Tag Archives: Public Policy

Don’t Let the Experts off the Hook

Last week’s Last Week Tonight episode encapsulates a consensus view among my fellow liberals that Donald Trump botched his COVID-19 response by failing to heed public health advice.

While Trump’s record on COVID is indeed atrocious (not in the least for the President’s sociopathic acquiescence to the virus’ continual murder of his subjects in order to save face), I am not certain that the US would have fared much better with a more competent president. Even European countries like Spain, which has a moderately left-leaning prime minister, are seeing sharp second waves, that have no sign of relenting.

Throughout the west, public health experts showed hauntingly relaxed attitudes through February. As the pandemic spread in March, top public health officials’ disregard for common-sense measures like masking suggest that the virus would have gained ground under any administration. A Vox article from March 3rd read that “experts doubt it (the disease) can be totally contained and stopped (through isolation of the sick),” quoting an epidemiology professor who declaimed that “there (are) already too many undiagnosed cases out there.” (this being back when the US had under 30 confirmed cases).

And we shouldn’t forget the disease modelers who insinuated (at the end of February!) that air travel could be conducted safely.

None of this is to let Trump or the GOP off the hook. Their callous disregard for the virus’ seriousness has deprived our country of national leadership and engendered fatal skepticism of the virus among the sizable pro-Trump constituency.

And yet, public health professionals–whose career mission can be summarized as fighting pandemics–should aim to perform better than an incompetent kleptocrat.

This requires that they acknowledge and reflect on previous failures. That they evaluate which pieces of advice or approaches currently work and abandon the ones that do not.

It necessitates, on the one hand, a degree of humility and, on the other hand, a faith in concepts that work empirically, even if they have not passed a textbook-style research experiment.

The results of this introspection will not only affect how we fight this pandemic but how our policy-makers govern.

On a host of areas, from housing to public transportation to social services, both America’s Republican and Democratic polities govern with abject failure.

Especially for those of us on the left, who cherish social progress and equity, it is imperative that we do better.

And that starts with some introspection on what went wrong.

And how to fix it.

Why the West Ignores East Asia at its Own Peril

The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.

The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.

Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.

For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”

Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.

By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.

Public Health Officials in the West advised against mask-wearing at first. ©Irfan Kahn, Los Angeles Times.

Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”

The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.

Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.

ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.

19th Century Orientalism: Chinese immigrants as innumerable, rat-eating horde vs. the God-fearing virile Euro-American Worker

Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.

And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.

For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.

Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.

Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:

Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID). 

The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.


To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.

But now the stakes are much higher.

If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:

  1. South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
  2. Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
  3. The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.

Universal Basic Income to the Rescue?

One of the more memorable aspects of this Democratic presdential primary cycle was Andrew Yang’s championing of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea that every adult in the US should receive a 1,000$ a month check from the government drew a cult-like following to the candidate.

The UBI, as a permanent mechanism, has gained both admiration and criticism from persons across the political spectrum. 

I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on the use of UBI as a broad social welfare mechanism (though I would consider myself on the “Yes” side). But in the public health emergency we are currently experiencing, a check from the government with no strings attached is essential for the health and welfare of the nation. 

Restaurants closed in Rome due to COVID 19 Outbreak. Source SkyNews

As “social distancing” measures become more widespread, many companies and governments will likely have to close their facilities. 

While some professional jobs (e.g. law, government) can be conducted remotely-to a certain extent-, many restaurant, retail and service jobs cannot. Already, some Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have had to close doors because of decreased foot traffic driven by fears of the virus. Once more restaurants begin to follow suit, an untold number of cooks, busboys and other staff will be left jobless. 

Many small business owners will have to close with losses, with no quick, easy route to recoup them (you can’t open another store or restaurant when people aren’t going anywhere). 

Even professional firms may eventually have to close doors if clientele slow for a long time.

The sad irony is that many workers’ primary source of revenue will dry up just when their medical expenses start to mount.

Taking a step back, this could have happened at any time. By this I don’t mean coronavirus, specifically, but a shock to the economy caused by a freak disaster be it a wildfire, hurricane, earthquake or illness. 

Our country should have an rainy-day fund, by which citizens contribute revenue in “good times” to ensure their well-being in the “bad”.

Every year, we would pay slightly more in taxes (with the amount varying based on income) to contribute money to the fund. When an emergency strikes, the money would be returned to the persons affected in monthly deposits, sufficient for them to live decently. Personally, I think the amount returned should start off higher than what UBI proposals call for (at 3,000$ a month: which is equal to the living wage in a high-cost state like CA)-for those in the lowest income bracket-and decrease inversely to the income bracket and assets of the recipient. 

Call it Emergency Relief (ER).

ER would relieve Americans of the added burden of economic anxiety (when crises occur). It would allow American workers and employers to take all steps necessary to combat crises. And it would provide a literal safety net, ensuring that the level of protection one receives in emergencies and disasters does not depend on his or her income. 

De-Regulation or Land Reform?

The Rent is too damn high in LA! Median Rent last year for a one-bedroom apartment last year clocked in at $1,369 a month or $16,428 a year!

For low-income Angelenos (annual income with minimum wage is about $24,000), the situation is dire. High rents are pushing many out of their homes and onto the streets or out of the region altogether.

Many planners have long argued that the problem is one of bad policy. LA has high rents because it doesn’t permit too much new housing, causing housing production in the city to lag far behind the growth in housing demand.

And yet, two recent bills by the California State Senate that would have loosened zoning regulations for housing development around transit lines (where new housing would have the least impact on traffic and the most benefit for poor people), were opposed by many pro-tenant and pro-equity groups, a factor contributing to their failure.

SB 50 Up-Zoning. Source: Embarcadero Institute.

Curbed LA’s Alissa Walker explained why:

Westwood Boulevard is the address of several major LA destinations, including UCLA’s campus of 45,000 students and 42,000 employees, less than one mile to the north. Four blocks away is a dead mall leased by Google, which is busily turning it into a 600,000-square-foot office complex. But here, where Westwood crosses the tracks of a rail system that carries more than 300,000 people a day, it’s zoned for single-family homes. In fact, in the surrounding neighborhood, many of the 1940s-era houses, valued at an average of $1.4 million, according to Redfin, are being demolished so people in the majority-white, majority-homeowner neighborhood can build even bigger single-family homes.

In July 2018, LA’s City Council approved the Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which would have allowed construction of taller, multifamily residential buildings along major streets within a half-mile of five E Line stations, including this one. Estimates showed that between 4,400 and 6,000 new housing units could be added across the entire plan area by 2035. But in October 2018, a group that often litigates over density-related issues sued the city for the plan, arguing that more housing would lead to increased traffic. Over a year later, not a single unit has been built.

It’s quite a different scene when you exit the train in my neighborhood, which is across town via the B Line (formerly the Red Line). On busy six-lane Vermont Avenue, a street lined with six-story buildings houses some of the highest percentages of transit-dependent riders in the city. Across the street from the station is a shuttered car dealership where a developer has proposed a large mixed-use apartment building. Several other new mid-rise apartment buildings have gone up within a few blocks of the station, including a supportive housing project for formerly homeless residents, with a second one proposed nearby.

Single-family homes get torn down here, too, but not usually by homeowners. It’s more often by developers who bought the homes with cash. Sometimes they replace them with rental apartments. But more and more, those developers are building condos that are more expensive to buy than the home they demolished. 

In other words, LA’s zoning system operates as a form of Social Apartheid. It empowers wealthy white homeowners to metaphorically wall off their communities from any type of affordable housing (driving up costs across the city as a whole).

Simultaneously, it funnels new market-rate, multi-family development into low-income neighborhoods of color, raising property values and displacing long-time residents.

Urban Planners need to tackle this power structure in order to build more affordable housing where it is needed.

Westwood: A Commercial Center surrounded by forest estates…

Fighting a power apparatus that supports elite landowners requires a more radical policy approach, one that redistributes development rather than de-regulating it.

Land use policies should at least attempt to equalize housing development, so that affluent neighborhoods densify at a comparable rate to low-income neighborhoods with similar levels of job density and transit access.

The state of California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) provides one potential policy model. The RHNA imposes housing-development targets for cities and regions across the state (the state sets the targets for regions, and regional planning organizations then determine the target for cities). These targets vary according to the region or city’s perceived need for affordable housing (although many question the targets’ effectiveness).

A proposed Maryland law, the (not-so-modestly titled) Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 offers another example. The law up-zones single-family neighborhoods across the state (to accommodate duplexes and other forms of multi-family housing), so long as they’re located either in “high opportunity” census tracts (tracts with twice the regional median income) or in jobs-rich, transit-accessible census tracts with median income equal to or greater than the regional median-income.

Regardless of the policy, shifting multi-family housing development towards affluent neighborhoods will spare low-income neighborhoods the burden of housing market variability. Densification will also create more affordable housing options in affluent neighborhoods. Opening up these neighborhoods’ housing markets to low-income renters will undo the legacy of decades of race- and class-based “redlining”.


Class-conscious land use policy may sound like something from outer space.

But it is really just a new iteration of one of the oldest welfare policies, land reform.

Mural Depicting Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas’ 1937 Land Reform Legislation

From Tsarist Russia to post-revolutionary Mexico to Post-World War II Japan, policies that redistribute the landholdings of a privileged elite to the masses have played an important role in (partial) democratization and economic development.

Rather than expropriating the property of the wealthy, 21st-century “zoning” land reform will re-appropriate vacant parcels in wealthy neighborhoods, transitioning these parcels towards uses that accommodate a more diverse mix of people and uses.

In an age of Plutocracy and Climate Change, the “new” land reform will reduce inequity and encourage sustainability. By reversing decades of segregation, it will politically empower the poor.

More importantly, in the current (left- and right-) populist moment, the mantra of “land reform” will galvanize the masses.

By winning support from a broad coalition (e.g. renters, progressive activists, construction workers, developers), “land reform” policies are more likely to become law than the milquetoast “zoning changes” proposed by the SB 50 crowd.

Power to the People.