RL57 - Unfair

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: We should all be living in Atlantis, referring to people who think they know better and government doesn’t work, because if it did work, we would all be living in undersea cities by now.

The show title refers to people thinking that their tax bill is unfair.

John had to make some mouth noises at the top of the set because it was the mouth noise season.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Drinking water (RL57)

John does drink a lot of water. When he was young he couldn't stand water, but his sister was a real water pusher. Somewhere along the line John got a taste for it and now he probably drinks a half gallon (2 l) of it. Every time he walks past the sink he chugs a big glass of water and he can't get enough of it. Merlin has the exact same experience and he wonders if his palate developed from just wanting a 12-pack of coke a day.

Squeaky chairs (RL57)

John sneezes loudly and Merlin wonders if they have missed any more bodily sounds. He recommends John to get an SM75 on that red leather chair and do a Chris Walla and get a room mic with a trigger to get that David Bowie low thing when it is a real dinger. Their chairs both make noises. Merlin’s chair looks like he has a cat and it is hard to tell if it is stained, like the industrial carpeting in parts of a bar where it becomes one contiguous hypnotic stain. The high traffic areas of the chair are more stained than the low traffic areas.

Merlin uses those blue mechanics paper towels. At a certain point John’s chair fell apart and he fixed it with his own homemade plywood. He drilled a larger hole where the dowel had broken and took a bunch of wood chips and matchsticks and stuff and crunched them all up, poured a bunch of glue on it and made a matchstick and glue amalgam that he puttied into the hole and let it dry. He drilled a new hole through the fake plywood and the chairs is as good as new. John made artisanal particle board!

Replacing good old-grown wood with modern stuff (RL57)

A few weeks ago (see RL47) Merlin had a conversation in John’s mom's house and got the sense that John is not a fan of plywood. Instead he has a certain respect for nice long pieces of contiguous old–growth wood. This is a theme that John and Merlin touch on a lot: The tearing down of a 100-year old thing made out of perfect old-growth lumber to replace it with something made out of off-gassing particle board and then posting a sign in the front saying ”All green construction! New green condos!” Nothing about it is green! Tearing down the perfectly good house was not green, manufacturing all the chemical products that this house is constructed of was not green, and building this new house was not green.

There is nothing green about it except that they installed an efficient furnace in the new building and they put photovoltaic panels on the roof. People walk through life and say they bought this really green condo, but they have no idea what was there and what we have lost as a people in terms of our patrimony! John has torn down the inside walls out of his mom's house and these 2x4s were 28 feet (8.5 m) long and there is not a knot hole in them.

They had cut these trees from three blocks away, carted them there by horse and milled them on a sawmill, presumably powered by horse or by wood, by the high-up branches. To tear it down is a crime against all humanity and "off-gassing" is a construction term to describe how after the house is built and after you move in all of the particle board, the wallboard and most of the products like the new carpet sits there and permeates this gas, this formaldehyde.

Merlin has a bath mat they like that they have bought three times as it has worn out, and when they stop making that bath mat he is going to make one out of Long Wood. It would be much more Japanese, which is Ping Pong, but every time they buy one of these and take it out of the plastic, it is like a giant plastic vulva opening and the entire house is enveloped in this smell. Merlin is not being normative, it really is a plastic vulva that tastes like a 9V-battery and smells like a bath mat.

The green thing depends a lot on on which micro or macro level you want to look at it from. Merlin agrees with John, being as unintelligent as he is. We can all agree on Long Wood! When you pull back the lens just a little bit, you say there are also the vehicles that had to have gas in them to bring people there to make it, and there are cheeseburgers. They live in the house that Jack built.

When you go to some place in rural England and you ask somebody about their house with a thatched roof, they will tell you that their house was built in 1547. The ceilings are about 5’2” (160 cm) and you have to duck everywhere you go. Everyone was a hobbit in England and they ate a lot of canned food. The floors aren't even, they are ramshackle places, and you go ”Wow! This house is such a wonderful treasure!”

When you think about it, you realize that this house was just the one that survived and there wasn't anything special about it. Over 500 years all the much better houses were torn down or burned down, but half the reason this little thing survived is probably that no-one cared enough about that piece of property to tear it down or they didn't get around to it.

Now it has a plaque on the door and now we go there to celebrate it, but in fact it is just the detritus and all the beautiful houses are gone. The same is true with Portland Oregon: It is a beautiful city full of bungalows and old architecture because for the last 100 years no one cared enough about it to tear anything down and build anything new. It was a backwater and a shit burg, a town full of bungalows, and all of them have moss on the eaves. You can tell that in every single bungalow in Portland there were four people living in it, all of them chain smoking for 20 years, and the entire city of Portland had a yellow patina until 2002.

In Seattle there was the World's Fair in 1963/64 where they built the Space Needle and in order to build the Seattle Center they tore down a whole ramshackle neighborhood of flop houses, which wasn't that great of a loss, but that was the peak era of modernist 2 or 3 story flat-roofed apartment buildings in Motel architecture with hallways outside. People were going to come from around the world to this World's Fair for a whole year, and a million people a day would see the Seattle Center.

During this sweeping redevelopment of the city people went into all the Victorian neighborhoods and said ”Well, this old house is full of transients, even though it has nine bedrooms, and we are going to tear this down and build a motel style apartment building that will house visitors from out of state, and after those people are gone it will be an apartment building, won't that be nice? We will have replaced that dilapidated old house with a modern apartment building!”

In the most interesting neighborhoods throughout the city you will see two Victorian houses with a 1963/64 motel style apartment building between them. Now 40 years later, when a developer goes into that neighborhood and wonders which one of these three things they are going to buy and tear down, they invariably choose the Victorian house because nobody is going to tear down a 9-unit apartment building that they are still making money off of. Seattle looks a lot worse than Portland! There is no plan and nothing is governing the development except ”Tear the thing down!”

How cities evolved (RL57)

You can learn a lot from a city just by looking at the elevations. This is where they put the railroad tracks, which explains why there are those kinds of things around here that would be good for railroad industries and the people who work there. Here are the waterways, which is why they stopped here and why Pittsburgh is where it.

Living near the water is generally more expensive in most places, and living higher rather than lower is a nice place to live, so and why is it that the tornados always take out the mobile homes? Because mobile homes are in the most shitty low-lying areas where no-one wants to live and that flood easily, like tornado alley! Even with the Internet economy that stuff still means a lot.

Merlin lived in Tallahassee for 10 years and the old buildings of Florida State University are very beautiful, but you can tell when the place was initially built. There are beautiful classy buildings from the 1800s and the early 1900s when there was a burst of money and they built the Women's College of Florida. You can tell that there were bursts of influxes of money, probably old people dying, wanting their name on something, and there is this hodgepodge of different buildings that went up in the 1950s through the 1980s, all of them wildly different with only the most superficial nod toward having any kind of continuity with how the rest of the place looks.

Merlin is trying to figure out if he wants to blame this one guy called Le Corbusier who basically invented square cement buildings and made every mall, apartment building and skyscraper look the same. John Flansburgh is so mad right now and would probably yell at them for 1000 reasons about talking about Le Corbusier, who knows!

Merlin's BART station, for example, looks like something from Planet of the Apes or Logan's Run. There was a funny confluence in the 1960s where there was a lot of money for education and building, and after the G.I. Bill there were people who wanted to go to college and their kids wanted to go to college. There was a pseudo-perfect storm of money, the desire to build a lot quickly and cheaply, and the influence of square concrete buildings that are now everywhere.

The square concrete buildings after the war had a moral component to them: They were clean, they were open, and they were not like these little stick and bone rat hole Victorian houses that were 60 years old at the time and full of dust and mice. These square concrete buildings represented the future! They had just fought a war and they were going to build a new world! Exciting Pan Am airport terminals were exciting places for people.

John’s mom talks about it all the time: A house where all the bedrooms were on the same floor as the living room and the kitchen was a very exciting and radical notion. You would open a sliding glass door and step right from your living room into the garden without there being a stair step. To their eye all these little details of mid-century modern design and tract houses were incredible innovations and moral technologies. This was the way people should live! They had the technology to live with ease in these custom homes and they were never going back to high maintenance bay windows with curved glass.

You can see people's moral taste reflected in the physicality of a town in a way that doesn't really require that much imagination. You just have to turn your eyes that way! The Seattle neighborhood Wallingford is perched on a long broad sloping hill overlooking Lake Union, the lake at the very heart of the city. Across Lake Union there is a panoramic view of Downtown, Queen Anne Hill, and Capitol Hill. It is this beautiful neighborhood of bungalows on this wide broad sloping hill overlooking a lake and the rest of the city.

When you visit that neighborhood you realize very quickly that the streets are laid out wrongly: The long avenues go up and down the hill, pointed at the view, and almost none of the 50.000 houses there have a view of the lake and the panorama of the city. They look on each other's backyards. In order to get the view you either have to stand on the roof or you have to go out into the middle of the street and look down the hill.

There is something about it that just feels wrong! The city and this lake are right there and every night there are these incredible sunsets, but the neighborhood just looks at itself. Then you realize that at the foot of that hill is Gasworks Park, this gem in the crown of the city, this beautiful park with an old gasworks where they used to process natural gas. When they built Wallingford, that view down on the lake would have been a view over a chemical plant into a lake that was full of steamships all emptying their bilges at sunset.

Whoever was developing that neighborhood wanted to conceal this view because when the wind changed direction all of Wallingford was coated with a layer of chemical ash. By now they have cleaned up the city and that view has become a $10 trillion view, but for the rest of eternity that neighborhood is always going to be pointed the wrong direction because at the time a view didn't matter to people. What mattered was that you turned your back to the chemical plant. Whenever John is over there he is always haunted by the century.

San Francisco (RL57)

In the case of San Francisco for example they built the streetcars in whatever year that was (1873) and that was the first time you could comfortably live in the highly desirable neighborhoods at the top of a very steep incline. These were the days before you would just zip down to the Safeway to pick up your groceries. Today they still have cable cars, which are very silly and not all that useful, but back then it was a revelation.

The first thing you notice in San Francisco that doesn't seem stupid from the air but seems really stupid on the ground is that the California street is that steep. It is crazy to build a street straight up the side of the a hill! The neighborhood where Merlin lives was just a nursing school, an abattoir, and some sand dunes. There are some wonderful photos looking down from the top of the hill on what now is 19th Avenue and the main thing out there were chicken farms. John lives in a chicken farm! Some dude came up with a plan ”Why don't we build these new roads in a way that goes around these hills in a way that's a little more humane?” In particular after the earthquake (1906) they needed to rebuild more quickly.

There is a fascinating bike and walking map of San Francisco that will show you a regular road map of the city, but every block between any two intersections, like the Jesus Seminar of cartography, shows you in four different colors how steep the hill is between those two intersections. Merlin’s block is on the second or third. You get a light pink, a dark pink, a light red and a dark red. 20th avenue is the longest contiguous North South route in Merlin’s part of town that has the least hill pound for pound. He is out of breath when he walks from his office up a hill in three minutes.

How London is different (RL57)

They are redeveloping London all the time. When you tear down something in the center of London that was there for 700 years to build something new, you'd better really have a lot of faith that the thing you are building now is going to be better than something that survived 700 years, but people probably don’t think that way. Over the course of 500 years all it takes is a few people who live long lives and live in the same house their whole lives to affect the course of development.

All it took in some places in England was a family that kept that house in their own hands for a couple hundred years and passed it down, a few people who lived long lives and lived in one place and all of a sudden this house is protected from development just by the fact that either the family were was not upwardly mobile enough to ever leave it, or they were just bound by tradition. Now this thing survives and we find it amazing: "How did this thing make it all these years?” Well, actually 500 years is just eight generations and it is not outrageous to think that every once in a while a house is passed down that many times.

The small house that she didn't want to sell (RL57)

There is a place in Seattle where the property developers bought an entire block in Ballard except for this one bedroom bungalow, the smallest house you could possibly build. The developers wanted to build a super building with a Trader Joe's in it that was going to be green construction and full of architects offices. This one little bungalow was owned by a little old lady. Her husband had built it and had died many years ago and she still lived there and she wouldn't sell although they offered her $1 million.

They built their massive Trader Joe's architect building around her house and her house is still there, like in Up. The new building is 4 or 5 stories tall and this little tiny house sits basically in a canyon that is three feet wide on either side and three feet behind, like an air shaft. She wouldn't sell and they said ”Fuck you!” and the story is more hilarious because it was only a year or two later when she finally died of old age and she willed her house to one of the construction dudes who brought her a sandwich every day.

Modern architecture is dated quickly (RL57)

The more contemporary you make a new building look, the more likely it is that it will look extremely un-contemporary in 10 to 20 years, or even 4 years. John can walk around Seattle and recognize building that were built in 2004 with a shade of vinyl siding, buildings that are dated instantly.

The moss building at Madison is an example of brutalist architecture where the first floor has a ramp so that they could turn the hose on students that were trying to rush the building. It is horribly designed and the music department has to be in the basement where everything is wilting. In the mid 1980s there was a sudden influx of money for new construction in Florida that probably had to do with a certain kind of attractive financing, and people were putting up strip malls where there didn't need to be another mall. Everything had an awning and or an atrium (see RL259).

Meaningful development instead of magical capitalism (RL57)

When people talk about job creation, lowering the taxes, and trickle down economics, in conservative thinking you just have to create a magical set of circumstances with a business climate that is friendly to development and all of a sudden it is like a Genesis bomb (see RL56) of capitalism and economically stagnant areas become economically vibrant. This kind of magical thinking does not take a super long view on development, but they will point to a neighborhood in Florida where development had swept in and transformed it, the tax base was suddenly elevated, everybody was making more money, the city was making more money, and they say that this is what happens when you lower regulation and reduce taxes.

What they don't factor in and what is completely irrelevant to their thinking is: What is in there exactly? It is nail salons, temporary businesses, a new Starbucks across the street from the old Starbucks, and somehow they are both making money. It is a magical place where economics and capitalism is happening, but is that area really improving people's lives? Is that area still going to be economically vibrant 20 years from now? Is there any reason for it to be there?

When you look at the land and say ”Oh, there used to be a stream here and then there was a mill here and that is why this street is called Mill Street and why this neighborhood is called Mill Town”, then you can see why development happened there and why these are warehouses instead of homes. Then it fell on hard times when the mill closed because there was new milling technology that was happening somewhere else, and they didn't need a running stream anymore etc.

You can see development through the lens of history, but then you go out into the flats and say ”They built a mall here because property was cheap and taxes were low and this was flat swampy land that they could fill easily and build a mall”, conditions that are analogous to ”There used to be a river here so they built a mill” There is a continuity, but it was swampy worthless land before and it is swampy worthless land now. Building a strip mall on it is a false paradigm of economics where money sweeps in and transforms a neighborhood and then economists move on in their thinking.

They leave behind a thing that is going to percolate along for a few years and then the lack of reason for it to be there, the lack of soul, is going to manifest itself and all the low taxes in the world aren't going to motivate people to go there. It is an Orlando! People are still going to Orlando, but and maybe Orlando will be there in 500 years…

Big government has become demonized in people's minds because what big government represents to people is that some bureaucrat is going to tell you that you have to hire people of a race that don't admire you. Big government to most people in America is simple: You are taking my tax dollars and then my kids have to go to the worst school in town in order to make up for some disadvantage that minority kids have. That social engineering component, however it manifests itself, freaks people out.

Over the last 50 years, big government, particularly in the hands of liberals, engaged in a nationwide social engineering experiment in 1000 different ways which appalls people anywhere outside of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles‚ Chicago and Seattle. Leaving aside whether that social engineering experiment had any merit, the idea that there would be any organizing principle to the way we approach the development of America is a baby that has been tossed out with the bathwater.

Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in an absolutely socialistic fashion. He used eminent domain to go to all of the states in the nation, take land from people, and employ thousands and thousands of people.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike or the Ohio Turnpike, one of the two, one of the first ones they built, was built too straight and people fell asleep and drove their cars off the road. As they were developing the Interstate Highway System they manufactured big sweeping curves in the roads where there was no reason for it, just to keep people's attention up enough so they wouldn't crash. Except in places like Montana or Texas it is very rare to see uninterrupted straights for hundreds of miles.

If builders are a booming sector of the economy and we were not going to regulate it because government regulation is bad, you will get places like all of Florida and Nevada where they build five houses for every person in town because every one of these builders acted independently and wanted to get on this train. There was nobody at the government level approving building permits, saying ”Hold on! Do we need 600 new Mc Mansions in this area? Is there demand for it? Can this town support it?”

Everybody was just like ”Well, government has got to get out of the way because here come the small business owners!” Small business owners have the moral imperative, and this is the thing that terrifies libertarians, because they imagine some Wizard of Oz bureaucrat sitting behind a curtain, approving or not approving their building permits to put a new bunker on their 25 acres (100.000 sqm). They see that as government intrusion and police statism.

If you don't have somebody sitting there with a rubber stamp saying ”I'm not approving any more building permits for this part of the town because I'm the only person in a position to see that we have too many houses right now being built and we need to put the brakes on this”, then you get this development that wipes up the side of a mountain and you have houses where any dummy can see that no one is ever going to live there.

During Junior High Merlin was friends with the county administrator for Pasco County John Gallagher who would drop some fascinating facts out of nowhere. One day Merlin was helping him split some logs for $4 an hour and said that it was really crazy over there by Southgate Mall, it was really not safe, and there should be a stoplight. He asked Gallagher if he could do something about that and get a stoplight over there, but he just asked ”Do you know what it costs to put up a stop sign?"

Any stoplight in 1988 started at $40.000 and a stop sign was over $1000. It was a real wakeup call for Merlin because he had always assumed that there was a warehouse somewhere full of entirely modern stoplights and you could just send a couple of guys over there and put it up! If you are doing that on US19 and put in a new stoplight with a green arrow and stuff, that changes so many things!

They are building a new subway line to Chinatown in San Francisco and Stockton Street is completely upside down. Merlin was trying to explain to his daughter, who just mainly wanted to go to the Disney store and have him shut up, the knock-on effect of closing the street for four years, what that is going to mean to the economy for that shirt store over there.

Local government, city government, and county government are trying to balance all these factors, all these things are happening and we interact with their decisions mostly on the level of ”Why is this street closed? Why is there not a (blank) here? Why is there no stop sign at this intersection? Why is there never a cop when I can find one?” Every once in a while our garbage doesn't get picked up and we are like ”Goddamn city hall!”

These people in local governments are trying to put out fires, but they are also trying to envision the big picture of the development of their region. This argument that we are having as a country, this big government vs. capitalism argument, fundamentally doesn't interest John because it is fundamentally the wrong argument.

A lot of people live like apocalyptic thinkers who believe that the day they die the world will stop existing, either because they think they are going to heaven or because they just have never thought beyond themselves. ”What are you talking about? 100 years from now? There is no such thing! I am not going to be here, so why would it matter?”

What you can learn from abandoned malls (RL57)

Merlin lived in Florida in the mid 1980s. When he came back after college the economy was in the shitter and there were a bunch of uncompleted strip malls. Laser tag! Chris Rock says it's all baby clothes and greeting cards, but it is true! One of the malls that was barely hanging on is gone. Seeing more farmer's markets and flea markets in places that used to be retail stores is a pretty good sign that something went a little off.

The rah rah capitalist solution is to build another strip mall in a newer neighborhood instead of repurposing that old strip mall that is full of RC modeler stores. Instead of tearing down the shitty motel style apartment building and build something new there they will tear down the Victorian houses. The solution is always to build another mall somewhere else and light gasoline over there so it is going to burn real hot and we are going to think we are generating money. There is no collective memory of this trail of strip malls.

The reason the islands of Hawaii look like a dragon's tail is that there is a hotspot under the ocean and over the course of millennia the shifting crusts have moved along this hotspot that kept producing islands. The islands moved on the crust in the wake of this burning hole. The same is true of economic development: The burning hole keeps moving and in its wake are nail salons and RC modeling stores instead of little boutiques and Starbucks, or whatever the Starbucks equivalent 40 years ago was.

Merlin is really fascinated by what happens to a mall as it goes down. Northgate Mall in Cincinnati was one of the first enclosed malls in the United States. Seattle has a Northgate Mall, a Westfield Mall and a South Center. Clearwater mall in Clearwater Florida was the single largest mall under one roof in the United States. It was a huge two story mall before these things really caught on.

There was a Pinto wagon with a little circular window in the back, a bubble window á la Dreamweaver van, and you could open the tailgate and the inside of the wagon was all plush carpet. One time they had a thing about stuff from the future, a house that looked like an UFO, and then it started sliding down.

Merlin’s mall, the one with the Apple store, almost exactly a mile South of where Merlin lives (Stonestown Galleria) is whistling past the graveyard right now. He used to walk through there and see how many places were empty. First of all: How can you have 40 shoe stores in a mall? There must be a reason that they stay alive. There are more places like Hot Topic and more high volume younger people kind of places, there are tons of phone kiosks, and now a place is empty.

They used to have a big boarded-up thing where they drew giant people on, but now they light it up and make it look like it is a store. If you look twice at it you realize it is staging a model home. You can't walk in, but they are trying to avoid the missing teeth that those places create in a mall. For a middle aged person walking into a mall with a lot of stores that aren't there feels like suburban retail blight.

What if New York was not a grid? (RL57)

Imagine if Manhattan Island was built like London originally was, with twisty winding streets that conform to the geography of the land and without the criss-crossing right angle boulevards! If Manhattan had been developed like London it wouldn't have prospered like it has. London is a major city that has prospered, despite there not being two streets running parallel in the entire city. What if New York had not been gritted?

The geography of New York is pretty interesting, certainly as you move up the island. With little twisty windy roads that skyline would look different, there would be fewer skyscrapers in general, if for no other reason than it would be really hard to close off a 7/8th of a circle-ish area. There would not be a skyscraper city, but the whole place would look like Greenwich Village. Every once a while John will stop in Union Square and try to hover and get the long view. London does not lack metropolitanity, but in Merlin’s head that grid, that grittiness, that George Gershwin, is what it feels like.

It is just fantasy thinking because of course it wouldn't be New York. Who would put up with that? Imagine cabbies having to deal with that! John has driven in the center of London many times. It is crazy-making and even people who lived there their whole lives still appreciate that it is crazy. Rome is crazy to drive in not just for that reason, but also because it is in Italy. Driving in Rome is like driving in Cairo, there is no other way to put it. People are driving on the sidewalks! Athens is even 1000 times worse!

People who don’t understand government, but have an opinion (RL57)

Most of us don't really understand how the sausage gets made, and yet we stand on our soapboxes and scream at each other. People were screaming at John on Twitter yesterday! Your tax bill seems unfair and you go: ”That's not right!” and that is the depth of your analysis. Your money is being wasted and now you are outraged. It is unusual that a person, even a liberal who says they pay their taxes happily, investigates exactly how their tax money is spent and on what. It is fascinating and you get to the point where you say ”My tax bill came, what am I going to discover in it now?”

There is plenty of waste in government, but they are trying to do so much! All you have to do is go to a place like Bulgaria where the government is trying to do a lot of things and they are not making it happen 100%, they are not penetrating all the little places, and you are walking around a city with missing manhole covers. Why do you never see that in America? If a manhole cover goes missing in America it will be replaced in two seconds. There is no such thing as a missing manhole cover because even in the most bombed-out city there is a government to keep that from happening.

The cop that didn’t take control of the crossroads (RL57)

Seattle's public transit was conceived by a committee and approved by a committee, trying to appeal to 15 different constituencies. If you look at how the city is going to develop over the next 40 years, the train should have gone X-Y-Z, but they put the train X-P-L because they had to go by P where the hospital is which is a big constituency. The train had to go by the hospital and it would be too difficult to turn the train around over here. They were building a good thing in a dumb way because there wasn’t anybody sitting in the big chair with the power to say ”It has got to go here, I'm sorry if that disappoints people, but this is how it should look!”

The other day John’s mom was driving around in Seattle. The streets are all torn up and traffic was backed up for two miles along Broadway. John’s mom was sitting at a traffic light where a cop was ostensibly directing traffic, but he had one hand in his pocket and he was just standing there like a dope. Every once in a while somebody got in the wrong lane or had their turn signal on in a way the cop didn't like, and he would yell at the other guy like ”Keep moving!” or something like that.

John’s mom looked at that cop and she saw in his place a vigorous traffic-directing police officer who is like ”Come on! Let's go! Let's go!”, one of those guys that you see in Manhattan with a whistle clenched in their teeth, like ”I am in charge of this intersection! If nothing else in my life, if my wife doesn't love me, if my kids don't listen to me, I am in charge of this fucking intersection right now and I want you to go now! Go! Now! You go! Okay, stop! Now! You go go go!” What that intersection needed in that moment was a cop with a whistle in his teeth who owned that intersection.

John’s mom was looking at this cop and said that the city wasn't working and the government wasn't working. She does have a long view, but her relationship to the Seattle police department is in the form of her sending angry anonymous letters to the precinct. She will take people's badge numbers and write down cop car license plates and she will follow through. She got a whole plan and she won't let the cops off the hook.

She was sitting at this intersection and wondered ”What the fuck is wrong with this cop? What is wrong with the culture of the police department that this police person does not have the energy to actually be directing traffic here?” She was looking up and down the street and saw that this was going to affect traffic in Seattle all day because it has a reverberating effect all through the town. It was all on this guy who was taking a laissez faire attitude to his job. If John was that cop's supervisor and drove through there and there was nobody blocking the intersection and nobody lying dead on the street, he would say ”Yeah, he is doing his job!”, but he was not, he was not really doing his job!

People's skewed view of government (RL57)

When you tell a libertarian that somebody needs to decide how many houses are going to get built in Las Vegas this year, because it can't be an unlimited number of houses, we can't let the number of houses built in Las Vegas be determined just by how many houses we can possibly build this year, they will instantly ask ”Well who gets to decide?” and the implication is that it is someone unqualified, that this decision is going to be made by some bureaucrat with a degree in sociology from a local community college who is going to smirk at them as they decline their building permit.

This is such a pervasive attitude and it is funny when you think about how politics in America and a lot of other places works. Most people's political awareness is from going to the DMV and having a bad experience, which radicalizes them. They become anti-government because somebody at the DMV was rude to them and charged them what they think is an unfair amount for their tabs. That is the depth of their political experience! They don't have any interaction with government other than getting pulled over by the cops, having to wait in line at the DMV, and the guy who comes into their yard to read their meter.

A few negative experiences radicalize people for life because they picture Congress or City Hall as a giant DMV full of smug lazy people who have tenure, who are not going to get fired, who are part of a city union or a government union, and who have that kind of union smugness. When libertarians ask that question ”Who decides?”, they are picturing a DMV. ”That is a good question! Who decides?” and the question is not answered by asking it in a sneering way. Let's pick somebody! Basically that is asking ”Do we want another layer of government?”, but it is a valid question.

The mayor has to run around town and show up at bake sales and stuff and they do not have the time to sit at a long table with a council of elders and consider these things, but every city needs a philosopher, every city needs a development czar. Cities are all about development. The question of cities and the question of America is really a question of development. People own property and they want the right to develop it how they want, but our mutual benefit depends on occasionally disappointing people because you can't always just do what you want. If we are going to have coherent cities and if our lives are going to be coherent living together, not everybody gets to do exactly what they want all the time.

The water we get out of our tap in Seattle is coming through pipes all the way down from the mountains. Hundreds of miles! Those pipes were laid 100 years ago or more by teams of men with shovels and donkeys, and some of these pipes are made out of cedar and they still exist. At a certain point you need to modernize those systems. When John bought his house, when his mom bought her house, the first things they did was dig up the rusting old water main that went out to the street and replace it with a PVC water main, but they only went out as far as to the street.

Whom's responsibility is the water main that runs under the sidewalk? It's only the cities! What do you do if the giant cedar tube that you could run a Supertrain through that is buried under the street two blocks from John’s house springs a leak? Our cities were built at a time when a guy with a cigar and a handlebar mustache said ”Build a pipe! Do it!” and people did it. He did not have to get approval from seven different city agencies because they didn't exist yet. But now when that thing fails it is all our responsibility and you can not talk about taxes and development without understanding that.

Merlin’s water comes from 189 miles away (304 km) and it would take four hours to drive to where his water comes from. Think about how long it takes the water to make that trip!

We are never building public transit for now, but we are always building public transit for 40 years from now! If you put it up to a public referendum and say ”Hey, everybody out there, mute your television for a second and think about what this city is going to look like in 40 years! How is transit going to interact with it?”, who even mutes their television? Nobody does!

Somebody has to be looking at that who is empowered to make decisions! We have transit committees looking at it and they know what we have to do, but they are not empowered and all they can do is limp forward with their project and try to convince the 4% of the population who read the newspaper still and hope that the rest of the people are too confused to read the ballot initiative properly. That is why so many ballot initiatives are phrased so convoluted ”Vote yes on no to the yes project!”

In England there is a Queen and a prime minister. You might even say that the prime minister of England (David Cameron) is a little bit of a queen. Then there is somebody who makes the tube run on time, and you need a czar. Bloomberg has been such a successful mayor of New York because he had enough success running the city with enough innovative ideas that, despite the fact that he is a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, people have embraced him. Despite the fact that he is a little imperial, people are ”Yeah, okay!”

He is doing some pretty cool stuff and people give him leeway. This whole ”outlawing soda pops that are bigger than 16 ounces (0.5 l)” thing, not even Giuliani would have attempted such a nanny state initiative, but Bloomberg succeeded. You can buy two or you can carry around a 32 ounce (1 l) cup and buy two 16 ounce pops. It is the Green way to do it! That is hacking! Kobayashi Maru, my friend!

All the guys who came to Seattle to drop off a bale of hay at somebody’s kiddie ride, driving a duly diesel Dodge pickup truck, were headed back out to their ranch in Yakima and they were waiting at an intersection where the cop was not directing traffic. John hears these people talk all the time ”I'd never live in Seattle. Hell no! Just a bunch of animals!” That is their experience of Seattle! They are watching that cop, thinking this is bullshit! His vote counts the same as John’s about whether Seattle gets the tax money to put in high speed public transit or to replace the water mains. He is sitting in the same county where John lives and is saying ”Well, that money is just wasted! Who decides? It's just some bureaucrat!”

The thing that has affected the tenor of our national conversation is the idea that property rights are a thing that you would shout at somebody, even by people who do not own any property. There are no two more personal words in American politics! Property rights are an expression of people's feeling that they do not have any power or autonomy over their environment. John has tremendous sympathy for municipal governments because his people were always in government. John’s uncle was the mayor of Anchorage, his dad was in the legislature, his grand uncle was a city councilman. John is friends with the local government here in Seattle and he likes talking about government.

John hears their frustrations that are not expressed as frustrations, but they are just like ”This is my job!” It is very hard for them to go to a meeting where they have to say that for everyone's benefit we need to keep the side of this hill forested, otherwise landslides will take all the soil down into the river and we will have a flood disaster. They have to say this to the five guys who own that hillside and that land, some of them have owned it for 80 years, and whether they ever intended to cut those trees down, their powerful desire to not be told what to do with that land is deafening them. If you don't have sympathy for those guys who own that hillside you are crazy! You have to have sympathy for them!

If that were John’s land he would be the same way, he would be at that meeting and say ”God damn you property rights! You can't tell me that I can't chop down these trees! Show me the report! Show me the science! You don't know for sure that the landslides are going to happen!” It is analogous to global warming and to every one of our national problems.

There is somebody at the heart of every one of those who has a personal feeling that you shouldn't be able to tell him what to do. The guy whose job it is to keep that from happening isn't trying to protect his ass, which is the other negative version of government, that the guy is just trying to protect his ass because if the landslide happens then he is going to be on the hook for it and that is his motivation.

Most people working in government are not trying to protect their ass that way, at least at the high levels, but they are trying to look 40 years down the road. They have tremendous sympathy for the people who own that property, but their hands are tied. You cannot come away from a meeting like that feeling like there is any kind of elegant solution because you are never going to convince those five guys and they are going to yell and they are going to say crazy things to you because you are taking from them.

What is incredible about our country right now is that those five guys who own that hillside covered with trees have convinced 50% of the country to be just as mad as they are about it. The whole town is mad about whether or not these guys should be allowed to cut down those trees and create an inevitable mudslide that blocks the river. People are saying ”Show us the report!”, others are saying ”Property rights above all!” and some are saying ”Who decides?” The government is like ”Well shit, you guys! Seriously? We need to just make this decision and it's gotta get made!”

Merlin is pals with the guy who is the merchant association liaison for their neighborhood. Basically, the only people who show up for anything is a handful of Chinese ladies with an agenda. They know there is so much stuff that could be done, but they are going to make sure that the only stuff that gets done is the stuff that benefits them. Nobody else is going to those meetings, but it isn't until there are 35 bubble drink places and 75 Horizon stores until people go ”Our neighborhood is getting weird!” If everybody showed up and followed everything and went to all of those meetings, they would learn to understand how that works.

That is the downside of the way the system works. The bigger it gets, the more moving parts there are, the harder it is to understand, and the more abstraction there is between the messenger who had to bring the unhappy message to the hill-people and the myriad number of connections in this fucked-up game of telephone that ever led to the meeting occurring in the first place. It is a basic human problem that we could all be better at on a personal level: Understanding that the person who picks up the phone and is willing to listen to you complain is not necessarily the person who is to blame for your tax bill.

What the fuck does ”the government” even mean? It is like saying you blame the universe! The government are the people in that aid vehicle who pick you up off the street and the people working at Hetch Hetchy that bring Merlin his water. It is time for a czar, for somebody to either explain this process to people in a way that they can't control or get away from, or to make it not matter anymore and bring a claw into it. That is the only solution! People are emotionally driven by these things and that emotion quickly turns into what this means about the universe.

When you try to make public policy based on that, you are going to have a total cluster fuck! If that farmer stopped for a minute and said ”Okay, does it really matter if I can build a skyscraper?” It is a slippery slope and he has to protect his thing! It is the way he looks at it. It has helped Merlin being less frustrated when somebody yells at him because he can honestly say to them ”Look, you are trying to solve the wrong problem and you are yelling at the wrong guy!”

The introduction of the concept of abstraction is key because as it gets more abstract people think that they are now dealing with a world of unlimited possibility. In cases where people understand the whole chain of events, they also understand where there is no more they can do.

If your kid falls through the ice and you are standing on the side of the lake, yelling ”Help rescue my kid!” and the fireman crawls out on the ice and falls through as well, at a certain point you understand that no one can rescue your kid, because you watched the firemen crawl out on the ice and fall through and there isn't any magic that you can bring to bear on this situation. If your kid drowns in that lake you have a certain amount of ”There is no one to blame. You know the kid just fell through the ice and the firemen tried to rescue them” And for the rest of your life you have a peace with it ”I was there, I saw it all happen, I understand that my kid couldn't be rescued”

But if your kid falls through the ice and there is a firetruck with a giant crane and you yell ”Help my kid!” and the fireman says ”The crane isn't rated to be extended that far!”, then it is still true, just as true that they have no technology that can reach your kid, but you don't understand it anymore and even though the fireman knows if he extends the crane that far the whole fire truck is going to tip over into the lake, being unable to demonstrate that, there is now this abstraction of the crane and what its load limit is and how far you can extend it and what the possibilities are. It introduces the concept that maybe if he had just done it, it would have worked. Your kid drowns and you are full of resentment, you lay awake at night and think ”Why didn't they just extend the crane? Why didn't they just take that risk?”

Merlin sees this in his computer world. The less people know about computers, the more they think that anything can happen, that Merlin can just touch it with his elbow and it suddenly starts working because that is what it looks like to them. They get mad at him and are disproportionately mad and frustrated, inversely proportionate to the amount of understanding they have about how a thing works, and Merlin is sitting there going ”Listen, you are just asking me to do something that is not in the realm of possibility!”

People are saying ”I know already that government doesn't work because if government worked we would all be living in undersea cities by now! If government worked, why are there poor people? Eisenhower would have made an Atlantis years ago! We should all be living in Atlantis and the fact that we are not means the government doesn't work!” - ”Do you really not understand that the government is people?” - ”Fucking people!”

How to respond to haters on Twitter (RL57)

John knows a lot of people who, if somebody on Twitter responds to one of their tweets with ”Fuck you! You don't know what you are talking about!”, they will just block that person immediately because they don't need that in their lives. If somebody writes John a tweet that says ”Fuck you! You don't know what you are talking about!”, he always replies.

Yesterday there was a guy who listened to the episode on depression (see RL55) and wrote John a tweet ”Fuck you! Depression is easy to cure, you just have to try. Fuck you!” John wrote him ”Gee! Sounds like you really have your depression under control! You sound super-healthy!” which was sarcastic but also an opportunity for this person to stop and think about what they just did.

This morning John had a tweet from this guy going ”I apologize. That was rude. I have deleted that tweet and I am embarrassed that I have become tweet-delete-guy and I had no right to talk to you in that way!” That right there is the amount of due diligence that John thinks anybody is owed, because there are all kinds of people out there who are going to say ”What? Fuck you! No!” and you say ”Yeah okay, you sound like you are a little mad, now do you want to talk about it?”

John hates it when people say that to him because he always think about how mad he is, but he gives them that chance and if they come back and say ”Oh my God, I'm sorry! I'm so embarrassed!” then you know that you are dealing with at least the beginning of a reasonable person. If their response to that is ”Fuck you!” then they are blocked.

If you do that in a city council meeting and they say ”Fuck you!”, then you have shown them all the reports you need to show them, but that is not necessarily how democracy works.

Supertrain’s name is Eminent Domain (RL57)

As Supertrain will plow across the land, everybody will get a chance to read the report, but they are only going to get one chance to do that. People understand a crane and a claw on a train. It is something even illiterate people or people who don't speak English understand. They see the claw and the train coming and they get it. It will involve a certain kind of eminent domain. The name of Supertrain is Eminent Domain, it will be written in flashing letters across the front of the engine in script: Eminent Domain! ”Oh Christ! Here comes Eminent Domain!” The claw is choosing which houses and which forested hills to add to its maw.

Merlin making websites for people and ending up as tech support (RL57)

There are things that kept happening to Merlin that make him sympathetic to people who are getting yelled at when they are trying to help you. When Merlin and John first met Merlin was still doing web development and project management as his livelihood. He had been doing that since 1995 and part of his job was educating people about why the fuck they would want a web site and what the internet was. He wasn't making a lot of money from it, but nevertheless: People would rather get an AOL keyword than they would try to get a web site. It got easier over time.

Most of the people were hiring him because of the tiny bit of expertise he had in talking to them, figuring out what they wanted, turning it into a graphical website and using basic FTP technology to put it onto a web server where people could get to it. His job was to make a graphical design for a website and put it up. They could look at it in their browser and they could maybe send emails through a little Perl script form that people could use to send them email. There is a wonderful Tumblr called clients from hell that covers a lot of these kinds of stories.

A surprising amount of the time Merlin would get a call from a client, often several months later, and anybody who has ever done this for a living is already nodding because this happens all the time, and they would say ”I can't get to my website!” - ”I can see it from here!” - "It is not up, nothing is coming up!” and in order for them to not feel like Merlin was a dick he would have to trace through whether their computer was on, whether they were in a web browser, whether their ethernet cable was plugged in, or whether their ISP was down.

They hired him to make them a website and put it up, and now he was the one who had to tell them whether their Hayes modem was configured correctly with the right codes and ampersands in order to get a signal. He was the one trying to tell them their card on AOL had expired, or that they were using a five year old web browser or that because they were at their brother in law's house on a different sized screen that has the colors were all fucked up and they were seeing something that was really screwed up.

Merlin didn't have the ability to do anything about any of that, but now he was the dick. He was accessible, they knew how to call him and to email him, he was gracious enough to talk to them even though their check did or didn't clear two years ago, but Merlin always felt in a really funny and frustrated position because there was nothing he could say to that person that didn't sound like making a bunch of excuses. All they knew is that they couldn't get to their website. All Merlin could really tell them is that it didn't have anything to do with the website that he made. Well, then why did they pay him $107 to make them a website?

You would see old jokes about people who put their drink in the CD holder, people who touched the screen with their mouse, or people who always go to Yahoo to search for websites. Everybody in Merlin’s family who is older than him double-clicks links. "You don't need to double-click, you just need to click that once!” So now he is the asshole! It isn't like we have to understand everything about how a computer works, but it would be nice to understand enough in that case to know who to call and whether it is helpful to yell at anybody.

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