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Here she goes
Now, I resisted starting this blog or journal or whatever it is because I didn't want to have to keep up some fake persona to impress all my BC friends. I stay away from political threads on Chit-Chat for the most part because I feel they are pointless. But I have a burning question that I've got to get answered, even at the risk of unleashing my inner Stalinist and alienating all my dear friends:

Can somebody please explain Habitat for Humanity to me? Church groups in this area seem to love Habitat for Humanity. Al and Tipper Gore are poster children for the group; it seems all the news photos I've ever seen of Tipper have her hanging Sheetrock. In Durham it's practically a civic religion: there's even a Habitat for Humanity thrift shop, where we almost bought a short-term couch over the weekend.

I know HfH is represented by Jimmy Carter, who's got to have the most integrity of any politician I've seen in my lifetime, and it's got that feel-good, 1970's, up-with-people vibe. But... isn't it staggeringly inefficient for affordable housing to be built by well-meaning middle-class folks in their spare time? Whenever I've considered volunteering for HfH, I've been stopped short by the consideration that, hmmm, I'm not a homeowner either. And, believe me, I've been part of at least one of these projects in which a grizzled old construction foreman tries to coax a bunch of fresh-faced college students who have never held a cordless drill before to renovate a burned-out old rowhouse. It ain't always pretty.

And now I'm just going to come out and say it: the most efficient way to build affordable housing is for the government to tax the hell out of those well-meaning, Volvo-driving liberals (and their Escalade-driving counterparts on the right) and start a big, old-fashioned program to hire construction workers all over the country to fill the housing needs of the population. Maybe this new government agency can hire some of the people who have lost their jobs in the much-heralded productivity booms on farms and in factories. There's room there for the engineers, too, given a bit of adjustment for professional specialties. And while they're at it, maybe all these workers can do something about our crumbling infrastructure too.

Well, I'd ask what we're afraid of but I'm afraid I'd hear the words "Ayn" and "Rand" in the answer, and then I'd have to demolish somebody with a baseball bat. And nobody wants that, not before dinner anyway.

[That sound you hear in the background is the deans at Hoity-Toity College taking steps to revoke my degree in economics. Thanks for your concern.]

Current Mood: contemplative contemplative

13 comments or Leave a comment
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florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 16th, 2006 11:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's an interesting point about sweat equity, TW. I didn't know that HfH worked that way, but it does sound like a good idea.
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florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 17th, 2006 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Sweetie, I didn't even notice. It all looked fine to me.
antof9 From: antof9 Date: February 17th, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
TW is absolutely correct. They must put in sweat equity (and it's a LOT), and then they make house payments, but at a significantly reduced (possibly dependant on what they can afford?) rate. The whole deal is for them to have ownership of the house . . in more ways than one.

I've seen video of the ceremony when they hand the keys over to the owners (Unk shot it for the blitz build [week-long superfast building project] in Atlanta one year) -- it's freaking fabulous. I bawled my eyes out. And got teary just typing this. . .

what a dork
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florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 16th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I agree with you, buffra. HfH is as good a way as any to give charity, and I know that to a lot of people the "not-a-handout" part is important. I just think that when it comes to housing, small-scale charity like this is nice but it's not enough.
antof9 From: antof9 Date: February 17th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with both you and Buff. One thing you might not know though -- small-scale charity like this -- it's actually surprisingly large scale. They are a huge organization and international, too. And there is no end to the supply of fresh-faced church groups wanting/needing to do some community service :)

I'll reiterate her #2 above -- everyone I know who has ever worked on a Habitat house talks about that. A lot.
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florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 16th, 2006 11:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I know. Politically I don't think there's a chance in hell of massive public-works projects getting anywhere right now. That would require political leadership, and more to the point it would require taxes, and thanks to fools who think taxes are their biggest problem in life (I should be so lucky), it's not going going to happen.
miketroll From: miketroll Date: February 16th, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm sure you don't have an inner Stalinist, fff! The only thing Stalin came close to doing efficiently was mass murder. But the inner socialist is certainly showing!

To the idea of taxing comfortably off workers to pay for social housing programs, I say (politely) screw that! I have lived for most of the past 50 years in a country that has experimented vastly with social housing (usually called "council housing" here in the UK, where it is largely administered by locally elected authorities).

It's easy to tell a council house from a privately owned house: only the latter is well maintained. The difference is easily explained: people living in a house they don't own (and are probably paying no rent for) don't care much if the window frames need painting and they certainly aren't going to do it themselves! There's no efficiency in that. I once lived in socialist boroughs in London where vast swathes of public housing stock were empty and boarded up. The councils couldn't afford to maintain them and, being socialist, would never put them on the market.

The best thing that ever happened to our social housing was when Margaret Thatcher told local councils they could sell houses to the people who lived in them. A wonderful idea, except that those people got their property much more cheaply than those who bought privately, but let's not quibble.

Let market forces dictate! In Britain, governments of both right and left have interfered with the housing market, mostly with adverse results. If a thing is of value, it will find its natural price level. Competition will see to that. When people talk of creating "affordable" housing, they mean disrupting the market by subsidising new product at somebody else's expense, and undermining the value of existing stock. It never worked here and won't work anywhere else.

The point where elected representatives of the people can and should influence the housing agenda is in planning: stopping greedy development with disastrous environmental effect (as in most of Florida) or on flood plains, for example.

florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 16th, 2006 11:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mike, darling, you're just one of the people I'm worried about alienating. And now I feel compelled to defend this stink-bomb I've thrown... sigh. I don't know that we're ever going to see eye-to-eye on this, but I'll just say a few things here.

I should start with the fact that I'm really not a Stalinist, or even a socialist. I was just speaking in relation to the current US political landscape. I do still have a degree in economics, and I know that the market does lots of things very well. With respect to housing, I happen to think that the government distorts market outcomes simply by providing different types and levels of infrastructure in some places and not in others. I don't see anybody seriously proposing to move that power/responsibility from government hands into the private sector, nor do I think it should be moved. So it's pointless to talk about letting the market rule the housing sector, and that's before you even get into the morass of local planning and zoning boards, which some economists would see not as government but as agents for groups of consumers.

Your point about government-owned and -maintained housing is well-taken, Mike. It's rarely a success. I'm not familiar with your specific examples of council housing, but here in the US I'd say that public housing projects don't work partly because they are more cheaply built and very easy to distinguish from their privately-built counterparts. We've had some successful local-level experiments here in the US with selling/handing over housing units, that are indistinguishable and sometimes located in the same buildings or developments as private-sector housing, to individual tenants. Ownership does good things for home maintenance, but I see no reason why privately-owned housing has to be privately-built.

What frustrates me is the timidity of government approaches like tax credits and public-private partnerships, which to me are a result of too much deference for property rights. We have a lot more of that (the deference) here in the US than you do in the UK, Mike, and it's not working. When government provides the infrastructure that allows development to happen, and is charged (as it should be) with protecting the natural environment from the wrong kind of development, I have no problem with giving the government some say in what kind of development happens where. If the private sector isn't willing to go along with the right kind of development, then the government should step in and do it. Yeah, that's shocking, but that's how I feel.

I've worked in government and in the private sector, and I'm here to tell you the private sector is no more efficient than the public sector, except maybe that in the private sector there's less of the self-sabotaging cheapness about spending the resources to do things right. You do have the problem of corruption in government, but there are things that can be done about that, and the private sector is not free of inefficiencies like corruption, stupidity, or idiotic brown-nosers getting ahead of smart people with no talent for self-promotion. I don't see the government as some kind of evil "them": I think it's all of us.

I still stand by what I said about infrastructure: the government needs to invest a lot more in it, and I think the time couldn't be better for some big old-fashioned public works projects. Is there a chance in hell that it will happen? Not really. And that's sad.

Eeps. I guess this is why I don't get into these things, because when I do it never ends. Now you all think I'm crazy. I may be crazy, but I love you guys.
miketroll From: miketroll Date: February 17th, 2006 11:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks, fff! Your viewpoint is much clearer now. I agree there is room for judicious government intervention, in the right time and place. Roosevelt's New Deal was a classic example of where such plans can be very successful, and sometimes fail abysmally. What I really abominate is the socialist / totalitarian appetite for wholesale government control. It removes both power and responsibility from individuals. This is what inevitably destroyed the Soviet Union.

Like you I have worked in both public and private sectors, indeed in the same organisation, which was privatised. I have also seen inefficiencies and idiocies in both, not least the unscrupulous brown-nosers getting ahead of smart people. (That seems to be universal!) But at least private inefficiency has the virtue of being self-limiting: companies that don't function well go bust. Government, on the other hand, can always increase taxation to compensate for its follies.

I am especially averse to income tax, and that is how I read your jocular "soak the Volvo owners" comment. It doesn't make sense to penalise labour, the very thing that creates wealth. All the emphasis should be on taxing consumption. In any case, the rich can always pay smart lawyers and accountants to help them evade tax. The people who are really hit by taxes are the much maligned middle classes, the people with the brains, the diligence and the sense of social responsibility.

But those are generalities. There are different practical problems in the US and the UK. Here private enterprise is already excessively restrained. The French built a high speed rail link from Paris to the Channel Tunnel many years ago; on the British side, the 50 mile link to London has been bogged down for years by NIMBY planning objections and public inquiries.

In the US, you have an opposite problem, a different kind of failure of democracy. Too often, fat cat greed and stupidity goes unchecked. Going back to the Florida example, property developers are being allowed to destroy the state for short term gain. Woohoo! Let's cover the landscape with $2 million condos and country clubs. Ruining the soil and drainage? Not my problem! Building houses for the people who will service this new community of condo owners? Not my problem! That's where government should step in.
florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 17th, 2006 12:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ooh, we're getting into the generalities now. I think you're right, that we're looking at different ends of the problem in the US and the UK.

I wouldn't necessarily agree that private inefficiency is self-limiting, especially in these days of insider trading and accounting scandals. Shareholder activists, who demand greater transparency in operations, aren't having much success. The extreme short-term view promoted by the reliance on stock markets, with their focus on quarterly profits, doesn't automatically lead to wise long-term decisions either. It's easy for a CEO to come in and goose profits for a quarter or two by cutting staff or R&D, then be outta there on a golden parachute before the trouble starts. The extreme result of inefficiency might be for the company to go bust, but that takes a long time and causes a lot of pain along the way.

I know taxes are high in the UK, but here in the US, government can't raise taxes to pay for either follies or necessities. Our national deficiencies in infrastructure, health care and education, and our trade deficits, are hurting our position in the world and our quality of life at home. As Edward Luttwak, a Reagan administration official, put it (I'm paraphrasing): the way we're going, we'll end up with lots of nice cars and no safe places to park them. Income taxes don't penalize labor alone, they also come from capital gains. Personally I favor a very simple progressive tax code, with just a few brackets of increasing marginal rates and none of the deductions or credits that make for manipulation by accountants and lawyers. Politically, again, that's unlikely, and that's a damn shame.

On one of your last points, I abhor NIMBYism. That's not what I'm talking about when I say government has to be more active.
florafloraflora From: florafloraflora Date: February 17th, 2006 05:06 pm (UTC) (Link)


When I say "soak the Volvo drivers", I'm including myself. I don't drive a Volvo and I'm not rolling in cash, but only because I live in an expensive city. Anywhere else the Mr. and I would be well off. Because our federal taxes aren't adjusted for local cost of living and because the District of Columbia has one of the highest local tax rates in the country, we pay plenty, believe me. And that's OK.
ottawabill From: ottawabill Date: February 16th, 2006 11:15 pm (UTC) (Link)

I suspect you will see more, not less of this

Not disputing whether a government operated venture would be more efficient or not, there are some systemic reasons why such projects are decreasingly likely to be taken on by government. The largest being that there is a shift in power from governments constrained by borders and fixed to land, to businesses that are transnational and highly financially fluid.

The normal-person version of this means that large business does not want to pay more taxes and can more and more easily relocate it's money to places that are cheaper to operate. Governments must consider the risks of raising taxes for things that are good for citizens against the risk of raising taxes that will either drive away businesses or rasie the cost of goods to where they are no longer competitive. Increasingly the policy agenda of government is controlled/heavily influenced by the interest of large business.

That said, there are small and medium businesses that cannot shift their work to Inida or bank on a low-tax island. But these companies are particularly vulnerable to tax-based increases in their costs that could push their goods out of the competitive market. And they are also the ones most likely to be attracted by tax breaks for participating in local small scale projects such as H4H. But the tax and advertising benefits are not lost on bigger companies...just look at the popularity of Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

An amusing related aside...when my grandmother saw her first episode of Extreme Home Makeover she was shocked....not that all those people and companies would ban together to do something like that but that they would brag about it by putting it on TV. In her day, she said, that would have been considered boastful and not "true" generosity !

My guess is that in the next 20 years we will continue to see a decline in government paid for services and an increase in expectation that people will do for themselves - either individually, in groups, or in communities.

I hope I am wrong.
From: mlburgess Date: February 17th, 2006 04:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I <3 Habitat for Humanity, how they help the less fortunate by building them nice homes. Great organization.
Glad you're here! =)
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