The Case for Building More Housing

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

For whom or what are you thankful this year? Or, recount the best conversation you’ve ever had or the most interesting perspective you’ve ever learned about at a holiday dinner.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email. I read them all!

Conversations of Note

Greetings, everyone––I’ve been focused this past week on a legal challenge to the so-called Stop Woke Act in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is on what I regard as the wrong side of a free-speech fight. If that’s of interest, I hope you’ll give my article a read. As for the upcoming holiday, I’m thankful for a lot this year, but absent from my list is turkey. Perhaps it isn’t the tryptophan, but rather its boring flavor, that makes us fall asleep on the couch?

Build More Housing, America!

The Atlantic staff writer Annie Lowrey condemns the status quo in housing policy as a needlessly immiserating catastrophe:

High rents and sale prices in major cities are a policy choice, one that puts gates around many of our most wonderful places and taxes the folks lucky enough to live there. And it is unfair to all of us. A United States with more abundant housing in its big cities would have a more productive, vibrant, and dynamic economy too. The best evidence for how much housing we need to build lies in the prices that people pay today. Nationwide, the share of renters who are considered “burdened”—spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities—has climbed to 47 percent; one in four renters—about 11 million—spend more than half their income on shelter. Renters today spend about 10 more percentage points of their earnings more on housing than they did in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, rising prices have also forced millions of younger Americans to delay homeownership, making it impossible for many to buy their way onto the property ladder, particularly in California and New York. People make painful choices: To keep their housing costs in line with their income, millions of families do not live where they want to or in the kinds of homes they want to or with the people they want to. When the mortgage on a townhouse is too costly, families keep renting their run-down apartment. When a third bedroom costs too much, parents give up on having a third kid. This is a public-policy catastrophe too.

The problem is largely, if not exclusively, the result of the country not permitting enough homes where people want them. Although some communities in the interior of the country, especially in the South, have allowed housing construction to keep up with rapid population growth, the superstar metro areas of the Northeast and West Coast have not.

Pardoning Mary Jane

Governor Kate Brown of Oregon has pardoned an estimated 45,000 people who were convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana in the state. Her argument on behalf of that action:

No one deserves to be forever saddled with the impacts of a conviction for simple possession of marijuana — a crime that is no longer on the books in Oregon. Oregonians should never face housing insecurity, employment barriers, and educational obstacles as a result of doing something that is now completely legal, and has been for years. My pardon will remove these hardships. And while Oregonians use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Latina/o/x people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates. We are a state, and a nation, of second chances. Today, I am taking steps to right the wrongs of a flawed, inequitable, and outdated criminal justice system in Oregon when it comes to personal marijuana possession. For the estimated 45,000 individuals who are receiving a pardon for prior state convictions of marijuana possession, this action will help relieve the collateral consequences.

The Mainstreaming of Muslim Candidates

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still my pick for the greatest basketball player of all time, celebrates a little-noticed aspect of the 2022 midterms:

The mid-term elections resulted in 82 Muslim candidates [sweeping] up local, state, federal and judicial seats in 25 states. [As CBS News reports,] “Many of those wins were in red states, including Texas, Virginia and Georgia, and included 20 incumbents and 17 new candidates. Those seats range from local boards of education and city councils to the U.S. House of Representatives, where congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D-MN, and Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, maintained their positions.”

My Take: Like most groups, Muslim-Americans are not a cultural or political monolith. They do not all agree with each other politically—they don’t even agree with each other religiously. So, the reason the election of more Muslim-Americans is good news is not because they will vote in lock-step, but because it is a hopeful symbol that more Americans are rejecting the harsh, widespread anti-Muslim rhetoric that the Trump cronies have been spreading for years. I would never support a candidate just because they are Muslim any more than I would support a candidate just because they are Black. In fact, a few of the Muslims who were elected do not align with my principles so I wouldn’t have voted for them. But what makes me excited for our future is that those who do align themselves with those Muslims I disagree with, did so without consideration of their religion, just the principles. I respect that. I encourage that. Because that’s the America I love.

Should Race Be Conserved or Abandoned?

Last month, the Atlantic contributor Reihan Salam, who is well-known to many of you longtime readers, moderated a debate on “the ethics of Black identity.” Its central question: Is the persistence of a distinct Black identity necessary to solve the problems Black communities face today? The economist Glenn Loury and the civil-rights activist Bob Woodson think it is. The public intellectuals Shelby Steele and Kmele Foster are skeptical.

Here is Professor Loury summing up their differences:

Collective action served Black Americans well in the past. Without racial solidarity founded in institutions like Black churches and Black community organizations, it’s doubtful that the civil-rights movement could have achieved all that it did. Black people, even those who were relatively well-off, were willing to sacrifice money, time, and their very bodies to secure basic rights not only for themselves but for their people.

But has racial solidarity served its purpose? I’ve often argued on behalf of “transracial humanism,” the setting aside of identity categories like race in favor of species-level identification. We’re all human beings, and we should all have the opportunity to lay claim to the fruits of human achievement, whatever their origin. Tolstoy is mine as much as Charles Mingus is mine. Yet I cannot simply define away my Blackness. It’s at the core of my self-understanding. To deny it would be to deny myself. And as Bob points out, there are strategic political advantages to calls for racial solidarity, especially when they’ve been nearly monopolized by the left. (Let me say once more with feeling: My Blackness is not in conflict with my conservatism.) Shelby and Kmele are much more skeptical of the uses of Black identity in the present. I believe, with them, that transracial humanism is the way of the future. The question is whether that future has yet arrived.

You can watch a 14-minute excerpt of their conversation here.

A Proliferation Problem

At The Atlantic, Mark Bowden describes terrifying advances in drone warfare and the likely future in which the United States no longer enjoys the edge against hostile air forces that it has long counted on:

For years, military strategists have anticipated the arrival of the so-called drone swarm, a large cluster of small flying machines that will herald a new era of intelligent warfare. Thousands of robotic aircraft no bigger than a starling would be all but invisible when spread out, yet capable of instantly coalescing into a swirling dark cloud, like a murmuration. It would move the way such phenomena move in nature, guided by a kind of group intellect.

“A swarm is an intelligent organism and an intelligent mechanism,” Samuel Bendett, an expert in Russian weapons at the Center for Naval Analyses, told me. “In a swarm—just like in an insect swarm, in a bird swarm, in a school of fish—each drone thinks for itself, communicates with the others, and shares information about its position in a swarm, the environment that the swarm is in, potential threats coming at the swarm, and what to do about it, especially when it comes to changes in direction or changes in swarm composition.”

The weapons deployed in Ukraine by both sides are still far from the full nightmare potential. A swarm would use artificial intelligence to allow individual drones to behave autonomously while also harnessing the wisdom of the collective. David Hambling, in his 2015 book, Swarm Troopers, reported that software engineers had already been able to simulate those great swarms in nature by programming drones with three simple instructions: separate, or keep a certain minimum distance from others; align, or stay on the same course as your neighbors; and cohere, or attempt to move toward the average position of your neighbor. So instructed, drone swarms would move in clouds that function as a single entity, perhaps widely dispersed at first, hiding them from radar, only to converge on a target at the last minute. The swarm would be capable of reacting to threats without human intervention—changing course, speed, or altitude, maneuvering around heavily protected air spaces—and could absorb huge losses without stopping. Machines do not get discouraged and turn back.

“This is the holy grail,” Bendett said. “This is what everybody’s working towards. By everybody, I mean advanced countries and advanced militaries hoping to utilize swarm technologies. So the list is short, but it’s slowly growing. Of course, it’s the United States, it’s Israel, it’s China, it’s Russia, it’s Turkey, it’s Iran, and perhaps a handful of other states like India and South Korea.”

Such research programs are classified, but many military analysts see them arriving in the near future. A swarm of 103 micro-drones designed by MIT with a wingspan less than a foot long was successfully launched by the U.S. in 2016, a project sponsored by the Department of Defense. The individual drones were so small and flew so fast that a CBS camera crew trying to film the experiment had a hard time capturing an image of the swarm even with high-speed cameras.

When you consider that a drone swarm consisting of many thousands of off-the-shelf drones would cost less than, say, one F-35 fighter or a ballistic missile, you have a weapon that would give rogue states or terrorist groups the means to launch devastating attacks or assassinations anywhere in the world. Since the Korean War, American forces have controlled the skies wherever they have gone into battle. No other nation had the means to compete with it; the cost, the technology, the experience, and the level of training required are beyond the reach of even the most affluent nation-states. Drone swarms could end that domination. An aircraft carrier? A commercial airliner? The White House? The president? Sitting ducks.

Provocation of the Week

If you want to bring a gift to the host of a holiday dinner party, what should you choose?

In Wirecutter, Rose Maura Lorre argues that flowers and wine––which were her go-to gifts as a dinner-party guest––are actually flawed because they impose on the host the need to find a vase or wine bucket. Instead, she urges readers, bring three things: (1) your own apron; (2) your own take-home containers for leftovers; (3) a handy stain remover. (“Tide pens are frequently sold in packs of three, so you can offer them up en masse as a need-a-pen, take-a-pen present for all, or you can leave them behind at the end of the night.”)

Why your own apron?

Upon arrival, hang up your coat, don an apron you brought from home—or better yet, wear the apron under your coat so you can reveal it Clark Kent–style—stride into the kitchen and declare, “I’m here to help.” You have just become a holiday hero. To a host who may be too frazzled to think about delegating, this is much better than the passive, “Let me know if I can help.” You are now the host’s go-to assistant, and they don’t even have to dig through an unkempt drawer of cast-off kitchen linens to find you an apron!

Josh Barro finds that advice preposterous. In a retort at Very Serious, he writes:

As a friend of mine put it, “If you try to upstage me with a secret apron reveal at my own party, it better be Kevlar.” … If you want to be a good guest, you should not enter a dinner party with the presumption that your host is a frazzled idiot who badly needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it, didn’t realize there would be leftovers, and doesn’t have a plan for when the other, slovenly guests inevitably soak themselves in gravy.

Among his recommendations:

If you don’t want to give alcohol, give fancy non-perishable food. I’ve talked before about Fiore olive oils and vinegars — I’m partial to their Cobrancosa olive oil from Portugal and traditional-style balsamic vinegar — but there are lots of options here. Jams, nuts, dried or preserved fruit, olives, condiments — pick an assortment of foods you like and use around your house that your host probably doesn’t already buy, and you have a great and memorable gift that the host can use on his or her own schedule. If your gift budget is fairly large — perhaps you’re not just a dinner guest but are staying the weekend — you can even have Fortnum & Mason assemble a bunch of non-perishable products in a custom wicker hamper and ship it from London to you or your gift recipient.

In my estimation, a bottle of wine is a perfectly fine gift, and no gift at all is expected if you’re a dinner guest of mine, but if you want to be “a holiday hero” at my house, the only choice meriting that honorific is a leather wineskin of the sort Ernest Hemingway describes in The Sun Also Rises:

The Basque lying against my legs was tanned the color of saddle leather. He wore a black smock like all the rest. There were wrinkles in his tanned neck. He turned around and offered his wine-bag to Bill. Bill handed him one of our bottles. The Basque wagged a forefinger at him and handed the bottle back, slapping in the cork with the palm of his hand. He shoved the wine-bag up. “Arriba! Arriba!” he said. “Lift it up.” Bill raised the wine-skin and let the stream of wine spurt out and into his mouth, his head tipped back. When he stopped drinking and tipped the leather bottle down a few drops ran down his chin.”No! No!” several Basques said. “Not like that.” One snatched the bottle away from the owner, who was himself about to give a demonstration.He was a young fellow and he held the wine bottle at full arms’ length and raised it high up, squeezing the leather bag with his hand so the stream of wine hissed into his mouth. He held the bag out there, the wine making a flat, hard trajectory into his mouth, and he kept on swallowing smoothly and regularly.

The Spanish-goods store La Tienda sells a premium version but the $15 alternative works just as well. Be sure it is filled with a crowd-pleasing red and that you demonstrate how to use the wineskin before passing it around. If wine dribbles down anyone’s chin and onto their shirts, no big deal––I hear that some people are bringing three-packs of Tide pens to dinner parties these days.

That’s all for this week––happy Thanksgiving!

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