Tag Archives: Thomas frank


Monster Mansions

When the going gets less tough, Americans get stupid.

Stupid means big. During economic booms — or times like now, when the economy still sucks but sucks somewhat less than before — automakers crank out giant gas guzzlers. And homebuilders build huge.

Big doesn’t have to mean ugly (viz, the Taj Mahal). But it usually does.

Los Angeles still has a whopping 11.3% unemployment rate, significantly worse than the already high statewide average of 8.9%, but lower than before. And so, with a whiff of pseudoprosperity in the fiscal air, real estate developers are bringing back McMansions — gargantuan monstrosities that dwarf not just their neighbors’ older homes, but also their own plots of land.

Garage mahals. Starter castles. Hummer houses. If you build one, your neighbors may or may not come. (Based on that privet, you may not want them to.) But they will sneer.

Biggification is a national trend. “Nearly 40% of new homes built last year had four or more bedrooms, a return to the all-time high reached in 2005 and 2006. And nearly 20% have three-car garages, an increase following two years of declines,” Time reported in 2012.

“Builders are snapping up smaller, older homes, razing them and replacing them with bigger dwellings. Increasingly, sleek, square structures are popping up along streets known for quaint bungalows,” Emily Alpert Reyes reports in the Times.

            Reyes points to a 3,000-plus square feet spec house on a block in Hollywood where most homes run 2,000 square feet. It’s out of place, it annoys the neighbors, but under L.A. zoning rules, it’s all completely legal. “If the city code allows it, and you want a bigger house, you have the right to a bigger house,” says Amnon Edri, the developer. “This is America. It’s a free country.”

Too bad, that.

The Baseline Mansionization Ordinance of 2008 was supposed to rein in developers’ drive to build bigger and uglier. But the loopholes are big enough to park two Denalis and a Chevy Suburban:

Builders can get a bonus to build 20% or 30% larger than ordinarily allowed if they design their homes to be environmentally friendly, or if they adhere to certain scaling requirements of home facades and upper floors. The home Edri is building on Stanley Avenue, for example, was allowed hundreds of feet of additional floor area because part of the facade was recessed, according to its building permit.

Critics point out that some construction that can bulk up the appearance of residences isn’t counted against the size limits. Up to 400 square feet of “covered parking area” can be excluded from city calculations, for example.

Architects, real estate brokers and developers complain that restrictions on home sizes, such as those passed last year in Beverly Grove, have stifled their ability to accommodate customers’ desires: “Architect Daniel Bibawi said that since the tighter Beverly Grove building limits were approved last year, his firm hasn’t had any projects in the area. The families that hire him typically want at least five bedrooms to accommodate two children, a master bedroom, a guest room and an office, he said.”

My main objection to McMansions is that they, like most post-1960s architecture, are made not just of ticky-tacky but of pure fugly. My eyes! They burn!

But there are serious objections on, among other things, environmental grounds. Thomas Frank, known for his why-do-poor-people-vote-Republican? book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, has a grand theory of How McMansions Make Everything Suck that’s worth quoting in its entirety:

This [McMansion] is [American] civilization’s very center, the only thing that really makes sense in ‘clusterf— nation,’ the tawdry telos at which all our economic policies aim. Everything we do seems designed to make this thing possible. Cities must sprawl to accommodate its bulk, eight-lane roads must be constructed, gasoline must be kept cheap, coal must be hauled in from Wyoming on mile-long trains. Middle-class taxes must be higher to make up for the deductions given to McMansion owners, lending standards must be diluted so more suckers can purchase them, banks must be propped up, bonuses must go out, stock prices must ascend. Every one of us must work ever longer hours so that this millionaire’s folly can remain viable, can be sold successfully to the next one on the list. This stupendous, staring banality is the final outcome for which we have sacrificed everything else.

They do make for cartoons that are fun to draw, though.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: What’s the Matter with Obama?

It’s the Not Caring About the Economy, Stupid

As a pundit it’s my job to explain why politicians do the things they do. Every now and then, however, a pol behaves so irrationally that I have to throw up my arms and ask:

What the hell is this guy thinking?

That’s what Obama has me doing. For over two years. Why isn’t he worried about unemployment?

Thomas Frank wondered in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” why Americans don’t vote their (liberal) self-interest. What I can’t figure out is why President Obama isn’t following his self-interest.

Obama says he wants a second term. I believe him. Every president wants one.

Americans vote their pocketbooks. Not exclusively—they care about a candidate’s values—but no president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Right now it’s 9.1 percent. Unless there’s an unexpected reversal, it will still be way high by Election Day 2012.

Economists surveyed by USA Today predict that the jobless rate will be pretty much the same, 8.8 percent, at this time next year. Goldman Sachs is even more pessimistic. They think it will be 9.25 percent by the end of 2012—with a “meaningful downside risk” that it will be even worse.

Polls indicate that economic insecurity, specifically high unemployment, has been the biggest issue on voters’ minds since Obama took over in 2009.

77 percent of Americans tell Gallup the economy is getting worse. That’s up from 62 percent a month ago.

If Obama wants to get reelected he has to do something about jobs. Something BIG. Failing that—and that’s an epic fail—he has to at least be perceived as trying to do something about jobs. But he hasn’t done squat so far. And his job approval rating, now at an all-time low of 39 percent, reflects that.

I don’t like admitting this, but I’m mystified. Why isn’t Obama even trying to look like he cares about the one issue that could make or break his reelection chances?

What’s up? Are he and his advisors morons, or just out of touch? Do they have some secret jobs-related October Surprise that will magically reemploy the 22 percent of Americans who are out of work during the last few weeks of the election? Are they the Chicago Black Sox of politics, determined to throw the race to the Republicans? Psychologist Drew Westen can’t figure it out either, wondering aloud if Obama is sick in the head.

Some ask: Is Obama a Republican?

“Government doesn’t create jobs,” tweeted GOP candidate Herman Cain recently. “Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out of the way.” Obama and his fellow fake Democrats never challenge this right-wing framing.

Maybe they believe it. “The White House doesn’t create jobs,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said August 5th.

But the meme is wrong. In the real world where flesh-and-blood American workers have been living since 2000, businesses haven’t created any jobs. Instead, they’ve eliminated millions of them. And shipped millions more overseas.

Those job-killing trends—eliminating workers, increased automation and globalization—won’t change soon. “Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people,” Catherine Rampell recently reported for The New York Times.

There’s also a death-spiral effect. Elena Semuels of The Los Angeles Times sums it up: “Economists say the nation is stuck in a Catch-22 scenario: The economy won’t improve until businesses hire, but many won’t hire without consumer demand, which is weak because of the current state of the job market and concerns about the future.”

“Everyone says, ‘How can we have a recovery without jobs?’ [But] until I start seeing my competitors add jobs, I’m not going to do it,” Loren Carlson of the CEO Roundtable tells MSNBC.

Recovery won’t come from business. The scope of the post-2008 meltdown is too vast.

On the other hand, government can and does create jobs. Indirectly, it creates the veneer of law and order that permits commerce. Government can also employ people directly.

FDR orchestrated the direct hiring of 9 million Americans as government employees for the WPA and other programs. The federal government even hired writers and artists. Adjusted for population growth, that’s the same as 22 million people today. Obama could have done something like that in early 2009.

Too late now, of course. Obama’s inaction on the economy prompted a Republican sweep in the 2010 midterms. They won’t go along.

Keynes 101: the time for austerity is during a boom, when you can afford to save up for a rainy day. Governments are supposed to spend their way out of a recession or depression. The GOP-conceived debt ceiling deal is 200-proof insanity.

“An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking,” wrote Bill Gross of the bond-trading firm Pimco in The Washington Post. “Washington hassles over debt ceilings instead of job creation in the mistaken belief that a balanced budget will produce a balanced economy. It will not.”

Rather than criticize this austerity lunacy, Obama is still going along. “Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact,” reports the New York Times.

“We’re at a loss to figure out a way to articulate the argument in a way that doesn’t get us pegged as tax-and-spenders,” admits a Democratic Congressional advisor. For God’s sake, grow a pair! Make your case to the public.

Anything that doesn’t have “much economic impact” isn’t going to have much electoral impact either. And neither are token gestures like a three-day bus tour, revamping the patent process, or another overhyped speech. (Scheduled for September. Because, why rush?)

As you read this Obama is off to Martha’s Vineyard, hanging out with millionaires.

Really—what’s going on? Can Obama really be that stupid? Can anyone?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)