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February 10, 2013

Confirmation Bias

Dear Confirmers:

We all fall prey to confirmation bias. When we speak only with people we agree with, we find that everyone agrees with us. It is deemed by the politically correct and perpetually aggrieved among us that all American Indians are offended when a sports team is named after them, and are particularly offended by the name of the Washington Redskins. That controversy erupts every few years, and the same predictable argument is rehashed. That argument is demonstrated most recently by Patrick Pexton in his ombudsman column, "Listening to Native Americans," Pexton writes that he spoke with Native American activists who are demonstrating against and suing sports teams for using Indian names and symbols, and found that they uniformly are offended. Quod est demonstrandum. Well, no, it isnít proven. Pexton spoke only with people who hold a certain opinion, and found that they hold that opinion. That proves nothing.

The best opinion survey that I am aware of that actually asked a broad cross-section of American Indians what they thought about the name of the Washington Redskins was taken by the National Annenberg Election Survey in 2004. Its finding is summarized by the headline of its press release: "Most Indians Say Name of Washington ĎRedskinsí Is Acceptable, While 9 Percent Call It Offensive, Annenberg Data Show," (Ninety percent of American Indians found "Redskins" acceptable; one percent was undecided.) Eugene Volokh did a good discussion of this pollís findings and its limitations in the Volokh Conspiracy, This doesnít settle the matter, but it does mean that we should throw a flag on the play when an activist Indian claims that he speaks for all Indians, and even more so when a white or black activist says that Indians should be offended, whether or not they actually are, and that they probably just arenít educated enough on the issue to be properly offended.


Confirmation bias is also running rampant in the DC Office of Planning and the DC Department of Transportation, which are sponsoring a series of "Idea Exchanges" called "Move DC," This past Saturday, for example, there was a Move DC meeting at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Library. It was less about being an exchange of ideas and more about being a structured propaganda event, at which converts spoke to converts. It brought together a crowd of white twenty-somethings wearing spandex and carrying bike helmets to agree that, as one of the Office of Planningís handouts was headlined, "Walking ó Itís the New Driving." As at past OP/DOT events, people with different viewpoints were discouraged from speaking out and forbidden from passing out their handouts. After this series of meetings the OP and DOT will conclude ó itís predetermined ó that everyone agrees with them that cars are evil and should be banned in the city as much as possible.

How do we convince our elected and appointed officials to listen to, respond to, and represent the interests of all of our citizens, rather than to just the small portion of those who are advocates for the anti-automobile cause that they advocate?

Gary Imhoff


Smart Growth in the "Fly-by-Our-Pants City of Doom"
Sue Hemberger, Friendship Heights,

Thatís Harriet Tregoningís characterization of DC,, not mine. And the gloss her interviewer puts on that sound bite is that Tregoning likes working here because itís an environment where thirteen councilmembers wield the power of both state and local government. Which makes DC a fun place to be for someone who sees herself as a visionary and wants a high-profile city in which to showcase her theories. To hell with actual planning ó no one in DC is going to demand that. So Tregoning will just do what she thinks is best, trumpet its progressivism, and, if need be, move on before people realize what a mess sheís left in her wake. Hey, it worked for Gabe Klein.

For the rest of us, though, the question is are we willing to bet our city on Tregoningís theory? And to be more specific, are we willing to make this wager at a moment when DC is already on the rise and when her theory ó Smart Growth ó is increasingly facing critique from within? Personally, Iím not. And Iím not precisely because I am a car-less urban dweller who is eager to see more people live in cities. The dispute here isnít about ends ó itís about means.

Over the past decade, Washington, DC, has been one of the strongest job markets in the United States and the city has been a magnet both for people and for investment. New buildings, new residents, new neighborhoods, and new public spaces have brought energy and optimism to the District ó as well as a new appreciation for the historic building stock, public transit, walkable neighborhoods, natural beauty, and cultural amenities that long-term residents have always treasured.

On the one hand, weíre in an enviable position, compared to many other cities in the US. On the other hand, we still face many challenges. Even though weíve begun to reverse our population decline, DC captured only a small fraction of the regionís growth between 2000 and 2010 ó less than 4 percent. And we still lose more residents to MD and VA each year than we attract from those states. Fairfax County now rivals DC as a regional employment center. Within DC itself, progress has been uneven. Many neighborhoods that have suffered from disinvestment and population loss have not seen those trends reversed. As we plan for our future, we need is to focus on the things that actually keep people in (and drive people out) of DC. So why have zoning rewrite efforts ignored Comprehensive Plan mandates and focussed on sideshows like accessory dwelling units, elimination of parking minimums, and corner stores?

Honestly, I think few, if any of us, have ever heard people say things like "Iíd happily take a job (or rent an apartment or shop more) in DC if only there were less parking." Or, "My husband and I would stay in DC rather than move to the íburbs if only we could rent a cottage in someoneís backyard." Or "Iíd love to age in place and Iíd be able to do it if only I could move into my basement and rent out our house without having to go to the BZA for a special exception." OP is obsessed with a few planning fads and using the zoning revision process to write them into law, rather than doing the careful planning and problem-solving necessary to sustain and build upon our successes, to fix whatís broken, and to steer growth and investment to the places where it will do the most good. And to do so in ways that make the city more attractive and affordable for people at all ages, stages, and income levels. Thatís a big challenge ó but itís the crucial one. And OP (and DDOT, for that matter) are too focused on vanity projects to tackle it head on.

[See also the piece by Sue Hemberger and Lon Anderson in todayís Washington Post, DCís Plan to Make It Even Harder to Park," "Itís clear that current parking requirements are not hampering growth and development in the city. The Office of Planningís logic is that if parking is scarce and driving difficult, weíll attract fewer cars. Maybe so. But that also means weíll attract fewer people. At a time when the Districtís downtown and its neighborhoods are increasingly seen as exciting places to be, letís not seize defeat from the jaws of victory by making parking so time-consuming and expensive that the District becomes a place drivers avoid. Our planning needs to be realistic. The Districtís wealth of transportation options is one key to the cityís appeal. But even as we walk, bike and use mass transit, most of us will continue to use cars because, for some trips, driving remains a necessary option. And our parking policies canít focus exclusively on city dwellers. In fact, most vehicles here on any given weekday were brought here by nonresidents ó commuters, tradespeople and tourists. Thereís a stark choice: Should we use zoning policy to make it difficult for people to drive into the city? Or should we use it to accommodate cars in ways that preserve a walkable urban fabric while minimizing the hassle, congestion, and emissions associated with finding parking?" ó Gary Imhoff]


Ward 3 Visionís Flawed Field of View
Karl Jeremy,

Ward 3 Vision recently posted its views on government control, land use, the environment, and the neighborhood on its web site ( Global direction is taken from bureaucrats at EPA and local direction from agency head Harriet Tregoning. Itís a "members only" club that advocates social engineering over sound planning practices.

Many of the groupís members believe they are "special." They are entitled on so many levels. Instant gratification is a necessity. The rules donít apply. They know it all. Unlike their predecessors, who entered adulthood with a desire to change the world, the vision driving this group is very short sighted; itís all about them and winning at any cost.

Dim-sighted vision is unworthy of admiration, particularly when the rush to change is designed to meet the needs of a few at the expense of so many.


US Department of Education Faces Pushback on School Closures
Candi Peterson,

On January 29, 2013, activists arrived in Washington, DC, for what has been described as a "Journey for Justice." Seventeen cities were represented, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, District of Columbia, Detroit, Eupora (Miss), Hartford, Kansas City (Mo.), Newark, New York, LA, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Witchita (Ks.). Among their chief demands is a call to the US Department of Educationís civil rights office to end top down discriminatory closings of public schools, phase outs and turnarounds nationally and the sabotage and disinvestment of public schools.

In an AP article titled "SchoolTurn-arounds Prompt Community Backlash," Christina Hoag wrote on February 5 that, "The US Department of Educationís (DOE) civil rights office has opened investigations into 33 complaints from parents and community members, representing 29 districts ranging from big city systems such as Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC, to smaller cities. . . , said spokesman Daren Briscoe." Complaints allege that the criteria and methods used in deciding school closings and turnarounds are discriminatory. Eleven cities testified at the DOE hearing. EmpowerDC, a well-respected grassroots organization from Washington, DC, was represented by Julianne Robertson-King, Esq., a DC Public Schools parent who has a daughter who attends Phelps Senior High School. King represented EmpowerDC, as well as Washington, DC, at DOE hearings.

According to a Huffington Post article, members of the Obama administration were present for the hearings. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remained for 45 minutes despite the chants of protesters demanding to know where Mr. Duncan was once he exited the hearings. Obama Education Advisor Roberto Rodriguez was also present. The overarching theme of the hearings from students and parents included testimony on how the closing of minority neighborhoods displaced students of color without a neighborhood school and destabilized entire communities. While US Secretary, Duncan proffered to participants that he has no control over local school closings, Journey to Justice activists saw it differently. Their January 2013 press release sums up their beliefs this way, "Despite current research showing that closing these public schools does not improve test scores or graduation rates, closings have continued primarily because current federal Race To The Top policy has incentivized the closing and turn around of schools by supporting privatization. However, the privatization of schools has resulted in unchecked actions and processes where the primary fallout is those low income minority communities. The devastating impact of these actions has only been tolerated because of the race and class of communities affected."

Other demands of Journey for Justice include the implementation of a sustainable community driven school improvement process as national policy. Daniel del Pielago, Education Organizer of EmpowerDC states that moving forward, "Communities are planning national days of action and pushing for a meeting with President Obama on this issue. This movement has allowed us to see that we (individual cities) are not in this fight alone and that we will use People Power to continue to organize to bring an end to unjust/discriminatory school closures." Following the DOE hearings, students, parents, and community activists marched down Independence Avenue with police escorts alongside of them to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on the Mall chanting, "We wonít take it no more, weíre fired up," donning T-shirts that read "No schools + no jobs = death." Iím glad Journey for Justice came to DC, and honored to have been among the participants.


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