Should conservatives care about cities? The question cropped up yesterday as conservative urbanists took to the web to argue that Republicans need cities, and cities need Republicans. Here at TAC, Samuel Goldman followed up to acknowledge the good that conservative policies could do for American cities but, he concluded, making urban inroads would require the national Republican Party to take measures that would drive out the party’s existing core of socially conservative support. The point is well taken, and not taken often enough by those in the urban bubble.
A richer question, though, is how much conservatives should care about cities in the first place. From Babel and Babylon, after all, the city has been made a symbol of moral decay. The fast-paced ways of big city living have long been decried as the undoing of community and family alike. For traditionalist conservatives in particular, less enamored than many of their compatriots with the upheavals wrought by commercial society, is there any reason not to condemn the whole enterprise as incompatible with the proper aims of life?
Bill McClay took up these questions in an almost lyrical consideration of the city a few years back, and it’s worth revisiting to remind ourselves, beyond the stratagems and calculations, why conservatism cares about cities.
In a recent column mocked by liberal bloggers, David Brooks earnestly suggested that President Obama, Senate Democrats, and the House GOP should “rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust” by working on a series of “realistic, incremental laws.”
With tongue nowhere near cheek, I think there’s a policy snag where this approach makes perfect sense: and that’s the Keystone XL proposal to build an oil (or, rather, bitumen) pipeline that stretches from Canada to Texas.
This should be a no-brainer at this point. The Obama administration’s refusal to approve the pipeline shadily cited a lack of time to review the proposal; a presidential statement last year noted that the delay was “not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline.” Well, time has passed. Environmental impact has been studied.
As the editors of the Washington Post observe:
TransCanada has reapplied with a new proposed route, and this week Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed off on the plan, following an analysis from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The regulators found that the new route would avoid the Sand Hills and other areas of concern. Though there is always some risk of spill, they said, “impacts on aquifers from a release should be localized, and Keystone would be responsible for any cleanup.” TransCanada will have to buy at least $200 million in insurance to cover any cleanup costs.
Adding to that, a letter signed by 53 senators, including nine Democrats, urged Obama to go ahead with the pipeline. “There is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project,” it said.
The decision to delay the pipeline reeked of election-year politics. Needless to say, the political calculus has changed. There’s a view that the rhetorical privileging of combating climate change in Obama’s second Inaugural Address will make it hard to throw environmentalists under the bus over Keystone. I think it makes it easier. Approving the pipeline offers Obama a small Nixon-to-China-like opportunity to say something like, We can safely fulfill our energy needs now while laying a foundation for a clean-energy future.
Back to Brooks’s point: Green-lighting the Keystone pipeline would be a relatively politically painless gesture of good faith to Republicans at the outset of what will likely be a series of contentious budget negotiations—a chance to show that he’s still the pragmatic problem-solver he has always claimed to be.
Last year, the administration pleaded for more time.
Seems to me, time is up.
A newly-elected Democratic city councilman from Staunton, Virginia, concludes that his environmentalism stems from conservative values, rather than progressive ones:
For my part, I think that many of the innovations of the fossil-fuel era may ultimately bring more danger than benefit, whether it’s personal cars, coal-fired electricity or the whole chemical industry. This view is making me pretty conservative. Indeed, I’ve gotten so conservative that I can’t help from applying Pollan’s rule to nearly any story in the news:
- GMO foods? Guilty until proven safe to eat and safe to grow for today and future generations.
- Political campaign Super PACs? Guilty until proven not to corrupt our democracy.
- Hydrofracking for natural gas? Guilty until proven not to contaminate water supplies.
This approach basically turns upside down the usual American love of novelty. For the real conservative, what’s New is probably not Improved. As Edmund Burke, one of the founders of conservatism, said: “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
If your first reaction to any kind of new whiz-bang technology is “Gee, that sounds cool!” then you’re certainly no conservative. Smart phones? Gene therapy? Robots on the battlefield, on an assembly line or vacuuming your living room? For the real conservative, they’re all suspect from the outset.
Now, most of the people I respect and admire who are fighting climate change, re-localizing their economies and standing up for conservation and clean energy, wouldn’t want to call themselves conservative. They seem to prefer “progressive,” which sounds like the opposite of conservative. … But these days, is progressive really such a good way to talk about people who really just want to save what we already have or bring back what we used to have?
I’m not sure how I feel about applying the Pollan Test–the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma advised against eating anything your grandma wouldn’t recognize–to public policy, nor do I think that’s a reliable litmus test of whether something’s conservative or not, but he’s got some interesting ideas here that go beyond Luddite-ism.
That’s not to say he’s right on the merits. Banning GMO foods would cause starvation, banning fracking would be a wild overreaction, and Super PACs are one of the least objectionable aspects of campaign finance. It does strike me as a characteristic assemblage of regional grievances though; the Shenandoah looks South and West, down its nose, into coal country, animating resistance to fossil fuel mining. Only recently a swing state, Virginia was deluged in political advertising this cycle both from campaigns and outside groups.
As for the GMOs, Staunton is about a half hour up the road from Joel Salatin’s farm. Salatin should be familiar to TAC readers, he was featured on the cover last year and profiled by Lewis McCrary in 2009.
Yuval Levin’s election postmortem reduced the Democratic party to “an incoherent amalgam of interest groups,” in contrast to the Republican party, which is “much more of a real party,” that is, one that’s devoted to the “good of the whole.”
The Romney campaign, however, did not appear to me to be above micropandering.
One of its targets in this regard was the coal industry, which Romney eagerly stoked with rhetoric about Obama’s “war on coal” and a “job-killing” Environmental Protection Agency run amok. It was an acrobatic flip-flop even for Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant in Salem, Mass., and declared, “That plant kills people.” This, in addition to embracing (if only temporarily) the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a plan to combat climate change involving nine northeastern states.
I wrote a post in September recalling my personal acquaintance with coal, and my family’s dependence on it. I have tremendous sympathy for miners who feel like their livelihoods are being assaulted by nameless bureaucrats. That the coal industry has been more strenuously regulated by the Obama administration isn’t simply a myth perpetrated by shadowy energy titans whose last name rhymes with “Coke.”
Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear to me, middle-class child of coal, that coal’s biggest enemy isn’t government, but rather markets, disruptive technology, and a quest for greater energy efficiency.
Steven Mufson of the Washington Post has a great long-form story that tells the tale. That plant that Romney accused of killing people? It’s slated to be torn down in 2014 — and replaced by a natural-gas-fired unit:
“When we were first looking at the overall project, it really was a toss-up as to whether it would be more the environmental rules or the gas price that was going to drive coal plants to shut down,” said [power company executive Peter] Furniss, 45. “It now is very clearly the gas price.”
Salem Harbor is a case study of how the shale gas revolution is overthrowing assumptions about energy by undercutting coal prices and usurping it as the nation’s fuel of choice for electric power generation.
Across the country, utilities are switching from coal to cheap natural gas. In April, for the first time, natural gas pulled even with coal as a fuel source for power plants. Through August, the use of coal to generate electric power had tumbled 17 percent while the use of natural gas jumped 27 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.
As of July, companies had announced plans to close down 30 gigawatts of coal-fired plants, or about 10 percent of the nation’s total coal plant capacity, by 2016, according to a study by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm. These aren’t models of efficiency; the EIA says that the average coal-fired generator to be retired this year is 56 years old.
Overall, this transition might cause the loss of jobs in some coal mines, but it is also creating jobs in areas rich in shale gas. Moreover, the gas glut is cutting utility bills for households and businesses, giving a much-needed boost to the lackluster economy. …
Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal does in a power plant. In the first quarter of 2012, carbon dioxide emissions from coal burning fell to the lowest level for any quarter since 1986, according to the EIA.
Overall, U.S. greenhouse emissions fell to their lowest level in 20 years, though warm weather last winter and lower gasoline consumption also played roles. Still, the United States is roughly on track to meet the reduction in greenhouse gases that President Obama has pledged to hit by 2020.
In his heart, I suspect Mitt Romney knows all this. But he was trying to win an election, for pete’s sake.
To mortgage your political soul like that and still come up short — that’s got to leave a mark.
Rod Dreher posted today that he doubts there’s the political will for a major Kennedyesque effort to do something about climate change. An officer in the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus–the first state to institute an economy-wide cap-and-trade program–and contributor to several progressive publications like DailyKos, ClimateProgress, and Grist, took issue (full storify here):
Last month, Walter Russell Mead published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing our fixation on infrastructure. Mead acknowledges that building canals, railroads, bridges, and the like, is a traditional function of federal and state government. But he argues that continuing to do so in the future is bad policy.
The main reason, according to Mead, is that the Internet makes the physical movement of people and goods much less central to prosperity. In the 21st century:
The challenge isn’t to move more meat [for example]; it is to move more information more effectively, and to re-engineer business practices and social organization to take full advantage of the extraordinary efficiencies that the Internet affords. The rush-hour rituals of the 20th century aren’t destined to continue to the end of time. Telecommuting, flextime and mini-commutes to satellite offices will change the way we work.
This argument is superficially appealing. It’s also dangerously misguided. Mead is correct that brick-and-mortar projects are not a cure for unemployment. But he’s wrong to conclude that they’re unnecessary because we can all just telecommute or do our shopping online. Retail, hospitality, healthcare, and other industries that require on face-to-face interaction are currently and are projected to remain among the largest sectors of employment. People need to show up for those jobs.
There’s no better illustration of this point that the ongoing effect of Hurricane Sandy. As Nicole Gelinas points out in City Journal, the greatest threat to New York’s economy is the destruction of physical infrastructure like power stations and the immobilization of its transit system.
You might imagine that Wall Street bankers, say, could just log on from home. But they can’t work when the lights are off. And they’ll starve unless an army of cooks, salespeople, dishwashers, and so on can make the long journey from New Jersey and the outer boroughs to the more fashionable neighborhoods where they’re employed. As Gelinas puts it, “the info-economy is utterly dependent on the unfashionable infra-economy. If the river annexes your subway tunnels and electrical substations, no government agency heroically intervenes, and grocery stores stay shuttered, you aren’t going to be designing social-media apps in your bedroom.”
Gelinas’s reference to government is crucial. Infrastructure systems like transport networks and the power grid are simply too big and complicated be built and sustained by private industry alone. They require government support to function even under ordinary conditions, let alone the challenges posed by a natural disaster.
Many conservatives dismiss such support as wasteful. They’re wrong: subsidies for infrastructure are economically productive when they’re directed toward real needs, such as moving people around New York City. It is politically difficult to limit support to useful purposes: Amtrak loses money, for example, because it’s forced to provide little-used long-distance service rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, where it is competitive with travel by air or car. And there is such a thing as overinvestment in infrastructure: China has had problems with building too much, too fast. But fights about the best use of limited resources are worth having, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
American statesmen used to understand the role of infrastructure as a condition of prosperity rather than an end in itself. For some of the background, see James Pinkerton’s piece on the “American system”. We are, admittedly a long way from the Erie Canal. As our governments face tough decisions about where and when to spend, however, we should not let promises of a wired future blind us to our economic and political history.
Scott McConnell has pointed out how Michael Bloomberg has cited the damage inflicted by tropical storm Sandy as a good reason to endorse President Barack Obama. But it seems odd that other Democrats nationally have avoided using Sandy as a club to beat the GOP, possibly because they consider it unseemly. The Republican Party platform expresses a clear reluctance to do anything to reduce greenhouse gases:
We also call on Congress to take quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation’s economy and threaten millions of jobs over the next quarter century. The most powerful environmental policy is liberty, the central organizing principle of the American Republic and its people.
It does not take a climatologist to appreciate that “liberty” does not represent a coherent environmental policy. I am far from the expert on the subject, but it seems to be established that weather patterns are becoming more severe, possibly linked to global warming. If one assumes that global warming is at least in part attributable to the actions of mankind, efforts to reduce its impact would appear to be warranted lest Sandy become an annual occurrence along the eastern seaboard. Republicans appear to be reluctant to make that effort.
Admitting that climate change is taking place and is being caused by human activity does not necessarily imply any government policy, which would have to be carefully considered based on actual evidence and the options available. It seems that the GOP’s stubbornness on this issue is linked to a broader antagonism toward science, which possibly derives from its pandering to Christian evangelicals. Certainly if I were a Democrat I would be pointing to Sandy as one possible consequence of Republican unwillingness to be realistic or even “modern” in its policy prescriptions relating to the environment.
I took a taxi ride late last night through Lower Manhattan, which New Yorkers are beginning to call the “deadzone”. It was eerie and beautiful, with many streets lighted only by the colored flashes of passing police cars. These photos by my friend Justin L. Jeffers give some idea of what the city looks like in deep night. You can even see the stars (the effect is heightened in the images by the use of a light-receptive lens).
Some disaster tourists have compared the experience to post-apocalyptic films. As we cruised without slowing under darkened traffic signals, I thought of “Escape from New York,” but also W.G. Sebald, the late German novelist who became the poet laureate of dead cities. In Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, especially, Sebald explores the peculiar dread that characterizes abandoned urban environments. It’s not the decay that gets you. It’s the darkness, and the silence.
The lights are scheduled to go back on tomorrow. Soon after that happens, most of Manhattan will return to its familiar bustle. That’s good. Hundreds of thousands, particularly those who live in high-rise buildings, have spent the week under very difficult conditions. And the repairs and improvements that New York needs have to be financed by a strong economy.
Despite the risk of enjoying a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, however, I’ll be a little disappointed by the return to normalcy. Unlike areas that were really devastated, including the Jersey Shore and large parts of Staten Island, life in Manhattan this week has been like a trip to another dimension that looks almost the same but is governed by a radically different logic. It hasn’t been a pleasant journey, exactly. But it has brought the unperceived structure of the ordinary into foreground, something like the negative of a photograph.
The New York I saw last night is not a vision I want to see again. But I hope never to forget it.
I have a feeling that Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement may put Obama over the top; if so I’m cheered the mayor made global warming the decisive criteria. The movement conservative indifference to global warming, and to environmental concerns generally, has long puzzled me. I remember contributing to a symposium of “young conservatives” for National Review in the mid ’90s (yes, it was a stretch then) and arguing that that one thing American conservatives ought to want to “conserve” was a temperate climate, which had favored America and was the basis of much of American poetry and, indeed, culture. I probably had then, and still do, a bias in favor of northern climates and the societies they produced; I preferred the culture of New England to Mississippi, Scotland to Morocco. One can argue about it.
Of course then the extreme storms stirred up by global warming were only predicted, and were only beginning to arrive. But no one was putting a dollars and cents cost to climate change. As I recall, to the extent movement conservatives thought about it all, they considered it a groovy opportunity to showcase capitalism’s infinite adaptability, and Americans could become rich by growing more citrus fruit. Heather Mac Donald, at least, responded warmly and supportively to my NR piece, and we became friends, an environmentalist caucus of two in the New York conservative world.
In any case, if there’s any doubt about the matter, Bloomberg will be available after next year for a major cabinet position. He is a pretty extraordinary public servant, respected by virtually everyone in New York, if not beloved the way some of his predecessors were. He is sometimes courageous, as when he stood up to the “ground zero mosque” BS, as every other elected official headed for the hills. And he’s brilliant. I know there isn’t such thing as “Secretary of the Climate”–but if Obama is looking to appoint a “czar” to really explore what is possible and what is doable, domestically and internationally, to mitigate man-induced global warming and climate change, I doubt there is a better person available.
I had an easier time than many New Yorkers last night. I live in Chelsea, which is blacked out and partly under water. But I’m weathering the storm on the Upper East Side, where damage is minimal. Uptown looks no worse than after a hard rain. The images from downtown, as well as parts of Brooklyn and much of Staten Island, are apocalyptic.
Because I was lucky enough to be secure in life and property last night, I had the luxury of thinking philosophically. I thought mostly of Spinoza, who instructed his readers: “I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.”
According to Spinoza, the evaluation of natural events is folly. Because nothing happens for a purpose, all that we can do is attempt to understand events’ causes–and to guard against their consequences. As they survey the destruction, whether in person, on the Internet, or on television, some readers may find this thought monstrous. This morning, I find it oddly comforting.