Why We Should Stop Tearing Down Boring Building

** Robin’s Book Report #57
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

What you’ve been reading

Michelle on what she’s been reading:

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a novel about using drugs to stay asleep. It was very boring and extremely anxiety-inducing at the same time. I was reading it before bed and it was giving me insomnia. Now reading The Yellow House, the memoir by Sarah Broom that is getting a lot of good attention. It’s set in New Orleans, in a neighborhood very close to where I lived as a young child, so what’s not to like? Also read a good science book called Crisis in the Red Zone. You may have heard of that. [Inside joke; the author is married to her]


I just cracked open City of Quartz. It’s been great so far. I’m also reading a steady stream of sci-fi, as always. Right now it’s Connie Willis’ The Doomsday book.

Reading List

“** Ex-Corporate Lawyer’s Idea: Rein In ‘Sociopaths’ in the Boardroom (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/business/dealbook/corporate-governance-reform-ethics.html?searchResultPosition=1)

By Andrew Ross Sorkin (Dealbook)

James Gamble, a corporate lawyer, thinks the problem with corporations is the “maximize” rule, which is a vague law that compels corporations to maximize shareholder value above all else. He theorizes that the rule causes corporations to act like sociopaths. In some ways this is true: focusing on stock price has excused environmental degradation, union busting, outsourcing, wage suppression, other assorted malfeasance.

Gamble’s solution is to add more legal rules, to make corporations more accountable to groups like neighboring communities and employees. But the reason why the “maximize” rule is so pervasive is that it is tied to a definable number, the impact on workers and neighbors is less definable. Adding more rules to the legal responsibility would likely obscure the real problem: that corporations are way too consequential in our political system.

But Gamble wrote an essay explaining himself, so let’s look at that:

“** The Most Important Problem in the World (https://medium.com/@jgg4553542/the-most-important-problem-in-the-world-ad22ade0ccfe)

by James Gamble

Here he is on why “maximize” is bad:

“The “maximize rule” does its damage in two ways. Corporate entities are direct actors in the world. A decision to build a factory in a place with weak environmental laws, low wages and poor worker protection matters. Preferring share buybacks to increased wages or lower prices matters. Lobbying for taxpayer subsidies that transfer wealth from poor to rich matters. They contribute to the problems listed in paragraph one in obvious ways. More damaging: the maximize rule infects real people with tragic faith in the magic of markets.”

Good diagnosis of the problem.

“The tragedy is that markets have for a great many people taken on the power to transform selfishness into a virtue. If everyone acts in her rational self-interest, the market scripture goes, an invisible hand will cause the sum total of selfish acts to serve the common good. Faith in the invisible hand is the seed from which the maximize rule springs.”

Of course, he’s right about all this. Faith in the ability of the markets to deliver justice was the reasoning behind the maximize rule in the first place; a wildly misplaced faith.

But Gamble has the problem that a lot of people enmeshed in the corporate world have, they can’t see beyond the four walls of the world built to facilitate and enrich corporations. He can see the problem but not the solution. Campaign finance reform, higher corporate taxes, well-funded regulatory apparatus, strong labor movement, the diminution of corporate megaliths, all would go much further to curtailing the damage of corporate power than new, formless legal stipulations.

“** Progressive Policies May Hurt the Stock Market. That’s Not a Bad Thing (https://truthout.org/articles/progressive-policies-may-hurt-the-stock-market-thats-not-a-bad-thing/)

By Dean Baker (Truthout)

It is important to remember that the stock market is not the economy. The health of the stock market matters most for people invested in it, and most prominently for people with assets. People in power care about the stock market because they have assets. Swiveling our attention away from the stock market and to something like, say, unemployment might help us assess our policies better. Returns on capital alone is a huge problem (Thomas Piketty suggested in Capital that it is one of the primary economic problems of our time) because it concentrates wealth. And if reigning in returns on assets is important, to fully democratize economic power, this will necessarily hurt the stock market.

“** The Economist Who Believes the Government Should Just Print More Money (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-economist-who-believes-the-government-should-just-print-more-money)

The Bernie Sanders adviser Stephanie Kelton argues that “How will we pay for it?” shouldn’t be a central question in American politics.

By Zach Helfand (The New Yorker)

This is a mini-profile of Stephanie Kelton, the brightest face of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). After reading it, I understand why Bernie Sanders doesn’t endorse MMT. It’s not the silver bullet to a more just world, it’s simply something to get us out of the austerity swamps we find ourselves in. MMT, at this moment, rests on a jobs guarantee to manage the economy, instead of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. Maybe that’d work, I don’t know. But it’s not terribly imaginative, in the grand scheme of things; it’s only a minor policy tweek when what is needed is a major overhaul of how our society is put together. But maybe MMT could be used to justify Green New Deal spending, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“** Vernacular Modernism (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-34/reviews/vernacular-modernism/)
” Good buildings are adaptable by Thomas de Monchaux (n+1)

I liked this article about boxy, quotidien, modernist buildings (like suburban libraries and other municipal buildings). I especially enjoyed the idea that these ordinary buildings serve a function and should not be torn down. Demolition is easier to get financing for, but is incredibly wasteful. The majority of a building’s carbon cost is in the construction, not upkeep, HVAC, and maintenance.

But my friend Michael is an architect, so I asked him his thoughts. He came back with an interesting answer:

“Thanks for putting me on to this author! It’s a great topic.

The retrofit and preservation agenda I agree with, but I think his label vernacular modernism is a stretch. I know what he’s getting at, especially in the Midwest, where buildings really start to look the same in midsized cities, but the term idealizes building style and culture in the US from the ‘30’s to ‘80’s.

For me, for something to be vernacular, it would have to be more pervasive, say like the town house/brownstone fabric of brooklyn – it is everywhere you look, and this is because of a confluence of economic factors (replacing most environmental/ecological factors) and cultural factors that made it the accepted best building typology in an area of a sustained period of time. Or the Robert Moses style brick project housing that spread like wildfire across the country because it was brutally economical, with no regard for climate or cultural regional variations. Unfortunately these were built with poor considerations for light and volume, and subsequently no one cares about them, and they are falling apart.

The cases that he illustrates are high design, expensive, and should definitely be preserved and repurposed, but they were exceptional, not really the norm, and well thought out enough that they will always be what they were designed to be. I mean, what are you going to repurpose a library into? What else could an office tower be? These are culturally significant buildings that were designed to stand the test of time.

One of the more pervasive vernaculars that I think is versatile enough adaptable is the industrial typology which you see everywhere across the country, now often as ruin. These are robust structures, a lot of them high quality construction, that have huge volumes that could be repurposed uplifting as residences, office spaces, or new manufacturing zones.”

Thanks Michael.

Why is UBI such a tedious topic?


Many people are talking about Universal Basic Income (UBI), the policy that proposes a standardized cash payment to citizens. On gut feeling alone, the idea is seductive, but upon further inspection, it is a quagmire. This is because at its root it is a moral question. Should people receive “something for nothing?” Is a cash portion of the society’s surplus a birthright? If recipients don’t work, what will become of their soul? Will it wither? Will idle hands conduct the devils work? What if the point of work is suffering in hopes of a better tomorrow? Can we respect each other without that common, obligatory suffering? In this way it’s very similar to diet and personal finance. If you don’t suffer for your weight loss, is it really a diet? If you don’t save your money, can you still be a good person? UBI is, at first blush, a purely technocratic proposal. But it is much more than that. The soul of our society is at stake.

So I am going to note and comment on a couple of articles and books I have read recently that touch on UBI, and make a uncommon conclusion.

Who Really Stands to Win From Universal Basic Income? By Nathan Heller (New Yorker)

A strange feature of our time is that there are advocates on both the right and the left for UBI. Socialists on the left want it. Billionaires like Elon Musk advocate for it today. Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman even proposed a right leaning solution in the 1970s, with a negative income tax.

I was excited to read this article because I like Nathan Heller’s writing. But he flailed and struggled to make the article interesting and cohesive. Why?

Something about UBI makes it a difficult topic to cover. It is vacuous. Many different groups are writing books about it for many different reasons, and it is difficult to reconcile their underlying assumptions. Business-minded people want a UBI to ensure consumers have enough money in their pockets to keep spending. Those seeking to eliminate poverty want a UBI to ensure the basic dignity of life. The former assumes a dire need to maintain consumer spending (which makes sense because it accounts for almost 70% of economic activity) and the latter assumes the dire necessity of human rights.

Other myriad and conflicting reasons for UBI from the article: Automation will eliminate jobs. It could eradicate poverty. There’s too much surplus capital. The gig economy corroded the possibility of labor unions. A monthly check could allow the government to eliminate welfare. Cuts down on paperwork. The wealthy are free to grow wealthier, knowing that the poor have cash. Success is random. A rising floor of income lifts all, uh, boats. The reasons for UBI are all over the place.

Most importantly, discussions surrounding UBI spring from a larger problem, which is wealth inequality. Poverty is problematic for everyone. But poverty is relative. UBI doesn’t automatically solve inequality, and is thus something of a dead-end.

Stockton Rolls out Universal Income Experiment (SF Curbed)

Stockton, California is likely to be the most watched UBI test in America. Residents will get $500 a month, unconditionally. This experiment is an example of the UBI-as-replacement-for-social-services, in which a government or municipality issues cash instead of specific benefits, like Medicare or SNAP (food stamps). Unfortunately, for UBI to work, recipients will need to have benefits in addition to cash payment, because if they don’t, insurance premiums could just increase and suck the cash away.

What’s crazy about this test is how little money they are playing with. How much will $500 a month change human behavior?

What If The Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck? By Robert Reich (New York Times Book Review)

Robert Reich, in a review of two books on UBI, says what I was thinking: UBI is problematic because it doesn’t solve inequality. People still have to pay all their own bills, and most people won’t inherit much wealth. The most important issue of our time is the necessity of redistributing wealth. Reich says:

“A core challenge in the future will be how to redistribute money from the ever richer owners of the robots and related technologies to the rest of us, who are otherwise likely to become poorer and less secure. This is not just an economic challenge but also a political one. As we know from recent history, vast fortunes translate directly into political power, and such power effectively resists redistribution. Sadly, neither of these authors discusses how to deal with this paradox.”

Bull Shit Jobs by David Graeber

David Graeber, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics, examines jobs that those who hold them describe as pointless, unnecessary, and wasteful. A survey he cites suggests that 30% of people find their own jobs to be, in his formulation, bullshit. The main question becomes, if capitalism claims to be so efficient, why are there any bullshit jobs at all?

Another question is: Isn’t it strange that it is so demoralizing to work a job where you do nothing? Homo economicus should be happy as a clam to do nothing for something. The answer is not clear.

What I realized towards the end of Graeber’s book was that we already have a form of UBI, it’s the salaries from bullshit jobs. People need to have money, and there is no great way to give it to them other than having them “work” for it. The really important implication from this is that we live in a world that is not really capitalist, because–as we are often assured–no capitalist would ever create an unnecessary job.

But everyone has worked unnecessary jobs. I worked in the University’s kitchen in college. There was often a list of stuff to do. But some days there wasn’t. On those days, I would hide in the salad cooler and eat apples and salami. For four to six hours. And then I would leave. It wasn’t a job as much as much as it was a really lame, tedious, and heavily conditional scholarship.

The kitchen job was clearly bullshit because it was welfare disguised as work. Some jobs are simply symbolic, like a chief executive’s slew of vice-presidents. Or are in place to fix a problem that was caused by another job.

A reason we don’t object to pointless work is that we believe that work is an end in itself, that it has value just being work. Work symbolizes our commitment to the future existence of our society. It is the sacrifice we make to show others that we want to be part of the group. This is why the more you like your jobs, the less society feels like you are sacrificing. Which might be why teachers, nurses, journalists, and artists are paid so terribly. The more tedious and boring and stressful and awful it is, the more obviously a person is buying into the collective system that requires a 40 hour a week (or more) tribute (which might be why a lot of people with well paying jobs loudly proclaim their jobs to be “so stressful,” they need everyone to know they’re earning their salary and thus place in society). If a person likes their job, they are not contributing to the idea that a person must work in order to be considered a member of society.

But the idea that work is valuable in itself is outdated. It began with the Calvinists, or maybe a little before, and created the ideological basis for capitalism. It destabilized the power of feudal lords, and suggested the surplus created by hard work could be put to use creating a brighter future. Work (suffer) today for payment (heaven) tomorrow. However, the profits from running a business, the surplus, are plugged into all kinds of useless things, like inflating the housing market or creating wasteful products that are designed to be obsolete as quickly as possible. So maybe work is pointless.

No More Work by James Livingston

Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers, has a radical idea: we need to decouple work from our value as human beings. This need arises from the fact that, in economic terms, we haven’t needed to employ more people to increase productivity, for almost 100 years now. This analysis is supported by the fact that, while both the left and right encourage full employment, wages have not risen in almost 50 years. Is this because people are worth less? Or is it because our work has little to do with the attempt to produce enough goods for everyone (which we haven’t had a problem with for 100 years) or with the attempt to equally distribute these goods to everyone. Pay is, essentially, a political token that we trade in order to control our lives. And if pay isn’t to reward increased productivity, if productivity has been resolved as a problem, pay ought to be linked to our value as citizens in a democracy, meaning distributed equally. This is a good argument for a UBI.