In which I review Matt Yglesias’ The Rent is Too Damn High

I caved last week and downloaded a Kindle App for my iPhone. It kind of killed me. I really love books–the bound, paper kind. I’ve been fighting the Kindle/iPad/tablet/Nook/e-reader thing for years now, and imagined I could still hold out for several more years. At least one publisher probably figured out that the best way to get me (and other holdouts like me) to convert was to offer certain desirable pieces solely on e-readers. I may be one of the few they got with this book, but surely there are others coming this way.

Matt Yglesias was a fellow at Think Progress and now writes a blog about economics for Slate. He’s thoughtful, smart, and perhaps even more important, concise. I’d followed him on twitter and through his various blog posts for awhile. When he released this e-book–too long for a magazine piece (still my favorite form of journalism) and too short to really be a book, book–called The Rent is Too Damn High, I felt like I had to read it.

I read the book (ebook, Kindle, whatever it is) in about an hour an a half when I arrived at a friend’s condo on Friday evening. I spent the entire next day talking about it and subsequently lent it to my ski buddy, who also devoured it in an evening. The skiing was terrible, might as well talk about economics, right?

Matt’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward. He argues that much of our housing and societal woes could be addressed–partly, certainly not entirely–by relaxing restrictions on building height and density and reducing implicit and explicit subsidies for single-family homes in the far-flung suburbs.

It’s a very convincing argument. Letting more people live in desirable places means more efficient transportation and other public services, reducing long average commute times, increasing the number of people walking and taking public transportation, increasing availability and variety of service providers, and more. Most importantly, perhaps, increasing density would reduce upward pressure on housing prices, which pushes people out of their homes, reduces variety and profitability of businesses, and likely contributed in some ways to the housing bubble.

At the center of the story is a profound disconnect in the way we think about houses. Hoping that a house will appreciate in value and constitute a sound investment is rather silly. Houses are made of wood and concrete and stone and steel, physical materials that will only degrade with time. The land a house sits on is an investment, and can appreciate based on the values of proximate amenities. But when housing prices increase rapidly, as they did prior to crashing a few years ago, they lose predictive power of the true value of the land and incorporate speculation. That’s how we get a bubble.

What I love about Matt Yglesias is that he is skilled at taking rather complicated topics in economics and making them perfectly accessible. He has a deep understanding of economic theory and relates those ideas in a clear, concise, and readable way. This book is no exception. It’s easy to read and clearly well thought-out.

My only real complaint is that I wanted more. Though there were places I wasn’t sure where he was going, it quickly came back to the point. The repeated discussion of elevators as technology was a bit amusing, but nothing more than a slight distraction. What I would have liked is to have seen additional discussion on the policy problems that additional density would create. No policy, regardless of how enticing it sounds, can change a rather significant trend in demographics without significant adjustment. This doesn’t mean that the costs aren’t worth it, but they are worth enumerating and discussing.

Water, for instance. While it’s cheaper per capita to get water to people who live in denser areas, it also means that pipes need to be replaced more often, and at least one person writing a book tells me NYC’s sewer system is in dire need of repairs. Direct re-use plants, increased sanitation, etc, are all things that belong in this discussion. Higher density housing also necessitates a stronger commitment to building more schools and park and hospitals. The ease of spreading diseases, access to sunlight, etc, etc.

There’s more, surely. In sum, though, read it. It’s quick, straightforward, and you might just learn something.


Is Marriage for White People?

I stopped by the Gettysburg College Library last week to pick up a book I’d asked them to purchase. I have to say, one of my favorite parts of this professor gig is that I can ask the library to buy any book I want. And then, it’s not only there for me to read, but for everyone else, too! I love libraries.

While thumbing through the new arrivals at the library, I spotted Ralph Richard Banks‘ book is Marriage for White People? and immediately thought, well, this is something I have to read. Much of the research I’ve done has underscored how marriage and domestic partnerships have changed significantly over the past few decades, and the issues of race and class are incredibly salient in that transformation.

Unfortunately, the book takes quite awhile to get going. The first several chapters paint the status of black women and men in America in incredibly broad strokes. Banks’ prose is easy and accessible, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about it. The subject matter is interesting, but he spends so much time laying down the framework for what he’s going to do that I’d recommend skipping the first few chapters if you have any familiarity with the subject matter. And by familiarity, I mean you’ve ever had a conversation with someone (white, black, Latino, etc) about a) high rates of incarceration for black males, b) increasing educational attainment of women, and c) how cultural expectations of marrying up make being single and educated difficult.

There are several gems, however, throughout the book. In places, he illuminates surprising and insightful comments from his interviewees. He speaks powerfully to the concept of a “mixed marriage” and how it might be incredibly different than it is often portrayed. Marrying “down” in education, income, or class, but in education particularly, might actually consist of a more difficult-to-navigate marital arrangement because of the difference in cultural values. More than being black or not.

The last few chapters, where Banks explores more in depth the ideas he presents in the first few chapters, are enjoyable, eye-opening, and insightful.

Still, I find Banks’ ultimate conclusions slightly disturbing. At the end of the day, he is a man telling black women that in order to save marriage, they need to marry outside the black community. While it certainly makes sense in the light of his book, I have to believe that a black woman might interpret his recommendations differently.

The weight of the world…

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