Bruce Ratner, because I don’t expect them to be anything other than reactionary, self-interested parties. But with journalists, I guess I just expect more.

In the end, I guess I try to weigh the chance that someone will be shaken out of their complacency by my inflammatory rhetoric against the chance that I’m going to scare someone away. I hope I’ve reached the right balance and that maybe a little anger in the planning blogosphere is a good thing.

  • http://johnmcdonnell.tumblr.com John McDonnell

    As someone who often identifies with your anger, I do think that your tone may be potentially quite destructive to your message.You have framed this as a ‘liberal’ woldview vs. a market-oriented worldview, but I consider you to be actually extremely liberal in terms of goals. You simply have come to believe (and I have as well) that market-oriented policies are better aligned with those goals than statist interventions. But when you off-handedly call the New York Times ‘statist’, and non-free-market liberals come to see what your blog is all about but don’t understand why you’re calling them that, it’s going to make them think you simply take an extreme libertarian position, and they’ll miss the fact that they probably have a lot of shared values with you. Both you and the
    liberals want affordable housing for the poor; the difference is that they think affordable housing requirements will help the poor (as a group) get housing, when you have good reason to believe the opposite. The opportunity
    to make people realize that you have a fresh perspective on how to accomplish their goals will offer you a uniq
    ue opportunity to change minds through civilized discussion. I’d hate to see you squander that opportunity hot-h
    eadedly.
    I think your passion for these issues is evident from the content of your posts. You don’t need to lose your civ
    il tone to make it come through.

  • http://www.terminal-station.com B King

    I think you have lots of good insights, and I enjoy reading the blog. I have also recently been turned off by the anger apparent in your posts. Blogging is a long-term persuasive endeavor, that changes peoples minds after they have had a chance to get to know a writer and see his thoughts develop. You aren’t ever going to shake anyone out of complacency – it doesn’t work that way. You make good insights, you are considerate of opposing views, you take the time to try and understand them, and patiently point out where they are wrong or where you agree, and you build credibility. The recent invective triggers too many hot buttons and shuts minds from hearing what you have to say. I instinctively begin to lump the blog into the vast chasm of right-wing “free market” blather, despite the valid and insightful points. I was directed to the blog by a link from Matt Yglesias, who does stellar land-use/free market blogging (although he gets a little exhaustively arrogant at times, as well). I’m a real estate professional who is active in public policy in precisely the types of situations you write about, and I think your points are not talked about enough in our community. But you risk turning away interested readers who are actually in a place to affect the change you are talking about.

  • Dan

    I’m the author of the first comment. Sorry, Stephen, for misspelling your name! I share your passion on these issues and your conviction that land use is a keystone issue that affects so many others. Like many people who live in cities, I’m pretty liberal. I found this blog via links from Matt Yglesias. I’m not your enemy. Indeed, reading your ideas and others like you, I’m more and more convinced that the best way to fight for the things I’ve fought for in the past (environmentalism, affordable housing), etc., is by sharing your agenda. I’m attempting to put that agenda in action here in Austin. I managed to convince a group of (again, liberal) government students to do their class project on the benefits of performance pricing in Austin. One of them joined with me in testifying in favor of extending parking meter hours downtown. The issues align so naturally with the sort of liberal/radical city culture I’ve been enmeshed in of bikes and coops and DIY.

    Yet, I know I’ve hesitated about recommending your blog to friends who aren’t as convinced, because I’m afraid they’ll come here and find, er, some post bashing acorn or HSR without explanation and just get really turned off. Anyway, it’s a great blog and if the “inflammatory rhetoric” is here to stay, I’ll put up with it and stay quiet about it from now on, but that’s my two more cents.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    I don’t mind the caustic rhetoric so long as you do the issues justice. Too often, the problem I have with your retorts is that they do not offer a ‘why.’ You assert the New York Times is statist without explaining your position or supporting it at all. If your purpose is to be inflammatory, that’s one thing – but I find this to be quite lazy.

    The other major issue I have is one of accuracy. You have a tendency to make these kinds of caustic remarks, but even those that are well supported by logic and reason are too often laced with broad and inaccurate charges against ‘liberals’ or ‘planners’ as if there is one uniform bloc of such individuals moving in lock-step. I think this does a disservice to your core material because (though you may not realize it) many liberals and planners (for example) embrace the kinds of things you discuss. It’s disappointing to see you cheapen your analysis with such remarks.

    There are a huge number of liberals in cities who have embraced concepts like performance parking. One fundamental observation is that national-level politics, party definitions, and policy debates has very little to do with what happens on the local level. Instead of throwing barbs into the existing and vapid churn of left vs. right, I’d prefer to see a little more acknowledgment of the reality on the ground. If you’re more interested in taking potshots against ‘liberals’ or ‘planners’ (two groups I think you’d have trouble trying to define in a way that fits your stereotypes, by the way), that’s fine. I also think it would be a shame, since there is good discussion to be had about these issues.