Former President Trump has been acquitted in his second impeachment trial and now we are officially out of the Trump era… for now. Congress can now turn its attention to passing another round of covid relief and Democrats are prepared to do this with no Republican votes, if necessary. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine joins the panel for an update on those negotiations, why a bipartisan deal isn’t in the cards and how Democrats are deciding how much money to spend and on what. Then economics and housing reporter Conor Dougherty talks with the panel about the housing crisis in Califorrnia and nationally, and how the pandemic has changed it for the better and for the worse.
Read the full transcript below
Josh Barro: This is Josh Barro and welcome to Left, Right & Center, your civilized yet provocative antidote to the self contained opinion bubbles, the dominant political debate. It's the third week of February and this week, much of the US was under a deep freeze that caused especially disastrous effects in Texas, where widespread failures in electricity generation have put millions of homes into a days-long blackout. People are freezing in the cold, pipes are bursting, many people are without water in addition to being without power, and the state is essentially waiting for temperatures to go back up so the power can come back on. I'm going to level with you: like you, I am not an expert on the electrical grid. This crisis is going to have enormous lessons about disaster resiliency, many of them quite technical lessons. And we want to address those in the correct manner on this show. And so next week, as the situation in Texas continues to develop, we're gonna be joined here by a subject matter expert who can walk us through what went wrong, and what we can learn about how to prevent it from happening again. But I want to start this week with a news event that happened just before the start of the week. The Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial. Fifty seven senators voted to convict, including seven Republicans, but that did not meet the two thirds threshold. And on Saturday, there was this kind of odd episode where senators voted to call witnesses and then a few hours later, it was decided that there wouldn't be witnesses after all: they would take one written witness statement, and end the trial that day, instead of taking the step that could have caused it to persist for weeks. With the trial over, the Senate is now free to focus on putting together the next round of COVID relief which Democrats are moving toward passing through the budget process, which will allow them to do so, if necessary, with no Republican votes. Now, I want to bring in our Left, Right & Center panel as always, I'm your center and I'm joined by Helen Andrews, senior editor at the American Conservative on the right. Hello, Helen.
Helen Andrews: Hello, Josh.
Josh Barro: And on the left, David Dayen is executive editor at The American Prospect. Hi, David.
David Dayen: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Josh Barro: And we have a very opportune special guest today. Senator Angus King is an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. He has served in the senate since 2012. And prior to that for eight years, starting in 1995, he was the governor of Maine, also elected as an independent candidate. Senator King, thank you very much for joining us today.
Sen. Angus King: Josh, it's great to be with you. Looking forward to the conversation.
Josh Barro: So can you explain what happened there with the witnesses on Saturday?
Sen. Angus King: Yeah, I think so. First, it was a surprise that when the house impeachment manager Jamie Raskin got up and said we want to call one witness for one hour with a zoom. It was a surprise. We had had a caucus call with the Democratic Caucus about an hour before and Chuck Schumer said basically that the witnesses question is going to be up to the manager. So there it really wasn't coordinated in that sense. It's been characterized as a Democratic retreat. I don't think so at all. And frankly, if it had gone to witness calling and lawsuits — you mentioned weeks, I think it could have been months. In fact, somebody told me that the lawsuit to compel Don McGahn to come to testify, you know, a year and a half ago is still going on. So frankly, I think the Democratic managers got what they want. They got it that they got that statement into the record, about McCarthy's call with the President and we ended up moving forward. I don't think further proceedings with witnesses would have changed any votes to be honest with you.
Josh Barro: So with the trial behind us, presumably that means that the full focus right now in the Congress is on this COVID relief package. I'm wondering what your view is, as a relatively moderate member of the Senate on the role of moderates in shaping this package, because we saw that the last round back when the President was Republican, you had this bipartisan gang of moderate senators who played a significant role in shaping what was in that package. It looks like the offer from a group of 10 Republicans was just so far from what President Biden proposed that there's not really going to be a bipartisan negotiation here. So what is the role for members like you in shaping that package when it's going to be basically a Democratic package?
Sen. Angus King: Well, I think there will be a role in particular issues as part of the package that Republicans can play if they want. I mean, they're gonna have to decide whether they want to have some voice in this. And I think they're going to have an opportunity to do so. And then the question will be okay, let's say there's some bipartisan amendments to the package. Will the Republicans or any of them vote for the package as a whole, when it comes to the floor? The conventional wisdom is that they won't, but I said to a friend the other day, I don't know if you have a bill on the floor that's going to send $1400 to virtually every American and extend unemployment benefits and provide money for vaccines, I think that's going to be hard to vote against to go home and say, Well, I didn't like the extension of the child tax credit. I'm not so sure the Republicans won't vote for it in the end, but I'm a perennial optimist so that's possible. The other answer your question is, every member of the Democratic caucus has total leverage. You got to have every single vote. Chuck Schumer has zero margin for error. So if one member says, I ain't going for this, unless XYZ is fixed, that's got to be considered. So I think there will be considerable negotiation, for example, on how to target the $1400. And, and then that's an example of how the unemployment benefits work, how the state and local funds work, because the Biden package has a huge amount of money in it, how that's going to be allocated to the states, is it going to be based on actual revenue losses, that kind of thing. So there's plenty of room left for negotiation.
Josh Barro: David, I know you had a question.
David Dayen: Yeah. Senator King, thanks for being here. You know, one of the flash points, or one of the things that are a bit unsettled is the future of the minimum wage increase in the bill. Do you support that being part of this package? And if it's not, because of procedural reasons, because of the way in which Democrats are passing this bill, would you support putting that on the floor anyway for a vote?
Sen. Angus King: Yeah, I think it ought to go to the floor. I don't think, as even President Biden has acknowledged, it's not likely that it will fit within this reconciliation package. Reconciliation is an incredibly arcane, very specialized procedure that allows a bill to pass with a simple majority but it has to involve directly budget items. And the simple way to think of it is you can't legislate in a reconciliation package. You can do things like taxes and budgets and spending. But to do something like the minimum wage will probably be ruled out of order. Now, Bernie Sanders will probably bring a motion to overrule the chair on that question. But my view is that it ought to come to the floor separately, that we ought to try to work it through the normal legislative process.
David Dayen: Do you support it at that $15 an hour level by 2025 with a phase-in?
Sen. Angus King: Yeah, I think I think you've added an important phrase, and that is by 2025. I think a phase in is important, it would be a huge shock to a lot of small businesses, particularly in rural areas. Wages in Montana and rural Maine and Vermont and rural Oklahoma are a lot different than they are in Hoboken or Los Angeles. So I think a phase-in is important.
Josh Barro: Helen, what do you make of this effort to do the minimum wage increase, either as part of this package or separately? If it comes to the Senate floor separately, it's going to require at least 10 Republican votes. And there's been significant Republican opposition to that. But the minimum wage increases poll very positively on a national level, much like a lot of what's in this in the relief package polls very positively. You see more than two to one support for another round of these $1400 checks. So is there going to be pressure for Republicans in the senate to get on board with some of these Democratic priorities? Or are they in a position where they can just say no to these things?
Helen Andrews: I think they will be able to say no to these things, because even though the minimum wage might poll very well nationally, I think trying to sandwich it in with the COVID relief bill is going to look like overreach. And the more things like that the Democrats try to put into this bill, the more overreach voters are going to perceive. I think this bill has been an inauspicious beginning to Biden's first term because despite everything we heard from the Biden White House about wanting bipartisanship, I think if you take one meeting with 10 Republican senators, and then reject their opening bid, and say after one meeting, you're giving up on bipartisanship, I think that looks like they prefer to pass this bill without any Republican votes. But I think if that happens, voters are going to see that it's going to come back to bite them, especially when they try and get more bills passed during this first year.
Josh Barro: Senator King, what do you say to that? You've been a veteran of a lot of these bipartisan negotiations. And I know that your view is that the $600 billion proposal that came from some of these Republicans was much too small. But you've also said this isn't Monopoly money. You've expressed concerns about some of the spending in here. Was there more opportunity for some sort of bipartisan agreement here?
Sen. Angus King: Well, here's the problem. If you're going to want to sell your car and you put it on the market and say I want like $19,000 for my car, and a guy comes and says I'll give you $6,000, that negotiation isn't going to go anywhere. You're going to say, you know, I'm going to wait and see it when somebody makes me a serious offer. And that's exactly what happened in this case. Biden's opening bid was 1.9 [trillion] and he got a 600 [billion] offer and ... the gap was too big, I guess. Now, having said that, as I mentioned before, there's lots of room for bipartisan negotiation on issues that are of concern to the Republicans: how to allocate money to states and localities? What should be the targeting of the $1400? ...There are plenty of areas where there can and should be bipartisan discussion. So the fact that there's not bipartisan discussion on an overall bill doesn't mean that there isn't room for compromise and negotiation on the various segments of the bill. And it could be that we end up with less money than 1.9 [trillion]. Another possibility that's being discussed is to allocate 1.9, but in a way that if the economy rebounds in a positive way, and those expenditures are not necessary, they wouldn't occur. In other words, for example, extended unemployment benefits, but might be limited to when unemployment goes below a certain level in a state, those extended benefits and the boost of benefits would drop. So that would be money not spent. Do you see what I mean? It could, it could do a $1.9 trillion bill but the actual expenditures could be somewhat less if the need isn't there.
Josh Barro: Let's take a break. I will be back with Helen Andrews of The American Conservative David David of The American Prospect and Senator Angus King from Maine to talk more about COVID relief. You're listening to Left, Right & Center.
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Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center. I'm Josh Barro. On the right is Helen Andrews, senior editor at The American Conservative on the left is David Dayen, executive editor at The American Prospect and our special guest today is Senator Angus King, an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. Senator King, I want to ask you about the state and local aid provision in President Biden's proposal for this COVID relief package. $350 billion. It's starting to look like that might be an excessive number. As we're seeing state and local governments continuing to report improvement in their tax collections, there's been way less of a fall off in revenue to governments than people feared there might be about a year ago. And it's important to note this $350 billion, it's designed to basically plug those holes from lost revenue. It would be on top of other extensive aid to governments. There's money in here for public hospitals, for education, for public health, a variety of things that are done by state local governments, that's money that would go to them on top of this aid. Is it possible that this $350 billion number is too much? And especially as you described that we could have a relief package that would that would flex depending on future conditions, if the economy improves faster, then maybe some of the money doesn't need to be spent — is it possible, especially if the economic situation continues to improve fairly rapidly, should state and localities maybe get less than the $350 billion?
Sen. Angus King: Yes, and I've been one of the staunchest advocates for state and local aid, having been a former governor, and you know, states can't print money. They've got to balance their budget on an annual basis, they either have to raise taxes or cut expenditures. There have already been something over a million layoffs in state and local government. And by the way, we don't want to ignore the localities, they've really been hit hard as well. But my view is, the money should be allocated based on need: on demonstrated either additional COVID related expenditures or losses due to the impact on the economy. In other words, show me the receipts. And I think that's important. There also have to be some maintenance-of-effort language. I think it would be ill advised for the federal government to allocate a lot of money to a state and then have them turn around and lower their state taxes and essentially substitute the federal money for local money. So there are plenty of ways to tailor that local expenditure. The overall number of $350 [billion] is high, based upon what I've seen, but again, it depends on how it's used. For example, maybe we could allocate a significant chunk of that money for broadband expansion in the states, which is an enormous need that's been identified by the pandemic, and that would be an effective downpayment on an infrastructure bill. So as you can tell, there are a lot of things moving around here and a lot of ideas. And I can tell you, there are a lot of good people that are trying to find the right answers.
Josh Barro: David, what do you make of that?
David Dayen: I mean, I think what Senator King said there is is pretty important. Even though what we're looking at in state and local government in terms of the last revenue, the one figure I've seen is around 1.6-1.7%. But the actual job loss is about four times that. It's actually 1.3 million lost jobs and that's about 7% of the overall state and local workforce. And so I know a lot of that is due to social distancing and if you're not taking kids to school, you don't have bus drivers working and things like that. But a lot of those cuts are permanent. And they were based on the anticipation of greater losses. And we haven't seen a year later those jobs come back. So that I think argues for erring on the side of being more robust with this support. And, you know, I certainly think that this should not go into tax cuts or things like that so a maintenance-of-effort idea sounds pretty good. But also so does the infrastructure idea. I'll give you another example, which is schools. You know, there was a report, the CDC put out guidelines for how schools can get back to being reopened. And there was one report that said that, based on these guidelines, 90% of schools — up to 90% — wouldn't be able to go back to full in-person instruction. Well, another way of saying that is that 90% of schools are so dilapidated and underfunded, that they can't institute basic health and safety measures that every consumer business is trying to institute right now.
Josh Barro: Helen, it feels like this should be a possible area for bipartisan agreement. In fact, it has been in some of these prior rounds. You have Republicans talking about the importance of reopening schools as quickly as possible. It feels like there should be an opportunity here for some sort of agreement around money for some of these things that David is describing, to improve ventilation and other things in schools that would produce ongoing benefits, tying that to school districts, actually getting students back into those schools. But for whatever reason, it doesn't feel like we've gotten a bipartisan agreement on that.
Helen Andrews: That's absolutely right, and the $130 billion for schools that's in this current package is actually I think the last place we can expect to see any kind of bipartisan agreement for the simple reason that schools don't need revamped ventilation systems in order to reopen. Schools can reopen safely right now. And the only reason that they haven't yet is because of the intransigence of the teachers unions. And I think a lot of the suburban voters who went over to Biden in the presidential election are starting already, this early into his term, to get a little bit annoyed with the teachers unions and their really ambitious attempt to hold schools hostage, even now that we're reaching the end of the pandemic. So I think if they are successful in holding the COVID relief bill hostage and saying we won't reopen schools unless you give us a big pot of money, that's going to make the teachers unions look bad and more importantly, that's going to make the Biden White House look bad.
Josh Barro: Senator, before you go, I want to ask you about cybersecurity. Last week on the show, we had Nicole Perlroth in the New York Times to talk about the aftermath of the Solarwinds hack, very likely backed by Russia, which breached a wide variety of government and corporate computer systems in the United States. You're the co author of a report from a bipartisan commission in the Congress with recommendations to President Biden on how to fight attacks like this and one thing you told The Washington Post was that we need to make people in places like the Kremlin be afraid of what's going to happen to them if they attack the US in this manner, how we might retaliate. Hasn't that long been the cornerstone of our cybersecurity strategy? Sort of offense as defense, having the best capabilities in the world on offense and and having other other countries know that we can do we can put them in a world of hurt if they do these things to us and and yet, here we are the victim of these attacks, we have this very concerning attempted attack on a water system in Florida that wasn't successful. But hackers managed to get in and try to put large amounts of lye in the in the drinking water. So was it is is deterrence an effective strategy here? And what else do we need to do in order to protect our computer systems in the US from these attackers anywhere in the world?
Sen. Angus King: I take issue with the statement that that's been our policy because it hasn't. The major problem with our cyber defense is a lack of a deterrent capability. We did more in 2018, than we'd ever done before and I think that had some effect on lowering the amount of particularly Russian involvement in the election of 2020. But by and large, we have not had much of a deterrent. If you think back over to the major over the major hacks, whether it's OPM from China, Sony Pictures from North Korea, the 2016 elections from Russia, Solarwinds, there's been very little in the way of response. We're trying to patch our way out of this and resilience is critically important and simple things like cyber hygiene, and, you know, multifactor authentication, and all those kinds of authentication are all those important. But we haven't had a clear deterrent, declaratory deterrent policy that if you strike us you will pay a price. It may not be in cyber, it may be in sanctions, it may be in something else, there's a second aspect that's really important that's been underutilized and that is the international aspect. Sanctions are infinitely more effective if they're worldwide. I want a hacker in Belarus to not be able to go to Monte Carlo as well as Miami. And if if we can have more in the way of international norms and standards, a kind of international Geneva Convention of cyber, where we have enforcement worldwide, and also, as I say, a clear policy that I want somebody sitting at the table at the Kremlin, saying, 'boss, I don't know if this is such a good idea, because you know, they're going to whack us if we do this.' And right now, and I've been working on this for almost nine years, we don't have that. And so I think that's a critically important part of the development of a comprehensive cyber strategy to protect our country. The most serious external threat we face right now is cyber.
Josh Barro: Angus King is an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, Senator King, thank you very much for your time.
Sen. Angus King: Hey, great to be with you guys. Anytime.
Josh Barro: I will be back with Helen Andrews of the American Conservative and David Dayen and The American Prospect to talk about the crisis in American housing with Con or Doherty, economics correspondent for The New York Times. This is Left, Right & Center.
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Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center. I'm your host Josh Barro. On the right is Helen Andrews, senior editor at The American Conservative. On the left is David Dayen, executive editor at The American prospect. And we're going to be joined now by Conor Doherty, who is an economics reporter at the New York Times. He's the author of the book Golden Gates, which is about the housing crisis in California and much of the United States. We had Conor on this show last March, shortly after the hardcover edition of this book was released. And you could look at that as either opportune or inopportune timing, putting out a book about the housing crisis in the US because obviously, that was the start of the acute phase of the COVID pandemic. And we have seen how the pandemic has interacted with housing problems. It's created particular problems for the homeless, we've been telling people to stay home when so many people don't have homes. We've seen extensive virus spread in overcrowded households in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, where many people cannot afford to have enough space to spread out within their own household. And we've also seen big shifts in housing patterns: people moving out of cities like San Francisco into suburban areas, in some cases to other parts of the country. And that's brought big changes in housing prices and housing demand that has either alleviated or exacerbated the cost crunches that we've been seeing. And so Conor, first of all, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.
Conor Dougherty: Thank you for having me. It's kind of a walk down memory lane. Being on that show that was the moment when I was like, wow, this is really real.
Josh Barro: So what have you learned over the last year, you know, as you've been trying to flog your book on housing? How has the pandemic changed the nature of the housing crisis, what we are learning about what we need to do about it, and what there is or isn't political willingness to do in the United States?
Conor Dougherty: Yeah, well, I think it's interesting. I was, as you say, flogging my book and I got pulled off a book tour, because all the bookstores shut down. And I kind of just forgot about the book for a few months, and just kind of like dove into journalism and felt like I need to figure out what's changing and how it's changing and I didn't feel like I needed to sort of get a sense of how the situation needed to be updated. And I think you kind of hit on it. Like, I think that the housing crisis has just been exacerbated by the thing. One of the first stories I did in post COVID was about how overcrowded housing was a vector for the disease that was much more serious than, say, dense housing. And at the time, you know, you would see a lot of fights over development. And people would say, Oh, do you want to build an apartment building here, because that's going to only, it's going to be more crowded, more people per acre, that'll be a huge problem. And at the time, if you recall, New York was considered the epicenter. So there was a certain logic to that. But we've subsequently learned as you point out that LA, which people think of even though it is more dense than people think of more sprawl place that because it is more crowded housing, it's turned out to have a much more severe infection rates than even New York in the beginning. So I think we've learned that everything we thought was bad about housing last year is just worse. And on top of that, I think, you know, there is obviously a tremendous economic layer to this, which is that most of the jobs that have been most severely affected had been in this lower wage service sector. And those are the jobs when we talk about, you know, fears of eviction, or fears of accumulating rent debt, we're really talking about for the most part, those people, people in those hourly professions that can be, you know, kind of turned off and on in an instance, and whose wages do not cover rents in most cities. So I think we still have a huge housing problem. And to some extent, it's not surprising. I mean, there was a brief moment when this happened and I had, you know, my own very selfish existential crisis, where I was like, is, is everything I wrote, like, totally wrong now? And I just kind of thought to myself, that can't be true because if you really believe it's a wage problem as structural the economy problem and a housing shortage, what would change? It would only get worse and that seems to have been what happened.
Josh Barro: David, what do you make looking at this from Southern California? Ezra Klein had this column for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that got a lot of attention basically about you know, if progressives have such a good vision of governance, why is California misgoverned in certain key ways with a particular focus on housing — that the state has not produced enough housing to keep up with demand that's made the place increasingly unaffordable. One effect of that that we have seen during the COVID pandemic is this, you know, as Conor describes, the issue is not how many people live on an acre. The issue is how many people live in a bedroom. And when you have these overcrowded households because all they can afford is a household where there is not a space within the dwelling for people to have separate space to themselves, then it becomes impossible to stop the spread of COVID within households. We've seen it's just another reflection of how the housing market in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area is not working for people, especially with lower incomes. Why is the state not able to produce enough housing for everyone?
David Dayen: Well, I mean, I think broadly, when we think about this, we have to think about how housing reflects gulfs in society. I mean, there are some pretty amazing statistics that came out over the last week: record mortgage sales in the last quarter of 2020 at the level of the housing bubble. It was the highest set of mortgage sales since 2006. And at the same time, you have massive rental debt, evictions, this terrible precarity at the low end. And, you know, so what the crisis on housing is, is pretty much a direct reflection of the crisis of inequality, which is very acute in California, and of course, across the country. Now, as far as California's options, I do think it's pretty interesting when you have companies like Salesforce, saying that the nine to five workday is over, when you have all of these firms saying that working from home is going to be a reality for the long term. and what that has done in terms of changing the mix of population. At one point, rental rates in San Francisco were down 20 to 30%. I don't think that's a long term solution, obviously, but it does show that there's a changing mix in terms of demand that actually gives an opportunity, perhaps, for supply to begin to catch up. But we obviously have to build more housing in California. There have been attempts to do that legislatively that have faltered and certainly there's a growing movement that is pushing back against sort of the traditional structures that prevent housing from being built. I also think that, you know, I see it in my area, I see duplexes and multifamily units torn down to build McMansions, so at that sort of other end of the scale that's something that needs to be addressed. So, you know, I think you can't really disassociate this issue from what's going on in broader society and in terms of economic inequality. ...I did respond to Ezra's piece, and we had a little back and forth exchange about it, and I think that it's hard to disassociate what's going on in California, on housing, and really on everything without talking about the very peculiar in particular structures of government within the state. I mean, Prop 13 was this massive experiment in subsidizing suburban sprawl, essentially...
Josh Barro: This is the California law that limits property taxes pretty pretty tightly.
David Dayen: That's correct. And it's hard to sort of break out of that, because there are all these ways that direct democracy and our I would call failed experiment with direct democracy in California intersects with the ability to do good policy at the legislative level. So, you know, the structure of California government, I think, doesn't get enough attention in how it pushes against the need for better solutions.
Josh Barro: Conor, what do you make of the idea that a trend toward work from home could permanently change what our housing needs are? Now, as David describes, I could imagine a situation, for example, where a lot more companies are allowing people to work from home full time in the tech industry. That means less demand for housing in the Bay Area, people move more throughout the country, and so maybe our supply of housing lines up better with demand. But I can also imagine other things. I mean, my understanding is that, you know, the significant, the significant out-migration from the city of San Francisco, the primary destination for that has been suburban counties around San Francisco. So you might have a little bit of the easing of the housing crisis within the city. But that can actually make it worse in the suburbs. I could also imagine especially upper income households, where people are going to be working from home more, they might decide that they need a dedicated home office. And so people who might previously have bought a two bedroom home decide they need a three bedroom home —that could actually increase the strain on the existing housing supply. As you know, as the reduction in demand for commercial real estate is offset by even more demand for housing. If people need more house per person, that means there's even more of a housing shortage. So what do you see is how that is affecting the situation in California? Does that make things easier? Does it maybe even make them harder?
Conor Dougherty: This is a great question and it comes up every time I talk to people. So I think let's just remember for a moment what kind of an economy we have. And just think about that first. So we have an economy that over the past 40 years has been documented by everybody — on the left and the right, and they have differing opinions about it, but the fundamental shift nobody disagrees with is — that our economy has become more intellectual. We do more work with our brains, and finance and tech are sort of two things that are exemplified by this, and people in those professions have higher incomes and greater productivity and greater mobility. And then we have this sort of vast service class that has basically replaced manufacturing, and so the middle has been hollowed. And what I think is unique about that, and what makes this structure so difficult in cities, is that these two groups of highly unequal wages have to live next to each other. The service class in cities is essentially defined as all the work you can't automate: all the work that has to be done in person. And, you know, so in San Francisco or LA or any of these places, you go to any commercial sector and you'll see a bunch of people going into office buildings, and then you'll see them going out to get their lunches. And then wherever their homes are, you'll see a bunch of people working in the neighborhood while they're not there. And that's what our economy looks like. And that's why our housing problem is so difficult because these people who are bound by their proximity have to live in the same housing market, basically. And we do not have enough housing and do not have enough ways to subsidize housing to make this work. That same thing is true everywhere, pretty much, in America. To the extent that people are leaving San Francisco, they're going to places like Boise, Idaho, to Phoenix to Austin, to Seattle. All of those places have major housing problems. Boise housing prices are up 20% over the past year. If you go to Boise right now and you drive along the freeway, you will see 'go back to California' graffiti on the side of the road. Their last mayoral election, they had a kind of fringe candidate, but he got a lot of attention who proposed higher property taxes specifically for Californians so that they wouldn't come to Boise. And this is to some extent an old phenomenon. I mean, as far back as the 70s, Oregon, there were bumper stickers that said 'do not Californicate Oregon.' So this is an old thing. But what is underlying it is this same basic problem. Sometimes they sort of portray the Salesforce work from home stories as if everyone's going to move off to some like, you know, field in Montana, and we won't have a housing problem anymore. But that's not what's happening. They're going to go to either go to suburbs, which ...is the same housing market, so it's just it doesn't help anything, right? And, and to the extent that they do leave the state, they're going to other metro areas that already have significant housing problems. I mean, again, go go Google 'housing market Denver,' 'housing market Nashville,' 'housing market Minneapolis,' 'housing market Austin.' Same stories. Now, they're not as extreme as the Bay Area, but homelessness and all these sort of attendant problems that accompany rapidly rising housing prices are increasingly visiting those places. One of the things I love about housing, and it's so suited for this show Left, Right & Center, is that there is not a great partisan ideology on housing. You hear Republicans talk so much about California's too regulated and all that. But, you know, when when you start talking to people about deregulating single family housing neighborhoods, it turns out people on the left, and people on the right are very resistant to it for very different reasons, but they end up in the same place. Making housing more plentiful: it has aspects of it that are kind of free market, straight from the right. But then it also changes neighborhoods and makes them more accessible to poor people, which seems like it's from the left.
Josh Barro: Yeah, Helen, what do you make of that? I'm always struck by how there isn't a clear ideological divide on this issue. I think a lot of it is because a lot of people when they're engaging in housing policy, they don't really think that they're doing policy or ideology at all. They're talking about what they want their neighborhood to be like, but in very simple terms, zoning is a regulation. The government comes in and tells people what they can and can't do with their own property. How much building can be on it, what kind of use there can be, how many housing units. Why isn't there more unanimity among conservatives about the idea that a solution to our housing crisis is to deregulate and allow people to do what they want, to do more with the real estate that they own?
Helen Andrews: It's not just libertarians. It's also traditionalists who rather unexpectedly sometimes find themselves on Conor's side of the housing debate. I love what he said about this issue creating unlikely bedfellows because your listeners may not know, but my magazine, The American Conservative, has a long running series on New Urbanism where we have a long standing record of support for more dense housing, more walkable neighborhoods. And that's not just because zoning regulations are regulations, it's also because those communities are more communitarian. So there's a traditionalist angle on this question as well. That being said, as a conservative, I do have to dispute the liberal conventional wisdom that what's wrong with California is an under supply of housing, and I think the next couple of years are going to vindicate the conservative position on that because look at San Francisco. Rents are going down, it's becoming more affordable to get an apartment there. But even if that trend continues, and it becomes a lot more affordable to get housing in the city of San Francisco, that's not gonna fix what's wrong with that city. You're still gonna have a district attorney who won't lock up violent criminals, you're still gonna have an economy that looks more like a Latin American country's economy than an American one with a hollowed out middle class. So it's not all just about housing, but to the extent that it is I think left and right can come together on it.
Josh Barro: But I don't know, Helen, isn't isn't the housing crisis, isn't that a key reason that you have that hollowing out of the middle class that middle income people who have the means to get out and move to Boise and they can afford a big house with a lawn there they leave? I assume a lot of them would stay if the housing was more affordable. I mean, some of it feels like a sort of, you know, ‘it's so crowded, nobody goes there anymore’ argument. If San Francisco was such a hellhole, then why are the home prices so high to begin with? Now, I realize that we've had this drop in the pandemic, but it's not a Bay Area-wide drop. And we're seeing this national phenomenon where, where people are less interested in being in dense cities this year than maybe they were last year, I don't know that that's gonna be a persistent trend. But overall, people want to live in California. That's why it's so expensive to live in California.
Helen Andrews: I agree with that but I disagree with the claim that housing is what's responsible for the more Latin American shape of you know, your Gini Coefficient in the state of California. I think it has more to do with exactly what Conor talked about: the shift of our economy towards a knowledge-based economy, and things like that. So, I mean, we'll see who's right. You know, I think that it's still too soon to tell how the COVID pandemic will affect housing in the long term. I don't know whether or not we'll see a permanent shift to remote work. But I suspect that we kind of will, and that these exploding housing costs in these big urban cities like San Francisco and New York will be alleviated somewhat, and well, we'll see how things look when they do.
Josh Barro: David, I find that people on the left tend to acknowledge that under production of housing is a really significant issue and that we need to build more housing. And then there are perfectly reasonable concerns layered on top of that: that you want to make sure that people are not left behind when you have new new development, you want to discourage displacement and gentrification, people have opinions about what their neighborhood should be like and that's a valid thing to listen to. And then you see some concerns that don't really associate with a particular place on the ideological spectrum but that people all over the spectrum care about. People understandably don't want an intensely increased traffic, if they drive a car, they want to be able to park it. The issue is that when you try to layer on all the things to address these individual concerns, sometimes the process gets so convoluted that it becomes impractical to build and because of the effort to be so consultative, that's one of the drivers of the underproduction of housing. Do you agree with that? And do people on the left need to get comfortable to some extent with the idea that we're going to let the market run a little bit, and not everything that gets built in a neighborhood is going to be exactly what everyone wanted, but that's necessary in order to have that housing production.
David Dayen: I mean, I think progress within neighborhoods is always going to bring up tensions. I do think we have to pay attention in a big way to equity. I think that the drive to turn housing, which many on the left see as a basic human right into a commodity is driving some of these tensions. If housing didn't need to turn a profit, then the building of housing might be seen as a little bit less impractical. I believe that we need to think really strongly about more social housing, and putting it in environments that aren't just, you know, giant high rises that end up getting neglected but different forms of social housing that are more integrated with neighborhoods that I think would alleviate. I think one of the suspicions that people on the left often have, which is that developers are coming in to gouge residents, displace poor people, and really run away with neighborhoods, I think that we need to think more about if if society believes that housing is essentially a social good and something that everybody ought to have access to, then then we need to look at structures that can de-commoditize that.
Josh Barro: Conor, what do you see in that regard? Is there a way to democratize housing in California that actually leads to housing production? I mean, we have a wide variety of government programs that are aimed in one way or another at generating affordable housing. As we've moved away from doing that in housing projects, and instead folding it into market rate developments or using tax credits to get developers to do that. But my understanding of what's often happened there is the cost per unit ends up being so high that we consistently just have disappointment in terms of how many, you know, it's like, you know, we had this program and it produced 100 units or something, and it doesn't really make a dent in our housing affordability problem. Are you seeing anything in California that can be scaled in that regard?
Conor Dougherty: Short answer, no. Long answer, I think that all these proposals are good. Like, right now there's a whole system, the governor has the thing called Project Homekey where they're buying hotels and converting them to affordable housing. That's a lot faster and cheaper than building. And they've made tremendous progress on that. It's still a tiny amount of progress relative to the scale of the homeless problem, but it's more progress than they've ever made. So that's positive. I think, you know, there are proposals in San Francisco and other places for social housing. And I think that's great, too. I think you can sort of let a thousand flowers bloom on this subject. But what I think is unrealistic to the conversation is this sort of classic thing you see on both the left and the right of like letting perfect be the enemy of good. There are all these people in ...city after city who decry market rate housing, but of course live in a single family home that's gone up a million dollars in value over their lifetime, and they've no plans to give that back, other than a little transfer tax here and there. Right? So when we talk about housing, we talk about the commodification of housing. The way it usually shakes out in a local political conversation is that only new housing is tarred as being either commoditized or for profit or any of these evil terms. But the single family homes, which is a tremendous use of land, that all sorts of people live in, and do not consider themselves profit generating people,...but that's where a lot of the profit is right? So I mean, I guess when we talk about decommodification and all this stuff, I think we have to be a little bit honest about what the terms of it are. And what the terms are, is that single family neighborhoods are still absolutely protected. I mean, in San Francisco, they talk constantly about luxury housing, but luxury housing does not apply to the three quarters of the city that is single family zoning and has the highest home prices, right? So I am open to all these things and I do think we should have more social housing, all these new kinds of models. But I just think that when people talk about these things, they usually find a convenient way to sort of carve their own experience out of it and that's usually the problem. I will also just add that the way we build housing today, in California, we have an effective ban on public housing. A bunch of people are trying to change that so we'll see if that happens. But the way we build housing in America, typically, affordable housing today is this thing called the low income housing tax credit, and without getting into the sort of arcana of tax policy that gets us there, the bottom line is, is that the way you build affordable housing is not in any way really different from the way you build luxury housing. If anything, it's more expensive because of some weird ways in which the financing works. So when we talk about making it possible to zone more units, when we talk about making it easier to build housing, when we talk about how do we get construction times to a year or two years rather than 10 years, all of those same problems apply to the housing that people say they want for affordable and subsidized housing. So finding a way to sort of come up with a kind of unified housing policy that allows all these different models to flourish, I think it will be good for all levels of the housing market. I mean, you go talk to any affordable housing provider and they will tell you that the delays that they sort of encounter, the financing troubles they have, the same exhaustive neighborhood meetings they go through are hampering them just the same way that they hamper you know, some luxury condo or whatever. And it's possible that you could try to come up with policy that treats one different than the other. And they do that in San Francisco, but it hasn't really worked so far.
Josh Barro: Conor Doherty is an economics correspondent for The New York Times and his book is called Golden Gates. Connor, thank you very much for joining us.
Conor Dougherty: Thank you.
Josh Barro: We have reached that time once again for our famed Left, Right & Center rants featuring pet peeves from across the political spectrum. Helen Andrews, what's your rant?
Helen Andrews: On Monday, the New York Times admitted what conservative media already knew: that earlier claims that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was killed by the Capitol rioters were premature. And there is actually no evidence to support earlier reports that he was beaten with a fire extinguisher on January 6. The New York Times called this a correction to their earlier story. Actually, it was more of a retraction or to use a better word a lie.
Josh Barro: David Dayen, it's your soapbox.
David Dayen: Well, big tech firms either concerned about threats to their dominance or just believing that they don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else have gone on an intimidation tour in New York, where Attorney General Letitia James has been investigating Amazon's warehouse conditions during the pandemic. Amazon instead sued James for overstepping her boundaries. In Australia which wants to pass a law requiring Facebook and Google to pay for news content that's shared on their sites. Facebook banned all Australian news sites and not only that, but rendered the pages of civil society groups, unions, NGOs, and even police departments useless. This has become the modus operandi for big tech: pick fights, escalate disputes, operate as if they exist outside the law, but it's not working. James went through with her lawsuit in New York and Australia is moving forward on its link sharing law. Now Germany wants to consider it as well. Governments are actually realizing their responsibility to protect the public from monopoly harms rather than giving way to Silicon Valley because that's how you deal with a bully. You punch them in the nose.
Josh Barro: For my rant, as Texas has been plunged into a deep freeze with horrible effects causing widespread blackouts and losses of water service. It's a disaster for the state. During this context, Senator Ted Cruz flew to Cancun with his family and he was spotted in the airport and on the plane. There were photographs circulating on social media, people were trying to figure out 'is this really Ted Cruz going to Cancun?' He then returned the next day he said he'd been intending to drop off his daughters in Cancun to be a good dad. He later clarified it was not his initial intention to return one day after he went down there with a large suitcase that he was seeing hauling back the following day. And I think you know, one small lesson here is if you're going to lie to your constituents, lie well. That's how you show respect for them. If you tell a really obviously false lie, you're basically telling people that you think they're stupid. So at least you know, Plan A is tell the truth. But if you're not going to tell the truth, at least have the respect for people to tell a lie that somebody might reasonably think was true. That's all we have time for today. I want to thank David Dayen, Helen Andrews, Senator Angus King and Conor Dougherty. Left, Right & Center is produced by Sara Fay. Our technical director is JC Swiatek. Todd M. Simon composed our theme music. I'm Josh Barro. Thank you for joining us and tune in next week for more Left, Right & Center.
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