Why I don’t donate at the supermarket checkout

You know how it goes when you’re paying at the supermarket and they ask if you want to throw in a buck for Harvest For Hunger and sort of feel like a bad person for saying no?

Don’t.

A lot of people don’t remember that local supermarkets used to make their own donations to food charities instead of asking you to pay at the register. And that didn’t start until they lost several high-profile price fixing lawsuits in the 1980s.

Here’s one, Rosen v. Fisher Foods (1982):

[T]he settlement further provides for a charitable food payment program. Under the provisions of this plan to the extent that Certificates are not redeemed in any given year, the settling defendants will make contributions of food or cash… to charitable organizations that give away food to the needy…. [I]n no year shall these food payments total less than $300,000.

That’s right. The major local supermarket chains colluded to jack up the price of food, got caught, and were forced to settle by handing out literally millions of dollars in dollar-off coupons and making donations to food charities in partial compensation for the harm they caused in so doing.

The amazing thing is that when the settlements were fulfilled, the stores kept making those “donations” but only by soliciting the very same customers they’d been cheating for years. And they have the gall to claim credit for it.

Unbelievably, the supermarket chains found a way to settle a huge liability, call it a public relations win, and get their customer base to pay for it all.

If you want to help, please do! But make your gift directly to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank instead of rewarding the crooked store chains.

 

Lessons from Memphis’s experiments.

Someone drew my attention recently to this cool street renovation in Memphis: “Memphis’s Spectacular Street Experiments are Moving Toward Permanance!” Exclamation point mine!

There are things to like about this.

It’s a good idea to make the improvements durable but temporary. You can see how it works out in real life before overcommitting.

That inset photo of the “demonstration” phase shows a good practice. Don’t just put bike lanes out and expect everyone to get what they’re about. (Hi, Cleveland.)

Also: It’s pretty.

Now if you want to do something like this in Cleveland, I’m wondering about a few things.

A thing about Cleveland is that we never, ever make driving more inconvenient. Cutting down driving lanes is not acceptable. “And in 2014 the city ran a one-year trial that converted half of an expressway along the Mississippi to a walking-biking path.” <– so not Cleveland

Would a similar project here increase land values in a way that facilitates windfall speculation? Then it would be easy to find a CDC to lead it and provide political cover. (But it would still have to be car-friendly. First things first.)

Sometimes the main impact of a fancy streetscape upgrade is to signal where the favored neighborhood will be. I wouldn’t be surprised if land prices shot up around Marshall and Monroe less because of the actual improvements than because of the signal effect.

From a cyclist’s point of view, this feature only highlights what Cleveland never does. The commitment wasn’t to make cycling safer and easier, it was to put in 70 miles of “bikeways” including ordinary, unprotected, unmaintained, fading lines in the road: “Cleveland plans to add 70 miles of bikeways by the end of 2017.” If the city can claim a victory for sustainability by hitting the 70 mile mark, then they will.

So am I skeptical?

Yeah, I’m skeptical. From this one article, I see a cool design that lends itself to multiple street uses and looks nice.

City planning aficionados like innovative designs and multiple uses. I do too.

But I don’t know how it affects people who already live there, I don’t know what priorities are being neglected to make this happen, and I don’t know who’s profiting from it.

I’m definitely skeptical about translating this pretty design into something practical for Cleveland without consideration of those concerns, plus Cleveland’s obvious inability to maintain a basic level of pavement maintenance and lane striping. It’s cool, but I’m not remotely convinced.

 

Exactly two things wrong with Cleveland

I’ve lived here going on 32 years and I’m finally figuring out some things that should have been obvious much sooner.

Real Estate is a Cost, not a Solution

Cleveland insists on doing “economic development” backwards. We put boatloads of money and effort (and displacement) into large and small construction projects that are supposed to “drive development.” That is not how economics works. If you’re classically trained, you read Ricardo, Malthus, and George; they say “the rent of land is not at all proportioned to what the landlord may have laid out, but to what the tenant can afford.”

The point is that real estate is an extractive endeavor, not a productive one. When you put buildings first, the developers get all the money. Period. This is why we are still poor.

Misapplied technocracy

Cleveland is always looking for a controversy-free technocratic way of avoiding the most glaring political and social problems. We can have a thousand slideshows on why (let’s just say) an express bus to Solon is a good thing, but nobody wants to address the fact that Solon is designed to be inaccessible because people there wanted it that way. Tweak it all you want and they’ll tweak back, faster and more cheaply.

Same goes for nonsense like the Corruption Corridor, which got sold on technocratic grounds but is a social and economic nightmare. Ditto things like the timing of traffic signals on the Health Line (because we don’t dare inconvenience car drivers) and our pathetic implementation of bike lanes (same). These all went badly because the decision makers blew off all equity concerns and did what was easiest.

It’s really simple.

When you use planning jargon to avoid making political decisions like “is segregation okay?” and “are poor people mere obstacles?” and “who benefits from this new highway?” you are enabling the worst possible decisions.

Summary, two main points.

  1. If your “economic development” program has a lot of land transactions and construction in it, you’re working for the real estate people, not the public.
  2. If your “regional planning” doesn’t start by addressing equity and political concerns, you will create a dysfunctional mess that (among other things) puts all the jobs where nobody can get to them.

Most of our political leaders simply don’t understand these two things. They get ahead by being friends with everyone and not offending people with power, but nothing about this system cultivates problem solving. So we get politicians who are cuddly but not big thinkers.

Additionally: The Community Development Corporations (CDCs) don’t have much influence over Point 2, but they’re a big part of the Point 1 problem. They have an incentive to do land deals because a) they get paid to do land deals; and b) it’s kind of hard to justify the “development” part of the job if you start saying no to real estate people.

Edited to add…

I just read Jason Segedy’s analysis titled “Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” which is almost the exact opposite of what I’ve written here and perfectly complementary. I’m saying the political system is such a disaster that our own leadership is causing decay; Jason’s saying that urban decay is endemic to a sprawling society.

I think we’re both right. Cities like Cleveland are up against national trends that outrageously favor outer suburbs, and the political culture here promotes a stupid, counterproductive approach to resisting those trends.

Notably, real estate developers are the bad guys both in my analysis and in Jason’s. I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that maybe real estate itself is the problem.

Electoral College reform? nvm

Now that it’s clear that Hillary Clinton won a fairly solid majority of popular votes cast for President, but didn’t come very close to winning the all-important Electors, of course a lot of very good people are getting very interested in reforming, bypassing, or eliminating the Electoral College. They’re wrong. Here’s why.

Continue reading “Electoral College reform? nvm”

File under "do you even read what you wrote?"

So TIME‘s Person of the Year 2016 is Donald J. Trump. That makes sense. He “defines” the year in our culture.

Their description of runner-up Hillary R. Clinton, however, made me go “Do you even read what you wrote? At all?”

Charlotte Alter, a “journalist” for TIME, wrote this about Secretary Clinton:

Expectations certainly missed their target: the race between the first plausible female presidential candidate and a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” did not boil down to gender. In interviews across the country in the year leading up to the election, many voters suggested that shattering the glass ceiling wasn’t an urgent priority for them. Some took it as a given that a woman will be President one day, and it wasn’t worth electing someone they believed was the wrong woman just to show it could be done.

Did not. Boil down. To gender.

Look at Alter’s justification: If “glass ceiling” doesn’t win, if “a woman will be President” anyway someday, then it’s not about gender. This is exactly why it’s about gender. People in media read being a woman as some ticket that will get you cool things like the White House; they don’t view overt sexism as a real thing that matters. Which is why they write puff pieces about being “the first” this and that but hardly any analysis of what’s going on with the “alt right” racist white nationalist movement that is also heavy with those GamerGate dudes and the “pickup artist” culture.

It wouldn’t be exactly right to say this election was about gender. It was more about race, and there were a lot of other factors that my readers are already familiar with, but much of it boils down to toxic “bro culture.”

In fact, the article even quotes a Clinton supporter saying as much:

“Hillary did everything right, she checked all the boxes, and clearly that doesn’t really win,” says Ramsini, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “If a woman can’t beat this guy, then who can she beat?”

So yeah, kind of a weird statement that the election “didn’t boil down to gender.” It kind of did.

One of many memes that must die.

The United States is a republic, not a democracy.

People say that like it’s the most insightful thing ever, but it’s meaningless. It’s like saying your dog is an animal, not a pet.

These things are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive.

If you want to say “a republic, not a direct democracy,” you might be onto something at least factual. But you know exactly why the people who love to say this don’t use the qualifier: it’s a sophomoric debating trick to deflect any legitimate criticism of our system as being undemocratic.

Us: “Voter purges are undemocratic!” Them: “It’s a republic, not a democracy!” Er, that’s not on point but it sounds cool if you’re gullible.

If I liked power

If I liked power, I’d use my power to find a way to use the federal government to get me even more power. I’d use it shut down my enemies. I’d use it to promote my allies into positions where they could help me, but not where they’d be secure enough to oppose me.
Continue reading “If I liked power”

I'm pretty sure Rumsfeld would endorse this.

Can we be clear on this one bit of meta-bullshit?

Suppose hypothetically that I am telling you that your hair is on fire. By that I’m really saying two things:

0. Your hair is in fact on fire.
1. I know for a fact that #0 is true. I’m not just guessing.

Now if I randomly tell a stranger their hair is on fire without even bothering to look at their hair? That’s a lie EVEN IF their hair happens to be on fire.

When Trump says that X number of people voted illegally, the fact that he has no idea whether that’s true or not doesn’t make it not a lie. It’s a lie because he’s asserting knowledge that he absolutely doesn’t have.

Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns

Remember this fantastic statement by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld?

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Trump here is going into a new quadrant: The unknown knowns! These are the things we supposedly know, but we have no way of knowing we know them.

(Oddly, Wikipedia has a really interesting analysis of this thing called “the Johari Window” that applies.)

Tom Friedman has a new book.

Look, Thomas “Suck. On. This.” Friedman has a new book out! It’s called Thank You For Being Late and I’ll let you google it yourself.

Just to make one thing clear, okay? I’m not so much a fan of Friedman ever since he used his New York Times column to make the case for invading Iraq because it would make the United States look badass:

But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world.

Aside: That’s not one simple reason, that’s three. The first of the three stated reasons is simply evil. The second one is arguable at best, and the third one makes no damn sense at all. I mean by the standard of being “right in the heart of that world” we should be going after Israel too.

But this is how Friedman writes. I’m afraid it’s how he thinks. He can’t hold one coherent thought in his head long enough to make a short paragraph out of it without contradicting himself.

What’s worse is that somehow this guy has become influential in big media circles even though he often makes literally no sense.

My disgust is further enhanced by the honorary “doctor of humane letters” (!) granted to Friedman six years later by my alma mater. What the hell, Grinnell? (I tried to organize a protest at the time but couldn’t get anyone else to join in.)

Long story short: Friedman writes nonsense. He’s dangerously stupid. Too damn many people take his stupid thoughts seriously. And it’s embarrassing that Grinnell College thought it was a good idea to endorse and reward him for a career of spewing oversimplified nonsense that conveniently always supports everything that’s wrong with the status quo.