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.