When Dayen turns directly to issues like housing, his arguments backfire. He argues, for example, that part of the housing crisis is insufficient construction in the aftermath of the Great Recession. True enough. But that doesn’t explain why it’s functionally impossible to build a six-story apartment building in the most underserved neighborhoods of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Yes, housing developers misjudged demand 10 years ago. But that’s not why they can’t increase the supply faster now. Residential buildings are not technically difficult to build. They are politically difficult to build.
Dayen’s core argument is that what we build reflects who has power – and how it is built changes who has power. What we need, he says, is “the government actively supporting the very groups that have been left out of past economic transitions, building the necessary coalition for long-term transformation.” But who, exactly, is in that coalition? What happens when their interests conflict?
Organized labor is a natural constituency for liberalism that builds, and its leaders tell me as much in conversations I’ve had with them. More building really means more jobs. In practice, however, the term “organized labor” belies the reality of broken, disorganized labor organizations at the state and local levels. Housing and environmental bills in California, for example, often see some unions in opposition and some in support. I have talked in previous columns about the cost and speed gains to be made by using modular housing produced in off-site factories that use union labor. A policy that moved to that production process is good for the production unions that employed those factories and harder for the construction unions that would otherwise have done the on-site building. Who wins that fight?
That said, I think labor is a more natural ally in this project than some other liberal interest groups. You can see this in Pennsylvania, where a section of I-95 collapsed and was rebuilt in a matter of weeks, not months or years, with union labor. So how did it come to be?
Governor Josh Shapiro has invoked emergency powers to eliminate the normal processes that are slowing down other jobs. The declaration he signed reads, “I hereby suspend the provisions of any other regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for the conduct of Commonwealth business, or the orders, rules or regulations of any Commonwealth agency, if strict compliance with the provisions of any statute , order, rules or regulation would in any way prevent, impede or delay necessary action to deal with this emergency incident.”