November Links: Myths, Housing, and More

* The New Republic has an article based on a Brookings Institute piece that deconstructs the small-town USA mythology regularly propagated in proposals:

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn’t found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or “metros” that bring all these places into economic and social union.

Think of this as a prelude to an eventual post on the subject of grantwriter as mythmaker. And if you’re interested in myth as a broader subject, see Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. He’s the same guy who wrote Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that, most famously, provided the outline for Star Wars.

* The New Yorker asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” Like some of the data discussed in our post on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, the article has problems of its own, including drawing conclusions that might be based on faulty data, but it nonetheless illustrates many of the issues at stake.

* The reason we can’t build affordable housing is chiefly structural, according to an article that also gives a recent history of industrial housing design:

What’s driving the high cost of houses today is not increased construction costs or higher profits (the Levitts made $1,000 on the sale of each house), but the cost of serviced land, which is much greater than in 1951. There are two reasons for this increase. The first is Proposition 13, the 1978 California ballot initiative that required local governments to reduce property taxes and limit future increases, and sparked similar taxpayer- driven initiatives in other states. Henceforth, municipalities were unable to finance the up- front costs of infrastructure in new communities, as they had previously done, and instead required developers to pay for roads and sewers, and often for parks and other public amenities as well. These costs were passed on to home buyers, drastically increasing the selling price of a house.

The other reason that serviced lots cost more is that there are fewer of them than the market demands. This is a result of widespread resistance to growth, the infamous not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, which is strongest in the Northeast, California, and the Northwest. Communities in growing metropolitan areas contend with increased urbanization, encroachment on open space, more neighbors, more traffic, and more school- age children.

Compare this to Virginia Postrel’s A Tale of Two Town Homes.

* We’ve written before about modern problems with bureaucrats. Such problems are hardly new: in the preface to The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne writes:

Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

The oddest thing about the novel is how modern it seems in the subjects it treats and the way it portrays the subjectivity of its characters. The writing marks it from the 19th century, but in many other ways it is not.

* Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets from the Wall Street Journal has been making the blog rounds for good reason: it’s hilarious (“Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison.”) and insightful (using the specific example of prisons to demonstrate larger truths about the necessity of currency in virtually any non-hunter-gatherer culture). And how long have there been consultants who advise future prisoners?

* Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, it also published Giving Till It Works about “capitalistic philanthropy.” We’ve mentioned the issue with regard to Creative Capitalism, discussed tangent issues in Why Do People Give? And Other Unanswerable Questions, and brought up incentive problems in Foundations and the Future.

* Why is Mt. Denali in Alaska technically named McKinley by the federal government? I never thought I would care about the answer, either, but it sheds a great deal of light on politics, bureaucrats, history, culture, randomness, and infighting, as described by the Agitator.

* The New York Times reports on school reform efforts without discussing the enormous costs of some reforms, or the inherent scaling problems most such programs have had—just because a program with a small, extremely dedicated core of individuals manages to, for example, raise student achievement, that doesn’t mean that a larger program with less dedicated and less qualified staff do. Those two persistent issues have bedeviled attempts at reform, and there is no obvious way around them. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive sign that the issues are being more seriously discussed.

* Speaking of the New York Times, schools, and language, this could have come from a proposal:

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) will open in September 2009 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights community, and it will aim to enroll middle school students at risk of academic failure. Students with the lowest test scores will be given admissions priority. In order to recruit the country’s top teachers to work with these at-risk students, the school’s founding principal will cut administrative costs and put a higher percentage of the school’s public funding into teacher salaries.

Notice the euphemistic “at risk of academic failure,” the choice to use the “most-in-need” model rather than the “most-likely-to-be-helped” model,” and the term “at-risk students” used again in the second sentence.

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