It’s time to legalize building

If you want to build the future, then we first have to rebuild our institutions.

NEW: I’ve moved my blog. Find this and more at https://www.sbuss.dev/post/its-time-to-legalize-building/

Marc Andreessen is right: it’s time to build. The majority of us really want to live in a society with adequate housing, incredible medical technology, beautiful high rises and clean, fast, and reliable transit systems. So why don’t we have it? It’s not as simple as just not building, it’s that our institutions don’t allow us to build.

Ezra Klein sums it up well in Why We Can’t Build:

The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

While we in the tech industry have been focused on building internet technology, launching new industries, and building a society capable of responding to the coronavirus lockdown with remote work, NIMBYs and other rent-seekers have made a bright future illegal. They’ve captured our cities and live off the rent. Their philosophy is to reject growth at every opportunity for the sake of their suburban aesthetic and their million-dollar Eichlers. To complain, when a scrappy neighbor starts a company in their garage, about the impact it could have on local street parking. To use the full power of the state to stop a new apartment complex or a new factory or to kill a startup.

We have a shortage of hospital beds because adding new beds without government permission is illegal. We have a shortage of housing because adding new housing is illegal in most neighborhoods where demand is high. We have a coronavirus test shortage because creating a new test without spending months or years under FDA review is illegal. We don’t have drone deliveries because drone deliveries are illegal. We don’t have gleaming new high rises like Singapore, because they are illegal everywhere except a few small blocks in major US cities.

This rot has infected both major parties. In California, nearly all of our elected leaders, from city council members to US Senators, are unwilling to do what’s necessary to solve California’s housing shortage ― a big problem with a straightforward solution. Nationally, even Progressives’ most headline-grabbing proposal, the Green New Deal, doesn’t include key policies like carbon taxes, building new zero-carbon nuclear reactors, investing in carbon capture & sequestration, or in building new carbon-neutral high-rise housing and electrified transit infrastructure.

Compare it to South Korea’s just-announced “Green New Deal” which “includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.” One would be forgiven for thinking Progressives cared more about their pet issues than structural change and technological growth.

But much worse than that: the Right, which Andreessen points out “is generally pro-production,” has been captured by anti-immigrant isolationists who think that 5G technology caused the coronavirus and that Bill Gates is behind it. The right used to credibly claim they were pro-business and pro-trade, but they have forfeited that position. The leader of their party instituted tariffs and started a trade war, banned immigrants from countries his base is suspicious of, and is not even using his power to ensure small businesses have easy access to credit and cash during this worldwide health emergency.

The Right pushes policies that defund critical services and vital infrastructure, and doesn’t invest in education or care for the health of the workforce. They stoke ethno-nationalist divisions that are fundamentally at odds with the idea and ethos of America. Their economic goals are limited to propping up dying industries, like coal mining, rather than investing in research & development, education, or infrastructure (infrastructure week is always next week).

These are not healthy political ideologies. They both see the world as zero-sum and just want to serve their core constituencies instead of building a better, more just, more equitable, more prosperous world.

There is an emerging political consciousness in Silicon Valley. Technologists are advancing a new way of understanding the challenges facing America and how to solve them that do not split neatly along the traditional left right axis. However, to implement change along those new lines, there must be a will.

― Mark Lutter, Charter Cities Institute
https://www.marklutter.com/post/build-institutions-not-apps

Who’s to blame?

All of us.

NIMBYs and other established interests for making everything illegal. Builders for not getting involved in politics. The left for valuing a policy’s intentions over its results. The right for undermining good government at every level and agitating against open societies. All of us for letting it happen.

We can’t keep ignoring politics and expect that our society will turn out fine. The tech industry has shrugged off becoming the scapegoat for all of society’s problems, and in exchange got a politics and government that focuses on saying no instead of yes.

San Francisco, in its latest display of paternalistic thinking, recently started an “office of emerging technology.” You might think, with a name like that, that it would focus on investing in new technologies or providing economic incentives to revolutionary companies… Ha! This is San Francisco ― we don’t do that here. Instead, the purpose of this Orwellian office is to obstruct new ideas:

The new office will impose penalties on companies that fail to request permission for new technologies and devices which could block the public right of way.

Administrative fines could be up to $1,000 per day, criminal fines up to $100 per day for the first violation, and civil penalties up to $500 per day.

https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/san-franciscos-office-of-emerging-technology-gets-the-green-light--4866

I’ve seen many people proclaim that America is a failed state. Clearly, this isn’t true: the lights are still on, plumbing still works, the justice system adjudicates ― generally things are OK. But we are declining. America suffers from rampant cost disease (building a subway in America is 100x the cost 100 years ago, accounting for inflation), inefficient and stubborn bureaucracies, an ever-growing appetite for forever-wars, stagnant public schools, worsening racial wealth and opportunity disparities, crumbling infrastructure, and cities that depress GDP by trillions.

Inclusive economic and political institutions do not emerge by themselves. They are often the outcome of significant conflict between elites resisting economic growth and political change and those wishing to limit the economic and political power of existing elites.

― Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail

Over time, societies tend toward decadence and complacency. It is only through dedicated work that they persist and thrive. We need builders now, more than ever.

So let’s fix it

If you want to build a better future, then we all have to do the boring work of making that future legal again. This means reforming laws, yes, but it also means building political power and winning elections.

Reform our laws

As a starting point, here are some reforms America needs to make to enable builders and entrepreneurs, and to shepherd us through the coming economic crisis. You’ll notice this is a mix of policies from all over the ideological spectrum. I like to call it progressive capitalism, but neoliberalism is the movement that most fully embraces these ideas.

Legalize productivity

End occupational licensing and all regulations that prevent people from running small businesses out of their homes. You shouldn’t need the government’s permission to braid hair.

Legalize housing, creative office & retail use, and manufacturing everywhere. We should liberalize land use by adopting a Japanese-style zoning code administered at the state or national level. End restrictive commercial land restrictions that hurt new restaurants and business models. This will unlock opportunity for millions of people, paving a path to the middle class.

End the tyranny of the locality by removing veto points in the public process. It shouldn’t take twenty years to break ground on high speed rail, and another twenty (or longer) to finish it, all while being the most expensive high speed rail, per mile, in the entire world (or second-most depending on how things shake out vs the UK’s HS2).

Reform FDA and similar organizations to be permissive by default, rather than requiring perfection to experiment and iterate.

Incentivize productive use of scarce land in cities by instituting land-value taxes. Paired with zoning reform this will minimize rents captured by idle landowners.

Build robust social programs

We need a robust social safety net, including separating health insurance from employment. We can de-risk entrepreneurship and lift people out of poverty by ensuring that no one will go hungry, be forced into homelessness, or be bankrupted by medical issues.

We ought to subsidize vocational training and apprenticeship programs to rebuild American manufacturing capacity and to ensure that a path to a good job doesn’t require four years of university. This system works extremely well in Germany.

And I can’t believe I have to say this, but: school lunch should be free. Come on, America. Get it together.

Invest

We need a new housing boom to solve our crippling shortage of homes. A generation-defining economic collapse is a pretty good time to invest in housing construction. We need to train construction workers, finance private and public housing, build everything from shining new towers to low-slung townhouses. The private market can build if it has access to low interest capital, and the government ought to subsidize production of housing for the middle-class and below.

Invest in fundamental research. We still fund research, but not nearly at the levels we ought to. America’s biggest technological inventions were all supported, in part, by government research grants. Let’s learn from our successes and repeat them.

End subsidies for cars and shift them to transit. We’ve built a national infrastructure that causes social isolation and massive CO2 emissions. Let’s undo these mistakes by shifting all car subsidies to transit. End municipal monopolies on transit agencies ― if a private company can serve people better than the government then we should let them. We ought to prioritize the buildout of a carbon-free transit system.

Invest in new technologies like carbon capture, low-carbon energy, and synthetic materials. Provide grants and investments from the federal government in exchange for an equity stake. Align the incentives of government with industry.

Process Reform

Abolish the US civil service pay scale that discourages high talent individuals from joining the public workforce by dramatically underpaying. A new grad is paid more at Facebook than a someone with twenty years of experience in SF government. A San Francisco Supervisor, who controls an $11B budget, is barely paid enough to afford a 1 bedroom apartment. Compare that to Williams-Sonoma, whose yearly revenue is a comparatively measly $5.6B, yet their executives are paid millions. The stipend for serving on the San Francisco Planning Commission works out to less than minimum wage. It’s no wonder our best minds go into private industry and our institutions are captured by the landed gentry. Furthermore, this system makes it nearly impossible to be fired for poor performance and disincentivizes efficient work.

Fundamentally reform the RFP system for government contracts. Our current system results in staggering levels of waste and corruption for middling results.

Replace the green card lottery and employer sponsorship system with automatic green cards for anyone who wants to come to America, with no country-specific limits. Grant citizenship in a year. America ought to be a place where immigrants build a life, not where we kick them out after they get a degree.

Generally move regulatory & permitting bodies up to higher levels of government. You can’t expect a small city to have the necessary skill or knowledge to effectively regulate every industry. Part of the reason Japanese zoning is so good is that the best minds in urban planning join a national-level agency to build a general plan rather than devolve responsibility to municipalities.

Abolish ICE.

Build power

It’s not enough to want reform, or even to succeed at changing the rules. We have to have a plan to implement change and a credible path to building political power. This means building a voting bloc that will back these reforms, funding candidates who embrace them, and putting in the work to help them win their campaigns.

It is far easier for would-be reformers to change the formal structure of an institution than to change its practices. Redesigning the lines and boxes in an organizational chart is simpler than changing how that organization, in fact, operates. Changing the rules and regulations is simpler than eliciting behavior that conforms to them.

― James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

If you take just one thing from this post, make it this: The only thing that matters to your average politician is how many votes they can win. If you can move enough votes to get them elected, then they start listening to you. This is the secret that entrenched interests don’t want the tech industry to know.

Political power for change is only wielded by people who can move votes. Be that through celebrity, niche interest groups, popular movements, or social networks. It’s a lie that money buys political power ― just look at Tom Steyer or Mike Bloomberg. Money is only important in that it helps grow a network, or funds outreach and services.

If you want to build something to fix politics, start with this question: how do I get people to vote for the person I prefer? 9 times out of 10 the answer to that is “volunteer for a local candidate and bring your friends.”

Don’t wait for the perfect candidate to help. Find someone close to what you want and then move them in your direction by showing up to help them. Good volunteers are in incredibly short supply, so you will gain an outsize influence by just being reliable. Yes, this means giving up your weekends for a few months during campaign season, but the ROI is the power to change your community for the better.

The power for fundamental reform must be created at the local level first. Not only because of the practical considerations (you can easily influence a local candidate), but because new candidates don’t have access to existing power structures and won’t be incentivized to perpetuate them. As local candidates grow, they run for higher office and your influence rises with them as long as you help grow their constituency.

Yes, this might take 10 to 15 years to reach the level of federal change, but you can flip your city council in just one election.

How do we get there from here?

Volunteer or Invest

Find out what elections are coming up in your city. Email all the candidates ― I guarantee they will respond (and if they don’t, then they’re probably going to lose). Ask them where they stand on a few of your most important issues and then show up to a volunteer day to help the one that most closely aligns with you. You should be looking for the least-bad option that you can pull your direction, not for perfection.

Give money to good candidates in your city and in important local races across the country. My friend Tom Fish started Liberal Tomorrow to highlight great candidates at the local level across the US, and I’ve recently joined on to help. Check out our recommended candidates. If you know other great candidates, then please send them our way!

Give money to organizations doing the hard work of moving votes and running people for office. I’m on the Board of Directors of YIMBY Action, and I recently ran for office, so I’m biased… but if you believe in abundant housing and dense, diverse, and dynamic cities then join YIMBY.

I also do local organizing with The Neoliberal Project in San Francisco. We have a broader ideological vision than YIMBY (all neoliberals are YIMBYs, but not all YIMBYs are neoliberals), and are spinning up local chapters nationwide. Join The Neoliberal Project if you consider yourself pro-immigration, pro-free-trade, pro-markets, or support a robust social safety net, carbon taxes, and pragmatism over populism.

Build

I believe in labor specialization. If you’re good at building then you should build.

I’m unusual. I’m both a software engineer and in politics. I spend my days writing code and my evenings organizing people. These days I almost never write code for politics, but it took me a long time to learn why it’s almost always a bad idea.

If you’re like me, your first instinct will be to write an app to connect electeds with regular people, or to help neighbors talk to each other, or to publish petitions. But I want you to take this to heart: a lack of communication is not the problem.

San Francisco has the most communication between the electorate and government officials of any city in the nation, and yet we have the worst governmental outcomes. The truth is that your average person who wants a better functioning city can’t afford to spend time lobbying their government ― they need to work. More points of contact just leads to more processes that get captured by people living off of the rents of others. We should vote and let our representatives work. That’s the only equitable path.

Don’t write a single line of code until you talk to your local activists, your local politicians, or your local policy makers. This world of organizing people, of shifting public opinion, of on-the-ground political battles is wildly different from anything you’ve seen before. You can be super valuable if you listen to their problems and figure out a few small ways to increase the efficacy of a candidate or flip 100 votes.

If you still think you have a really great idea to fix politics, I am happy to give you 30 minutes to chat: book a time slot. I’ve been immersed in both the tech world and the political world for years, so I can help you avoid some common mistakes.

Do Something

Most importantly, just do something. The future is not built by people who just critique ― it’s built by people who act.

Thanks to Hussain, Ira, Mike, Jordon, Sabeek, Dan, Matt, Jeremy, Morgan, Laura, Hilary, and Yonathan for their edits and advice.

YIMBY Neoliberal lead, YIMBY Action Board Member, Software Engineer, A little too obsessed with land use policy