Kshama Sawant: Rent Control Is Like a Minimum Wage for Tenants

Kshama SawantLast week Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant* and I got into a conversation about rent control via email, and she provided such a clear and straightforward explanation of her position, that I asked if I could just repost it here to HA. Instead, she got back to me with the following slightly expanded, better formatted, and presumably copy edited version of her initial off-the-cuff response.

Critics have attempted to dismiss Sawant’s affordable housing advocacy as narrow, divisive, and unrealistic—at best a distraction from the real work at hand. But as you will read from the thoughtful response below, that is a gross mischaracterization. Sawant calls for a “comprehensive” approach. She supports using bonding capacity to build publicly owned housing. She supports most of the HALA recommendations, but would go further by including a “robust linkage fee.” Still, I specifically asked about rent control, and that is the focus of her response.

To me, the most compelling policy and political argument Sawant makes is the way she compares rent control to the minimum wage: they are both minimum standards necessary to protect against the natural imbalance of of power between landlord and tenant, or employer and employee. Rent control is not about repealing the market; it’s about reining in its excesses. And according to Sawant, the alleged construction-destroying impacts of rent control are just as unsubstantiated as the alleged job-killing impacts of the minimum wage.

Makes sense. But you can read for yourself:

Which Way for Affordable Housing in Seattle?

Seattle is booming with job growth and a major influx of working people. Yes, we need increased housing supply. Yes, we need zoning changes to build more housing, and to enable a denser and more walkable and accessible city. But why is there such a severe shortage of affordable housing in Seattle? And what is the solution to the problem?

Is It Just about Supply and Demand?
We are told that we need only rely on the so-called “free market.” We are told it is simply about supply and demand. Let developers build, let the supply of market-rate units increase. And at some point, magically, prices will come down and create housing affordability.

Not one of the proponents of this trickle-down theory can give a plausible idea, or even so much as a rough estimate, of how many units would have to be built for that point of affordability to be reached. We are asked to go on faith.

Amanda Burden, the director of New York City’s Department of Planning, a couple of years ago acknowledged that she had truly believed that NYC could build its way out of an affordable housing shortage. She said the city “built tremendous amount of housing” with that hope, “and the price of housing didn’t go down at all.”

Why Are We Losing Existing Affordable Units?
Supply and demand do explain why Seattle rents are going up. How much your rent increases, however, is determined by the relative balance of forces between tenants and the real estate lobby. Much the same way that wages and benefits in the workplace are a reflection of how much power workers have, including whether or not they have a union, to allow them to negotiate better working conditions.

In the absence of substantial tenant protections, rents tend to not only increase in a high-demand market, but to skyrocket. Why? Because developers and landlords can get away with it.

This opportunity to jack up rents means that tenants residing in market-available affordable units experience massive rent increases, which implies economic eviction. After the tenants are driven out, the previously affordable units are renovated, sometimes even minimally, and then rented for twice or three times the original rents.

What Policies Would Make Housing Affordable?
To actually create new affordable housing, we need a comprehensive policy program. I support most of the recommendations of the HALA committee, although they don’t go far enough. We need a robust linkage fee on big developers to generate a billion dollars to build affordable housing. We must also leverage the City’s bonding capacity to build thousands of units of City-owned affordable housing.

But it will take years to build the thousands of affordable housing units that Seattle desperately needs. In the meanwhile, policies that stabilize rent increases are essential in order to prevent price gouging. The citywide wave of economic evictions and displacement will not be stemmed without rent regulation.

Why Rent Control and What Does it Mean?
Price gouging is not inevitable. It happens in the absence of any real protections for tenants in the form of regulation on rent increases, just like worker exploitation happens in the absence of a minimum wage. That’s where rent control comes in.

By rent control, we mean linking rent increases to inflation. Landlords could still make profits and finance maintenance, but the massive rent hikes and economic evictions that we are seeing in Seattle would be prohibited.

Contrary to the myth that rent control slows construction and hurts housing supply, the two largest building booms in New York City history occurred in periods of strict rent control, first in the 1920s and again from 1947-1965. Demonizing rent control is inconsistent with what the numbers tell us.

But Republicans Control Olympia, So We can’t Win Rent Control Anyway, So Why Even Discuss It?
Rent controls are most needed in areas with runaway prices, which is typically localized metropolitan regions such as cities or counties. So the real estate lobby has always fought rent control by pouring money into the campaigns of conservative state-level politicians running from rural districts, where constituents are not demanding rent stabilization. Nothing unique about Washington State there.

And the only way metropolitan areas have won rent control despite all the real estate lobby money is by building a mass movement in their cities and counties and pushing back against the state. This is exactly what I have proposed as a political strategy here in Seattle. As a first step, Councilmember Licata and I have introduced a resolution to demand that Olympia repeal the ban on all rent regulations. I urge you to sign the petition in support of this resolution.

Rent Control is One of Many Tenant Protections Seattle Needs
We need rent control, but in the meantime we also need to urgently enact other laws to protect tenants. Developer loopholes need to be closed so relocation assistance can be expanded to tenants experiencing economic evictions. Tenants need more than 60-day notice in case of large rent increases (greater than 10 or 20%). Tenants with expiring leases need just-cause eviction protections.

Additionally, late fees and move-in costs for renters need to be capped. Penalties for deposit theft need to be increased. And we need a law that will require interest accrued on deposits to be returned to tenants.

To make all this possible, the City must fully fund the enforcement of tenant rights in the same way that we are setting out to enforce labor laws with the new Office of Labor Standards.

I would view the full spectrum of tenant protections (including regulating rents) with a lens similar to workplace rights. Laws such as minimum wage, paid sick leave, anti-discrimination, occupational safety, and the right to unionize haven’t killed jobs or prevented companies from making profits.

These laws protect workers and provide for a better quality of life for working people. Even the proponents of the free market theory are themselves beneficiaries of the gains of labor struggles. The gains from successful housing affordability policies will be no different. The victory on the $15 minimum wage shows what workers can win when they organize and fight back. We need to build a similarly powerful organized movement for housing justice. Let us begin.

* Duh-uh, I’m a Kshama Sawant supporter. Only an idiot would need this disclaimer, but, well, you know….

What Color Should I Paint My House?

My house (circa 1935).

My house (circa 1935).

I’m getting my house painted in a week or so, and I’ve yet to pick out colors because A) I’m a guy; and B) I’m one of those guys who is, um, differently color-vision-abled. So I thought I’d try crowd-sourcing the decision. What colors should I paint my 1912 craftsman (currently a pale yellowish base with brownish looking trim)?

Seriously. Here’s the Benjamin Moore online color selection tool.  I’m open to your suggestions.*

* (Though please don’t suggest some stupid color combination like the elementary school kids who would rip the wrappers off the crayons the minute they learned I was colorblind, and then tell me that the brown crayon was green—I’ll run my options by some actual women first just to make sure I’m not being fucked with.)

Friday Night Multimedia Extravaganza!

Julianna Forlano: An Absurd Minute.

The 2016 Clown Convention:

Daily Show debunks the christian anti-discrimination myth.

VSauce: The Banach–Tarski Paradox:

Thom: The Good, The Bad and The Very, Very, Ancipitally Ugly!

The Obama–Stewart Conspiracy:

Obama lectures Congress as he signs 3 month highway funding bill.

David Pakman: Boy Scouts end ban on gay adults.

Things your racist uncle says on Facebook.

Fetal Attraction:

Mark Fiore: Plutonians of color.

Young Turks: Jewish fundamentalist attacks gay pride parade.

The hidden costs of U.S. wars.

Lion Killer:

Obama: Addressing AIDS/HIV in America.

Mental Floss: 25 things you didn’t know about dreams.

The NY Times Botched Clinton Email Story:

Kimmel: The week in unnecessary censorship.

Mental Floss: Misconceptions about religions.

David Pakman: In 2015, 204 mass shootings in 204 days.

Black and White and Red All Over:

How many countries have the U.S. invaded?

White House: West Wing Week.

Last week’s Friday Night Multimedia Extravaganza can be found here.

Breaking News

It was sometimes a source of tension between me and my editors at The Stranger, but as both a blogger and a “real” (i.e. paid) journalist, I’ve always tried to resist the urge to scoop—and I’ve always resented the occasional demand from other journalists that I somehow owe them a public hat tip for “breaking” a story that I could’ve broken first if I wasn’t so busy making sure I got my words and analysis (and, sure, facts) right.

This has nothing to do with journalistic ethics; I don’t even claim to know all the rules, let alone adhere to them faithfully. I’m just more interested in adding value than being first. That’s what bloggers do. Of course, I’d rather be first. But the only scoops I’m truly proud of are the ones I made by virtue of seeing a story where others did not.

Perhaps had the New York Times embraced the same sentiment, they might have averted an embarrassing shit show like this:

Second, in its rush to publish what it clearly viewed as a major scoop, the Times relied on questionable sourcing and went ahead without bothering to seek corroborating evidence that could have supported its allegation.

In our conversations with the Times reporters, it was clear that they had not personally reviewed the IG’s referral that they falsely described as both criminal and focused on Hillary Clinton. Instead, they relied on unnamed sources that characterized the referral as such. However, it is not at all clear that those sources had directly seen the referral, either. This should have represented too many “degrees of separation” for any newspaper to consider it reliable sourcing, least of all The New York Times.

To be clear, the New York Times libeled Hillary Clinton, and were she not a public figure the paper would be facing a multi-million dollar settlement as the price of their negligence. And it all resulted from their prideful pursuit of a scoop.

The irony is, in the Internet age, nobody really gives a shit who was first. The way I experienced it, the story first broke on Twitter. But everybody now knows who broke the news by breaking it wrong.

Open Thread 7-31

- Looks like a great panel.

I just want to point out that women, in general, particularly older women, can’t win on this one. If they don’t go out of their way to at least look presentable they’re called an “old crone” and if they do they’re derided for spending so much time and money to try to look presentable. And none of it prevents the world from being casually vocal about how revolting they look look either way.

– I doubt this will keep Tim Eyman’s bullshit off the ballot. Still, at a certain point, this nonsense is just going to have to stop. It’s tough to change the state constitution for a reason.

– So the fake Planned Parenthood videos are now causing state governments to harass abortion providers that don’t even participate in the tissue donation program.

And so, I sacrifice thee in the name of the Second Amendment!


Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it’s corporate policy that have caused all 3 Seattle area Chick-fil-A stores have failed their health inspections recently. Some people might say that places are going to have bacteria and that’s why we have health inspectors in the first damn place. But my guess is God is punishing them.

God was like, “I sent my only Son to tell you to love your neighbor as yourself, and instead you guys act like a dickbags: Here have some bacteria. Also, Ezell’s is still pretty good.”

I hope that sounds absurd, but there is a version of the fundamental attribution error — call it the fundamentalist attribution error — that certain religious people can subscribe to. They believe that everything that happens that they agree with is God’s doing and everything that they don’t agree with is just stuff that happens.

Chick-fil-A should be less hateful not because God might send them some disease, but because it’s the right thing to do. While their ownership would probably disagree with me, I’d also say it’s the Christian thing to do. And they should also do a better job cleaning up. Because ick.

It’s the Land Value, Stupid (or Why Seattle’s Affordable Housing Debate Shouldn’t Really Be About Making Houses More Affordable)

Source: King County Department of Assessments

Source: King County Department of Assessments

What with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray dramatically backtracking from HALA recommendations that would have allowed denser housing in many single-family zoned neighborhoods, I thought I should take a moment to elaborate on a point I made in my recent affordable housing post regarding the impossibility of making single-family detached housing affordable. “We all need to give up this fantasy that every middle class family can own a bungalow and a yard,” I insisted. And the table above helps explain why.

That’s the past 15 years of tax assessment records for my own bungalow and yard, copied and pasted from the King County Department of Assessments website. And assuming the total appraised value in the righthand column comes anywhere close to tracking the actual resale value, I’ve earned a surprisingly modest return on my “investment” over the past decade and a half: an average of only 4.29 percent a year, just twice the rate of inflation (Consumer Price Index) over the same period of time.

Thanks, Great Recession!

But that righthand column only tells half the story. The truth is, adjusted for inflation, the house itself has actually decreased in value over the past 15 years. Which makes sense. Depreciation. My house is old. It’s the value of my land that has figuratively gone through the roof.

According to King County, the land value of my 6,800 sq ft lot increased by almost 10 percent a year, from $54,000 in 2000 to $224,000 in 2014. That’s a fourfold increase—threefold even after adjusting for inflation. And unless our population growth projections are totally wrong, there’s no reason to expect Seattle land values not to continue to grow faster than the local economy as a whole.

Why? Because the supply of land in Seattle is finite. We can build more housing, but we can’t build more land. In fact, as the HALA recommendations acknowledged, to address our housing needs we really need to reduce the amount of land in Seattle restricted to 5,000-plus sq ft lot single-family detached houses. The mayor’s decision to reject these recommendations may or may not be good politics, but it’s certainly bad policy. Though either way, homeowners like me ultimately win.

If we do nothing to loosen density restrictions, then the value of my land continues to increase as demand for bungalows with yards increasingly outstrips supply. If we rezone my lot to accommodate greater density, then the value of my land probably increases even more, as it could then hold two or more $255,000 homes where it now holds just one. But either way, my land value goes up.

Of course, economics is a lot more complex than that. “Supply and demand” isn’t a law, per se; it’s more like economic shorthand. But while there are many factors that could alter demand, the supply of in-city land can never increase.

Early growth skeptics would have found it hard to imagine the era of the $1 million bungalow,” Lesser Seattle booster Knute Berger recently bemoaned on Crosscut. But I don’t know why—it was inevitable. For you can build as many duplexes, triplexes, apartments, and condos as you want, and the iconic Seattle bungalow would still remain in short supply.

I dwell on this point to emphasize that when we talk about affordable housing, we’re not really talking about making houses more affordable—at least not those of the single-family detached variety. We’re mostly not even talking about affordable homeownership, what with renters bearing the brunt of the affordability crisis. And yet the pundits and policymakers driving this debate—as well as the reliably voting constituents most politicians tend to answer to—are disproportionately single-family detached homeowners like me.

Which I think tends to color the debate with a glaring lack of perspective.

Look, I love both my bungalow and my yard. And I’m very happy to have been born early enough to be able to afford it on less than a six-figure income. But unless she strikes it rich, I know full well that the only way my daughter is going to own a house like the one she grew up in is if I die in it. So if I really care about keeping Seattle affordable for my daughter’s generation then I know we’re going to have to radically change our expectations about what housing will look like for Seattle’s future middle class.

Seattle needs to grow denser and taller. And if we want to adequately address affordability, we need to grow denser and taller throughout the city. That doesn’t mean eliminating zoning. And it doesn’t mean eliminating single-family zoned neighborhoods entirely. But it does mean making smarter use of the limited land we have as we grow into a city that lacks the space to house the majority of residents in single-family detached homes. All options should be on the table.

So fight to preserve these neighborhoods if you want (politics is an adversarial process, after all), but understand that you are ultimately fighting to preserve these neighborhoods for the relatively well off. And please don’t pretend that there is anything we can do to keep the iconic Seattle bungalow affordable.

[Cross-posted to Civic Skunkworks.]

Open Thread 7-29

- On global warming, I would still prefer we have a reasonable state senate, but this will work.

– The deceptively edited anti Planned Parenthood videos might put abortion providers’ lives at risk.

– Chris Christie’s (and probably most Republican candidates) attempt to push against states that have legalized marijuana is pretty unhelpful.

– The Seattle Review of Books looks like it’s going to be pretty great.

– I’m not a dog owner, but it seems like the off leash ares in the city are pretty pathetic. So maybe help Seattle know what would be better.

Seattle Has Three Affordable Housing Crises, and They All Require Different Solutions

This is my single family detached home (circa 1935) which makes me part of the problem, not the solution.

This is my single family detached home (circa 1935) which makes me part of the problem, not the solution.

I’ve recently been drawn into a Twitter feud with a self-proclaimed “urbanist” who insists that the only solution to Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is to free up developers to build whatever they want wherever they want. Really. I don’t want to mention him by name—because why drive attention to his extremist libertarian views?—so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just call him “Ben.”

When I asked Ben if it would be okay to build 30 stories on my 6,800 sq ft single family lot, he said, “Of course!” When I elaborated, “How about an office tower, or a Hooters … or a rendering plant?” he countered that a rendering plant wouldn’t pencil out with our land values, but “sure.”

And when I pressed on, “So you’d argue for no zoning and no Growth Management Act …?” Ben was unequivocal: “It is very likely that today we would get better enviro and affordability outcomes with no zoning, including no GMA,” Ben replied.


I largely share Ben’s vision of a taller, denser, more walkable, bikeable, and transit-rich Seattle, and to this end I support substantial up-zoning and other regulatory changes. But anybody who argues that the market alone can solve all our problems is simplifying Seattle’s housing crisis to the point of absurdity. In fact, I’d argue that we actually have three distinct housing crises, each requiring its own set of solutions: homelessness, workforce housing, and middle class housing.

Homelessness is at once the easiest and most difficult crisis to address. The most obvious solution is to just give these people homes—problem solved, and most likely at a price well below the real financial, human, and societal cost of allowing the problem to fester. Yet housing alone cannot address the mental illness, addiction, and domestic abuse that leads many people to the streets.

Even those who find themselves homeless due to mere misfortune are almost by definition destitute to the point of being outside the ability of a rational housing market to serve. Thus, one thing we should all be able to agree on is that homelessness is not a problem that can be solved by the market: there is simply no way to profit from building safe housing affordable enough for people who have reached such a level of desperation. How and how much we address homelessness is mostly a matter of how much taxpayers are willing to spend.

Likewise, our workforce housing crisis also cannot be solved by the market, as given the fixed costs of land and construction, there is no way for developers to make a sufficient profit building units within Seattle aimed at renters and buyers earning substantially below Area Median Income (AMI). In fact, the market is busy exacerbating our workforce housing affordability crisis by renovating or tearing down older buildings that have served lower-income Seattleites for decades.

Yeah sure, low-income Seattleites could always double and triple or even quadruple up with roommates in order to pay ever rising rents, and many already do. But as Hanna Brooks Olsen explained on Seattlish a couple years back, the math is truly awful. Add a child or two to the equation and awful becomes impossible.

Free-marketeers like Ben argue that eventually all this new upscale housing becomes affordable when, you know, it becomes old and rundown. Maybe. Or maybe Seattle’s ever-rising land values dictate an accelerated cycle of renovation and renewal? But even if true, eventually doesn’t help people living in the here and now. In the meanwhile, show me the private developer going to bankers with plans to build to 50 percent of AMI. Betcha you can’t.

It’s hard to see how any amount of deregulation can entice developers to build to this market without substantial public subsidies; and subsidies cost money. Whether that money comes from linkage fees or a property tax levy or a citywide income tax, it has to come from somewhere if we’re going to make an honest effort to address this crisis.

Of course, our growing middle class housing crisis is something that the market can chip away at (depending on your definition of middle class)—but that doesn’t mean we’re better off leaving it to the market alone.

We need to change our zoning to allow Seattle to grow taller and denser. We need to allow (even encourage!) accessory dwelling units throughout the city, relax costly car-centric requirements that new developments provide off-street parking, and yes, we need to substantially reduce the amount of land in Seattle that is restricted to detached single family housing. Seattle needs townhouses, row houses, triplexes, micro-housing, and many more two and three bedroom apartments suitable for families with children. And much of it needs to be built on land currently restricted toward low density use.

We don’t need to eliminate zoning the way Ben advocates, but we do need to zone smarter. And we all need to give up this fantasy that every middle class family can own a bungalow and a yard. Our population (demand) is growing while our land mass (supply) cannot. Barring an economic collapse (or a dramatic shift in housing tastes), single family detached housing will increasingly become a luxury that fewer and fewer Seattleites will be able to afford. Nothing can change that. Not the council, not socialism, and certainly not the market.

To be clear, I’m not anti-market or anti-developer. But this idea that the market, free from zoning and other regulations, will fix our entire housing crisis, is magical thinking. The market cannot touch homelessness. The market cannot come close to addressing our shortage of workforce housing. And while a unfettered market might well build a lot more housing than it’s building now, it will build it in a chaotic way that will surely piss off a lot of Seattleites—and because we are in competition with much higher priced cities like San Francisco, the market would still have a helluva time keeping up with demand.

The real decision facing Seattleites is whether we have the vision, the empathy, and the will to really address these problems? Are we willing to spend the money necessary to address homelessness by building more shelters and temporary housing, and by providing the costly wrap around services necessary to get the homeless off the street and back on their feet? Or are we comfortable enjoying the benefits of our economic boom even as homeless encampments sprout beneath our city’s freeways?

Are we willing to spend the money necessary to fund, build, and maintain the subsidized housing necessary to sustain a culturally diverse city—the culture that made neighborhoods like Capitol Hill so desirable in the first place? Are we willing to even consider a modest program of rent stabilization as a short term solution? Or do we want to become a culturally sterile city of haves by virtue of driving out the have-lesses and have-nots for want of affordable housing?

And do we want to broadly slow skyrocketing housing costs for the middle class, but only to the extent that the market delivers? Or are we willing to use the bonding capacity at our disposal to build thousands of publicly owned, non-subsidized middle class housing units a year that would grow more affordable over time by keeping them outside the rent seeking impulses of the for-profit market?

At the very minimum we have three separate housing crises, at least two of which require public money, and all of which require public will. Solving them won’t come easy or cheap. But if we choose to solve these crises they can be largely solved.

The Bens of this world insist that we only have one choice: To let the market do its magic, and live with the Seattle the market begets. But that’s not really a choice at all. It’s an excuse for failing to make the hard choices and sacrifices necessary to build a more humane, more diverse, and more affordable city for today’s Seattleites and for generations to come.

[Cross-posted to Civic Skunkworks.]

Drinking Liberally — Seattle

DLBottleThe Seattle Chapter of Drinking liberally meets this evening. Please join us for political chat over a drink.

We meet tonight and every Tuesday at the Roanoke Park Place Tavern, 2409 10th Ave E, Seattle. You’ll find us in the small room at the back of the tavern. Our starting time is 8:00 pm, but some folks stop by even earlier for dinner.

Can’t make it to Seattle tonight? Check out one of the other DL meetings this week. Tonight the Tri-Cities chapter also meets. And next Monday, the Yakima and South Bellevue chapters meet.

There are 190 chapters of Living Liberally, including eighteen in Washington state, four in Oregon and two in Idaho. Chances are good there’s a chapter meeting near you.

Open Thread

- Does Meet The Press have any standards for who they’ll have on as a guest? No? Cool.

Assuming you are not performing in a film or play in which re-creating the late 19th or early 20th Centuries involves the realistic depiction of a minstrel show, it is not complicated to determine whether or not donning blackface is a good idea. For anyone who might be confused I have assembled a handy flowchart.

– Oh hey, Democratic foreign policy is actually decent.

– The news around the Wyatt Cenac interview on WTF reminds me of the issues Lauren Weedman had on the show. No matter what you think of the show itself, these sort of things are a pattern, and not a good one.

– When George W. Bush tried to use his narrow victory in 2004 to claim a mandate to privatize Social Security, it didn’t really take. In large part because it was a terrible idea, but also because he didn’t campaign on it, so the whole mandate thing wasn’t really there. So I can sort of see why Jeb is running on phasing out Medicare now, so maybe he will have a mandate to do it. But it’s still a really terrible idea.

HA Bible Study: Exodus 32:27-29

Exodus 32:27-29
Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

Exodus 20:13
Thou shalt not kill.


Civil Liberties Roundup

At the beginning of July, I was out east visiting relatives and friends and took a break from the roundup. A few days before leaving, I was at Town Hall to see author Max Blumenthal speak about the latest war in Gaza. The next day, his latest book “51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” was released and downloaded to my Kindle. The day after that, I had a 4.5 hour flight to start reading it.

Blumenthal’s book is maddening and depressing, but ultimately not all that surprising. Even following traditional news sources, the devastation and cruelty of that war was clear, and the hopelessness of the aftermath all too predictable. Civilians were deliberately targeted, even children. Entire apartment buildings were destroyed. Hospitals were blown up. Critical infrastructure left in ruins. And with promises for future retaliation, there’s little desire for the world to rebuild things that Israel will just blow up again in a few years.

The cynicism behind this military approach is clear, as Blumenthal writes in Alternet:

Behind the quasi-apocalyptic destruction exacted on Gaza by the Israeli military during Operation Protective Edge lies a sadistic strategy whose aim is to punish residents of the besieged coastal enclave into submission. The “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after a southern Beirut neighborhood the Israeli air force decimated in 2006, is focused on punishing the civilian populations of Gaza and southern Lebanon for supporting armed resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. In “Disproportionate Force,” a 2008 paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank closely linked to the Israeli military, Colonel Gabi Siboni spelled out its punitive, civilian-oriented logic clearly: “With an outbreak of hostilities, the [Israeli army] will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

The level of death and destruction in this war was not an unavoidable aspect of urban warfare. It was a deliberate strategy of intimidation and terror. It was meant as a way to convince the population of Gaza to turn against its armed factions and stop resisting the occupation.

But this strategy is pure lunacy. Human beings don’t respond to having their homes blown up and their loved ones killed by agreeing to pledge their loyalty and respect to those dropping the bombs. It only solidifies the resistance behind the most radical elements of the resistance, and making compromises and mutual respect even more impossible. As a result, Gaza has transformed from a place where Hamas once challenged the Palestinian authority to be more militant into a place where Islamic State supporters now challenge Hamas to be more militant. It’s a strategy that continually backfires, but Israelis can no longer conjure up any alternatives.

Political outlooks tend to be defined by our fears. Progressives fear entrenched power limiting opportunity and progress. Conservatives fear societal change. Libertarians fear government abuses. Authoritarians fear criminality. Within different societies there can be differing levels of validity for each of these fears. But as long as the fears are rational, a democratic political process can arrive at a sensible compromise.

What’s broken in Israel is that their outlook is now dominated by fears that are largely irrational, and in a country where migrations to and from the rest of the world are common, it’s becoming self-reinforcing through those migrations. One of the striking things in Blumenthal’s recent work is how hostile Israeli society has become for those on the political left. Many are simply leaving. As Israel’s approach to the occupied territories becomes more extreme, its ability to moderate itself in a democratic process is slowly being washed away, not too differently than what happens in Gaza after weeks of bombing. The main difference is that in Gaza, the fears that work against political moderation are far more real.

In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran, the irrational fears that consume Israeli politics are being put on full display. Matthew Duss, one of the sharpest analysts on Israel and its place in the Middle East, explains it really well in this piece. Israel equates anti-semitic remarks by Iran’s theocratic rulers with a desire to use military force to destroy the entire state of Israel. That’s a huge logical leap, and entirely absurd. To demonstrate how crazy it is, he points out that Richard Nixon also once made a bunch of anti-semitic remarks, but had absolutely no desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

But this has also historically been the mindset in Israel when it comes to the Palestinian population and their desire for self-determination. We’ve always been told that the real goal of the PLO, and then of Hamas, is not mere self-rule, but to destroy the state of Israel. And they’ve always been able to point to instances of anti-semitism and other extreme rhetoric to make this claim. To some extent, the history of the Holocaust makes these fears seem more rational, but they’re not. The next Holocaust isn’t around the corner, and neither the Palestinians nor the Iranians have any ability to threaten the existence of Israel, nor do the vast majority of people in those places want that to happen.

This is what drives the largely incoherent opposition to the Iran agreement and the completely devastating military approach in Gaza. It’s an irrational fear of democratic rule and self-determination throughout the Middle East and it goes well beyond Iran and Gaza. It also stifles democratic progress in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and it played a role in our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Obama deserves a lot of credit for getting this agreement done, but it’s only a small step towards where we need to be.

As an American Jew, it’s hard to come to the realization that our blindness to the Israeli leadership’s irrational fears is so central to the various crises in the Middle East, but that’s where I find myself today. Yet no one has become a bigger lightning rod over this conflict than Blumenthal. The Amazon reviews for his book are amazing to read through, nearly all either 5 or 1 star. But the perspective he’s providing is a necessary counterpoint to Israel’s increasingly authoritarian mindset in much the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement has been a necessary counterpoint to America’s authoritarian police culture. I don’t know what works best to fix a society that has seemingly gone off the rails, but telling hard truths and not backing down is a good place to start.

In the news from the last two weeks…
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