Christmas 2021: Handbuilt’s Naughty Or Nice List

Every year, we at Handbuilt Heavy Industries, Incorporated, feel the need to wrap up with a Christmas-y list of everyone who has been naughty or nice. It’s not meant to be formal praise or condemnation, so I hope– to all of the many officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation of Trucks and Cars, for example, who read my blog religiously, for example- that I don’t offend anyone. Well, I hope I don’t offend them anymore than I usually do, at least. It’s an opportunity to look through the stuff we’ve written about over the course of the year, while also

Here tis!

2021 “Naughty” List

In this age of the most glorious doomscrolling, it’s hard to narrow down the naughty list to only the top ten. “Have you seen the quality of the doom though?” one Twitter user threw out there. For example, Joe Manchin is getting some coal in his stocking, but we knew that already. I mean, the man owns a freaking coal company, right? Of course he’s getting coal in his stocking. Not only does he own a coal company, he also owns a company that is involved in some of the worst coal pollution in the country. It is for this reason that he keeps fighting against spending packages that, uh, his own constituency overwhelmingly supports. He thinks all of the dirty poors are on drugs anyway. And obviously has a vested interest in keeping dirty coal plants producing, even if it’s at a much higher cost to ratepayers.

10. Climate Deniers.

In general, I have absolutely no time for climate denialism. My authoritarian, Trump-loving, not-yet-father-in-law, for example, told me over Thanksgiving that decarbonizing the economy– part of my job with a multi-billion dollar company that makes profits every year- is “never gonna happen.” Well, I said, we’re doing it, so it’s definitely happening. The not-yet-sister-in-law, too, was extremely irked when I once made an offhanded remark about climate change being potentially responsible for an unusually warm day in January, when the temperatures were well into the 50s. “Or it’s just a warm day!” she snapped. Yes, no causality here! None whatsoever! There is this notion that it’s all some sort of conspiracy to get us to, you know, marginally shift our consumption habits, as part of a giant scheme of the Jewish-controlled media. Or whatever. Anyway. No time for this.

I got this iconic note in the Handbuilt mailbag in November. This user apparently signed up for the mailing list on the webform and later confirmed their subscription, so it wasn’t just some rando. But he wrote in to tell me that climate change “is a fraud being perpetrated on the US public.” He went on:

Done, sir! It might well have been a red flag that he was using an AOL e-mail address, and I’ve thought long and hard about banning AOL e-mail addresses because of the amount of militant Catholic news I get from one of my similarly militantly-right-wing correspondents, for example– among others. Anyway. It’s possible for any society to build and maintain a very large tent. But honestly, if people like this get left out in the rain, acid rain, whatever, I’m not losing sleep over it. Love, the tolerant left, etc.

9. China’s “Decarbonize The Economy With Slave Labor” Scheme.

I followed a few Chinese solar stocks for awhile, even investing in one for a spell, to mixed results. I asked a mentor about what he thought about Chinese companies listed on US exchanges, and he said that while it might be relatively easy to quantify things like sales of physical assets, valuations were tough, because there’s not really any way to know what’s going on as far as reported versus actual numbers. Such is the problem in the hybridity of capitalism and centrally planned communism comprising the Chinese State. It is, generally, the worst of both worlds, as we’ve seen with the spectacular collapse– or may not- of Evergrande. Evergrande? Ever Given? Oh, wait– different Far East-linked economic catastrophe of 2021. Anyway.

But it gets worse. A number of solar manufacturers are apparently availing themselves of the Chinese government’s labor pipeline via Xinjiang, where the central government continues to flex its muscles on the region’s ethnic Muslims, whether in terms of cultural oppression and erasure or actual forced labor. It’s not really surprising that China perennially screws over anyone who isn’t both Han Chinese and, ya know, completely subservient to the state. Such has been the case for, well, mad long. But what’s surprising to me is how inextricably integrated these human rights abuses now are with the global sustainability industrial complex. The decarbonized power grid must emphasize all three of the bottom lines, not just the “planet” and “profit” bottom lines. Hell, even Trump himself can’t cut the cord with China.

Decarbonizing the economy with slave labor is even more preposterous than decarbonizing the transportation sector, one electric SUV at a time.

8. Congressional Republicans.

Truth be told, Democrats were a close contender for this spot. I’ve often observed that the Republicans care more about winning than they do about principles, and this is why a political minority continues to not only obstruct any meaningful progress in this country, but also occasionally even win the majority. Democrats care more about party than they do about winning. There are no principles. If there were, the Democrats would be able to hold people like geriatric maybe-centimillionaire House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accountable for, well, fighting against the progressive agenda. But the Republicans, on the other hand, love to win, just like Trump suggested.

So, there are no rules, nor morals, nor ethics. There’s just the quest to hold back the *checks notes* Radical Socialist Agenda. That radical socialist agenda includes investing in infrastructure, according to one county GOP committee.

The endless and meaningless “socialism bad” rhetoric, which continues to stymie any meaningful attempt by the Biden Administration to, well, govern, comes especially from the loudest and craziest members of Congress– the likes of Madison Cawthorn (NC-11), a petulant teenager pretending to be an adult who, when he isn’t defending himself against allegations of sexual assault, spends most of his day tweeting about Liberty and Freedom and Guns; the batshit conspiracy rantings of Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14); functionally illiterate gun mom Lauren Boebert (CO-3), and, well, ever so many more. We can add many, but not all, Congressional Republicans to this list: Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Kevin McCarthy, and, really, anyone who was complicit in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, in which the Blue Lives Matter crowd literally murdered cops.

Truly, the strangest timeline.

Republicans care more about winning than they do about principles, and this is why a political minority continues to not only obstruct any meaningful progress in this country, but also occasionally even win the majority.

7. Departments of Road Engineering (Transportation) and Police Departments.

Arguably the two least accountable, most expensive, and most directly responsible for the deaths of random people of any public agencies at any level of government. I wrote about this earlier this year. Cars kill around 100,000 people each year, indirectly and directly, while police departments gobble up billions of dollars in budgets that represent a failure to invest in human beings through radical socialist things like education or healthcare. And, of course, there are the hundreds of police shootings every year (which dwarf the number of police killed by criminals– a number that is itself also dwarfed by the number of unvaccinated police killed by COVID).

Meanwhile, in Detroit, our local police chief, snatched up by the Republican power elite as an example of, “look, we found a Black fascist, ergo, we’re not racist!” is headed for the major leagues! Or at least trying to.

Where is the headquarters of the Michigan Department of Transportation located? We found it!

6. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan’s Republican Legislature.

Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen “Big Gretch” Whitmer got high marks from supporters early in the pandemic for responding quickly and, arguably, effectively, to a pretty bad outbreak of COVID centered around Detroit. The rest of Michigan, of course, had other ideas, ranging from saying that they don’t need to worry about the novel coronavirus because that’s only a problem in Detroit. (Language substantially more colorful than “those people” was used by one gentleman in particular). So, we were left with the leadership of the Republican legislature decrying the tyranny and oppression of the governor, with a gaggle of rightwing nutjobs– including a former federal agent- going so far as to even plan to blow up critical infrastructure in a plot to kidnap the governor.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who is probably about on par with Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert as far as his dismayingly limited brain cell count, wore a “Naturally Immunized” silicone bracelet after getting COVID. Even though that’s not a thing. Shirkey also said in response to the Oxford school shooting that we can’t regulate guns because if we take away all risks in society, we won’t have any innovation! No kidding, Mike?

But back to Gretch: the governor has since backed down off her attempts at controlling the virus, even though she’s still actually allowed to impose some executive authority as far as masks and health through the MDHHS. While I find it a step beyond disingenuous for liberals– of which Michigan liberals are a particularly odious breed (“we love gay people, Black lives matter and all, but you need to buy a truck because It’s The Motor City!”)- to claim that she has no power anymore since it was stripped by the Republicans, it’s at least worth considering the political elements of it. But ultimately, Michigan’s still in the deep red (in more ways than one), and, well, people are dying as a result.

It’s not even about the mask stuff, for me. It’s about the fact that the governor and the Republican legislature are trotting out fossil fuel subsidy after fossil fuel subsidy in the form of more roads, more road spending, and more cars. Garbage, and garbage that is doing nothing but padding Ford and GM’s respective balance sheets– while contributing to a zero economic sum outcome for the state at large.

Of course, there was this flow from Gmac Cash. Is the rapper’s name referring to the embattled former financing arm of General Motors? We can only guess:

If you wanna leave the state, you can stay gone
But right now, Big Gretch says, “Stay home”
All that protestin’ was irrelevant

Big Gretch ain’t tryna hear y’all or the president
How we gon’ take orders from a non-resident?
Talkin’ ‘bout “it’s safe,” but he ain’t comin’ with the evidence

5. Trevor Pawl (a.k.a. Trevor Sprawl) and the Michigan Department of Cars And Trucks.

MDOT is such a messed up agency that I actually proposed abolishing it (repeal and replace!) in an article I wrote during the Michigan Association of Planning’s annual conference after MAP’s Wendy Rampson accused me of being “too negative” and of needing to be more constructive. The reimagined MAMI, Michigan Agency for Mobility and Infrastructure, actually has slightly expanded authority over infrastructure from its previous iteration. It’s less road engineering and more helping people get around in a way that makes their lives better and doesn’t kill the planet.

Trevor Pawl is the Chief Car Salesman of the Whitmer Administration. Under the auspices of Mobility Innovation, he’s been doing everything he can– with the full force and authority of MEDC behind him- to push, well, cars, and more cars. Cars, but different. VMT reduction? Nah, we can’t do that. It might hurt people’s feelings!

4. Non-Economic Dispatch.

Economic dispatch is a concept in utility-world that, in simplified terms, means that utility companies are supposed to preferentially prioritize cheaper power generation over more expensive generation. It’s a way to ensure that ratepayers don’t get screwed when power demand spikes. Peaker plants, for example, are only used when power demand is exceptionally high– like in heat waves or, uh, whatever the equivalent of that is in cold. Cold waves. (Texas, anyone?). Over the past couple of years, it’s actually become cheaper per megawatt hour of capacity to build solar and wind than it is to keep maintaining terrible new fossil fuel-burning power plants.

What about nuclear? Well, America’s most powerful carbon-free power source has run into some issues in recent years. FirstEnergy knows a thing or two about this, too. They almost made the “naughty” list, too, for their close ties with the Joe Manchin coal-industrial complex. But in general, even the market seems to think that fossil fuels are on their way out. Gas isn’t going away today, tomorrow, or next year, but the increasingly clever deployment of distributed energy resources like solar, wind, and, to a limited degree, battery and other energy storage, means that fossil fuels are probably not a lucrative bet on a generational timeframe. Still, folks like Joe Manchin, in chummy relationships with various public service commissions, have successfully pushed to continue to operate unprofitable power plants— because they make money for someone, even if utility ratepayers get screwed.

3. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

The King of Demolition. Lord High Arbiter of Municipal Austerity. Yea, tho he masks his wealth and power by wearing Skechers– working man’s shoes, to be sure- with an expensive suit, as one Twitter user observed, he’s kind of done very little to make things in the city better over the past couple of years. DDOT, which provided vital mobility services during the pandemic and even, as former DDOTer Mikki Taylor-Hendrix pointed out, distributed masks around the city, has struggled against service cuts at a time when the region as a whole is, like everwhere else, suffering from a major labor shortage.

The former headquarters of American Motors Corporation, formerly Nash-Kelvinator, on Detroit’s west side. The building is slated to be demolished next year to be turned into an auto parts warehouse.

Yes, I’m still mad about getting tear gassed. No, I’m not going to get over it.

2. Crypto Bros, Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, and the Metaverse.

It could be the carbon footprint of this whole thing. Or, it. could be how completely and utterly insufferable people are when they talk so obsessively about cryptocurrency. Perhaps it’s just the fact that cryptocurrency– for all its trillion-plus dollar market capitalization- feels really quite like possibly my favorite ever phrase, an intellectual tour de force in a conceptual desert. One of my heroes, Wes Jackson (of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas) used this term to describe genetically modified (GMO) cropseed. I’ve come to think about this term every time I think about one of these technologies we’re supposed to laud as innovative even though it’s accessible to so few people and with such high cost and such utterly awful market information.

The internet promised to democratize the economy. It made important moves, but ultimately failed, because we suck at reining in corporate power in this country, and, of course, capital begets more capital, so the trend is aggrandizement and centralization. Crypto promises to democratize, too. But as Facebook rebrands itself based on the elusive notion of the metaverse, and the world of non-fungible tokens becomes wrapped up in not only Wall Street capital but also control by Big Tech itself, I’m stuck wondering if this isn’t all just some sort of elegantly-framed escapist bullshit that people concocted up to be able to stop thinking about, you know, climate change, white supremacist insurrections, refugee crises, or whatever other disaster du jour is currently going on around the globe.

1. The Haute Bourgeoisie.

Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos. Mark Zuckerberg. Jack Dorsey. Bill Gates. Marc Benioff. Larry Ellison. Jamie Dimon. The rich got way richer over the course of the past two years. It’s funny how that can happen– when you reduce taxes on the rich, on the corporations they own and/or run, and, of course, remove regulatory and enforcement power.

Locally, we’ve got Dan Gilbert, the Morouns, and the Ilitches, whose collective billions and political power have co-opted more public resources than anything other than perhaps the auto industry. And to what net benefit to the city of Detroit? Well, not to the benefit of growth, apparently, according to census numbers. Alexa weighed in one morning when I asked, as I often do:

There’s something to be said for the fact that most of the people on my list above are generally pretty horrible humans who do and say pretty obnoxious things. I’m not really in the category of “#NotAllBillionaires,” but note that there are plenty of names that got excluded from this list.

2021 Nice” List

Between COVID, a boldly white supremacist, arguably fascist presidential administration, and, for me personally, living in a heavily polluted, shrinking city run by a suburban autocrat, the past couple of years have sucked, honestly. But at least this year, there are some silver linings, some rockstars doing great work, and some fun things, overall. On the “nice” list this year are:

10. Every Good Boi and Girl (Dogs, specifically).

Dogs remain the goodest. Even when dogs misbehave and are bad dogs, in an apparent logical fallacy, they remain good dogs. How is this possible? It’s a mystery of our age. But suffice it to say that my year would have been pretty rough without these goofballs. I’m also enjoying the opportunity to continue working from home and spending time with them in their old age, and I’m sure they are enjoying the unprecedented facetime with their humans as well.

9. Rochester, New York.

The home of Eastman Kodak, whatever remains of it, of Xerox, and so much more. A once-great industrial powerhouse that still maintains a wealth of historic architecture and strong institutions befitting a Great City™. Just a really interesting city, overall, and one I’ve had the chance to explore more now that I have some in-laws-to-be living in the ‘burbs thereof. Rochester is one of those cities that evades popular discussion of the quintessential Rust Belt because it’s far enough east. I might put it in a broader typology of Rust Belt adjacency that would group it with Buffalo, another New York Great Lakes city that is definitely Rust Belt, but yet not quite Midwestern per se. The “Rust Belt Typology” question gets even more complicated when we consider having stopped also in Worcester and Lowell, Massachusetts, which are both pretty darn interesting. But that, dear readers, is a story for another day.

8. YIMBYism.

The “Yes! In my backyard” movement has really pushed the envelope on a lot of important issues around zoning reform in the past couple of years. Of course, the movement has its discontents (I’m actually both supportive of the movement and also a vocal critic of it– shocking, I know): critics point out that a lot of YIMBYism seems to be preoccupied with a Reaganomic interpretation of how housing markets actually work. It’s a quite valid complaint, although, bizarrely, the argument of “more luxury housing will drive down prices” is actually a long-term effect, while it ignores the short-term implications as far as things like gentrification.

That said, for all of the problems of the YIMBY movement– like the “we should tear down an 8-unit, affordable, historic apartment building to build a 12-unit luxury one, even though there are seventeen vacant lost across the street”- I’m still gonna side with them most of the time over the NIMBYs. The dialogue has prompted a broad discussion about zoning reform that has resulted in a number of municipalities considering eliminating single-family zoning altogether. This means more sustainable cities with more freedom to do what you want with property you own, and, by virtue of more competitive markets, more freedom to affordably live where you want. HUD is even talking about it.

7. Sara Bronin.

I mean, look. Who else can come out swinging against the MUTCD and the oppressive constraints of single-family zoning, and still be a lawyer and still teach!? Bronin has accomplished all of the above. And more. I must say that I am really looking forward to seeing what else she puts together in the future.

A screenshot of the Desegregate Connecticut zoning atlas, which architect-lawyer-policy wonk Sara Bronin presented on at the MAP conference this fall.

6. Good Public Utility Programs And Collaboratively-Developed Regulatory Frameworks.

Decarbonization isn’t just good for climate change– it’s good for business and it’s good for customers! At least, it can be both of these things if it’s done right. In general, energy efficiency is a valuable tool for saving people money. But investing in it can also deliver a rate of return to public utilities!

I got so excited about this topic that I wrote up a bit about what I was working on and immediately got myself called into the principal’s office, because we’re not supposed to write about work and things that could be perceived as too political! But I stand by what I wrote, the gist of which is that it’s valuable when utilities companies build strong, collaborative (rather than antagonistic) relationships with regulators, and work to develop programming that serves the public interest in a major way while also facilitating decarbonization more broadly. I’m proud to work with one such program, which has saved Maryland ratepayers billions of dollars.

I just wish Michigan had it together in this regard. Maybe one day.

5. Federal transportation policy overhaul.

Not only does the Biden infrastructure bill direct tens of billions of dollars to support the severely and perennially underfunded Amtrak, it also does minute but significant things that change the way we think about transportation. One noted change is a shift from referring to “accidents” and instead referring to “crashes.” This is something Angie Schmitt has written about extensively, and which comes up in most responses to news coverage of traffic violence. Mayor Pete, I had my doubts– but ya done good!

4. Collective Bargaining.

We’ve heard a great deal about the Great Resignation. There seems to be a new article about this every day in the Wall Street Journal or on Business Insider. They’re replete with colorful anecdotes. The world of work is changing! Is the phenomenon real? Is it all it’s cracked up to me? Maybe– maybe not. One thing is for sure, and that’s that workers in 2021 aren’t taking shit from anybody. This has played out perhaps most notably not in the likes of colorful thinkpieces, but rather in the form of collective bargaining and successes of unions against corporations enjoying historic profits. The John Deere strike comes to mind, or the months-long Kellogg’s strike. Also, the first unionized Starbucks. Let’s keep this trend going.

3. Electric Bikes.

They’re selling like hotcakes. Well, as it were– however fast hotcakes are selling. They’re also bringing the mobility revolution– and decarbonizing transportation a hell of a lot faster than electric cars will be able to. Bikes avoid most of the weight of a car by virtue of not having heavy things like, well, giant engines required to move the high weight of everything from tires to wheels to axles to frames. But this means they also carry far more weight in proportion to the energy being used, giving eBikes an important role in decarbonization. Simply put, they’re more nimble, they’re faster for short trips (since they don’t have to negotiate as much with things like limited parking), and they’re much better for all of us as far as traffic congestion, air pollution, and, these days, the ongoing supply chain crunch.

2. Healthcare workers.

We’ve heard a great deal about worker burnout amid the crowding of hospitals with unvaccinated people (since no one wants to wear a mask, because freedom). While overcrowding was a problem before COVID in many areas, and we know that there are huge disparities in care across states and cities, the issue of worker burnout has become much more pronounced amid the ongoing national labor shortage — and quarantine of potentially covid-exposed healthcare workers. Anyway, back to the healthcare workers. You all have been out there doing the damn thing, even if plenty of people aren’t listening to public health directives and both you and they end up paying the price. You deserve better than complimentary cookies (cc: Beaumont Health). And for this you make the “nice” list on a Rust Belt blog, which is frankly probably not even as good a deal as a free cookie– but I needed to mention this!

1. Love.

Look, I’m not trying to be terribly trite here. Love wins. Every time. Like Hugh Grant said, love actually is all around. Whether you’re talking about finding someone you love and telling them you’d like to hang out with them for a very long time and then getting engagement photos taken in front of major infrastructure projects because how romantic is that, or whether you’re talking about demonstrating compassion to those around you– in your household, your neighborhood, your city, or in the broader world beyond.

Compassion can come in many forms, so it’s not for me to tell you what it has to look like. But I do feel it’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot of stuff out there masquerading as love that is really just a bunch of toxic positivity. LinkedIn, for example. Or the proscriptive exclusivity and shaming that is common among many realms of evangelical Christianity. Love isn’t bragging about how great something was that happened to you at work and copping some heart reacts while covering for your employer’s abusive labor practices. Nor is it about pontificating on your personal relationship with a personal savior in a religious sect that, for all its ostensible interest in love, seems to really hate poor people. Nah.

But nor is it valuable to be hostile or even dismissive to people in these positions. Nay, it’s about creating better alternatives. Hence why I try and spend more time thinking about what is possible than what all is currently wrong. There’s plenty wrong. But there is more right, within each of us– it’s just a question of getting at what those “right” things are, and how to formulate them, collectively and scalably. So, with that, I leave you, dear reader– and I don’t pretend that this 5,000 word post (phew) will make up for the fact that I haven’t written much in recent weeks. There are reasons for this!

And, to that end, tis indeed the season! If you are looking to make any year-end donations, I hope you’ll consider the Motor City Freedom Riders, a scrappy group of advocates who are out in these mean streets filling the gaps that His Austereness Himself refuses to, or their cleaner-cut counterparts at Transportation Riders United. If transpo ain’t yo thang, but you’re interested in housing and other types of community advocacy, I’d suggest United Community Housing Coalition, Michigan United, or Soulardarity. Times are hard in the Rust Belt, and all of these nonprofits appreciate your support. Also, supporting local journalism!

More content is coming, and I hope I’m able to actually get back to it after the past couple of months of slacking. Merry Christmas to all!

As with anything else I ever write, none of the views in this article reflect those of anyone from whomst [sic] I collect a paycheck, or consulting fees, or healthcare, or with whomst I periodically enjoy a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, or whatever.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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