Biden Administration

Biden's Housing Equity Plan Is More Likely To Waste Resources Than Curtail Zoning

Plus: How credit card companies became the porn police, the failure of the FDA's ban on flavored vaping products, and more...


Biden's plan to desegregate the suburbs. The Biden administration wants cities, counties, and states that help themselves to federal housing funds to make a concerted effort to desegregate neighborhoods within their borders. That's easier said than done.

There is, as this proposal implies, a direct historical link between racial segregation and government policy. And that is among the reasons for today's racial sorting. But there is more going on as well. A lot of racial segregation stems from class-based issues that also often break down along racial lines. And some results from personal preferences. It is, to say the least, hard for a federal mandate to correct for everything from highway locations to individual choice.

As Kriston Capps points out on Twitter, "this is a rule for communities that accept grants from the government. If cities don't want to follow this rule" then "all they need to do is not ask the federal government for housing dollars." Fair enough. But all things being equal, it would also be better if locales that do get federal funds don't have to spend time on fruitless bureaucratic exercises.

And that's a real danger here. The Biden administration's rule will require tons of cities, counties, and states to assign staff or hire new consultants to draft "equity plans" every five years. Federal employees will then have to review all these plans (which will also be subject to public comment) and take action if they don't find them sufficient.

If the equity plans are just platitudes, pie-in-the-sky theorizing, or tinkering with tiny requirements, that's a whole lot of wasted resources. On the other hand, if they're attempts at serious social engineering, that brings its own problems.

It's hard to imagine much that falls outside one of these two ignominious camps—except reforming zoning policies.

A lot of zoning policies—while not outright stating a goal of racial or ethnic segregation—were put in place for explicitly bigoted reasons. And even when that's not (or no longer) the case, these policies can still have that effect in practice.

So these equity plans could do good if authorities get serious about reforming zoning policies. Zoning reform tends to produce a lot of outrage from a lot of residents, even if it theoretically should attract support across the political spectrum. In theory, this mandate could apply some counterpressure to loosen these rules.

But that isn't how it's likely to work out. There is a long history of federal mandates to encourage neighborhood desegregation, and officials—federal as well as local—have a long history of rendering them toothless. Bloomberg News details some of that history here, and Capps explains more in this Twitter thread.

"The Fair Housing Act—passed a week after [Martin Luther King]'s assassination—requires jurisdictions that receive federal funding for development to actively work to desegregate. It's an (unenforced) mandate known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing," Capps explains. "As housing secretary after the Fair Housing Act was passed, George Romney ordered [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to reject applications for federal funding from communities that were still segregated and segregating. Nixon overruled him. The mandate has lapsed ever since."

Former President Barack Obama tried to revive it. "It required localities to conduct fair housing assessments. It was a bit wonky—but before it took off, Trump was elected," writes Capps. Trump administration Housing Secretary Ben Carson scrapped the Obama rule but was working on a new rule that addressed exclusionary zoning in liberal cities. Trump nixed the plan, calling it a bid to abolish the suburbs.

As of now, the Biden administration rule is just a proposal. It will appear in the Federal Register and be subject to public comment.

Biden will surely get points among progressives for Doing! Something! But rather than dealing in nebulous concepts like housing "equity," it would be a lot more effective to zero in on specific zoning policies and ending those. We're also more likely to made advances on that front at the state level than by attaching requirements to federal subsidies.

Taking on zoning would certainly be productive. As M. Nolan Gray pointed out in Reason last summer, abolishing zoning—all of it—could bring an array of benefits: not just less segregated neighborhoods, but more economic growth, more environmentally conscious building and neighborhoods, and more affordable housing.


How credit card companies became the porn police. In "Inside porn's star chamber," the folks at Hot Money—a podcast at the Financial Times—look at how credit card companies wind up dictating the terms of porn production.

Hosts Patricia Nilsson and Alex Barker start by talking with Allie Eve Knox, who said she made about $1,000 a month selling videos of herself smoking pot. "A few months ago, probably January, February, I started noticing that my videos were being rejected. So if I would upload something, the platform would say, No, you can't have this. You had drugs in it or you had smoking weed. We don't allow this anymore. You violated the terms," Knox told Hot Money. Platforms were afraid of running afoul of credit card company rules, Knox thinks. "I can't put any videos of me smoking weed on the internet anymore. Mastercard has come through and said there can be no drug use, even though, again, it's legal."

FT goes on to talk to Stanley Skoglund, who describes himself as "the enforcer of Visa's rules for a number of years," and to payments expert Kevin Smith, who worked at Visa for 17 years and—along with a former FBI agent named Dick Held—helped come up with the company's porn regulation schemes.

Visa and Mastercard might not explicitly ban certain sex acts, or activities like smoking weed, says Barker:

Visa enjoys an arm's length position from it all, but at the same time, Visa does encourage a whole chain of people in the porn payment system to make judgments on its behalf. They are told to protect the brand. They have to interpret the rules, monitor signs and promote what Visa would call best practices. And in part to keep Visa and Mastercard happy, those payment companies and platforms ban menstrual blood and weed smoking in porn, the example the performer Allie raised.

Nelson says they were originally intent on reporting on "secretive porn barons," because they "thought they were the most powerful people in porn. But what we realised is that they aren't the masters of their own fate. What we discovered is that the real rulers of porn were much closer to home: the credit card networks. And they were in plain sight. The porn barons have immense power and influence, sure, but always within boundaries defined by payment companies. Visa and Mastercard have the last word."

To be sure, private companies have the right to set their own rules. But these rules are clearly driven by government pressure. (See also: "The New Campaign for a Sex-Free Internet.")


Flavored vaping ban didn't prompt vapers to quit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ban on flavored vaping products didn't work. That's no surprise—prohibition doesn't have a great track record—but now we have more solid evidence to that effect. The study comes from researchers with the University of Rochester Medical Center, whose findings were published in the journal Tobacco Control. 

The researchers found that the ban not only failed to nudge adult vapers toward ditching that habit, but also drove some of them back to smoking traditional cigarettes.

For the study, researchers surveyed some 3,500 adult tobacco vapers. Less than 5 percent said they quit in response to the February 2020 flavor ban. The vast majority said they simply switched to vape products not covered by the ban.


• The White House is going on the offensive against Republican pledges to cut spending.

• A copy of the U.S. no-fly list has been leaked.

• In friend-of-the-court filings, a "wide range of businesses, internet users, academics and even human rights experts defended Big Tech's liability shield Thursday in a pivotal Supreme Court case about YouTube algorithms, with some arguing that excluding AI-driven recommendation engines from federal legal protections would cause sweeping changes to the open internet," reports CNN Business. (Read more about the case in question here and here.)

• Another FBI "human trafficking" bust resulted in the nothing but the arrest of middle-aged Asian women on prostitution and unlicensed-massage charges. (And U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is doing the same thing.)

• Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel discusses Effective Altruism.

• "An Illinois state judge temporarily blocked the state's assault weapons ban Friday, finding that the Illinois government likely violated procedural regulations for passing legislation," The Hill reports.

• Actor Alec Baldwin shouldn't spend five years in prison for an accident, argues Reason's Billy Binion.

• Virginia is considering four different school choice bills.

• Texas men face six months to two years behind bars for trying to pay for sex.

• A federal judge ruled that "Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the First Amendment and the Florida Constitution when he suspended a progressive Tampa-area state attorney," reports Reason's C.J. Ciaramella, "but the judge found he did not have the authority to reinstate the prosecutor."