Friday, February 19, 2010

Joel Kotkin's Wrong Direction

Joel Kotkin, anti-urbanist and defender of the suburban faith, has a recipe. Start with a chunk of geography and a litany of its problems. Pull a couple numbers out of a poll, drop a couple erudite references to political commentary of the 40s or 50s.

The next all-critical step is the blame salad. Go after labor with a vengeance, especially public-sector unions. Blame Democrats. Blame "minorities" repeatedly. Blame Schwarzenegger, but don't dwell on it, and go back to blaming minorities some more. Blame bubbles, but never talk about where they came from, why they're happening or how we could stop them. Sprinkled on top, blame some abstractions. Blame a lack of pragmatism, an increase in partisanship, a wave of narcissism, a reliance on income redistribution. More recently he's added another topping to the salad: blaming nonprofits.

Let's start with some basic facts before we really get into it.

First, both San Francisco and California are doing a lot right. Despite their undeniable problems, this is a great state and a great city, and, yes, a great place to start a business. San Francisco has some of the lowest unemployment in the state. Our economy and our public infrastructure have both taken some dents, no question, but this idea that SF is somehow the worst run city anywhere simply doesn't match what people who live here see out the window.

Second, a lot of San Francisco's problems stem from it being one of last places to make an honest, systemic effort to try and do the right thing. There are no homeless shelters in El Dorado Hills. We pay for that, yet for most people who live here it's a significant source of civic pride.

Third, another good chunk of the city's problems come from situations that are far, far beyond the control of city government: housing prices have grown out of control largely due to a) income and wealth inequality, which is a global problem and becoming a national crisis and b) decades of incredibly poor statewide land-use decisions. Or take the city budget, which has been decimated by problems at the state and national level. Due to a combination of Schwarzenegger's incompetence and the 2/3rds budget rule, raids by the state in desperate attempts to the state budget have generated a series of cascading failures for city budgets.

Fourth, most of Kotkin's solutions - aren't. The public employee unions he tears at are the last bulwark protecting good paying jobs with retirement security. You can't complain about working people being driven out of the city while attacking about the only structural force providing anything like security for them, it makes no sense. Pension spiking is at least a problem in certain specific circumstances (Mr Kotkin's articles are very light on data for this), but the overall problem vastly overblown and is always about leveling down rather than leveling up. Furthermore, exploding health care costs are a far bigger budget-buster at both the state and local level.

Fifth, many of Kotkin's other solutions lack any kind of internal consistency. You can't be anti-tax and pro-infrastructure. It doesn't make any sense.

Sixth, his racial politics are seriously screwed up. His attacks on this or that appointed government worker may not be driven by racism but it's hard to tell, and the occasional less than fully competent city employee hardly demonstrates a seriously problem. And his understanding of California's historic racial dynamics goes from insensitive at best to paranoid at worst.

Seventh, he feeds antigovernment narratives in a way that isn't helpful and is even dangerous.

Despite all this, his ideas tie into broader conservative narratives that are unfortunately well established, so they fester and breed, carried in vectors like SF Weekly's link-unworthy "Worst Run City" article. I'm sympathetic to the need for developing a recipe as a thinker; sometimes the project of developing an ideology comes down to figuring out how many different ways you can say the same thing. What's problematic about his recipe is that it invariably results in the same shit sandwich.

The downright weird thing is that Kotkin's writing is occasionally threaded through with actual solutions, hidden in plain sight. From a piece he wrote in 2008 just after Obama was elected:

"California’s state government laid the foundation for its remarkable ascendancy. Progressivism’s pragmatic orientation, the melding of science and technology into government, the large-scale investment in infrastructure, and a strong nonpartisan tradition produced spectacular results."

So, wait. Things worked well when we had strong public investment, were pro-science, results oriented, and progressive? What exactly is preventing us from doing that some more, if not the results of writers like him saying the problem lies everywhere else? He even notes that income inequality is a problem in the same article, ""San Francisco," says historian Kevin Starr, a native of the city, "is a cross between Carmel and Calcutta.""

And yet he'll backtrack a paragraph later and lay the blame for such inequality at the feet of the victims of it:

"Perhaps even more damaging was the cultural rift that developed. Many white middle- and working-class voters felt threatened by the rise of new militant minority and student groups. Riots at Berkeley and Watts deepened resentments against the university and African Americans, two linchpins of Brown’s support."

Rick Perlstein makes a somewhat similar argument in his account of Goldwater's founding of the conservative movement: that the Berkeley riots were where the progressive movement started to go off the rails. Yet it's not as if this came from nowhere: Watts was touched off by the incredible racism of the LAPD, a fact that Mr Kotkin elides, and Berkeley was a response to increasingly tactical escalations and violence against students. Yet Richard Rorty, in Achieving this Country, makes the case that without that moment of the New Left going (in some ways) off the rails, it's possible that we would no longer living be living in a constitutional democracy.

This excision of race is at the heart of Kotkin's cultural rift argument. There is a word for blaming "minorities," who by any conceivable metric have had and continue to have very limited power in this state: this is racism. Not the personal sort - I'm sure Mr Kotkin would be the first to protest that He Has Black Friends. Or perhaps not, given that his consulting firm appears to be comprised exclusively of white men.

Racism comes in many forms, from the kind of raw-power LAPD racism that triggered the Watts Riots, to the quieter but far more pervasive structural racism that leads to whites-only consulting firms or the telling of stories that sound plausible enough, yet consistently place blame on the politically less powerful.

Contrast this with a history of this state where, instead, the responsibility for the course we've been on lies with those who have held actual power who have made the actual decisions. Mr Kotkin is partially right: the public sector unions have had some modicum of power. But they've primarily used this power to prevent the complete defunding and disintegration of the public schools - a small price to pay for some degree of featherbedding on retirement security for their workers. And he minimizes the myriad ways that the privileged classes have asserted dominance over the landscape, a dominance well documented by Gibbs and Bankhead's Preserving Privilege: California Politics, Propositions and People of Color or Peter Schrag's California: America's High-Stakes Experiment.

The real problem is this: since the 1978 passage of Prop 13, this state has been governed with an inflexible, conservative ideology. Not raising taxes has become an obsession. California conservatives have demonstrated that with enough people like Mr Kotkin standing athwart history yelling stop, sure enough, you can slow the pace of progress and even reverse it. You don't even need that many people -- certainly, nothing like a majority -- if you craft your big initiatives ruthlessly enough.

And yet the people have repeatedly voted for better schools. Democratically organized unions have fought for and won benefits and retirement security, but Mr Kotkin crassly suggests we should yank the rug out from under them. It's bad enough to be yelling stop, but making history go backwards? The fact is that fancy SUVs and huge houses far from everything aren't the only things Californians want. We want education, and a great many of us (roughly half, according to polling) like living in cities. The question is, what's the balance between public and private investment, the balance between urban development and suburban. And the question of balance is exactly what the conservative death-cult and its enablers like Mr Kotkin have managed to rule out.

So the unstoppable force of people's legitimate desire for a functioning society has met the heretofore immovable object of the conservative anti-tax coalition. It hasn't been "narcissim." It's a deep and stubborn conservatism that has bent the very structure of our democracy to its ideological ends. Until there's an accurate understanding of the locus of the real problems - a project Mr Kotkin is actively impeding - real progress for our state and city will stay on the distant horizon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The freeze crosses a line

The Freeze. This is grim stuff.

First of all, we have to assume the White House is saying something remotely like what it means about The Big Freeze. I'm not going to get into parsing the horse manure that Jared Bernstein was shoveling on Maddow on Monday night. If the White House -- seriously -- is proposing this as nothing more than pure optics with literally zero substance behind it (i.e. they're really not cutting anything, they're just saying they are)... that's such a transparently idiotic move politically that it's beneath critique.

So. Taking them at face value (if for no other reason than because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate), the freeze matters because this crosses a line between weak support or neutrality on a progressive economic agenda and active, even vigorous opposition to one.

There problems are myriad. First, as Obama argued repeatedly during the campaign and as history has proven (whether you look at Clinton or at Hoover), it's lousy policy. It will prolong the Great Recession and keep people out of work for longer. Second, it's going to tilt the electoral landscape for every single Congressional and Senate race towards favorable territory for Republicans. (more on this in a second) Third, and most destructively, over the long term this is going to severely limit the capacity of the nascent progressive movement to make our argument.

Here's how this tilts the entire landscape towards Republicans: think of politics as like a big game that works somewhat akin to Risk. There are territories occupied by each side, and skirmishes affect who is occupying the territories. The basic gameplay mechanism is that you gain or lose territory by effective communication of a coherent argument for how you plan to govern, and then by following through on it. If a candidate in a campaign clearly says "if you elect me I'm going to do X because of situations Y and Z", and you do X, and situations Y and Z get better, you gain ground. Even if situations Y and Z take a while to improve, that matters less, because the main thing voters respond to is the clarity and precision of the argument. For a variety of reasons, you get a lot more points for clearly communicating the worldview than you do for actually delivering the goods.

But there's also a feedback loop built into the game, one in which where the less territory you control, the harder it is to win individual skirmishes. So if you control lots of territory you're always at an advantage. This feedback loop adds something of a winner-take-all component to the game, which tends to make it more frustrating for the losers when they get behind. If you lose territory, the micro-effect on your skirmishes is that all of the sudden the dice are always loaded, you start every game behind a touchdown, or you are fighting every battle up a hill.

In this analogy, the territories correspond to the collective mental landscape of the electorate: what people generally are thinking about the country and whether Democrats or Republicans are offering a better and more clear argument for governing it. The skirmishes are every individual election, especially federal (congressional and senate) races. (Local races tend to be decided generally a little more on local or personality issues, although the overall shape of the mental landscape certainly affects them too.)

Now, progressives don't really know the full shape of their argument yet. One of progressives' favorite pastimes is to call loudly and sharply that we need to develop our agenda now!... while not actually, you know, doing anything to develop such an agenda. In fact just yesterday, the faux-progressives over at Third Way put up this classic of the "call for an agenda" genre. (They also called me "bro" in a reply on twitter, sending me the table scraps their agenda is composed out of. Still not sure what to do with that one.)

While we don't know what our economic argument is very clearly and it's been painfully difficult to get progressives at any level to engage on this question, we do have a hazy outline of it. Just for the sake of this argument, let's say it's something vaguely like these five principles:

  • Securing basic freedoms like health care and child care.
  • Strong public investment in education, research and infrastructure.
  • Democratizing economic power through whatever works: employee ownership, unions, asset building programs, progressive taxation, etc.
  • Building the green economy.
  • Common sense regulation for the environment and financial sectors in particular.
One commonality across all of these principles is that they all require government to work. Capitalism by itself tends to concentrate power and tear through natural resources, there's just no getting around it. Our government simply has to work for any of this stuff to get done, for the cause of freedom to be advanced.

Now as it turns out, a democratically elected government is actually a pretty great tool for determining long-term investments in society. It does much, much better than the private markets. In fact that's really one of the core purposes government is for. America's greatness isn't just the strength of capital, it's the strength of our democracy and the wise, long-term investments we've made. If private markets are privileged, we get piles of plastic crap from China and asset bubbles. If public investment is privileged (or forget privileged, if it's remotely balanced or even just not starved), we get better schools, more research and bridges that don't have giant chunks of metal falling off them during rush hour.

So what the freeze does is that it powerfully undercuts the core of that argument. There's a reason Sen McCain spent so much time arguing for exactly this during the campaign: it's a bonanza of conservative message reinforcement. It reinforces the idea that government spending has grown out of control (it hasn't) and that government in general is a bad thing and needs to be reigned in. The President isn't just pandering and flailing throwing out lousy policy; he's actually actively negating our long-term capacity to shift dimension 3 (worldview-shaping) economic power.

The culprit here is isn't message research or lack thereof. I'm sure this was polled and focused group to death and I'm sure it tests just fine. It's that message research when it's unmoored from any sensible principle or agenda just gives you noise. Garbage in, garbage out. We're never going to make progress until we come to some rough agreement on what direction we're headed; one of the benefits of a principle-based approach is that we don't have to nail down the policy details, we just need some rough agreement that yeah, this is what progressives are about. The five principles there (plus globalizing this approach) might be a starting point, they might be the wrong direction. I don't know. But if you don't stand for something, you'll stand for anything.

One other thing that this means is that national Democrats have managed to learn absolutely nothing at all about how to win elections since 2002. Even September 11th barely woke me from my blissful ignorance of even a modest commitment to citizenship; but it was the craven, limp Democratic response to Republican attempts to gin up the war in Iraq that finally did it for me, when I could feel us slipping towards one-party rule.

This is that same moment of one-party slippage, applied to the economy. That the President's political team is unaware of the resonance and optics and peril of this move is horrifying. I would never say that this November is going to be a bloodbath - who knows what will happen, and a lot of it will depend on each individual candidate and campaign team and their abilities to execute. But if Obama goes forward with this, the messaging terrain certainly just got much, much trickier. Maybe this is some kind of cognitive-dissonance style play, a Chewbacca defense for the economy. But that play works for them by repulsing voters so completely they tune out. I don't see how it's advantageous for us.

When I stood and listened to Senator Obama deliver his speech in Denver 2008, I knew the message wasn't quite there. He didn't run as a progressive and I didn't expect him to govern as one. But I did have a large degree of hope that he wouldn't actively oppose and undercut the long-term direction the country has to go towards. I did have hope that he wouldn't cede large swaths of territory to our opponents. I hoped we weren't going to be looking at eight (or at this rate, four?) years of still sliding backwards.

If you don't believe me, believe Bill Kristol:

"Republicans, in a spirit of bipartisanship, should praise the president for beginning to come to his senses about too much government spending (and for acknowledging at the same time that national security spending can’t be frozen)....Obama’s pseudo-spending freeze is a chance for Republicans to be (refreshingly!) bipartisan, and to take advantage of Obama’s willingness to move the debate over the rest of this year to a terrain—who will constrain big government?--that is good for them, and the country."

And yet as bad as this, today there is news of two amazing victories for progressive taxation in Oregon. What will happen next?

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010: focus and discipline

Last year I'm pretty sure I asked for "more weekends away and dinners with pals." It wasn't a resolution. More of a request. Looking back at my flickr sets, I got an avalanche of just that: Mexico, DC, Tahoe, Steve and O's deck, Foreign Cinema, New York for PDF, Pittsburgh for Netroots (ok those were worky, but they count), the Hamptons, Ojai, San Diego, Camp n' Sons (twice!), Balsa Man + dinner, Bolinas, Leonard Lake, liminal and then Tahoe again. That doesn't even include all the great meals at our or our friends and family's places. Holy guacamole.

Maybe this request thing is working for me. For 2010 I'm asking for focus, discipline and... something kid-related. I feel like I did alright in the focus & discipline department in 2009 (well enough at least that Jen suggested what I need is more slack!), but I have a completely crazy amount of stuff that needs to get done this year so I have to take it up a notch.

But I'm stumped on what quality I'm going to want after la frijolita is born. If you're a parent or have thoughts on this: what's an intangible you'd like to have (other than time)?