Raising Hell: Issue 45: Of Crocodiles, Ukes And Golden Cubes
"In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city - except for bombing," - Assar Lindbeck, economist on rent control, May 2019
Economics, it should not be controversial to say, is a language of power. Those capable of speaking in spreadsheet and jargon have the unique ability of creating worlds with their tongues and transmitting these ideas into lived reality. To illustrate this I want to spent a hot minute — and only a minute as this last fortnight has been a time and I am behind on several obligations (sorry to those who I owe a response, you know who you are) — talking about an article that appeared in The Conversation on the subject of rent control.
I don’t want to heap scorn on the author, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, who you know wasn’t paid to write the thing, but it is instructive on the terrible way economists get to talk about poor people and how they seem to consistently line up on the side of power.
The TL:DR version of the article is that it’s a reaction to an announcement in New Zealand that the government is abandoning plans to introduce rent control — read it yourself for the detail. After the set up, the author quickly dives into a rundown of all the ways rent control is a terrible idea. If you wanted to get into the weeds on why you should probably read this with a critical eye, here’s a fairly compelling 20-minute explainer that broadly lays out why the evidence doesn’t really stack up the way most economists say it does.
A bigger issue is the classism and paternalism inherent when economists start talking about how best to get people — and particularly those on lower incomes who are renting — into housing. A good example of this crops up in that Conversation article at the point where the author tries to talk about why rent control is bad for tenants, saying: “Part of the reason it’s so hard to find rent-controlled housing is that tenants tend to stick around for much longer than they otherwise would.”
In the rent control discourse, this idea — that renters might “stick around” — is one that seems to get economists most worked up alongside the implicit suggestion (that is never stated outright) that rent control creates ghettos. All other criticisms tend to flow from this point: those living in rent controlled apartments may end up “mismatched” to the property, face longer commute times to work, may be less likely to look for work outside the area and have landlords less likely to do repairs.
What these economists are always driving at is what a sociologist might describe as a sense of community and connectedness that develops when people stick around long enough to make a home, get to know other people and feel like they belong to a neighbourhood as much as it belongs to them. As a profession that’s geared towards driving “efficiency” in all things, the problem economists have with this idea is the tendency for people willing to tradeoff small annoyances to remain part of this community.
I make this point to drive at the underlying politics of the critiques that get bandied around. Curiously, they always seem to line up with the interests of landlords, property managers, developers and the financial institutions that bank on their debts. Renters who face being moved on every six-to-eighteen months are not likely to join a political party or turn up for council meetings let alone pay attention council votes on local issues like new developments. When they face an uncertain future, they are less likely to join a volunteer group or attend a protest. This kind of civic participation, in contemporary Australia at least, tends to be the preserve of homeowners, property mangers and self-funded retirees.
The idea that the world might reflect the interests of those making decisions becomes clear when economists start drawing conclusions and talking solutions. Having shot down proposals for rent control, or similar policies such as rent-to-buy schemes of the old Housing Trust (Housing Commission in the eastern states) and revitalising community housing associations, the preferred solution offered by economists is always the same: build more houses and make it easier to rent them. The irony seems lost that this has basically been the guiding philosophy of governments over the last thirty years and yet the problems said to be caused by rent control — higher house prices overall, higher rents on new buildings, low quality construction and cities emptied out of poor people — are all things that sound pretty much like the status quo today. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to get much discussion about how, were you to live in Berlin where rent controls operate, having roughly 60% of your rent freed up to spend on other things seems like a win — yet The Economist still labelled the “experiment” a failure.
Whatever the ultimate conclusion on rent control policies — and it may very well turn out the idea is bad and there is a better way to do it — this serves as a practical lesson in how a profession which places efficiency above all else dominates so completely. As sociologist Elizabeth Berman has said, the function of economics all too often is to constrain demands for better rights or conditions. By artificially limiting what is allowed to be considered possible, it becomes impossible to imagine anything better than where we are today.
For the Fortnight: February 2 to February 16
Where I recap what I’ve been doing this last fortnight so you know I’m not just using your money to stimulate the local economy …
‘‘More money than ever’: gas companies made almost $1m in donations to Labor and Liberals’” (The Guardian, 2 February 2022).
‘Monsoon system wreaking havoc across Australia leaves towns cut off and roads flooded’ (The Guardian, 2 February 2022).
‘Happy birthday, Hitler: how Australia’s Nazis got away with ‘the whole rotten show’’ (The Guardian, 2 February 2022).
And please enjoy this Twitter thread I wrote following the Nazi feature with the additional information from Barbara Poniwierski’s research, including biographical detail about the SS officer that headed up the Australian Nazi party just prior to the outbreak of WWII.
‘Electric cars touted to recharge Australian manufacturing sector’ (The Guardian, 8 February 2022).
‘‘Gone ballistic’: lithium price rockets nearly 500% in a year amid electric vehicle rush’ (The Guardian, 9 February 2022).
‘‘Bit off more than he could chew’: Nerf gun dart removed from Queensland family’s resident frog’ (The Guardian, 10 February 2022).
‘Little penguins on WA island will be pushed to ‘breaking point’ by construction of new centre, expert says’ (The Guardian, 11 February 2022).
‘Perth festival production of climate change work criticised for ‘farcical’ fossil fuel sponsorship’ (The Guardian, 11 February 2022).
Cracking COVIDSafe - An examination of the machine that made the COVIDSafe app, a piece of software made by people who wanted to hack the pandemic (complete).
Laramba’s Water - Laramba is a remote Indigenous Community in the Northern Territory which has been drinking uranium-contaminated water since 2008. We tried to find out what why (on-going).
‘High levels of uranium in drinking water of NT community’ (NITV, 31 July 2020).
‘Company remains shtum on plans to filter Laramba's contaminated water supply’ (NITV, 21 October 2020).
‘‘It makes us sick’: remote NT community wants answers about uranium in its water supply’ (The Guardian, 18 October 2021).
You Hate To See It
A dyspeptic, snark-ridden and highly ironic round-up of the news from our shared hellscape…
“The Motherfucking Crocodile Of Wall Street”
To the esteemed readers of Forbes magazine, Heather R Morgan was a prolific contributor. A self-described “international economist, serial entrepreneur and investor in B2B software companies” who was an “expert in persuasion, social engineering and game theory” she sure did look good on paper. Catch her in real life and Morgan might more exactly be described as someone play-acting at being human. Take, for instance, her rap alter ego “Razzlekhan” through which she created hits such as “Versace Bedouin” in which Morgan describes herself as “motherfucking crocodile of Wall Street”. Weird? It gets weirder with The New York Times reporting Morgan’s arrest with her partner, Ilya Lichtenstein last Tuesday for their role in laundering $4.5b of bitcoin stolen during the 2016 hack of currency exchange Bitfinex. Forbes, in a somewhat unexpected move, has since changed Morgan’s contributor page to “former contributor”. That’s cold blooded.
Create The Intangible — With The Tangible!
Let’s go now to the art world where a $11.7m hollow block of gold was left sitting in Central Park, with its own security detail. The
bullshitartist behind the work, Niclas Castello explained to Artnet his intention was to “create something that is beyond our world—that is intangible” — though there is perhaps nothing more tangible than the 186k block of 24 carat gold that was cast in Aarau, Switzerland and probably has a carbon footprint the size of a metropolitan power grid, the works actual intention appears to serve as a glitzy advertisement for a new cryptocurrency — Castello Coin — he just so happened to be announcing in tandem. Of course, a homeless man had been found in that park exactly a week before and those living in a nearby encampment regularly freeze to death.
Niclas Costello (pictured) will likely not freeze to death (Source: Photo Credit: Sandra Mika/HoGA Capital AG)
The Dutch: Really Bad Eggs
To Rotterdam now where 4000 residents of the Netherlands, that land of weed and bicycles, have declared their stated intention to pelt Jeff Bezos’ superyacht with rotten eggs should the city go ahead with the plan to dismantle a bridge to allow the $500m floating pleasure palace to leave. The bridge, known as De Hef, was originally built in 1877 but is no longer in used today — though as Pablo Strörmann, organiser of the protest explained: “Normally, it's the other way around. If your ship doesn't fit under a bridge, you make it smaller. But when you happen to be the richest person on Earth, you just ask a municipality to dismantle a monument. That's ridiculous.”
How Many’s That Now?
To the local news now in the land Down Under where the leader of a start-up neo-Nazi group that filmed three men giving the Sieg Heil salute and setting fire to the Aboriginal flag has been outed. The man, who posted frequently under the name John Dixon — reminiscent of both US white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr and Australian filmmaker John Dixon — was Stefan Eracleous, a former treasurer of the Melbourne University Young Liberals. Of course, in the official write up “official sources” stress they “don’t regard the threat post by neo-Nazi movement Eracleous is part of as comparable to that posed by groups such as Islamic State” — even though Australian Bryan Tarrant carried out the biggest terrorist attack against the Muslim community in Oceania within memory when he murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.
We Respect The Office Of The Prime Minister
Finally, we turn now to the circus that has been Australian politics this last fortnight, a time where parliament debated whether to pander to the religious right by allowing religious institutions to actively discriminate against trans kids, an unknown MP had to deny he soiled himself after passing out in his office, and where a last minute apology speech by the Prime Minister may have tanked the prosecution of an alleged rapist. Faced with collapsing poll numbers, the PMO has busted out the ukelele in an effort to remind the Australian people this man is just like you. Watch here and weep.
Where we recognise and celebrate the true stupidity of the rich, powerful and influential…
For anyone out there who might have had sympathy for Gladys Berejiklian: don’t. Depending on who you ask the former New South Wales Premier who was either dating an idiot or involved in a corrupt land deal (but then, in New South Wales, who isn’t?), has rebounded by swinging a gig running at Optus. In the role Gladys will be free to indulge in whatever she likes given the total lack of democratic oversight. We here at Raising Hell salute her versatility, her dexterity and her poise in finding an alternative career beneath the corporate veil where FOI laws and oversight committees dare not tread.
Good Reads, Good Times
To share the love, here are some of the best or more interesting reads from the last fortnight…
Mike Coffin writing for Carbon Tracker has this explainer for how ExxonMobil is betting that humanity will fail to address climate change so it can keep selling us oil.
Before You Go (Go)…
Are you a public sector bureaucrat whose tyrannical boss is behaving badly? Have you recently come into possession of documents showing some rich guy is trying to move their ill-gotten-gains to Curacao? Did you take a low-paying job with an evil corporation registered in Delaware that is burying toxic waste under playgrounds? If your conscience is keeping you up at night, or you’d just plain like to see some wrong-doers cast into the sea, we here at Raising Hell can suggest a course of action: leak! You can securely make contact through Signal or through encrypted message Wickr Me on my account: rorok1990. Alternatively you can send us your hard copies to: PO Box 134, Welland SA 5007
And if you’ve come this far, consider supporting me further by picking up one of my books, leaving a review or by just telling a friend about Raising Hell!