113 Comments

I would probably fall under your haute precariat categorization. I studied economics & math in undergrad with a plan of pursuing a PhD, but I chickened out of that path my senior year. After college I was accepted into a prestigious teaching fellowship, which paid for my graduate education at a well known relatively elite institution. After a few years of teaching, I realized it wasn't for me, and I've spent the past few years oscillating between unemployment and working lousy jobs in hospitality or office work.

I've moved back and forth between NYC and my parents' homes in FL. My dad who recently passed was a renter and not very financially secure, but my brother and I stand to inherit my mother's house when she passes. I'm currently pursuing self-study in programming to ideally move back to NYC with more solid career prospects. I'm currently 33.

I'm a DSA member and left-YIMBY and I've spent a lot of time arguing housing with my comrades, and I'm thoroughly convinced that for the vast majority of them their position on housing is matter of ideology & ignorance rather than perverse incentives. Most folks I know in NYC from middle class backgrounds have parents who live elsewhere. There's no incentive to push for NIMBY policies in NYC where you currently rent because you stand to inherit property in MN or FL in 30 years.

The truth is that young leftists are skeptical of arguments about supply and demand and simply buy into the narrative that construction of new "luxury" housing drives up rents and pushing out existing residents. Developers are pursuing profits so they must be bad. YIMBYs are all nerdy, basic bro, (neo)liberal white guys who work in tech so they must be wrong. Racial justice groups tell us development causes gentrification, and they're the good guys so they must be right.

The bright side is, it should be easier to change bad ideas than bad interests. Leftists genuinely aren't interested in seeing home values soar, and they resent their suburban upbringings. They want to have an affordable life in the city, and genuinely think that's what they're fighting for. They believe in a massive expansion of public housing if not full decommodification. They just don't get that opposing private development not only makes that more difficult, it really is a form of accelerationism that stands to harm many folks (themselves included!) in the process.

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This is a really interesting post. The NIMBY-ism among the left is certainly disconcerting. I think your first hypothesis explaining it is more accurate than inheritance. It doesn't seem to me that anybody is considering an inheritance 30 years away when advocating against rezoning projects. It seems much more ideological to me.

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Agreed - I don't think it's a 30-year grand strategy to preserve inheritance, rather just plain old first-order thinking. They see that new housing units are more expensive than existing housing without seeing the second-order benefits of increased supply. They assume that new housing is what's making their city exclusive and elitist, rather than the lack of new housing.

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Exactly - I think most people don't like to think about their parents dying, and therefore don't think about what they will financially receive from that.

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I want to push back on the student loan claims being made.

A lot of young folks went into debt to study non-marketable subject areas at expensive colleges. People who are smart enough to get into these schools are smart enough to know that this is a poor investment. I suspect that a lot of this was driven by people wanting to pursue more meaning careers than their parents had, with a better work-life balance. This was a key theme for millennials. But a lot of the wealth that boomers have was made by doing "sell out" jobs with poor work-life balance, specifically to build that wealth. So younger folks made a different choice and, again, these are not stupid people who need to be protected from their choices.

Also, a lot of student debt is for graduate programs that are more geared for personal development than for anything else. There has been an explosion of MFA programs over the years...it's really a bubble that is supported by parental wealth and student debt, and the financial return on an MFA is minimal. But again, taking on that debt is a choice made by our most intelligent young people.

Not to say that the changing economy hasn't made things harder for this generation. But the theme of victimization seems overdone and contributes to a more toxic political dialog.

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Michaeljust now

Pushing back against your push back. I get really damn sick of this narrative. You are telling me an 18-year old in college in 2007 should predict market conditions 5-10 years from when they are choosing their major. That's absurd advice. It's also absurd, because to be blunt, some people are better at things than others. If I chose to go into computer engineering or chemistry, I wouldn't be successful at either of those occupations, even though those occupations are more lucrative than the humanities. Noah already made this point, but consider it a bit more closely. What work do humanities majors do? Journalism, law, education, academia, federal government jobs. Every single one of these avenues has been hit. Journalism is being decimated; law has been stagnant and over populated with graduates; academia has been hit by declining state funding and covid; Federal government jobs was hit by sequestration, education is stagnant with very low wages. My job prospects have been personally affected by two of these events. Without sequestration, I would currently have a job that pays $120,000 a year (all of my supervisors wanted to hire me, but couldn't). So yeah, my "non-marketable" subject would actually be quite marketable statistically at least if Dems in 2010 didn't decide to wreck government budgets to appease Republicans.

But please go off on how as a college student in 2005, I was supposed to predict a Great Recession and sequestration, and suddenly get better at subjects I was bad at.

And I'll almost certainly be fine, but the blame this argument puts on 18-year old students is just absurd.

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Bad things happened, no doubt, but I vividly remember millennials looking down on "sell out" jobs and emphasizing quality of life over career earnings. The poster child for this movement was Portland, where young people went to retire, as they said, but lots of normies took the same path. People might be forgetting that they made this decision but it was everywhere. I don't see a role for government here.

Also, recall that Ds were trounced in 2010.

And calling those skills "non-marketable" was an overstatement on my part.

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Yeah the narrative that 18 year olds don't know which majors are valuable is just false. Everyone in college knew as early as freshman year who was in a useful major and who wasn't

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That doesn't really make most people good at the lucrative stuff.

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I went off to university in 2005, and yes I do think people forget the worldview I was raised on. Said view was do what you are good at and there will somewhere for you in the global economy. You may move off to some BRIC country as they further integrate with liberal order economies; or perhaps you'll be the first wave to venture off to Africa, but just be good at something and you will have your place. This may sound absurd now, but compared to the mainstream narrative that we were going turn Iraq and Afghanistan into liberal democracies it seems rather tame.

I suppose I also fit some of Noah's narrative in that while I am certainly underachieving income-wise I was fortunate enough to choose Tennessee over Vanderbilt, the first paid me to attend while the second would have been $120k+ in student loans. The lack of student loans has allowed me to invest aggressively and build a home prior to the supply shock. I don't think it was some grand forethought on my part. I think it was mostly that a school cutting me a check (after all expenses including food) for $1k each semester seemed like paradise.

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Much agreed, and also, what happens in countries where the state pays all or most tuition is fewer liberal arts seats, because why should the state pay for more graduates per field than can be employed?

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But they can be employed. This is what I am getting at. Humanities majors have had their careers wrecked by CONSCIOUS CHOICES of federal government policies. If the government chose to protect newspapers and media organizations from predatory google ad policies, journalism wouldn't be in a death spiral right now. If the federal government chose to pay secondary school teachers their actual worth, going into education would be a great career. If state governments chose to not starve their universities of funding, academia would be a good career. These aren't "non-marketable" degrees. They are career paths that have been actively and dismantled by federal and state government policies.

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The internet was going to crush margins in all creative industries because now they are infinitely scalable at no cost and there are zero barriers to entry. We don’t need a Boston Globe reporting on Iraq when NYT does the same. We don’t need movie critics in every podunk town paper. Google is only half the equation.

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Michael, but humanities majors don’t have to work in humanities powered industries! You are a great writer? How about writing investment research reports for a Wall Street bank or grant proposals for a green energy corporate or think tank white papers? You are great at interpersonal? How about zillions of client relationship roles in professional services? Artistic? How about design for industrial corporates? Many more skills can be repurposed to the market landscape of the day than people may realize (which may be the problem in and of itself).

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Imagine the federal government started taxing the heck out of tech companies and then suddenly we were reading about hundreds of thousands of computer programmers out of jobs. Would we interpret computer programmer as a "non-marketable career"? Or would the public rail against these federal policies for destroying tech companies? Obviously the latter.

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Those points are entirely aside from mine, which are that governments that mostly or completely subsidize public university tuition prioritize the programs they think they need to grow the economy. They don't want to pay for many more humanities graduates than can be employed in relevant professions. Of course they allow for the inevitable proportion of people who will simply change their mind about their career path. I'm not arguing against increasing state funding of tuition in the US. I'm just saying that peer countries that do that also restrict opportunities for students to pursue humanities degrees for non-career, personal enrichment reasons, at least within the public system.

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It occurs me that probably the biggest reason why YIMBYism doesn't appeal to the "haut precariat" is that they are Utopian and YIMBYism is anti-Utopian.

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Yeah, the Left NIMBY-ism in SF that basically insists on 100% "affordable housing" projects, without understanding what "affordable housing" means as a legal term of art, or offering any explanation of where the subsidies will come from, is absolutely a manifestation of utopian thinking, making the perfect the enemy of the good. It's frustrating, too, because what most people _actually mean_ is that they want the median house to be affordable on the median income. Their parents didn't buy houses that had special covenants restricting how much they could be sold for. They bought at the market rate -- it's just that the market rate was a lot more reasonable at the time, because supply was allowed to rise to meet demand.

As far as the broader trend of 25-year-old haut-precariat members sounding like their 60-year-old parents, I don't think you need to appeal to the idea that they're considering a nest egg. In a lot of cases their parents have Reverse Mortgaged the house anyways, so there is no nest egg. The simpler explanation is just that the average 25-year-old hasn't actually spent that much time _thinking_ about political economy, and they're parroting the talking points they picked up at home, from peers, and from pop culture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIjskDtki8A

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Inheritance

Yes the 4 grandchildren will come into a comfortable amount of money when my wife and I pass on our ill gotten real estate gains to their parents, who if lucky, will pass on even more wealth. I am a Silent and the wife is a Boomer. We are the lucky ones who lived in the 3 glorious decades. Children of college graduates. Recipients of the government largess of that era. I watched America go from "we are all in this together" to "you are on you own" to "fuck you I got mine".

Our real luck is our families got out of Europe, most likely one step ahead of the rope, to America and finally washed up against the western edge of the continent.

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I am old enough to remember that being part of Generation X felt a bit like being a part of a "haut precariat", with both the socialist revolution of the 60s and the yuppie self-centredness of the 80s seemingly having flamed out. At the time it felt the future was going to be incredibly socially liberal but in a more pro-capitalism way. But many of those Gen-Xers turned into Trumpers, and many turned into very annoying NIMBYs (sometimes both). It is kind of sad to see my generation now crapping on young people with all their force. As Noah suggests, the combination of declining earnings from labor and massive windfalls from real estate has made people go crazy. Personally I would be happy to see the emergence of a Greta Thunberg of housing that the Zoomers could rally around.

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Separate from the YIMBY/NIMBY debate and home ownership, there is a lot more going on with the inter-generational effects of middle class family wealth, not just in the anticipation of inheritance but in the buying and borrowing power one gets from family assets. I'm now in my 70s. I bought my first home in the Bay Area 40+ years ago thanks to a down payment loan from one of my roommate's parents. We bought the house as a group; we all (all four of us) got our foot in the door that way; we've all done well since. Further, my mom started giving me money to build an IRA, which supplemented my own, late-in-life 401-k savings. My wife's parents did the same. Neither one of us gained much in our inheritances from our parents' home ownership, in part because there were multiple siblings, but what we did inherit cemented our retirement next eggs. Now I find myself thinking more of how I can manage my retirement savings to help my daughter and grandkids. The house is part of that calculation, but not the major part. What is more important is the retirement nest egg. How do I manage that to make sure my daughter and grandkids get the same kind of help I got from my parents. My parents' generation was more likely to have pensions that, in large part, were not able to be passed on to their heirs. My generation is more likely to have tax-deferred retirement accounts. It makes for a different calculation. My spending affects what I pass on to my daughter and her kids (which is always the case in any scenario but somehow seems more evident when one is managing assets rather than income). Meanwhile, just as I did, my daughter is making decisions with a feeling that her own retirement will be secured by her parents' assets -- not just the homes we own (we are now divorced), but what we hold on to for her in our IRAs and 401-k's I think the change in the structure of retirement plans from pensions to savings plans is having effects we should pay more attention to. I'd rather have the savings I have now than a guaranteed pension, and I'm wary of annuitizing too much of those savings, because I am planning for my daughter and grandkids. How many others of my generation are doing the same? And will the changing structures of retirement plans change spending behaviors for the elderly?

One final thought on inheritances from the Boomer generation. If our kids are having fewer kids than we did, as is generally the case, the transfer of wealth, from whatever the source, will be much greater for the recipients on an individual basis.

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re: the cycle of the haut precariat taking over their parents homes - doesn't the senior health care industry intend to soak up every last penny from the profits of retirees selling their home?

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I think you're correct that simply ignoring or mocking the haut precariat is a bad idea. This is a me thing, but what is the internet for other than venting about people you don't like? I struggle to have any sympathy whatsoever for people with a family safety net holding on to ill fated dreams. My family had no money (or even housing I could move into), so I had to give up multiple career dreams (music, then academia) to, well, learn to code. When you've made career decisions based on whether or not you'll have a place to live, it's really, really hard to care that some people are mad they didn't get their dream job.

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So yeah my peer group is this haut precariat and I am only seeing suggestions but not explanations of the NIMBY arguments I actually regularly see, do here they are:

1) city-dwelling haut precariats are seeing the only housing going up to be luxury housing and pencil towers. They share information regularly about how rezoning and redistricting has often been used as a hammer to knock out minority and immigrant communities. Thus, they interpret the argument for rezoning to be an attempt by landlords to displace small, old homes occupied by minority and immigrant homeowners to replace with unaffordable luxury apartments.

2) Environmentalism. Construction is one of the heaviest impact waste industries locally (and is disruptive and ugly etc so forth). In suburban context, the haut precariat have watched local woods and fields blanketed by McMansions they could never afford and if they did, would still require owning an either gas-guzzling or expensive luxury electric car to access or get to. They'd still be willing but you know, where the jobs and excitement are etc.

Now those reasons may just be self-justification for primal wealth incentives but they must be recognized on their face. This post and comments ask what the haut precariat may be thinking but aren't pointing out what they're saying.

Ironically a big factor that ties in both arguments regardless of the suburban / city divide is simply that most visible homebuilding over the past few decades has been ugly shit for rich people and not humble and relatively dense accomodations for middle income earners, so it's hard to convince people that it's a good idea to build more stuff when the nice 100+ year old houses are being replaced with ugly rich people shit. America's overly expensive cost of building is resulting in only the worst types of housing being built, making people not want to see more housing.

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3) "Landlords." After the 2008 financial crises lost millions of homeowners their homes, swathes of cheap housing was bought up by financial institutions. Haut precariat don't see homevoters as their enemy, they aspire to be homevoters but feel withheld from it because instead of being able to buy a house with a $800 monthly mortgage, some "landlord" bought it and is now charging them $1200, $1500, $2000 in rent. The housing is both off the market, and less conducive for saving for the few houses that are.

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That life is so shitty and disappointing. I took a gamble on doubling my loans at 30 to get an accounting degree and it has worked out. I think. Finally started contributing to a 401k in my late 30s and bought a crappy 125 year old 1200 sq ft house. I regularly think about how terrifying that gamble to go back to school was and how incredibly lucky I am it worked out. I'm a frugal person and truly grateful to have the chance to play catch up and maybe retire one day. I could very easily be a bitter and angry person had I received no accounting job offers instead of just 1 or tried to by my house in 2020 instead of 2019. My great worry is how many losers this country has created by circumstance who expected a normie college, job, wife, house, kids, retire life sequence. It's not there anymore on as wide a scale.

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A few theories.

1. The middle class suburban life is what they know they will want some day.

2. NIMBY / YIMBY battles are fought in the suburbs and they don’t really want to live in the suburbs. They want that cool city life, where apartments are already going up.

3. They perceive YIMBY as synonymous with gentrification. Build more luxury apartments and displace brown people.

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It isn't just about displacing brown people, it's about replacing a certain class of white people, the kind entered the world in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side. They've seen the frontier closing and aren't keen on being instruments of further closure.

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"Now, that’s just a conjecture; I don’t have evidence that this is why there are so many young Left-NIMBYs out there. " - this seems like the right question. Is there also something similar to the notion of overpopulation or nuclear power - self identifying progressives had their opinions on these topics set some decades ago, and they just haven't gotten round to thinking about them again.

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If you read the blog Granola Shotgun, you'll see that development is not something for the little guy anymore. It's all about big corporations with big money wanting big returns. If you try to build at a small scale, you'll run into a unmovable wall of challenges. It's nearly impossible for an individual or a small organization to build anything in many areas. The city of Somerville, MA, for example, did a study and discovered that of the tens of thousands of buildings in town, only about ten could be legally built under the current code.

The big guys, however, can afford the experts. They can afford being able to butter up politicians. They can afford to build at scale. They can afford to buy out neighbors and so on. All of that costs money, and the big guys expect to make a profit and, so, will design for it. So much for building a modest triple decker, a Somerville vernacular, or an ADU.

The NIMBY battle is what made simple development so hard, but the YIMBYs aren't about making development easier for the little guys, only the big ones. It's hard for socialists to work up sympathy for the Toll brothers, even if they may be the only ones who could make more housing available. (Mind you, they aren't going to make cheaper housing available.)

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Are there really any *young* left NIMBYs out there?

IME, people don't start thinking about these things until they have a property interest to defend. And the percentage of young people fitting that bill is increasingly small.

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my anecdata suggest that young progressives in SF and London both reflexively oppose any planning development, and in the former case regard "developers" as a species lower than even tech workers.

My conjecture was that, as with nukes and "overpopulation" - it's more of a reflexive position than one which is actively thought about.

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This is consistent with my NYC anecdata (I'm an urban planner so I have a lot of it)!

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They might not be NIMBYs per se, as they lack backyards. But per Noah's point, they oppose new housing, so they share the same goals.

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There was an article along these lines recently: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/07/will-the-great-wealth-transfer-spark-a-millennial-civil-war.html

tl;dr is that only a small number of millennials/genZ stand to inherit most of the gains.

Now, this is talking about all assets, not just real estate, but I’d imagine the distribution is similar enough. So the model you’re building of the haut precariat supporting nimby candidates and policies is of a white highly educated sub-professional or professional who stands to inherit some property. That really isn’t very many people, is it? How many people’s parents own a home worth close to, say, a million dollars? Seems like that’s most common in the suburbs and exurbs of superstar cities where home prices are high. What about, I dunno, Tulsa or Cleveland or Birmingham? Seems like a very small class.

Also, I suspect there are meaningful compositional effects here. The younger cohorts are less white and less wealthy than boomers or genX. Since interracial marriage is still quite low, property isn’t getting passed down across those lines very often.

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I think you’re getting this wrong. Neither of my parents own $1M houses, but it’s not like their holdings are worthless.

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Sure but does a teacher inheriting a $130,000 home in Kennesaw, GA that she has to split with her siblings constitute a shared class interest with an upwardly mobile software engineer inheriting a $600,000 home from his professional parents in White Plains NY? Positing that these two people have shared preferences just because they both stand to inherit wealth via property seems wrong to me.

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I think in this case we’re not so much focusing on absolute resource levels, but relative. Both inheritors face local housing markets where that much money is about what gets you a house.

The shared preferences come from a national youth monoculture that’s been around for a while - Millennials have more in common with each other than almost any generation before, in terms of preferences. That’s why every microbrewery and hip eatery looks the same no matter where the hell you are. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss shared preferences at least in a broad sense: millennials prefer walkable cities with their favorite amenities, not single-family houses like their parents.

Take me, for instance. I live further out from White Plains, in the suburb of Norwalk. But what part of town did I pick? What passes for a “downtown” here - a walkable several square blocks next to the MTA station. It’s not rocket science.

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This strikes me as a very selective view of things. Not only do I not think all millennials have the same preferences, but I recognize that many millennials are not going to hip eateries and microbreweries - though they might be working behind the counter. Being a hipster who spends disposable income on brews and fancy cuisine means you have money. Millennials famously don’t have money. The “brunch” set is a class critique within millennials where the, say, 10%-15% who have disposable income are ignorant of the way everyone else lives. And I think that’s where I look at Noah’s argument and want to get more nuance about just who constitutes these left-nimby-youth haut precariat types, whether they really stand to inherit wealth, and whether the wealthy they do inherit will be meaningful enough that they pick policies to screw their less fortunate peers.

What I’m starting to think he’s seeing is what we used to call “posers”. These were rich kids who would put on affectations of being grungy and poor so that they could participate in certain aspects of youth culture. Skaters before they became mainstream. All those movies in the 80s about nice girls from good families dating dangerous working class boys. Kids got hip to this and would dress down, act like they didn’t care, etc. but never really had any skin in the game because they always had a nice life waiting for them whenever they wanted to hit the escape button.

Haut precariat as outlined here reads much in the same way. They’re posers who are wearing the affectations of being poor and working class and struggling under the yolk of “late stage capitalism” but are actually the rich kids at the skate park.

My contention is that this is a very small group, perhaps too small to be considered a class unto itself. And I think that assuming all millennials are in this class just because a tenth of them stand to inherit wealth and property is missing the 90% who do not. Clearly not every millennial is partying away at microbreweries so let’s devise a more nuanced way to describe the group that is.

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Small group, but likely overrepresented in the vocal online crowd, DSA, etc.

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Not a sad end at all for young adults to turn into their parents - though they might not agree :)

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It seems to me Noah is thinking too much like an economist here. He's giving the haut precariat way too much intellectual credit (they must have a perfect understanding of how urban housing markets work) and not nearly enough ethical credit (they must be motivated by ruthless self-interest and nothing else).

It seems pretty unlikely to me that the activists are rubbing their hands and muttering "Myuh huh huh huh! Let's all pretend to be super progressive and socialistic while *actually* protecting the appreciation of Mom and Dad's house for when it's ours!" Most people are neither all that smart nor all that amoral.

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And the homevoter theory is mostly bunk as well. It relies on a level of rationally motivated voting that we don't observe in any other case, and is immediately undermined by the fact that renters, of all ages tend to be anti-development too.

Simply we have a system that has too many veto points and a lot of people with a strong status quo bias when it comes to the neighborhood that they live in.

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