Informed Voting and the Democratic Deficit

The expression democratic deficit is most commonly used to refer to the European Union and its behind-the-scenes style of lawmaking. I’ve long held it is equally applicable to local politics, especially in the United States. With the EU election taking place later today, I am going to take this opportunity to zoom in one a key aspect: who gets to vote informedly? This is a critical component of the local democratic deficit. After all, there is universal franchise at the local level in modern democracies, same as at the national level, and when election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well. EU elections have had low turnout, but this has to be understood as a consequence rather than a cause of the democratic deficit.

This does not exist on the national level anywhere that I know of. In federal states it may not exist on the state level, either: as far as I can tell, Canada and Germany offer voters clear choices on the province/state level, and it’s only in the United States that the democratic deficit exists in the states.

On the EU level, the problem is slowly solving itself, since a highly salient issue is growing, namely, the legitimacy of the EU itself. People can clearly vote for parties that hold that the EU as it currently exists is illegitimate, such as right-populist parties under the ENF umbrella; for parties that offer continuity with the EU as it is, that is Christian-democratic, social-democratic, and liberal parties; and for various reform parties, that is greens and the far left on the left, or whatever remains of the Tories on the right. For what it’s worth, turnout so far has inched up from 2014 levels.

But on the local level, the problem remains as strong as ever. The main consequence is that local elections empower NIMBYs, simply because they have the ability to make an informed choice based on their ideology and other groups lack that power. The interest groups that benefit from housing shortages naturally get more political powers than those that benefit from abundant housing. In transportation, too, transit users tend to be politically weaker than drivers relative to their share of the electorate, but the problem is nowhere near as acute as that of general NIMBYism.

What is informed voting?

Informed voting does not mean voting the right way. A voter may be able to make an informed choice even for an uninformed position; for example, people who think cutting taxes reduces the deficit have an economically uninformed belief, but still count as informed voters if they recognize which parties they can vote for in order to prioritize tax cuts. Informed voting, at least to me, means being able to answer the following questions correctly:

  • What are the political issues at stake?
  • Which positions on these issues can plausibly be enacted, and how difficult would such enactment be?
  • Which organs of state undertake the relevant decisions? Is it the entire legislature, a specific standing committee, the courts, the civil service, etc.?
  • Which political groups have which positions on these issues, and how much they’re going to prioritize each issue? Which political groups may not have strong positions but are nonetheless potential allies?

National elections exhibit the most informed voting. For example, in the United States, most voters can identify that the key issues differentiating the Democrats and Republicans are abortion rights, tax rates (especially on higher incomes), and health care, and moreover, the abortion issue is decided through Supreme Court nominations whereas the others are in Congress with the consent of the president. Additional issues like foreign policy, environmental protection, and labor may not be as salient nationwide, but people who care about them usually know which party has what positions, where decisions are made (e.g. foreign policy is decided by the president and appointed advisors, not Congress), and which factions within each party prioritize these issues and which have other priorities.

This does not mean all voters are informed. This does not even mean most swing voters are informed. In the United States it’s a commonplace among partisans that swing voters are exceedingly uninformed. For example, here is Chris Hayes reporting on the 2004 election:

Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

But the low levels of information among undecided voters, while important on the margins, come from a context in which a large majority of American voters consistently support one party or another, and over the generations the parties have perfected a coalition of interests ensuring each will get about half the vote.

This situation is not US-specific. Israeli voters are highly informed about the relevant issues, led by the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They know which parties are prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from the settlements, and recognize an independent Palestinian state, and which will do no such thing, and vote accordingly. Parties for the most part announce in advance which bloc they are to be part of; even parties that would be fine cooperating with either side in order to get money for their special interests, such as the ultra-Orthodox parties, are compelled to announce in advance which side they’ll back (the right), and so far they have not deviated from it. Every single party in Israel’s most recent election had an obvious bloc, left or right; in 2015, every single party did but one, Kulanu, which was a member of the right bloc but at the time pretended to be undecided.

The European democratic deficit

The democratic deficit occurs when it is not possible for a large majority of voters to know in advance what the issues are and how to vote on them.

The European Parliament suffers from a democratic deficit, despite having strong, coherent political parties, because of its tradition of behind-the-scenes government by consensus of EPP and S&D. It is difficult for a voter to know what exactly the difference would be if S&D were somewhat stronger and EPP somewhat weaker. Europe Elects’ latest projection has a tight race for whether ALDE and the parties to its left will have a majority, making ALDE the median party on the left-right scale, or whether they will come just short, making EPP the median. And yet, I have no idea what it would mean, despite the fact that there are important issues, including climate change and immigration, on which there is a cleave between ALDE-and-leftward parties and EPP-and-rightward parties.

I am planning to vote for the Green Party rather than for the Social Democrats, since the Greens here opposed Article 13 whereas the Social Democrats expressed concern but mostly voted for it. But I genuinely do not know whether a stronger G/EFA and weaker S&D would matter much for digital freedom, nor do I know whether behind the scenes a stronger S&D and a weaker EPP would’ve resulted in a different law.

I found myself in a similar situation in the previous (and first) time I was enfranchised, in the Swedish local and regional elections of 2014. Thanks to EU reciprocity laws, I could vote in the local and regional elections but not the coincident national election. I had some knowledge of the salient political issues at the national level from reading the news, looking at slogans on street signs, and browsing party platforms, but had no idea what this would mean within the context of Stockholm County; lacking much of a local social network, I listened to my postdoc advisor’s advice to read the national platforms and vote based on the one I liked most, and voted Green (which, judging by my advisor’s reaction, was not what he would have preferred). Put another way, EU laws let me vote for a mayor and city council whose name I did not even know, but not for the Riksdag, where I had a decent idea of what the difference between the Greens and Social Democrats was.

The extreme right in Europe has ironically improved democracy, because it has given people something to vote against. I may not know how the EU would look different if EPP lost a few percentage points of its vote share and S&D and the Greens gained a few each, but I definitely know how it will look if ENF and parties that aren’t part of ENF but should be, like Hungary’s Fidesz, gain power. When the very existence of a multiracial EU is at stake, it is easier to figure out which parties are firmly committed (G/EFA, S&D, ALDE, and to a large extent EPP) and which aren’t, and on what grounds (GUE/NGL from the left, the Tories from the mainline right, ENF from the extreme right). That the pro-European parties will certainly win a huge majority of the vote among them is less relevant – the point is not to get more votes than ENF but to completely delegitimize ENF, so the margin of defeat counts.

The American democratic deficit

If in Europe the problem is the disconnect between voting for a party at the non-national (or non-state) level and seeing policy results, in the United States local government has no parties at all. Cities of primaries like New York, and cities with nonpartisan elections like San Francisco, make it exceedingly difficult for voters to know which politicians are likely to enact their local ideological agenda.

Knowing what the salient issues are is the easy part in the United States – education, crime, and housing tend to be the main issues across a variety of cities. The hard part is knowing which politicians will take which positions and have which priorities. Occasionally, one-party cities and one-party states have consistent factions, one moderate and more progressive or more conservative, but even then the factional identification is fluid.

David Schleicher has proposed to resolve this problem by forming state parties aiming at capturing about half the voters, on a similar model to that of Canada, where most provincial parties are distinct from federal parties, with ideological cleaves decided by provincial rather than federal voter preferences. Cities like New York and San Francisco would not have informal factions under this system but formal party institutions, one progressive and one moderate with perhaps some cross-party appeal to Republicans, and the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.

Without parties, collegial institutions can create feudal results. Schleicher gives the example of councilmanic privilege, in which single-party city councils defer on local issues, such as housing, to the member representing the locality in question. Another possibility is standing committees with powerful chairs, as is the case in California today and as was the case in Congress before Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994. Despite widespread support, the YIMBY political priority SB 50 was recently frozen by fiat of one committee chair, Anthony Portantino, who represents a NIMBY suburb of Los Angeles; SB 50 passed two committees by majority vote but needed a pro forma vote from Portantino’s appropriations committee before the final vote in the entire State Senate. At the federal level, powerful postwar committee chairs tended to be Southern Democrats, who blocked civil rights law that enjoyed widespread support in Congress.

Empowerment for whomst?

Without political parties, the people who can make informed voting in local elections – that is, the people who know the salient issues, the reasonable positions, and who will prioritize what – are from specific demographics. They must have very strong social ties within the locality – they may well know the candidates personally, or know people who know them personally. They must have lived in the locality for a long time to have had these ties. There is no way I could have these ties in Berlin – I moved here three months ago, and socialize largely with foreigners.

Even though there is universal vote among citizens (and even among EU citizens here), people who lack these ties may not be able to vote informedly. Thus, their (our) vote may be completely random; in Berlin I have enough of an idea of what the difference between the left-wing parties and CDU is on transportation, but the Green-SPD difference is still subtle and unless I see more in the next few years in advance of the election I’m likely to vote based on other cues, such as which party has a more diverse slate of candidates.

With people like me not really having much political power even when enfranchised, local politics becomes the domain of the specific socioeconomic classes that do have access to information. These are typically retirees and small business owners. If you own a store, you almost certainly know all the little details of your neighborhood because that’s where your clients are located. If you work for a big business, your social network is much wider, as your coworkers are likely to commute from a wide variety of places, so even though your income is similar to that of the shopkeeper you are much weaker in local elections.

With much more power than the rest of the electorate, retirees and the petite bourgeoisie can create a political culture in which their situation is considered more moral than that of the rest – hence the use of the word transient as a pejorative.

The relevance to housing and transportation is that people with mostly local ties tend to be consistently NIMBY. They usually own housing rather than rent – if you live in one place for a long time you benefit from owning more than the average person. They have real local political power, which redevelopment may disrupt by introducing a large cohort of new people into the neighborhood. They have the ability to extort developers into providing community amenities in exchange for getting a building permit. Not for nothing, the vanguard class for YIMBY is working-age people who work for other people and have national social ties rather than local ones.

In transportation, too, the favored classes in local politics with a democratic deficit tend to be pro-car. Part of it is that enfranchised voters drive more than the disenfranchised – in the United States (per census data) and the Netherlands, immigrants drive less and use transit more than natives. Even within the electorate, the groups that have higher turnouts, such as comfortable retirees, drive more than groups that have lower turnouts, such as students. The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it because your store is on a local main street with a single bus line, whereas salaried workers are likelier to work in city center and take transit. The latter are less empowered in local politics, especially American politics, so their preferences count less than those of people who can show up to meetings during business hours and complain about bus lanes.

Democratic consensus, not democratic deficit

Tories like to use the real problem of democratic deficit at the EU level as well as the local level to argue in favor of strong unitary nations. But there are better democratic mechanisms than voting for a party once every four or five years and letting an internal party hierarchy decide everything in the interim.

Germany and Canada have strong democratic institutions at the state/province level as far as I can tell, Germany through a multiparty system and Canada through provincial parties. Canadian leftists like to complain about Rob Ford and Doug Ford, but the voters of both Toronto and Ontario knew what they were voting for. It’s not like when Donald Trump ran on promises about immigration and trade that he couldn’t keep and then cut corporate taxes.

There are glimpses of real democracy in the largest cities, at least the mayoral level: Rob Ford, Bill de Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo. This is not every city of that size class (Chicago has no such institutions), but mayors of large enough cities can at least be familiar to large enough swaths of the electorate that more than just retirees, retail landlords, and small business owners can express an opinion. In smaller cities, it may be completely impossible to have such democracy – too many residents work outside the city, or work in the city alongside suburban commuters.

Forced amalgamations of cities are likely required in the US as well as France, on the model of Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other European country with postwar municipal consolidation. Below a certain size class, moreover, it is not possible to have a professional full-time legislature; smaller US states have very small districts (New Hampshire has 400 Representatives for 1.3 million people, paid $100 a year each), leading to hobbyist legislators and bills written by lobbyists.

Referendums are an important component of democracy as well, provided precautions are undertaken to ensure they are more like Swiss ones and less like Californian ones. It is appropriate to vote on individual spending packages, such as a high-speed rail project or a subway, by a simple majority; it is not appropriate to vote on part of a project, as California did for high-speed rail, and put the remaining funding sources in a magic asterisk.

Democracy and housing

Even when homeowners are the majority, as in nearly every first-world country, there is no general interest in a housing shortage. Only homeowners in the most expensive and constrained areas as well as homeowners who look down on people who move frequently have this interest. These two groups can win thanks to a sustained democratic deficit on the local level.

This is why higher-level decisionmaking is consistently more YIMBY than local decisionmaking. At the national or even state level, homeowners can easily form a housing cartel and restrict construction – and yet, higher-level decisionmaking, such as in Japan (national) or Canada (provincial) is associated with higher construction rates. At the state level, interest groups like that of NIMBY homeowners have to share power with other interest groups, including middle-class renters, organized labor, and real estate; in California the NIMBYs just scored a win thanks to control of a legislative committee, but a full legislative vote might well go the other way. But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.

In accordance with the observation that higher-level decisionmaking yields YIMBYer results, France and Sweden have recently accelerated housing construction in their expensive capitals, both by force of national power. In the 2014 election, party posters on Stockholm pledged to build more housing, and after winning the election, the Social Democrats set a target for national housing production. Local NIMBYs still maintain some power in that housing production in Sweden has come from finding new brownfield sites to redevelop rather than from replacing smaller buildings with bigger ones, but construction rates in the last few years have been high, especially in Stockholm County; The Local describes the overall rental situation in Sweden as “cooling.” In France there has been acceleration in housing production as well, powered by both national and regional concerns, over the objections of rich NIMBY suburbs over social housing mandates.

The United States has continued devolving housing decisions to hyperlocal organs, with predictable results. YIMBYs in California may not have fully theorized this, but they understand the implications enough to focus on getting the state to override local control to permit mid-rise transit-oriented development. Whatever reasoning has led to this, the praxis of state preemption is solid, and activists in the United States should work to weaken local governments until and unless they begin solving their democratic deficit problems.


  1. Herbert

    When the current prime minister of Bavaria was minister of finances, he sold off a huge swath of state owned housing for a pittance. The cities where those houses stood were opposed but powerless.

    Germany however has the problem that a lot of the costs of the welfare state have to be borne by cities, so building social housing hurts municipal finances twice. There is virtually no state run market rate housing in Germany.

    • Alon Levy

      What are the big costs of the welfare state here? (I say this having lived in France for more than 2 years and only learned a few tidbits, French welfare being a vast, indescribable blob of different programs for different classes of people.)

      • Herbert

        I think part of the Hartz IV payments and obviously the discounted entries to municipal institutions such as libraries or swimming pools

    • Michael James

      When the current prime minister of Bavaria was minister of finances, he sold off a huge swath of state owned housing for a pittance.

      Straight out of the Thatcher playbook. She forced councils to sell off public houses to their tenants at knockdown prices. But simultaneously starved council finances and so prevented them recycling the money into new public housing. It’s the principal reason why there is little public housing left in the UK and why places like London have no affordable housing. All exacerbated by the old public housing estates (like Heygate, Aylesford etc) being sold off to developers for demolition and replacement with lower-rise more upmarket houses, and the developers reneg on their promises of some affordable units amongst the new.

      • Eric

        No, the reason that places like London are unaffordable is that exclusionary zoning prevents sufficient housing supply from being built.

        Even with public housing, London would still be unaffordable unless you were one of the few who won the public housing gamble.

        • Michael James

          OK, that is part of the problem though as I have pointed out on this site, there is lots of land in east London which is not subject to the kind of exclusionary zoning you are talking of. No, it is just that the developers don’t want to build affordable housing and the councils have been neutered.
          But Heygate Estate housed 3,000 people and the development that is replacing it will house almost double (at lower height) but, despite all the promises, it will end up with a mere 79 affordable units. Naturally it is being redeveloped by a private developer and the sole thing driving it is pure profit. From a public housing estate that was owned by the council!
          And my point about Thatcher’s policy was that it simply killed building public housing by wrecking its financing. By all means allow long-term renters buy their homes, even at a discount to market price, but then recycle the money back into public housing.

          • Eric

            I’m not sure which land you mean in “east London” or “the kind of exclusionary zoning you are talking of”. Please be more specific if you want to advance an argument based on that.

            If Heygate Estate goes from 3000 to 6000 people (and with fewer skyscrapers to boot, improving urban form by most people’s standards), that’s great for housing affordability. So what the affordable housing units it generates will be elsewhere in London? That’s 3000 more people who can afford to live in London rather than being priced out to Birmingham. It’s a big win.

          • Eric

            “There’s enough in and around Stratford for a million residents, but it is being drip-fed and controlled ”

            Who is drip-feeding it? If it’s government regulatory processes, that’s another form of exclusionary land control regulation (not “zoning” because it doesn’t involve zones, but the effect is the same).

        • Michael James

          Eric, 2019/05/27 – 13:23
          I’m not sure which land you mean in “east London” or “the kind of exclusionary zoning you are talking of”. Please be more specific if you want to advance an argument based on that.

          If Heygate Estate goes from 3000 to 6000 people (and with fewer skyscrapers to boot, improving urban form by most people’s standards), that’s great for housing affordability.

          There is masses of old industrial wasteland east of London, and not just the choice bits of riverside or dockside. There’s enough in and around Stratford for a million residents, but it is being drip-fed and controlled purely for developer’s wetdream of release timed to keep the market hot and forever skyrocketing. The few limp plans for affordable housing there (despite the massive transport infrastructure) is halfhearted and deeply inadequate.

          Re Heygate: I agree but with a huge caveat. About one half or at least one third should have been genuinely affordable housing but only a tokenistic 3% is (and it won’t surprise anyone when/if that disappears in a puff of smoke to zero). It is a terrifically good location (Sarf London) so it is going to be “reserved” for the wealthy, and the crime is that this is at public expense. The story reveals actual criminal corruption, aided and abetted at every level of government.
          In terms of its structure, yes it is a big improvement, from the wastelands (and vast wasted land) of Corbusian “towers in a park” to a much tighter-knit and mostly low-rise (“Parisian”) urban fabric, it should be pretty nice. But the people buying there should realise it is coming at other, poorer people’s expense, and ultimately London’s and so theirs too–where are all those services a city depends on going to come from? It could have so easily served both. The only “sacrifice” would have been the profit of developers (and in fact the local council could have, and should have, made some serious money out of it which would have been more justly and morally, recycled into public housing. The history of Heygate Estate is a perfect mirror of the hideous story of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite British moral decay, and will be written about for the next century. The violence, especially class warfare, is far worse than anything portrayed in any of the gangster/drugster movies like Michael Caine’s Harry Brown, or World War Z and Luther. For any justice there would need to be a Harry Brown wreaking vengance on some of those developers and politicians but of course it ain’t gonna happen.

        • Michael James

          Eric, 2019/05/29 – 04:03
          Who is drip-feeding it? If it’s government regulatory processes, that’s another form of exclusionary land control regulation (not “zoning” because it doesn’t involve zones, but the effect is the same).

          I think there is a difference. With east London it is the developers calling the shots and they don’t want more land released (rezoned from industrial to residential or whatever) that they don’t control. To keep the prices up by controlling supply. Needless to say they have zero interest in affordable housing, quite the contrary they see it as a threat. Curiously the potential of east London was realised by Michael Heseltine in the Thatcher government, but who kept butting heads with Maggie until he was kicked out, only to return when Major became PM and appointed him Deputy PM and head of Department of Environment (which he didn’t want). Here is an extract (pp140-141, abbreviated) from Nicholas Faith’s The Right Line: The Politics, Planning and Against-the-odds Gamble Behind Britain’s First High-Speed Railway:

          Heseltine was never short of visionary ideas, which had most obviously been show in his first spell at the DoE. These had been inspired by helicopter flights when, as a junior minister with a planning brief in the Heath administration, he flew to Maplin Sands, an island off the Essex coast being considered as the site for a third London airport. On that flight he could clearly see the great stretches of wasteland around the redundant docks on both banks of the Thames east of the City of London. His first idea was for a Development Corporation for the south bank of the Thames; this would balance the over-developed M4 corridor to the west of London with a similar stretch to the east. … In the early 1980s Heseltine realised the first part of his dream by the regeneration of Docklands, both north and south banks, through an independent Corporation. Everyone was against the idea–including his officials … but he pushed on with the foundation of the LDDC, including a pioneer tax-exempt Enterprise Zone in the Isle of Dogs.
          He had a vision of ‘public investment leading to huge private investment’ for unlike Mrs Thatcher and her disciples, he was always aware of the need for public money as a pump-primer for major projects–indeed had warned, unavailingly, that it would be needed for the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Docklands was a resounding if controversial success, ….. So it was quite natural that on Heseltine’s return to the DoE he revisited the next step in his dream: the regeneration of the whole ‘Thames Gateway’ from Tower Bridge to the North Sea. In his more ambitious moments, this staunch pro-European also thought of it as a gateway to the Continent. His dream was indeed grandiose,for the Gateway at 215,000 acres (87,000 hectares) with a population of 1.75 million, was far bigger and more varied that the relatively compact are covered by the Docklands Corporation. As one DoE document put it the Gateway divides into two: ‘London’s backyard’–with all that description implies in terms of industrial dereliction–and beyond, to the east, historic towns and villages’, green belt and sites of scientific interest. As Heseltine said in early 1991 ‘the East End Corridor down the Thames Estuary from Docklands to the sea … forms an under-used asset which needs to be developed to its full potential’.

          Faith’s book concerns development of Stratford (and St Pancras etc), ie. how Heseltine’s desire for urban regeneration in east London, led to a change of route of Eurostar-HS1 into London, with the new line approaching London from the east.
          Today the main thing I see is how the huge opportunity to relieve London’s housing issues (availability, affordability, public-housing, transit-ready) has been put on the back-burner. That 87,000 hectares is 870 sqkm, about ten times the size of inner Paris, so the estimate of 1.75 million is at much, much lower densities, though I guess it includes some already developed bits. An interesting footnote to this Heseltine history (which I have to admit I did not really realise he was such an anti-Thatcher rebel back when I lived in the UK in that era) is that last week the conservatives kicked him out of the party because he got so frustrated with their inability to resolve Brexit that he recommended people vote for the Lib-Dems in the recent EU elections (and quite a few did, they got 20.3% second after Farage’s Brexit, Cons got only 9.1%).
          Elsewhere the exclusionary zoning is NIMBYism in all those established SFH suburbs who don’t want anything to change. This is not really government controlled, just governments too weak and venal to attempt to change it.
          Under a conservative government none of this will change, because the “free market” rules and unlike Heseltine they don’t believe in the state pump-priming it. It’s not clear if Labor could manage the mixture of free-market and public housing to balance the horrible situation in London. Government could easily insist on a much bigger component of affordable and social housing in the redevelopment of the 90 public housing estates around London that are all going to be demolished and rebuilt in the next 2 decades. This is a huge public resource but the huge profits are all being siphoned off by developers with no affordable housing getting built. In the case of Heygate the developer simply welshed out of the agreement (the journalist who reported on this suggested some local councillors should go to jail). In other cases they simply buy off the council: say 4% of the value of the completed estate which the council will use to build its own public housing elsewhere … which never happens but in any case where would it happen? Except for East London these estates represent the major redevo resource for London in prime areas, which of course is why the developers intend to keep it all for themselves.

          • Eric

            So the problem is caused by exclusionary zoning. You are naming individuals you think are responsible for that policy. But I would prefer to attack the policy rather than people.

            Yes, even if Stratford were all released for development tomorrow, it would soon be necessary to eliminate zoning in the SFH suburbs of London.

            In any case, what is called “affordable housing” actually decreases, not increases, the supply of affordable housing. Partly because the years of bickering over exactly how much and what type of “affordable housing” is needed immensely delay the construction of anything. But also because forcing developers to build housing of less than optimal profitability means that potential value, usable by humans, is being extinguished. The human race is poorer as a result – one can debate which humans are poorer – but if there is healthy competition between developers, reducing housing cost to the cost of supplying it, then it’s home buyers who are poorer.

          • adirondacker12800

            And they can bicker endlessly. The first decision was handed down in 1975 and they are still bickering over it.


            ….which also reminds me of the Rent Is Too Damn High party, here in New York. That’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is the that the pay is too damn low. If the valiant free market is producing unaffordable housing, it’s unaffordable because people aren’t making enough money. Double their pay, they would be able to afford it. Is unaffordable housing a problem with the cost of housing or is it a problem with wages that are too low?
            …… things like Affordable Care Act subsidies (Obamacare ) , Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ( food stamps ), section 8 rent subsidies etc. are subsidies to employers. Most of the benefits go to working people or their dependents. If the employees made more money they wouldn’t need the government programs. . . they would be able to afford things…

          • Eric

            Increasing pay won’t help. Rent is high in NY because more people who want to live there than there are spaces for them to live. So there is a bidding war for housing and only the rich win. If you increase pay, the rich will increase their bids and still win. The only way out is to build more housing.

        • Michael James

          Eric, 2019/05/29 – 14:38
          So the problem is caused by exclusionary zoning. You are naming individuals you think are responsible for that policy. But I would prefer to attack the policy rather than people.

          ? I suspect you didn’t read my post, which I suppose I cannot blame anyone as it was too long. But I wanted to cite specific historical fact, not fantasy waffle. Amazingly it was vision by a Tory (though notable for not being a Thatcherite and not neo-liberal). You’ve also switched your argument, such as it was. You asked about “which land you mean in “east London” and let Heseltine/Faith explain about the 870 square kilometres available. It is sheer madness, but deliberate neo-liberal free-market bullshit madness, that there is a housing crisis in London. With just a tiny bit of vision, they could designate, say, 10 to 20 km2 around Stratford as low-rise, high-density (ie. Haussmannian/Parisian) style urban area and voila, space for up to half a million residents in transit-rich ideal urbanity–and all of it could be affordable in London terms, and include even more affordable public housing.

          The rest of your post reveals you apparently believe in the free-market (laissez-faire) for housing can solve everything, despite the past several decades, especially in the Anglosphere, of mounting housing crises. Berlin was going down the same path (a single company dominates the rental housing) but as the city also starts to become unaffordable, they are now beginning to reverse it, so it will interesting to see over the next 5-10 years. Of course Brexit, if it happens, might “solve” London’s housing issues in the time-honoured way: a property crash of spectacular size.

          Incidentally, it is very interesting that Heseltine took that helicopter flight over East London to examine the Maplin Sands idea for an airport. If only. A mega-airport, to replace Heathrow, in East London makes a lot of sense (even if/despite Boris championed it) and would have fit in perfectly with the East London route of HS1, CrossRail etc. It would have been paid for by liberating at least 12km2 of prime London residential land, ridiculously occupied by Heathrow, and that could be home to 250,000 residents. Heathrow’s third runway, which is going to resume even more of residential London and cause an estimated 50% increase in noise disturbance to inner-London, is going to cost $30 billion by the time its built. Qatar built its 3-runway airport on reclaimed ocean for 50% less (for one runway in London!). All around the world, coastal or tidal swamp is recovered for new airports (Kansai, Hong Kong, Singapore-Changi, Qatar, SFX, even NYC-JFK) but this vision for London that simultaneously solves several problems has scorn poured on it. It simply reflects the utter failure of neo-liberalism in the Anglosphere world. And if you gave Londoners, especially those in toney suburbs around Heathrow (Richmond, Wimbledon, Kew etc), a referendum it would overwhelmingly favour such a relocation of the hideous Heathrow.

  2. Alex Mazur (@mazuretsky)

    > But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.

    Not sure why local control is so NIMBY. Look at the homeowners in some small suburb close to the city centre. Will the value of their property go up or down if you permit doubling the density there? I believe that it will go up: permitting more units in a small suburb (in isolation) is unlikely to significantly lower the housing prices, however, the allowed number of units doubles. Even the values of the current, low-density houses shall go up because some next property owner may tear them down and build a higher density house instead. One could imagine various localities of a metropolitan area competing in such manner against each other, and creating an (almost) perfect competition-style outcome. I know that this does not happen and have no good explanation for that.

    • anonymouse

      The thing they are worried about is uncertainty. Maybe it will go up, maybe down, but when so much of your net worth is in a single illiquid asset, you guard that asset jealously.

    • RossB

      A lot of people aren’t voting their pocket book. They aren’t that concerned about the value of their property, especially when it is well above what they paid for. What they most want is that the neighborhood look very similar to what it looked like when they bought it.

    • Eric

      The increased property value has no meaning unless your house is torn down and replaced with multi-unit housing. In the meantime, the neighborhood becomes less green, traffic worse, shadows worse, architecture likely worse, a lower-income population can move in, and your house becomes less valuable as a single unit (let’s say upzoning reduces the cost of housing by 30%, then your house has lost 30% of its value until you tear it down and build two housing units, only then do you make 40% profit overall).

      People prefer present value to future value, and also they are likely invested in their current location in ways that cannot be reduced to dollars (friends nearby, good schools, the pain of moving house, emotional attachment to the house). So it is often a difficult sell.

      • Alex Mazur (@mazuretsky)

        that’s why I was talking about upzoning a small part of the city – too small to meaningfully reduce housing costs. And no, the housing hasn’t lost value, the mere existence of an option to tear it down and replace it with a multifamily housing makes a single-family home more valuable.

  3. leviriet

    “Why don’t they form a cartel” misses key aspects of the debate. The benefits of housing construction fall on future residents who can only vote where they currently are. I would vote for lower CA house prices if I could! You don’t need a strength of local ties story. In addition, expert opinion has a chance at the national level: at the local one it can’t even be noticed.

  4. dhdaines

    This observation is spot-on: “The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it”. On the other hand, this petite bourgeoisie often does not actually in the municipalities it complains about, so when you overcome the democratic deficit at the local level you can end up with surprising results, like the ever-increasing share of votes for anti-car candidates in Montreal despite supposedly fierce opposition to traffic calming and removal of parking spaces. (On the other hand there is some NIMBY-ism involved as well, which comes through in Ferrandez’ incoherent ideas regarding height restrictions:

  5. adirondacker12800

    election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well

    Having the state level primaries on a different date than the Federal primaries is a feature not a bug. So is having the school board election on different date than the municipal elections and having those on a different date than the state and federal. It gets especially good for things like fire districts or water boards or lighting districts or…. No one sees the itty bitty notice buried in the back page of a newspaper fewer and fewer people read. Almost one shows up. It’s a feature not a bug. People could change if the wanted to. They don’t.

    the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.

    You want to run in my primary you have to be a member of my party. Or to vote in it. Otherwise it violates my first amendment rights. And all sorts of hanky panky can go on. Like having Democrats and independents voting in the Republican primary for most insane right winger. Or vice versa, right wingers voting for the socialist. Or having the insane far right candidate run in Democratic primary promising all sorts of left wing goodies and then doing whatever he wants. Don’t like the way the major parties are doing things, feel free to start you own.

    Chicago has no such institutions

    Chicago just elected a black lesbian as mayor.

    • Jacob Manaker

      “You want to run in my primary you have to be a member of my party. Or to vote in it. Otherwise…all sorts of hanky panky can go on.”

      Nobody’s arguing against that. The problem is that, say, a Democratic candidate in Alabama probably doesn’t support city-run abortion clinics, and a Republican in California probably seeks to attract new immigrants to their town. But it doesn’t seem that way to the voters, because the Democratic national platform represents abortion rights, the Republicans’ xenophobia. Voters can’t distinguish the peculiarities of local candidates.

      So the Democrats need to allow their Alabaman committee to develop its own “brand”, and likewise for California Republicans. The easy way is to call them something else, say, the “Alabama Justice party” and “California Freedom party.” But from the point of view of the Democratic/Republican national committee, they’ve just changed their name locally. There’s precedent for this: the Minnesotan Democratic candidates all run as the “Democratic-Farmer-Labor party” because of the history of third-parties in the state.

      The reason this doesn’t happen is historical: it used to be that each party developed a national brand through local politics. Without national newsmedia, you learned what a party stood for locally, and, if you liked it, voted for them in Congress too. Nowadays, people learn what parties stand for in reverse: they known the national platforms from a national media, and then vote with their national preferences locally, hoping it’ll carry over. It doesn’t.

      • Eric

        “Nowadays, people learn what parties stand for in reverse: they known the national platforms from a national media, and then vote with their national preferences locally, hoping it’ll carry over.”

        That is a key point, and it also highlights the problem with running on a local brand: nobody knows the local brand from national media, so it has no natural supporters.

  6. Nathanael

    Having local newspapers actually reporting on local council actions and meetings and issues makes a big difference. We have THREE in Ithaca. Most cities have ZERO.

    The sort of “one alderman blocks something super popular” bullshit which happens in California or Chicago doesn’t happen here because after it hits the newspapers, everyone else in the city council will get an earful about it and is at risk of the entire council being voted out.

    It happens “in the dark” in most cities due to lack of local government reporting.

    • Alon Levy

      I feel weird about media-related explanations. The problem of state vs. national parties in the US is not new. It was rife in the Belle Epoque, because there were national parties and people voted for state legislators based on which senators they’d elect. That’s why the state legislatures ratified the 17th amendment – they voluntarily disempowered themselves because they felt that the link between state elections and national elections meant they could not govern the states effectively as they were judged on national factors beyond their control. Today the equivalent situation is partisan gerrymandering, which has hollowed out democratic legitimacy in the states where partisan competition is real, like Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

  7. Oreg

    “there is universal franchise”
    Arguably, franchise is not truly universal as long as non-citizens and minors don’t get to vote.

  8. Oreg

    I’d argue that candidate qualities have two main dimensions: ideology (i.e., values) and competence. In many-party systems (unlike, e.g., the U.S.), party affiliation is good indicator of ideology. The information deficit only applies to individual competence.
    That makes voting based on parties national platforms a good approach that can then be refined over time with insight about individual’s competence which is harder to acquire.

    • Herbert

      In Germany at least mayoral elections are highly personalized. I know of several people who voted for a mayoral candidate of a party they didn’t even support for city council let alone state or federal.

      You can also often vote for individual city council members as well as party lists

  9. Josh

    Portantino does not represent “a” suburb. While La Canada-Flintridge is listed after his name, it is less than 3% of the district; most of the district is composed of economically diverse cities like Pasadena, Glendale, and Burbank, and even exurbs like Upland.

  10. Basil Marte

    What is the problem with hobbyist legislators? If anything, people volunteering to sit in the legislature for $100 are exactly those people who are motivated by and interested in some issues (modulo, of course, the ability to afford indulging in this hobby). By contrast, career politicians care about their political survival, are less informed/curious and caring about issues, and consequently are much more lobbiable.

    The immediate comparison I thought of is some transit (or YIMBY) blogger getting elected to office. If I imagine myself as a lobbyist, I think I’d have a much harder time with “hey Alon, please give up your hobby and stop pushing for bus lanes” than with “hello Mr. Careerist, please do what you always do and look out for #1”.

    Now, it’s quite probable that a hobbyist politician system would merely select for a different type of asshole than the career politician system, and would have different vulnerabilities that rentseekers could exploit.

    • Alon Levy

      Hobbyist legislators have to have independent income sources, such as passive income or retirement income, so they represent the specific socioeconomic classes that have such income sources. There’s a reason Chartists pushed for paying members of Parliament.

  11. Basil Marte

    ENF and its neighbors:
    I suppose they are the society-level version of high-Grid, high-Group communities. Or, in different terms, they appeal to people who on the one hand are worried about the stability of “the world”, “society”, and thus want to slow down changes, especially irreversible changes—a different perspective is that they don’t take for granted the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid—and on the other hand don’t like the atomization of society, instead wish for some sense of community (“Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft”) or, relatedly, for a “rich”/”deep”/extensive national culture.

    Some people sketch a rough classification along these lines:
    * worried+happy with atomization: suburban bourgeois conservative;
    * “taking stability on faith”+atomization: liberal;
    * “taking stability on faith”+wants community: socialist (limit case: post-scarcity communist utopia);
    * worried+wants community: I’ll call them fascists, because the fascio is a very appropriate symbol for “strength through unity” which they both think is necessary and enjoy (while conservatives allegedly think they need it but don’t like it).

    Back to ENF, in fact *both* of their wishes (according to this classification) are threatened by immigration/foreigners. First is the concern about their presence leading to some social catastrophe (major changes are mostly bad), hence the talking points about crime and diseases. Second, they also wish for there to be a public culture, which simply doesn’t work in the presence of too many people who don’t know the norms, as the public sphere inevitably falls back to the common denominator (cosmopolitanism), which they tend to call soulless.

    I admit that the “opposite of atomization” part is shaky, because the post-scarcity version is not so much about culture as much as about “[…] what it means to be a good person or what may be required of you at any point is open-ended. There are not clear boundaries between people and you are expected to take others’ or society’s interests into account as much as your own. Anything you do that plausibly affects anyone or anything outside yourself is everybody’s business; duties are not fully specified and can never be completely discharged or fulfilled. Social problems can and should be addressed by everyone taking on themselves to be more self-sacrificing and focus less on what rights they have to do what they want. […] dislike money and the market because they quantify and decontextualize social obligations.”

  12. Pingback: Eliminate Local Government | Pedestrian Observations

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