fight for the right to take the bus to my 38th-story apartment

Matt Yglesias writes about a guy who is trying to mobilize institutional issue advocacy around up-zoning for New York City. I have three responses:

1) This guy rocks.

2) We need this in DC.

3) This really highlights the extent to which institutional organization, ideological framing, and path dependency – not raw material interest – matter in politics. It has become widely accepted that narrow interests are often better able to organize than diffuse interests, and therefore things like car dealership protection, import regulation, farm subsidies, and the whole panoply of “a penny from everyone is a fortune for me” policies persist and are hard to be rid of even if there is a consensus among elites that such policies are stupid. What is less widely appreciated is how many narrow interests simply fail to organize, and how that can sometimes lead to strange outcomes.

Take up-zoning. While there is clearly a dispersed and difficult-to-organize group of people who stand to gain from widespread up-zoning – renters, hypothetical residents, the less-well-off writ large- and a narrow, easier-to-organize group who resist up-zoning – some homeowners, neighborhood associations – there is also at least one a narrow, easier-to-organize group who stands to make a fortune off up-zoning: developers! Especially given that major real estate development tends to be a concentrated industry, it is kind of befuddling that in cities like Washington a handful of major developers haven’t come together to pour money into an up-zoning campaign that could pay off in orders of magnitude. Similarly, at a session on organizing for transit at Transportation Camp I queried the participants on why the big industries that stand to gain from increased public investment in transit haven’t organized the way Big Road and Big Car have, and got…crickets and handwaving.

Elmer Schattschneider wrote in The Semisovereign People that in any given fight the determining factor is often not the participants but the audience, and the likelihood and affiliation of their potential involvement often shapes outcomes without necessitating that involvement at all. This is the real power of interest groups – it’s why  AARP, AIPAC, or AMA and their ilk can get so much of what they want, sometimes without the fight even happening at all. Too often it is neglected that sometimes “natural” organized groups never organize at all, maybe just because…nobody thought to! But our world is tremendously shaped not just by the organized interests but by the disorganized interests.