Concreteness Briefs: How to Communicate Better About Policy
A concreteness brief is a short overview of the information needed for parties to successfully begin communicating about political topics. They are not primarily persuasive; they are meant to introduce proper epistemological methodology.
The problem they solve: they preempt fights over information that is look-upable, and give people a common information context—a common set of anchor points—to begin investigating an issue.1 They demand an answer to the question “What specific knowledge would I need to even have the proper framing of this issue?”
Absent a concreteness brief or at least one person who is willing and able to answer the question above, people talk past each other and spin in circles arguing about policy without knowing basic, parameter setting facts that would often preempt their entire argument. For example, I’ve witnessed umpteen conversations about housing policy in NYC where the interlocutors don’t know what zoning is (not even its basic definition), how many housing units are in the city, how many housing units are being built, etc. These things are all look-upable, and watching people argue about them in the context of housing policy is like watching people argue about the capital of Indiana. That’s not properly an argument, but rather a Google search.
People don’t do that Google search for a lot of reasons (they don’t take politics seriously, they think it’s easy, etc), but the main reason is the anti-concreteness meme, which the brief derives its name from. The anti-concreteness meme afflicts every human domain, but politics especially, and it is “the rhetorical tendency, so hard-baked by habit that it becomes deliberate at a certain point, to avoid knowing about anything exactly.”
Considering what information should go in a concreteness brief requires some care. The point of the brief is not to convince anyone of anything, but to provide them with the ability to communicate about something, and to preempt fights about look-upable information. It is the spark of an epistemological method (be concrete, ask what you need to know before debating things, get common definitions), not a rhetorical kludge of logos.
If you try to make the concreteness brief into a persuasive document, it is no longer brief, and it is not as useful for its purpose. You need other tools and more explanation to dive into a domain more fully.
All knowledge requires context to have meaning of course,2 and the temptation with concreteness briefs is to provide a ton of that context so that readers understand what you want them to understand, and what you think should be understood. You have to resist that urge. Concreteness briefs are inherently deficient on the context front by their nature. But that’s OK, because they are not the endpoint of a discussion, rather its prerequisite and its guardrail. The collection of information you use to create one can cohere into an implied context, and will probably do that regardless, but the briefs are about epistemological method primarily, not persuasion.
In addition to a very summarized portion of the essay above, a concreteness brief about the housing crisis in NYC would have one page or less of things like this on it:
- NYC currently has about 3.5 million housing units for a population of 8.8 million.3
- In about the past decade, NYC has approved 62% of per capita housing units as San Francisco.4
- 71% of NYC’s residential buildings were built before 1951.5
- In the past decade, NYC approved about 200,000 housing units. The population increased by about 629,000 in that time.6
- 39% of NYC’s residential buildings exceed their allowable size according to zoning law; they were built before modern zoning regulations and were grandfathered in, and it would be illegal to build them now.7
- NYC is divided into 59 community districts. 10 of these accounted for about 50% of all approved housing units in the past decade.8
- Many different factors contribute to NYC’s housing market and mix not mentioned here, including: rent control laws, construction codes, historic preservation laws, property tax regimes, environmental regulations, state laws, etc.
What would you put in a housing concreteness brief if your goal was to preempt common arguments about look-upable information, and establish a common set of informational anchors for people discussing the issue?
In other words, it takes the separate information contexts of two people and creates a Venn diagram, with shared understanding/definitions/information in the middle. ↩
Two examples: if you want to tell someone where you live, you can’t just say “I live on 14th St.” More knowledge is required for that to mean something, like a city, an apartment number, etc. Second: as we witnessed during Covid, you can’t just say “50% of all infections were in vaccinated people.” For that information to be useful, and to avoid the base-rate fallacy, you need to provide other information, like how many infections total there were, and how many vaccinated and unvaccinated people are in the dataset. ↩
Strategies to Boost Housing Production in the New York City Metropolitan Area from the Citizens Budget Commission (2020), specifically this graph. ↩
Ibid., this graph. This point might seem like editorializing a bit, but I made the direct comparison because people fight about whether NYC or SF is more bureaucratically opposed to housing. However, a piece of data that’s useful further context to flesh out the picture here is “are a studio apartment and a four-bedroom apartment each counted as one unit of housing?” The mix of kinds of units is important to know as well. But then again, so are things like how that mix tends to be used; like “in [x city], how many studios are occupied by couples versus singles, and how many apartments with many bedrooms get used by people who use one bedroom as an office” etc. ↩
Welcome to the FAR Dome: By How Much is Gotham Allowed to Grow? from Jason Barr’s blog. See the first paragraph of the “Overbuilt Gotham” section. ↩
Strategies to Boost Housing Production in the New York City Metropolitan Area, this graph, and this page for population data. ↩
Welcome to the FAR Dome: By How Much is Gotham Allowed to Grow?. See the first diagram in the “Sixty Years of the Floor Area Ratio: What Has Changed?” section. ↩
Strategies to Boost Housing Production in the New York City Metropolitan Area, specifically this graph. ↩