The Universal Charm of Spokes

Lincoln Street in Gardner Massachusetts is mid-way up the hill. Higher than the rows of worker housing that sit tight to the shuttered mill buildings below. Less elevated than the formerly grand mansions of the mill owners above. A solid street of century old dwellings, originally inhabited by foremen and moneymen. Now sheltering a smattering of immigrant families moving up, old-time malingerers floating down. A mid-rung on the American ladder of success. Its Victorian detail sheathed in vinyl siding.

My friend Huguener recently bought a house for his family on Lincoln Street; a 3,000 square foot behemoth. Huguener wants to figure out how to how to make his mark on a place that began life as a sturdy single family, was cut up into four units, damaged by fire, and rebuilt as a maze of purple partitions. There are several potential solutions, but first step requires accurate drawings of the existing condition. I just spent four hours with tape measure and pencil, angling into every corner, basement to attic. It’s great to return to the autumn air, primed to ride my bike ten miles to Wachusett Train Station, and then let the rails roll me back home.

A husky guy with a beautiful dog comes out of the house near my pole. ‘Jerry’ is chatty. He’s lived in the house all his life, except for two years in the Army. He thought of moving on, but then his parents took ill. Now they’re gone. So he stays. The unique particulars of a universal story. Jerry reveals reams of information in the short time it takes to load my pannier and don my helmet. He’s genuinely pleased about his new neighbor, and Huguener’s plans for improvement. The thought races through my mind that perhaps we are making progress. A generation or two ago a Haitian family moving into a neighborhood would trigger white flight. But ideology can’t fester on this glorious day. We’re just a couple of real people having a real conversation in a real place.

I linger in our chat, even as I know I have a train to catch. Finally, it’s time to pedal on. I roll my bike away from the post.

BANG!!!

The loudest blow-out I’ve ever heard. My ears ring. Jerry shouts, “What’s that?” He looks about, leery. “I thought it was a gun.”

I see my tire, in shreds. The tube is slit and mangled around the frame. I have no idea what occurred. I’ve got well over a hundred miles on that tube; thousands on the tire. It rode fine all the way here. Foul play? I look up and down the street. Dismiss that theory.

“Wow, that was loud.” Jerry pulls at his ear as echoes ricochet up and down the street. “What are you going to do?”

“I carry repair tools and a spare tube.” True. Yet I lie. This blow-out is beyond anything my spare tools can fix. I’ll wheel the bike out of Jerry’s sight, pretend to make a repair, and call an Uber.

“You can’t fix that. Let me drive you to the train station.”

“No, I can’t impose.”

“Forget it. I’ve got time and you’re not going anywhere on that.”

An hour later, I’m riding the gentle downhill path in the train from Wachusett to Belmont. October’s passing leaves create a brilliant collage. The day could so easily have been a tragedy. But I’ve learned, when things go wrong on your bicycle, the world responds with generosity.

At Kevin’s insistence I threw the damaged bike into the bed of his pick-up. Along Route 2 I heard about his military experience and his current ailments: described with equal enthusiasm. I shared the triumph in his voice proclaiming how walking his dog helped him lose forty pounds. I offered  Jerry money when he dropped me off, well in advance of my departure time (cars and truck go so fast). He refused. Perhaps pouring his stories over my fresh ears is his compensation.

When the train trucked up the hill, a friendly conductor emerged, gave my bike the once over, and motioned me to follow her. She put me in a particular car to ease my exit in Belmont Center. Later, when she collected my fare, we chatted about the book I’m reading. Pressed the boundary of mere transaction with actual conversation.

I have come to believe bicycles are perhaps the world’s best diplomats. No one is ever wary of a person on a bicycle. Ever. People jump to service of cyclists in distress; simultaneously intrigued by our peculiar transport and gladdened at the chance to extend themselves in such a clear yet virtuous manner. The bicycle enables each of us the comfort to express our best selves.

I have hassles ahead; navigating the deformed bicycle from train to home; replacing my damaged tire and mutilated tube. But all of that is later. In this moment, as the yellows and oranges and reds stream in and among the fleeting green outside my window, I am pleasantly satisfied. My near-tragedy triggered not one, but two, memorable interactions. That’s a sweet deal.

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The Neutral Zone

This time of year the days and nights are even-handed, the temperature is benign, neither too warm nor too cool. A kind of balance that reminds me of a virtue in yoga that I discovered long ago.

After a few hundred classes, the euphoria of yoga wanes. Not enough to make me stop practicing, but enough that my after-class high is diminished, and like a junkie in search of a bigger fix, I yearn for more. Fortunately, more is there. Though instead of manifesting as more adrenaline, ‘more’ reveals itself through greater control, and deeper peace.

In yoga, we embrace what is uncomfortable, settle into it, befriend it. When I rise out of eagle pose at the end of warm-up, when the sweat has started to flow across every pore, I feel dizzy.

I’ve learned to accept the wooziness, to stand still and upright, to allow the spinning in my head play itself out. Experience has taught me that I will not fall; that my equilibrium will sort itself out in stillness; I need not lurch my body in pursuit of more gravity.

I’ve learned that, in standing head to feet pose, I can balance better when I grip the entire connection between my foot on the ground and the one I hold between my hands; a route that extends up through one stiff knee, across my butt, out through my clenched thigh, across the stretched Achilles. My legs find stillness only when I acknowledge their connection to every other part of my body.

As the initial thrill of yoga gives over to greater understanding, I’ve discovered that achieving full expression of a pose, from an accustomed position of standing, kneeling, or lying flat to a yogic position of strength plus balance, includes passing through a neutral zone, a moment of suspended time and mass en route from idle rest to conscious alignment. The neutral zone doesn’t exist at the beginning of the posture, as I extend arms or legs in a new direction. Nor does it exist in its full expression, which must always be realized with maximum effort. The neutral zone is that pinpoint of time and space when forces of momentum counter disequilibrium. When my body is not balanced, yet I do not fall.

The moment casts shadow on Newton’s second law of motion. For even though I move, my mass times acceleration, for an instant, equals zero.

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Gimme Shelter – 3

A Primer on Housing America

In two previous posts I outlined a brief history of affordable housing in the United States and the current mechanisms for creating more. Still, the gap between the affordable housing supply and demand increases. Is there any way to turn that around?

Part Three: Fresh Strategies for Providing Affordable Housing

There are approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. We added about ten million units over the past decade, which represents continued flattening over time (11 million new units 2000-2020; 14 million 1990-2000; 18 million from 1980-1990). Still, the net increase in the number of housing units outpaces the rate of change in our population (7.4 % increase 2010-2020; 9.7% increase 2000-2010; 13.1 % increase 1990-2000; 9.8% increase 1980-1990). Housing supply siders advocate that if we simply build more housing, prices will stabilize and affordability will increase. Yet, for forty years we’ve consistently added proportionately more housing units than our population increase, So, why do we have a persistent shortage of affordable housing?

Two powerful demographics contribute to the problem. First, family size in the United States continues to shrink. In 2020, the average family size was 2.53 people per household. In 1980, it was 2.76 people. This seemingly small difference (0.23 people per household) balloons to a demand for over ten million additional housing units. Regardless, simple division illustrates that 141 million dwelling units can accommodate 330 million people clustered in 2.53 family units. With ten million to spare. Yes, but…

Vacancy rates stubbornly hold at three to four million units at any time. Over five million units are second homes—vacant most of the time. And housing is simply not as portable as people and jobs and economic opportunity. For every growing city with expensive and scarce shelter, there are a dozen dwindling burgs where houses depreciate and languish, empty. Thus, demand exceeds the number of housing units in places people want to live. The whole situation is aggravated when available housing costs so much more than many can afford. As a result, too many people spend too much of their income on shelter.

Our mechanisms for creating more affordable housing are tepid; our collective will to make safe housing a basic right is feint. Supply side housing advocates suffer the same blinders as supply side economists: the rich simply consume too many ‘benes’ for anything much to trickle down. Forty years of creating more housing than our relative population increase has produced bigger and bigger houses occupied by smaller and smaller families. It hasn’t created more affordable housing.

Revised zoning laws: enabling accessory dwellings; reducing parking; requiring inclusion; are all promising strategies to promote more housing that could be affordable. But if we are serious about generating more affordable housing, we have to think more comprehensively, and more boldly. We have to acknowledge that our housing problems are intricately tied to our economic inequality, our unsustainable consumption; our dwindling sense of community. We need to be as bold as Ebenezer Howard and last century’s Utopian idealists. We need to create housing that will root thriving, sustainable communities.

Three simple ideas.

First, create housing target zones. Incentivize people to move to existing communities with solid housing but declining population: Western New York; Mississippi; Nebraska. The pandemic and the Internet have proven that geography is fluid. True, many people prefer to live in cities. But the right incentives can help revitalize once vibrant towns to be lively again.

Second, promote smaller and more efficient dwelling units through ‘graduated’ real estate taxes. Just like a graduated income tax, a family with a large house, or multiple houses, should pay a higher tax rate on their excessive real estate. Meanwhile, a family with a modest home should pay proportionately less tax, which will help make entry-level home ownership more affordable.

Third, reinvigorate the Utopian notion that creating housing is an opportunity to reflect higher ideals. ‘Affordable’ housing shouldn’t be architecturally stigmatized on the outside, but within, it should experiment with new ways to accommodate family and community. Non-profit and government supported housing should be more congregate in nature, incorporate a range of private and shared spaces, explore how we can all live better with less stuff and more interaction.

Housing in the United States is a direct reflection of our culture, it promotes autonomy, privacy, and consumption. But our culture is environmentally unsustainable, mentally isolating, and physically unhealthy. Let’s reconceive affordable housing. Not as an inferior reflection of what the private market already provides. But as an experiment in preferred ways to live, which the rest of the housing market can then follow.

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Gimme Shelter – 2

A Primer on Housing America

Last week, I provided a brief, if somewhat snarly, history of affordable housing in the United States. Today, I offer an overview of the strategies and mechanisms available to create affordable housing today.

Part Two: Creating Affordable Housing Circa 2021

330+ million Americans live in approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. Over two million of us live in public housing, 4.7 million live in Section 8 housing, and a smattering live in other kinds of subsidized shelter. Still, there are only 36 affordable housing units available for every 100 low-income households. Almost two thirds of qualified families either pay too much for a roof overhead, or suffer subsistence housing. What mechanisms do individuals, organizations, and governments have to alleviate this situation?

Public Housing and Section 8. Over 3,000 public housing authorities own and maintain the nation’s public housing stock, much of which is now over fifty years old. Housing Authorities also manage local Section 8 programs, which are split between project-based vouchers (the subsidy belongs to a specific housing development, which is owned by a non-profit rather than the housing authority) and portable vouchers, which a family can use to rent an approved unit of their choice. If you are low-income person lucky enough to land either a public housing unit or Section 8 voucher, you pretty much stay put, as wait lists for these opportunities often span more than ten years. The number of new public housing units being built is nil; the number of new Section 8 vouchers tiny. These are steady-state programs, at best, that won’t make a dent in unmet affordable housing needs.

Non-profit Developer Housing. Since the federal government stopped actually creating new housing, non-profit developers utilize a web of economic development grants, housing set-aside funds, tax-exempt bonds, Community Development Block Grants, low-income housing tax credits, and community reinvestment loans to create affordable housing. These efforts probably do more to provide cover for politicians who want to be able to champion the idea affordable housing than actually generate it. The complexity of permitting and financing affordable housing is a significant reason why affordable housing units cost 25% more to bring online than privately financed housing.

Affordable Home Ownership. Over the past fifty years, the rate of home ownership in America—65%— has been pretty consistent. The percentage shifts in a narrow range in sync with economic cycles, but the average barely budges. Unfortunately, home ownership rates for Blacks and Hispanics are well below 50%. One attempt to increase home ownership rates is to provide affordable home ownership opportunities for moderate income people. Financing these programs is as byzantine as rental programs, but the incentives of ownership are strong. However, most of these programs cap a family’s ability to accrue equity and deny passing a dwelling on to their heirs. As a result, they do not provide the same ladder to economic security that people who purchase houses in the private market and pay them off over their lifetime enjoy.

If there is any bright spot on the affordable housing horizon it inhabits a single word: zoning. More individuals and communities are coming to realize that traditional zoning is environmentally unsustainable, increases sprawl, and exacerbates economic inequality. In the 21st century there have been small, yet significant, moves to reverse restrictive zoning. This can be as simple as reducing parking requirements from two cars per unit to one car per unit, thus increasing the number of units a particular site can accommodate. Several communities now allow accessory-units in any district, including single family zones. This allows folks to make in-law apartments, add a small studio, or create a basement rental unit. Accessory-unit zoning can immediately increase the potential number of dwelling units in a community by 25% or more, while spreading them out among existing structures with almost no additional infrastructure.

There are also two zoning trends specifically targeted at creating affordable housing. The most common is ‘inclusionary zoning.’ Inclusionary zoning requires developers to set aside a certain number of units in new projects for moderate income households. The percentage is pre-determined, and is usually a function of what a ‘hot’ real estate market will bear. In Cambridge, MA, where rents and housing prices are sky-high, developers must provide 20% inclusionary units. In a cooler market, like Des Moines, that threshold requirement doesn’t fly.

Inclusionary zoning provides the ancillary benefit of economically integrating housing on a project level. I’ve met enough people who live in subsidized housing to know that some people welcome this, while others prefer to live among their peers, even poor peers. Inclusion in Cambridge is clear: the subsidized units must be within the development. In other cities, like Boston, direct inclusion is optional. A developer can make a ‘set-aside’ payment to an affordable housing trust fund to build housing elsewhere rather than include subsidized units in their project. Thus, the shiny Seaport District of Boston includes almost no apartments for poor people, while Seaport developers underwrite housing in Mattapan and other traditionally poorer neighborhoods.

Another zoning mechanism for increasing affordable housing is allowing more generous development options for projects in ‘overlay’ districts. Cambridge recently created an ‘affordable housing overlay district’ that increases density, reduces setbacks, and lowers parking requirements for any project that is 100% long-term affordable. This makes the approvals and permitting process easier, and increases the capacity of a given site.

Despite a lot of talk about affordable housing in our nation in 2021, our nation’s political apparatus is hardly primed to invest in directly in building housing, and the financing process for affordable housing remains, well, unaffordable. Many housing activists have redirected their focus from pressing for affordable housing to simply pressing for easier development standards, under the assumption that if more housing can be built, housing will become more affordable as a result. This is a logical argument, but smacks of supply side economics, which leaves me justifiably skeptical.

At this moment, we are losing the battle of creating enough affordable housing. Zoning freedoms may offer increased affordability. Will that be enough to address the need? I doubt it. Next week I’ll suggest some other strategies.

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Gimme Shelter

A Primer on Housing America

A friend recently asked me how we create affordable housing in the United States. It seemed a simple query. Yet, like so many questions, the deeper I delved, the more complex and frustrating it became. Too much for a single blog post. So, over the next few weeks I will offer three perspectives. Today, a brief history of providing housing for folks unable to access the private market. Next week, the current grab bag of ways that government and non-profit institutions create affordable housing. Round out September with ideas about how we can create more housing and stronger communities by reimagining the entire situation.

Techwood Homes Atlanta, GA 1935

Part One: A Brief History of Affordable Housing

Before there was ‘housing’ there were simply houses. On farms, in towns, hand built by their owners or erected by developer/builders before those labels acquired their present meaning. As cities grew, building, leasing, and maintaining dwellings became different functions from occupying them, whether you lived along a London Crescent or in a Dickensian slum. Neither The Crescent (exclusive by design) nor the slum (completely lacking in design) fit our current notion of ‘housing:’ intended for the masses yet consciously designed in a manner supposedly morally uplifting. In reality, ‘housing’ is simultaneously generic and architecturally obvious; no one who can afford a private domicile chooses to live in it.

The earliest examples of what we now call ‘affordable housing’ are New York City’s 19th century tenements. A city laid out on simple grid of regular building lots, teeming with newcomers clamoring for shelter, was the perfect place for repetitive blocks of mass housing. Dense, unsanitary, ill-ventilated. These buildings prompted the Tenement Laws of 1867, 1879, and 1901. Although there were already building codes in some US cities proscribing structural integrity and fire-safety, the tenement laws set standards for ventilation and sanitation that acknowledged the connection between private habitat and public health. These well-intentioned laws inadvertently established an operating principle of housing: navigate the law for maximum profit. Before the Tenement Law of 1879, dumbbell apartment buildings did not exist. But once entrepreneurs discovered how that shape met the letter of the law at optimal density, the dumbbell proliferated. Until the Tenement Law of 1901 outlawed such buildings that provided light and air in theory, but were unsafe and unsanitary in fact.

Dumbbell Tenement

In the twentieth century, utopian theorists turned their focus from rural ideals to urban opportunities. Ebenezer Howard and other reformers envisioned ‘garden cities’ where light and space, commerce and leisure entwined. Some failed. A few, like Forest Hills, New York, prospered too well and became instantly affluent. Still others, such as Sunnyside Gardens (also in Queens) retained communitarian ideals for a long time. Although the Garden City movement was too small and too elitist to generate housing on the scale required by 20th century America, it was instrumental in prompting the first zoning ordinances (Los Angeles, 1908; New York 1916; model ordnances by the 1920’s). Zoning restricted development more comprehensively than mere tenement laws. It also established two key attributes to our nation’s development, albeit without stating either directly: density is bad; racial segregation is good.

Forest Hills, New York

The first affordable housing project built by the Federal Government (1935), Techwood Homes in Atlanta Georgia, established the blueprint for economic, architectural, and social standards for a generation of public housing. Techwood Flats was a fourteen-block neighborhood just north of downtown Atlanta, sandwiched between Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola headquarters. The haphazard collection of wood-framed houses, many dating from the nineteenth century, was home to over 1600 families, one quarter of whom were African-American. Atlanta businessmen wanted to remove this blight. The federal government provided $2,375,000 to demolish the neighborhood and construct 604 units in its place. The faintly colonial brick buildings zig-zag across open lawns, thereby establishing one hallmark of public housing: its form does not follow conventional street frontages and is therefore easy to identify as ‘housing.’ The second hallmark: all 604 units were reserved for white people. Later, a public housing project designated for Blacks was built further out of downtown, but by that the time, the original residents of Techwood Flats were long scattered.

This prototype of public housing, in form and disruption, exists all across the United States. Public housing did not carry immediate stigma; being poor was a reality for too many of us during the Depression and through World War II. The apartments were sanitary, with many windows and cross-ventilation. Amenities like full bathrooms, overhead lights, and bedroom closets were welcome. However, during the 1950’s and 1960’s housing projects got larger and larger and became receptacles of people left behind in a society of increasing affluence. In large cities, like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, wide lawns fronting brick townhouses were abandoned in favor of high-rise buildings. Hives of the have-nots.

Pruitt Igoe Project St. Louis

President Lyndon Johnson inadvertently spelled public housing’s doom when he signed The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which ended segregation in public housing. Richard Nixon’s HUD initiated the Section 8 program, in 1974. The program touted the virtue of the enterprise (and sidestepped integration) by providing vouchers toward private-market rents. Thus began the transition from the federal government creating housing, to the federal government subsidizing housing provided by others, to eventually providing tax credits, dedicated subsidies, and loan guarantees that pretty much ensure everyone involved in developing affordable housing will get their cut, even as creating affordable housing units grows complex and expensive.

At present, the cost of creating an affordable apartment unit is about 25% higher (2016 national average just above $200,000) than a unit in the private market. In pricey states, like California, this cost can exceed $450,00 per unit. In pricey cities, like San Francisco, an affordable unit can cost over $1 million from concept to occupancy.

In the meantime, through the 20th century, zoning restrictions grew ever-more restrictive, allowing fewer units, requiring larger lots, deeper setbacks, and more parking. All of which made housing in general more expensive, and affordable housing more scarce. A general rule of thumb is that families should pay about 30% of their income for total shelter costs: rent or mortgage, maintenance, and utilities. Yet, entering the new millennium, over 40% of all renters paid more than 30% of their income on housing and 20% paid more than 50% of their income for shelter.

Affordable Housing San Francisco

What are we doing today to alleviate the affordable housing crisis? Is it effective? Check in next week.

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History as Fact—and as Gap

Whitney Plantation, Louisiana

Within a few moments of Clint Smith’s recent Harvard Radcliffe Institute Book Talk about How the Word is Passed, I was fully won over by the man and his message. Mr. Smith is a 33-year-old poet and scholar drenched in wisdom deep as it is nuanced. His book chronicles seven places he visited, and the people he met, in search of reckoning the past and present impact of American slavery. I’ve never encountered legitimate anger coupled with such compassion.

How the Word is Passed appeals to me in multiple ways. The book is architectural: Clint’s descriptions of the beauty, the grit, the cramped, and the expansive center us in these places. The people he encounters resonate with their setting, whether generationally-bound locals or passing tourists. His writing is lyrical. He pinpoints the passion and perspective of every individual he encounters. Then gently casts a shroud over their given truth. Some people, some positions, are more generous and humane than others. But no one is completely bad, nor completely good. Mr. Smith grants each human their fallacies, with a dollop of grace.

The seven sites are a junket through the familiar and exotic. I’ve been to two of the locations (Monticello and Whitney Plantation), and was reassured that Mr. Smith’s perspectives resonate with my own. His experience in two other places I know, New York City and Galveston, provide fresh information and insight of each. I only know of Angola Prison and Goree Island from films, and appreciate how Clint’s descriptions gave them fuller life.

Statues of slave children at Whitney Plantation

The remaining place the author visited, Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, VA, was completely new to me. Yet it merits his meatiest essay, the very heart of the book, and best illustrates Mr. Smith’s compassion. He witnesses a rally in honor of Confederate dead. The man stands out, for the obvious reason that Clint Smith is Black. Afterward, he engages in conversations with mourners and reenactors and finds a way to appreciate humanity on all sides. The writer presents facts of history that clearly connect the succession of Southern states to the preservation of slavery. Then he outlines the evolution of post-Civil War narratives that whitewash slavery’s centrality from Reconstruction through today. Yet, he acknowledges the appeal for twenty-first century men to honor the truths that generations of forefathers extolled.

“What would it take—what does it take—for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you shouldn’t refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”

The central thesis of How the Word is Passed is recited in the opening essay, Monticello. Not by the author. Rather by a tour guide at Jefferson’s plantation. David Thorson is a white male, retired after thirty years in the US Navy. He guides the tour that highlights the life of slaves at Monticello. The people owned, and bought, and sold by the the man who declared “…all men are created equal.” Mr. Thorson is the perfect mouthpiece for Mr. Smith’s thesis, because our image of a white retired military Virginian does not correlate with a tour guide who reveals the underbelly of our third President.

“I think that history is the story of the past, using all available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past, using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory.”

  • David Thorson, tour guide, Monticello
My tour guide at Whitney

As Clint Smith journeys to seven places particular to slavery, all the way back to Goree Island where thousands of Africans left their shore and their freedom forever, he offers us myriad perspectives. Northern ‘reformers’ who kept their thumb in chattel’s bounty. Eugenicists who proclaimed the scientific superiority of Caucasians. European colonizers who stirred unrest in Africa to generate slaves. African rulers who sold their fellow human beings. Slavers who landed as little as 30% of their original cargo. Plantation owners who bought them and sold them and whipped them and mated them and worked them again and again and again. The liberation of the original Juneteenth. The repression of present-day Angola Prison.

Toward book’s end, Mr. Smith returns to David Thorson’s statement, and relates it to the gaps that underlie our inability to reckon with American slavery. Gaps of information, when one side crafts selective stories and the other side’s story is barely even recorded. Gaps in understanding when we disagree on such fundamental questions as: Who is fully human? Who is granted fully human rights?

How the Word is Passed offers history that is rich and nuanced. It suggests that we can learn it, appreciate it, and apply it toward a more equitable world. Only not through slogans and sound bites. The closing sentence is daunting as it is inspiring. “It is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.”

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Hope is a Discipline

“Hope is not an emotion…hope is not optimism.”

  – Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us

“Optimism is a state of mind in which you are hopeful that things will turn out well.”

– William J. Knaus, Ed D, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.

“In the world we live in, it is easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is bad all the time, that nothing is going to change ever…I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think in a different way, and I choose to act in a different way.”

– Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us

“Unfortunate events happen, but the fatalistic resignation of hopelessness thinking is optional.”

– William J. Knaus, Ed D, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.

I suppose that anyone who occupies his long summer days reading Mariame Kaba and working his way through a self-help book to combat depression is, by definition, a man of hope.

Ms. Kaba’s insights into social justice and prison abolition are generous and humane. She commands us to action yet simultaneously recognizes that the timeframe of equity is measured in decades and generations.

As for the self-help, depression is my longest and darkest acquaintance. A foe so comfortable it too often feels like a friend. It feeds on me, as on so many others, during the disconnection and isolation of pandemic. But have you tried to get an appointment with a living breathing therapist lately? That is hopeless.

I first began seriously thinking about hope during my time in Haiti. How people who possessed so little—by our measure—seemed altogether more satisfied than most Americans. Haitian joie de vivre is rooted in an odd combination of resilience and dependence. Life in Haiti is hard. No one is presumptive enough to think he can make it on his own. Yet, Haitians are resourceful in crafting lives on an over-crowded, thin-soiled, institutionally bereft island. We Americans are their polar opposite. Quick and fierce in proclaiming our independence even as we navigate a thoroughly interdependent society.

The laughing and singing I heard each evening as I walked home in Haiti got me thinking, and reading, about hope. At a first order of magnitude, hope is indirectly proportional to affluence. The more you have, the more you have to lose, the more you’re annoyed by inconvenience, the less satisfied you become, the less goodwill you harbor toward the future. The highest levels of hope on this earth are reported in Africa. I don’t know the science behind that declaration, but I endorse its validity. Hope is nourishing, and it’s free.

Nearly ten years later, during pandemic summer 2.0, I encounter the idea: hope is a discipline; and its corollary: hopelessness thinking is optional. I’ve been running these notions round my head because, upon first absorption, they don’t jive. How can hope (all light and spirit) be a discipline (all serious rigor)? How can ruminating on the intractable problems of our era and the demons in our private lives be optional?

By choice. Our thoughts, our feelings, our physical health feed upon and reinforce each other. When we choose hope, it reframes our perspective. We acknowledge our despair, our limitations. We accept that our influence on this planet is tiny and short-lived. Yet our presence, our influence, still has meaning.

So, we seek out the beneficent. We lead with trust. At first we must force ourselves to thinking that’s so contrary to our cynical society. Until hope becomes a pattern. Then a disciple. And we emerge into a more positive way of being.

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One Night in Tallahassee

I embrace Universal Basic Income and envision the end of work as we know it

“Look at you; look at what you’re doing. You’re engaged, you’re learning, you’re sharing. I think that’s useful. We don’t call it work because you’re not doing it for money.”

The Couchsurfing app connects me with Amre. I arrive at his spartan apartment in Tallahassee, Florida with a six-pack. Amre cooks couscous. We sit on his sofa and eat from plates on our laps. The guy hasn’t got a table. In the morning I’ll be gone. We’ll likely never meet again.

“UBI promotes the creative stuff you’re doing. In its purest form, UBI covers essential expenses. You receive it simply for inhabiting the earth.”

As our evening progresses, Amre enumerates the merits of Universal Basic Income. Other folks I’ve met along my journey have used the term, but no one’s explained it with such fervor, or clarity. I’ve been riding my bicycle fourteen months now. Over 20,000 miles. Meandering through all 48 contiguous states. Hundreds of people have invited me to share dinner and shelter. I ask every one of them the same question: “How Will We Live Tomorrow?”

“I like the ‘we’ in your question. It implies community. No one in our social system is asking this.”

Amre embraces my query with vigor. Or perhaps I’ve just become expert at discussing it, this late in my adventure. December, 2016. Florida is my terminal state. I plan to reach Jacksonville by the 21st; then Amtrak up the East Coast to be home by Christmas.

“We are living abnormally.” Amre continues. “It began with the industrial revolution, and has grown more unsustainable ever since.”

Deep and earnest intimacy blossoms between two people who come together over hospitality and intention. I offer snippets of personal history: aspirations; children; career. Amre shares immigrant trials that span Syria, France, India, Venezuela, Miami. The guy’s energetic, articulate, intelligent, movie-star handsome. I can’t imagine an IT support job and a rudimentary Tallahassee apartment will mark the end of his story. His perspective is far too expansive.

“We can proceed for one more generation, perhaps. But your children, and my hopeful children, will grasp that we need to change. That we need balance.”

Amre counters my singular query with questions of his own. “What provoked you to this journey?” How has it changed you?” “What advice would you give to your younger self?” I understand that ‘your younger self,’ means when I was Amre’s age. Our complementary souls mark beginning and end points of American’s central phase of life: the work years. Amre, in his twenties, formal education complete, is embarking on career. I’m in my sixties, retired, liberated from the pursuit of compensation. I am his role model: unjaded survivor of the work world, curiosity intact. He is my inspiration: young man with broader vision than I held at his age.

“Some things will have to be forced in order to achieve necessary balance. There will still be wars and struggles for power. But I am optimistic. I can see that we will get there.”

I didn’t plan my crisscross of America to correspond with a great political drama: the Presidential campaign of 2016. It just turned out that way. I pedaled throughout primaries and conventions, rallies, and debates, while people’s definition of ‘we’ became ever-smaller; their vision of tomorrow increasingly myopic. As our nation spiraled into cynicism and mistrust, I came to see myself as an antidote to our culture of fear: a vulnerable guy; traveling slow; embraced by thoughtful, friendly people, open to exchanging ideas. I found accord with most everyone I met. But I particularly appreciate newcomers, like Amre. Immigrants convey the most prescient insights. They express unbridled faith in our founding ideals. Such is the value of outsider perspective.

“I thought everyone here would be very hard-driven. I don’t find that at all.” Amre notes. “Yet, I believe America still has the idea of freedom. It still has more opportunity than most of the world, much more than Old Europe.”

Amre doesn’t consider UBI a welfare program or political gimmick. He explains the relatively small portion of the public budget it will consume, the bureaucracy it will unspool, the collective trust it will inspire.

“I do not believe this will make people lazy; they will be energized. If everyone who makes a non-economic choice can be happier, then universal income will lead to greater creativity and happiness.”

Amre’s enthusiasm for UBI reinforces other concepts I encountered during my pilgrimage: the exponential labor savings of automation (Detroit); the connection between consumption and sustainability (New Mexico); the ongoing quest for equity (Lower East Side). Over the past 400 years, capitalism has been instrumental in raising life expectancy and living standards. But it’s also thrown humanity and nature out of whack. Capitalism is predicated on continuous production, which yields continuous growth, which results in continuous despoiling of our planet. It straightjackets a person’s value as their capacity to work. Today, it takes so few people to produce so much more than we need. Which is why we must rethink capitalism. Which fundamentally means: rethink income; rethink work. Amre opens my eyes to how UBI acknowledges every human’s intrinsic value by accommodating basic needs independent of paid labor. As such, it offers a path to ease away from capitalism’s destructions.

Five years have passed since my evening with Amre. Much has changed. Although UBI hasn’t been instituted in its purest form, it is the undergirding idea behind the recovery checks issued during the pandemic, and as well as the recently expanded Child Tax Credit. We haven’t eliminated work, though the pandemic and Zoom have modified many jobs beyond traditional definition.

Still, the major mind shift required to redirect from constant growth towards common equity looms distant. All politicians of both parties still clamor for economic growth instead of advocating economic balance. Work is still seen as the primary measure of an individual’s worth.

Universal Basic Income will not eliminate work. Rather, it will make work a choice. Those who might be content with a simpler life can opt to pursue non-economic dreams. Others will choose paid work in order to gain creature comforts. However, having that choice will change the nature of work forever. Rote, low-wage, routine jobs will be automated. Those jobs that remain will be more creative and engaging.

Beyond transforming our attitudes about work, UBI will reframe other challenges. Income inequity could actually increase, though I maintain inequality that accommodates basic needs and offers individual choice is fairer than the economic insecurity many face today. UBI will (hopefully) slow the economy down according to traditional measures, as some opt out of the workplace; make things rather than buy them. A desirable step toward a more sustainable planet. But the most important thing UBI will do, on an individual level, is release us from fear that our basic needs will go unmet. We will be free to pursue whatever makes us most fully human.

Four hundred years ago, the dawn of capitalism and ensuing industrial revolution invented our current definition of work as an activity divorced from the rest of our daily lives, whose purpose is to generate money to survive. The twentieth-century refined that concept; as work conferred status and influence, and defined our identity. In this century, let’s champion the technology that enables us to provide basic needs for all. Let’s reimagine work as a choice.

I’ve never seen Amre again. But the grand vision of UBI he offered me one night in Tallahassee holds clear and bright.

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Nobody Wants to Work Anymore…a Tale of Three Cities’ Trash

“Nobody wants to work anymore.” I encounter the phrase every day. From retiree’s impatient for the waitress to take their order. From people complaining insufferable wait times to be connected to a customer service rep. In media reports of worker shortages in every sector, agriculture to manufacturing.

Perhaps I need to stop hanging around folks who still use the term, “waitress,” and avoid the over-sixty crowd who reflexively chant, “I put in my time.” Still, the phrase, “nobody wants to work,” transcends ideological bounds. Conservatives blame pandemic largesse of extended unemployment, eviction moratoriums, and relief payments. Liberals complain that the shortage of ready workers further erodes our global economic position.

When I hear, “Nobody wants to work anymore,” I keep my mouth shut. Because I totally disagree. People want work. Work that’s engaging, creative, meaningful. Work that lifts their talents and abilities. Which is rarely the work advertised.

Throughout history, pandemics have triggered major changes in how humans organize labor. I’m hoping the current pandemic will do the same. After fifty years of wage stagnation and unravelling safety net, Americans are no longer interested in working for the conditions that companies offer. I envision two distinct yet connected threads of how work will evolve in a post-pandemic world.

The first, obvious, change recalibrates the balance between owners and laborers. Wages will rise, benefits grow, working conditions improve. Management won’t like it and inflation could result, though we might actually make a dent in our nation’s obscene income discrepancies.

The second, less likely but more valuable change, will be that fewer people work. We will (finally) acknowledge that the number of workers required to sustain a basic standard of living is diminishing, while the excesses of our ever-increasing consumer spiral is rending our planet unfit for human habitation. The number of jobs will decrease until, ideally, work becomes optional.

Consider a case study that illustrates three models: current state vs. higher wage and benefits vs. fewer workers. Consider an industry we all use, all need, and all hate to think about. Consider trash removal.

“A putrid problem is piling up in Webster, Massachusetts.” Thus begins NBC-10’s local news story that Republic Services has failed to pick up the trash in the city in over two weeks. Irate neighbors, potential rodents, rising temperatures, even a hint of lawsuit portray the $23-Billion corporation in an unfavorable light. Republic’s requisite company statement tacked onto the end of the expose doesn’t much help. “Many industries are facing staffing challenges at this time, and the recycling and waste disposal industry is no different …” In other words, nobody wants to work anymore.

I investigated Republic Services offerings to new drivers. The Auburn office, which services Webster, advertises a 5K bonus. Average driver salaries are just north of $21 per hour. There’s a nice list of benefits, though several online comments decry that most of the benefit costs must be borne by the employee.

Judging from the trash piling up in Webster, offering someone $45,000 a year to pick up trash isn’t enough incentive to put up with the flies and the smell and the mess.

Where can a trash hauler do better? Consider Cambridge, my hometown, where a trash truck with a crew of three collects whatever I put at my curb every Tuesday like clockwork. Ditto the compost truck, the yard waste truck, and the recycling truck. Cambridge’s sanitation workers, members of the Teamsters union, earn over $24 per hour, with premium benefits. A noticeable notch above what Republic offers. The city places no limits on the number of bins I can put out, removes any furniture, even takes used appliances with a pre-arranged tag. Cambridge provides a high-touch sanitation service that one of America’s most affluent cities can afford, and I’m happy to pay for service so good.

What does sanitation look like with fewer workers rather than premium price? Nearby Watertown deals with its trash more efficiently, though it requires more resident effort. Watertown’s trash and recycling are also contracted to Republic Services, though I doubt NBC-10 will report from there, as I’ve witnessed that Watertown’s system works. The city provides specific containers for trash and recycling. Their website outlines strict instructions for how to place containers along the street. A lone driver navigates the side-loading truck, a lever-arm mechanically lifts each container and empties it into the hopper. A solo driver/collector is less flexible than Cambridge’s three-person crew. But it’s an appealing approach to collecting trash with fewer people, more machinery.

Trash collection offers but one example of post-pandemic work trade-offs. The current state, Webster, is broken because people simply won’t work for the wage/benefit packages of the past. Some individuals or communities, such as Cambridge, will pony up more money to retain a high level of service. Others, like Watertown, will incorporate mechanics/robotics to minimize human labor.

The problem is not human resources. We have enough people to pick up our trash—provided we boost their pay. We also have technology if we prefer to collect garbage with fewer workers. More likely, the problem is human expectation: we want a Cambridge level of service at a Webster price point. Or what to do with sanitation workers who are displaced by mechanical arms. How will we value fellow human beings when they’re no longer needed to drive the economy, even if only to pick up our garbage?

Creating a better world of work requires that we shift from the mantra of full employment to one of worthwhile employment. To decouple human stature from mere capacity for labor. To provide a basic standard of living for everyone regardless of whether they ‘work.’

This will have profound ramifications. We will have to shift our unsustainable narrative of economic growth to one of economic balance. Some, wishing to remain untethered from employment, will choose to live in community, share our cars, tend our gardens, cook our own meals. Live lives that don’t increase the GDP. When we automate the work ‘nobody’ wants to do, we can focus on more satisfying pursuits and celebrate what we create through that liberation.

“Nobody wants to work anymore,” is thin-veiled code for “Nobody will do menial tasks for the pittance I’m willing to pay.” We have the capability to get rid of menial tasks and redefine work as the pursuit of human potential. I am pretty sure everybody will want to do that.

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Tower of e-Babel

Five thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, the people of the earth, speaking in unified tongue, got together and decided to build a tower to reach the heavens (Genesis 11:1-9). God, ever wary of humans getting uppity, put an end to their folly with two neat tricks. First, she made their utterances incomprehensible to each other. Then, he scattered people across the face of the earth. Thus marks the beginning of widescale human interference with the natural order, and our inability to understand each other.

Fast forward five thousand years, give or take a few centuries, and human hubris bristles anew. Seven point eight billion of us completely dominate the planet. And though we speak over 6500 languages, our communication is seamless as in the days of Babel. Thanks to Google translate and its technology cousins, we can bridge any communication gap.

So why are we suffering through an era of unprecedented miscommunication? Because, as humans are wont to do, just as we smooth out one problem—translation—we create another confusion—format. Back in the days of Babel, we had only the human voice. Plus a bit of stone chiseling. Over time we developed paper and ink, which Guttenberg refined with the printing press. This led to the hard bound book, the penny rag, the Sears Catalog, and Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. The more paper we printed upon, the less valuable it became, until the only folks who will mess with it hang out at US Post Office. They deposit junk in our mail slots, which we recycle, unopened.

These days, real communication is electronic.

Whoever invented email is my friend. I think it was Al Gore. Anyway, no surprise to anyone that I’m an email kind of guy. Email is perfectly suited to a sixty-six-year-old guy finnicky about writing stuff down, documenting conversation, and keeping it all in order. I keep my Inbox trim, ruthlessly ‘unsubscribe’ from junk, yet maintain years of missives organized in dozens of subfolders. It’s doubtful I will ever need to retrieve any of them, but infinitely reassuring to know that I can.

I read, save, delete or otherwise deal with every message I receive by email. Texts are more problematic. If my phone beeps when I’m out and about, I forget about it. The message gets queued down. It disappears from my consciousness as well as my contact roll. Opportunity lost.

And then there are the other formats. Instagram. Snapchat. Facetime. Zoom. Google Docs. iMessage. eye-yay-eye. No way I can keep up.

Of course, the affinities are flipped for folks who made their primal scream just as ‘You’ve Got Mail” dominated the multiplex. In the recent article, “Could Gen-Z Free the World from Email?” Adam Simmons, age 24, proclaims, “Email is all your stressors in one area, which makes the burnout thing so much harder. You look at your email and have work stuff, which is the priority, and then rent’s due from your landlord and then Netflix bills. And I think that’s a really negative way to live your life.”

I can agree with Adam that an inbox full of work tasks and bills is a negative way to live. Unfortunately, since Adam doesn’t do email, and I don’t Tweet or Signal or Google Group or Substack or use whatever cool format post-Millennials favor this week, I doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to share a meaningful moment of cohesion on the matter.

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