Welcome back to Sunday reading. By the time you read this, I will be waking up in a tent on the Coromandel, hopefully having had a spectacular walk up to the Pinnacles.
This week, I want to start off with an article that a talented friend of mine, Oliver Chan, wrote on The Spinoff: “Restoring the house that Jack built: how the lessons of the past can help solve the housing crisis“:
The story begins with Jack. During the 1930s generations born during the late-Victorian era, who had started life in urban slums and rural huts for itinerant labourers, embarked a bold rethink of housing. Leading the charge was one of their own, John A. Lee, commonly known during his heyday as ‘Jack’. Born into a Dunedin slum in 1891, the teenage Lee was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to Burnham Industrial School for young offenders. After he successfully escaped, Lee spent years on the run working as a swagman in farms, butcheries and factories – experiences that informed his political outlook: practical, bold and with a lifelong penchant for rebellion. After a year in Mt Eden Prison for bootlegging and theft, and service in World War I in which he lost his left arm, Lee was elected a Labour MP in 1922. Political rival Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage refused to appoint the charismatic, popular radical to cabinet when Labour was elected to government in 1935, instead giving him the minor post of Parliamentary Undersecretary with responsibility for housing. Naturally, the Victorian survivor turned political gadfly had a plan.
Highlighting housing conditions during the Great Depression, Lee used his position to end the hardship endured by slum-dwellers, swagmen and the newly destitute alike. He proposed a large-scale state housing plan beyond what the cautious Savage deemed necessary, but the PM was ultimately convinced. With Government as the procurer of materials and land and Fletcher Construction as the monopoly builder, over 30,000 state houses were built between 1936 and 1949 housing the urban poor, middle class and eventually returning servicemen. Though the rebellious Lee eventually fell foul of Savage and was ultimately expelled from Labour in 1940, he deserves credit for affordable, accessible housing as a human right, with the state serving as a guarantor. The house was built.
New Zealand politicians used to be characters, eh?
British propaganda proclaims fascists will be defeated, as in the past: "We beat 'em before… we'll beat 'em again!" pic.twitter.com/A5n69DDctv
— WW2 Tweets from 1945 (@RealTimeWWII) January 29, 2017
Talking to my forebears about housing reminds me that they didn’t necessarily have it easy – and that BYO (build your own) was a common solution. Perhaps we should do more of this?
Down on the South Island, two Canterbury University students are building their own tiny house to escape damp flats. Cherie Sivignon reports in Stuff:
Fed up with living in a cold, damp, mouldy flat, university students Christoph Riedel and Anna Naygrow have spent their summer holiday building themselves a tiny house.
Tucked away on flat land behind the main building at Menzshed Waimea in Richmond, near Nelson, the couple’s first home is almost ready to be towed 400km to Christchurch for the start of the academic year at the University of Canterbury.
“We’ll live in it this year,” Riedel said.
“It’s a warm place. We’re going to get a fire put in, it’s very well-insulated, everything’s double-glazed, we’ve got lots of light so the idea is just to have a warm place to live and study.”
Speaking of Kiwis doing clever DIY, University of Auckland statistician Thomas Lumley (StatsChat) has set up a Twitter bot entitled @tūreiti (te reo for ‘late’) to report the real-time performance of Auckland’s buses at 15-minute intervals. It’s pretty clever:
At Feb 03 07:57 I can see 775 buses with 63% on time pic.twitter.com/rsficCy9y0
— tūreiti (@tuureiti) February 2, 2017
Lumley explains the Twitter bot here.
And now for some cleverness from the other side of the world. In Politico Magazine, Colin Woodard explains “How Mormon principles and grassroots ideals saved Utah“. It’s a rare happy-ending story in 20th-century land use and transport planning:
Imagine getting 90 municipalities in 10 counties in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions to get on board for a 20-year land use planning effort intended to conserve water use, promote clean air and avoid the destruction of open spaces by slashing housing lot sizes, encouraging higher-density development and imposing new taxes to build a light rail network and commuter rail system from scratch. Imagine that it worked so well the effort expanded statewide.
You might assume it must have started in a liberal bastion like Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont, where people are proud to be tree huggers and planning isn’t a dirty word. But the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history is happening in ultra-conservative Utah, a state with powerful ranching, mining and energy interests and a reflexive distrust of top-down government solutions. And it was led not by state officials, but by a bipartisan alliance of business, industrial, religious, political and civic leaders, working from plans crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of Utah citizens and executed on a completely voluntary basis by their local governments.
“Our purpose is not to lead somewhere, our purpose is to let the public see their choices and let them lead,” Robert Grow, president, CEO and a co-founder of Envision Utah, the public-private partnership that put the planning questions on Utahns’ agenda 20 years ago and helped keep them there ever since. “They are going to chose the future, so we’re empowering them by letting them see what their choices are and helping them implement those choices.”
The results have been impressive: Per capita water use has been cut by more than a quarter and air emissions slashed by nearly half, while 300 square miles of rural and open land have been spared from development. Automobile use has actually dropped slightly in terms of vehicle miles travelled, even as the region’s population has increased by a third, thanks to what is one of the largest transit transit rail systems per capita in the country. Taxpayers have saved billions in avoided infrastructure spending and maintenance and Envision Utah has been feted by city planners across the country as a model for how to do things right.
I highly recommend reading the whole article. It’s interesting to me (in part) because coordination problems between neighbouring councils tend to defeat good planning in many places. It’s too easy to succumb to “beggar thy neighbour” policies or scupper worthy problems due to failure to agree on funding or timing. Salt Lake City’s example shows the value in having a regional public-private forum for discussion.
Also from the US, a cautionary tale of how to get it badly wrong with policies that seemed good at the time. Ana Campoy (Quartz) explains how “the origin of your TV set is a simple lesson in the dangers of ignoring globalization“:
The color-tube TV industry was the US’s to lose, but the US never really owned the flat-screen TV industry. The inventions and discoveries that enabled it originally came from the US. But in those early days, the ultimate application for them, flat-screen TVs, was deemed to be too far off to be worth investing in by US companies, according to Stefanie Lenway, who co-authored a 2003 book examining the demise of the US’s TV industry.
The Japanese, however, had less grandiose aspirations. They started using the new flat screen technology in wristwatches and calculators. By doing so, they got a jumpstart on a technology that eventually transformed the whole TV industry. The change wasn’t solely in the way the final product looked and worked, but also in how it was conceived.
As Lenway and her co-authors argue, the flat-screen display industry thrived on the cooperation of researchers and companies from all over the world. Suppliers on one side of the planet learned from sellers in another, competitors from different countries formed alliances with each other, and bought and sold one another’s products.
Most of the learning took place in Japan, because companies there had been experimenting with the technology for longer. But it wasn’t closed off to companies from other countries. US-based Corning, for example, set up in Japan and participated in the knowledge exchange. Today, it remains a key producer of glass, among the highest-margin TV components.
That’s not the model that other US companies adopted. Together with the government, they tried to reproduce what was going on in Japan on US soil. But they couldn’t catch up because they didn’t have the same expertise. In pursuing a “Make-America-Great-Again”-like strategy, they lost sight of the “humility and openness” of the globally interdependent nature of the business that, according to Lenway and her co-authors’ analysis, were required to succeed.
One by one, American manufacturers pulled out of the business, while more sophisticated manufacturing plants kept popping up in Asia.
Are other incumbent industries likely to be buffeted by global forces like trade and technology? Most likely. David Roberts (Vox) lays out the case that change is coming faster than expected to the oil industry as a result of electric cars:
So EV forecasts range from modest to revolutionary. What should we make of this?
It seems to me that we don’t come to these questions with a clean slate. The very kind of models this study critiques are the ones that have consistently underestimated the growth of solar and wind. They use baseline scenarios that assume no further cost and policy changes when, in reality, cost and policy changes are both rapid and inevitable.
Multiple drivers (pardon the pun) are lining up behind EVs — rapidly falling battery costs, rising range, synergy with other new energy technologies, widespread international policy support, growing consumer interest, and (my pet dark horse) wireless EV charging.
Experience shows that markets at the center of this kind of interest and activity do not continue to grow on a steady, linear path. They take off, lurching into exponential growth. That shift is impossible to predict in advance with any precision, but at this point, we ought to know that it’s coming.
By now, we need not be neutral toward this range of projections. History has taught us that for new, distributed, consumer-focused technologies, unexpected explosive growth is … to be expected. Big oil companies and investors would do well to prepare.
I hope he’s right about this. The last thing we need at this point in time is to burn more coal and oil.
Lastly, I’d just like to say a word about immigration policy – ie Trump’s decision to ban people who were born in seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. This is a terrible policy. It is hurting a whole bunch of ordinary people, many of whom are now cut off from their families or in limbo trying to leave dangerous situations like the Syrian civil war, without helping anything except possibly ISIS recruitment drives. I believe it’s important for New Zealand to stand up against this kind of nonsense, both by speaking out against it and by doing our bit to accommodate refugees from the wars that America has started in the Middle East.
This isn’t just the right thing to do: It’s likely to benefit New Zealand. The NZ Initiative’s Eric Crampton makes the case:
America has long been a magnet for the world’s most talented people. And America’s most advanced industries rely heavily on foreigners allowed to work in the United States on H1-B visas. America’s universities are the best in the world because they attract top scholars from everywhere. Foreigners on H1-B visas or with permanent residence teach foreign students on F visas, making education a massively successful American export industry.
New Zealand should announce a new visa category for people who were legally entitled to live and work in America until the Executive Order broke things. If the New Zealand government has wanted to attract more highly skilled migrants, there would be few better bets than trying to help those who have been hurt by American policy.
Canada has been talking about similar moves. Canadian universities are rushing to accommodate students bumped from American universities. Canadian tech companies have asked their government to implement an immediate targeted visa providing temporary residence to those displaced by the Executive Order; Canada’s prime minister has been active on Twitter, signalling openness.
New Zealand is running a trial of a new way of supporting refugees, modelled on Canada’s sponsorship regime. Canada supplements the government’s refugee quota with a private sponsorship arrangement, under which more refugees are allowed in whenever Canadians are prepared to sponsor them. The bulk of the financial cost of supporting refugees then shifts from the government to those Canadians who are willing to help. And those sponsors also do an excellent job of helping refugees integrate into Canadian communities.
New Zealand could expand its sponsored refugee trial to accommodate those refugees with whom America has broken faith. This need not be at any particularly large cost to the Government. All the government needs to do is let caring New Zealanders help.
In the NZ Herald, Lincoln Tan takes a look at the impact of migration in New Zealand, based partly on the NZ Initiative’s new report on the topic:
The report said there was little evidence to support the perception that migrants stole jobs from New Zealanders born in the country.
“That is because the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed. Migrants also contribute to job growth by increasing demand for local goods and services,” it said.
[…] “On balance, the available evidence suggests that New Zealand benefits from migration, or at the very least the country is not made worse off,” the report concluded.
To conclude, I’d recommend reading a piece that Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy wrote in The Spinoff in response to Trump’s visa ban: “We will not let racism and division poison our New Zealand“. It’s short and to the point. Frankly, I’ve been impressed with Devoy – when appointed, she admitted that she didn’t have a huge background in the area, but she’s been willing to get out and stand up for New Zealand values of tolerance and inclusion.
Elderly New Zealanders, our own Holocaust survivors told us they never thought they’d witness a return to the politics of hatred, division and racism in their lifetime: but it’s happening. As we gathered in front of the Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery out at Makara, they urged us to stand up for the rights of refugees, Muslims and minorities targeted by the powerful.
And they know what they’re talking about. Because people like Wellington’s Inge Woolf and Vera Egermayer remember the swastikas, the Nazis and the marches. They also remember that in the midst of that storm of hate: millions of everyday people stayed silent and looked the other way. They remember that instead of standing up for others – neighbours and fellow citizens chose to be bystanders.
Right now so many of us are feeling helpless but the one thing we can do is let our own decision makers know that we will not allow hatred and intolerance to spread and become normalised here at home: Not in our New Zealand.
Onya x2. Enjoy Waitangi Weekend.