site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Has the Beinoff Homelessness and Housing Initiative Report been discussed yet here? You can read the report here, an executive summary here, and a transcript of the report being discussed on the Ezra Klein Show here.

Released in June, it’s a statewide study on homelessness in California, the largest of its kind in some thirty years. It’s built on “nearly 3,200 participants, selected intentionally to provide a representative sample, and weighted data to provide statewide estimates. To augment survey responses, we recruited 365 participants to participate in in-depth interviews”. No question as to the state of focus: California is just over a tenth of the American population but nearly a third of its homeless population and nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population.

Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder)...Leaseholders reported a median of 10 days notice that they were going to lose their housing, while non-leaseholders reported a median of one day.

Other takeaways are that contra claims that homeless populations are traveling to California for warm weather or social services, 90% of interviewed participants said they were from California (and 75% from the same county they were homeless in), and backed it up with various details about their hometowns and whatnot. This also aligns with the finding that only about a third of the homeless even sought out government services, suggesting that most people are not taking advantage of whatever unique government services for the homeless California offers (which aren't good anyway). This overall makes some common sense imo - if you’re so broke you don’t have somewhere to live then your options for travel are likely limited as well.

The paper is interesting as a resource in its own right, but I think it’s most useful combined with the claims made in a book referenced in the Ezra Klein discussion of the report: “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness. For those who claim that homelessness is mostly a reflection of insanity and addiction, researchers point out that those things are frequently worse in other states with less severe homeless problems (correlations available in the hyperlink).

For instance, West Virginia has worse poverty, mental health, and substance abuse, but has a homeless problem vastly less bad than California's (0.09% vs 0.4%). The only thing California performs worse than West Virginia on is, predictably, housing costs. Or why does San Francisco, with a poverty rate of 11.4%, have such a worse homelessness problem (0.95%) than much poorer cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, all of which have poverty rates more than twice as high around 23% and homelessness rates around only 0.27%? The clearest answer is the most straightforward: San Francisco is simply twice as expensive to live in (a studio apartment in SF is little over $2k vs a little over 1k for the other three cities). This also lines up with the survey responses, with 89% of respondents saying housing costs were a barrier to them finding housing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those mental health and addiction aren’t highly important here are as well, but that there may be a demographic of fairly low functioning people who are able to take care of themselves, just barely, at low costs, but are simply unable to under heavier financial burdens. Jerusalem Demsas compares this to a game of musical chairs: as you take away chairs one by one steadily the slower and weaker kids will find themselves without a place to sit. But if you don’t have enough chairs / are going through a severe housing shortage, of course you’re gonna have a worse chairlessness problem then elsewhere, even if their kids are slower and weaker.

And once you’re out, it can be very hard to get back on your feet. Your credit history is gonna be terrible, as is your appearance. Maybe you live in your car for a while but then it gets impounded because you have nowhere legal to park it and can’t pay for the tickets. Then you’ve lost your shelter as well as your ability to go to a job. From there you’re really in the streets, which is scary - some people may take uppers due to fear of being asleep in public where people can hurt you or steal from you, and thus pick up addictions. Things spiral very fast from bad to worse.

Taken together, these suggest early intervention and a clear policy prescription to build more housing and do what can be done to lower costs - not because every disheveled person on the street is a fresh-faced suburban homeowner waiting to happen, but specifically the opposite - that every poor or unstable person living on the cusp of not being able to afford where they stay bears the risk that it’ll be much harder for them to bounce back from a fall than to sustain where they are.

Interested to hear what other people thought.

As others have pointed out, there's some sleight of hand in what people mean when the say "homeless" and what the causal factors in those populations are.

When people talk about San Francisco having homelessness problems, they aren't talking about people that merely lack a fixed address. They're talking about the people living in and defecating on the streets, frequently deranged. People that have defected entirely on societal norms.

Cities like Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have much higher amounts of these total defectors than other cities. The relevant difference between these and other cities is that total defectors are more or less tolerated in those cities. You can build permanent structures on public land and nothing bad will happen. At worst, something bad like a murder happens at the camp and then you'll be kicked out and lose the materials you likely stole to construct your building. You can do drugs openly. At the moment Seattle Police aren't even legally capable of arresting people for drug possession and public drug use.

I don't know if this environment creates total defectors or merely attracts them, it's probably some combination.

As others have pointed out, there's some sleight of hand in what people mean when the say "homeless" and what the causal factors in those populations are.

I don't think so. There's more than enough room to talk about how to deal with whatever percent of homeless people are the most destructive (probably mental institutions) and also talk about what drives homelessness overall. Being homeless is bad in of itself and whether or not every homeless person bothers us, they are all suffering.

Cities like Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have much higher amounts of these total defectors than other cities. The relevant difference between these and other cities is that total defectors are more or less tolerated in those cities.

Correlation wise, the relevant difference (not just among these three cities but for cities across the country) seems to be the cost of living. NYC and Chicago are much less permissive than Seattle and Portland, clear out homeless encampments and arrest public drug users regularly, and it hasn't made their homeless situation much better. To my understanding the really significant legal difference in the west is just that they can't clear homeless encampments unless they have a place to resettle the homeless too. This seems reasonable enough (and clearances still happen anyway); if you don't have anywhere to put the homeless then you're not actually getting rid of an encampment, just moving it down the road. Likewise, states don't have homelessness because of public drug use (or you would expect states with more drug addicts to have more of this), they have public drug use because their drug addicts live outside.

NYC and Chicago are much less permissive than Seattle and Portland, clear out homeless encampments and arrest public drug users regularly, and it hasn't made their homeless situation much better.

It's far better in NYC than San Francisco. One source gives an unsheltered homeless population of about 4400 in San Francisco in 2022. Here we have a number of 4042 for New York City. New York City has over 8.4 million people; San Francisco about a tenth of that.

No, it's not housing prices.

New York City has enshrined Right to Shelter where the homeless have to be housed, even at high cost hotels if they refuse. The total homeless population for SF is 7,754 and the total population for NYC is 83,649, twenty times higher than the number you cited. On a population basis NYC and SF both have homelessness rates near 0.95%, quite in line for two of the most expensive cities in the country.

And also, come on. Even if you had been right you can't just cherry pick one city and say that overturns the finding that housing costs have the highest correlation with homelessness across the country.

This is a refusal to distinguish between the homeless as officially defined, and the homeless that people think of when talking about the homeless problem.

In fact, most people consider homelessness to be bad unto itself, and the fact that it costs NYC $2.2 billion yearly to manage its extraordinary homeless population is indeed the kind of thing we care about averting through policy. You personally might be talking about something else but this is a conversation about homelessness and how to reduce it. I would know, I started it.