On Cities

One of the more popular domestic political narratives, after the most recent elections, is how progressives and liberals are losing patience with President Obama.  The logic for the elections, inconceivably, was that somehow people who disagreed with President Obama’s falling into line with the Beltway mentality would then vote for Republicans and even the Tea Party candidates.  Sure.  Right.

I’d agree with David Brooks (who somehow manages to take off his top hat and monocle to write down notes pillaging the cosmo-drinking DC elite from the corner of a Georgetown party he’s attending with the rest of his fellow cosmo-drinking DC elite) who said in a column a little while ago that, despite President Obama’s flailing poll numbers, he is a shoe-in for a second term because there’s just no one else as compelling as President Obama.  Not domestically, not internationally.  I guess what the underlying message of this is that President Obama is the Tiger Woods/Brett Favre/Kim Kardashian of politics.  And that’s what gets you elected.

Anyway.  It has been baffling, even as someone who lives in DC, to watch Obama and other progressives defend horrible TSA precedents while leaving such glaring security vulnerabilities elsewhere.  It’s been weird to see Obama waffle on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, or to continue to push for more eavesdropping, torture, secret trials, and other things you would expect a constitutional lawyer to object to on some sort of even minor grounds for an American who believes in values over survivalism and tribalism, us vs. them.  It’s been alarming to see more searches and seizures, and pretty much every reaction to the Wikileaks (despite Assange being a douche).  Where is the restraint?  Where does this encroachment end?

The most ponderous lack of initiative perhaps is the willingness to not balance the budget and try to reduce the deficit, and then to compound it by defending Reaganomics by refusing to raise taxes for the ultra-rich, even as income inequality reaches historic levels.

The whole business just smacks of an ultra-wealthy class that sees no safe alternative for itself outside of “get rich or die tryin’”, despite realizing deep down that such an attitude for a society is unhealthy.  “Get rich or die tryin’” of course has been the mantra for the United States for the last two decades or so (gangster rap and lobbyists capitalized on this pretty quickly — it took the blue-bloods a while to catch on before turning finance into a get-rich-quick theft scheme which adds little social value), and this mentality has spread across the globe as others realize it’s a more successful strategy for them to just follow along and ride the wave while they can.

Pragmatism is not a quality that the national political system finds much value in pursuing right now.  While Senators, Representatives, and the Executive Branch probably have noble intentions at some level, the incentives towards chasing the money, chasing re-election, and irrational but very human game theory of screwing yourself as long as you screw your opponent more (by stonewalling in Congress) are just too great.  Particularly since recent legal precedents allow for anonymous, unlimited funding of political causes in the name of freedom of speech.

Thus, it is impossible to have something like a Chinese Five Year Plan to come up with a pragmatic strategic reassessment of U.S. global or regional strategy (although the military does have quadrennial reviews), or a long-term pragmatic panel to figure out how to become debt neutral as a superpower (although this is being attempted by President Obama).  Any attempts at a cohesive strategy are blown apart in the Senate or House as the debate between Keynesianism and Friedmanism/Randism continues.  The GOP-controlled House, meanwhile, is promising to block all bills until tax cuts are extended to the ultra-wealthy.  These are the times we live in.

This isn’t so discomforting if you’re of the belief that democracy is the least worst outcome amongst all others, as the saying goes.  Maybe you believe that out of the chaos of democratic, representative politics arrives the outcome that’s most acceptable to all parties.

It will be a topic of great international affairs debate within the next century whether quasi-authoritarian governments at least in terms of strategy and planning will have advantages over the merciless political climate that modern democracy (within the U.S. anyway) promotes.  Look how much interest there already is in watching whether China and smaller oil states can produce viable societies in their own top-down models or whether democracies like India or the U.S. can readily address their most dire concerns.

So what we’re left with is a hulking ship of a federal government that has yet to create enough of a crisis for itself that a leader will emerge with some vision or narrative for the country that can put to rest the unrealistic ideas of the latter 20th century.  There still exists the possibility that the advent of new technologies and crowdsourcing and cloud behavior will fill the void of responsiveness and adaptivity, but this is more likely to happen at the lowest levels, where individuals and communities have the most access and the most responsibility.

Pragmatism at this time exists not within the realm of the federal government, or within states (which are led by those who seek to jump to the national level) but within the cities.

American cities are where the rubber hits the road.  Dumb theories and ideas are less likely to hang around as long because of pragmatic, realistic concerns such as paying the police and firefighters and teachers and unions, while keeping crime down and raising educational levels and keeping the city from falling apart.

This fits in well with the trend that Richard Florida has written extensively about, where city-states and regional economic centers are dominating as the most successful and portable large entities world-wide.  For instance, while Washington D.C. the Capital struggles with Tea Partyism and progressivism and a calcified conservative party, Washington D.C. the urban city is the smartest city in the country and is full of a young, vibrant, hard-working body of Americans who want to make their communities and country and world better.

Washington is part of Richard Florida’s mega-region of Boston-New York City-Washington.  These cities are instituting healthier meal programs in grade schools, bike-sharing programs, bike lanes, and other experimental ideas to improve the energy efficiency and economic output within the cities.  If you want to see successful programs in America, look to the cities, not to states or the federal government.

You can see city-states as exceptions to their regions elsewhere:  Boulder, Mexico City, Dubai, Hong Kong, Austin.  These city-states exist in different worlds than the outlying regions they’re within.  Different priorities, different incentives.

What I’ve seen during my time in the northeast corridor are a lot of cool initiatives that I never thought cities would embrace in the US, stuff like bike-sharing, bike lanes, healthier school menus, adding trees, putting more information and databases online, etc.  That level of responsiveness is something I would never expect from some more invisible governments I’ve seen in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, etc.

I remember in 2008 when I went to the Academy of Achievement summit to listen to a lot of distinguished guests speak to grad students about how best to contribute to society.  What I was struck with was the power that mayors have.  Richard Daley (Chicago), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles), Willie Brown (San Francisco) were in attendance.  I even randomly ended up having breakfast with Mr. Daly.

I guess a good way to see the importance of mayors is to imagine Tommy Carcetti from The Wire.  Starts out with high aspirations for bettering the community, deals with the gritty reality of managing a city, but can’t get over his ambitions to move up to governor.  What if Carcetti just settled on going as far as the city level, while sending envoys to the state and federal levels to strengthen ties?  What if the incentives to remain at the city level were greater such that Carcetti didn’t just lust after more power?

This is kind of rambling, but I do think there’s something actionable and powerful about the city level of society.  It provides a breath of fresh air to see cities defy national calcification and implement smart ideas that help lots of people.  Both the right and left are right to be distressed and alienated with the federal government right now.  It’s not being responsive to today’s needs.  So look to the cities, and look for the growing influence of city-states and mega-regions.

At the same time, I think it’s worth promoting more accountability of campaign finance and influence.  De-linking money, particularly anonymous money, from political elections seems to be one of the best things we can do to get government officials and representatives who won’t see sucking up more cash as the highest achievement we can do both for ourselves and for our country.