State of the Union

Mobility and the Rise of Progressive Nationalism

One of the landmark studies of America, published 120 years ago, is Fredrick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s essay was inspired by a line that appeared in the Census report of 1890:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.

Turner recognized that contained within this small passage of officialese was a momentous turning point in American history. The official announcement of the end of the existence of the American frontier marked “the closing of a great historic moment.” In Turner’s view, the existence of the frontier, and all that it entailed, constituted the deepest source of the American character—more than any other explanation, including even the Constitution.

Turner was a fervent Progressive during the years when Progressivism was gaining steam—indeed, he receives top billing in Richard Hofstadter’s study The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. In Turner’s view, the role played by the frontier—and the type of values and attributes it fostered in Americans—was the root of the progressive thrust in American history, including, importantly in his view, the rise of the sense of American nationalism.

The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.

What is striking in these and similar passages is how closely Turner’s analysis echoes the hopes and intentions of the Founders of whom the Progressives were often fervent critics. He particularly echoes the Hamiltonians who envisioned a “national system” that would draw the allegiances of people away from local and parochial identities through the soft but persistent pressure of a nationalizing economic and political order. Turner recognized that this thrust toward an increasing national identity would be achieved through the encouragement of the individualistic spirit of the American frontiersman. The John Wayne, Daniel Boone spirit of the self-standing, self-made, independent, free individual would, ironically, forge the conditions for a national identity and usher in the possibility and even necessity of the Progressive stage.

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The Anti-New Deal Legacy of the Pro-Density Movement

Joel Kotkin continues his battle against anti-sprawl activists:

[The Equality of Opportunity Project study] actually found the highest rates of upward mobility not in dense cities, but in relatively spread-out places like Salt Lake City, small cities of the Great Plains such as Bismarck, N.D.; Yankton, S.D.; and Pecos, Texas — all showed bottom to top mobility rates more than double New York City. And we shouldn’t forget the success story of Bakersfield, Calif., a city Columbia University urban planning professor David King wryly labeled “a poster child for sprawl.” Rather than an ode to bigness, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the study found that commuting zones (similar to metropolitan areas) with populations under 100,000—smaller cities that tend to be sprawled by nature—have the highest average upward income mobility.

Kotkin’s data points could stand to be unpacked; the citing of upward mobility rates in places like the Dakotas and Texas cries out for some kind of control for natural resource industries. And while Kotkin compares his Mountain West winners to New York, he conveniently declines to mention Left Coast cities like San Jose and San Francisco, which rank in the top five along with Salt Lake City for upward mobility.

But Kotkin is right to scratch his head at those who insist on the self-evident benefits of piling humans atop humans, at least in this sense: it runs contrary to the legacy of New Deal liberalism. As Michael Lind has argued, FDR-era liberals, in contradistinction to the Progressive era’s technocratic elite, “sought to shift industry and population from the crowded industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest”: “They did this through rural electrification based on hydropower projects, factories supplying the military and federal aid to citizens seeking to buy single-family homes in low-density suburbs.”

You might say this was the dialectic of the New Deal: a flurry of centralization whose goal was, in part, decentralization.

There will, of course, be those who maintain that Obamaites are the legatees of the Progressive left, as opposed to pro-middle class Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson liberals. (Stanley Kurtz, anyone?) But globalization is doing more to concentrate the cognitive elite and lock in the professionalization of the upwardly mobile than yesterday’s Progressives and today’s anti-sprawl activists could ever accomplish on their own. And Kotkin’s oil-and-gas hot spots will do little to change it.

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Another Victory for Pedestrians in New York

Things are getting a lot easier for New Yorkers and visitors who prefer walking or cycling to driving. In addition to the new bike lanes in Manhattan, and the Citibike rental program that began in May, the Bloomberg administration has decided to close parts of the East and West Drives in Central Park for the rest of the summer. Traffic will continue to flow through the park by other routes, but the closures will make it much easier for pedestrians to move around without risking their necks.

Some conservatives, such the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz, have attacked Bloomberg’s preference for non-motorized transportation as elitist. And there’s some justification for this criticism: these programs are most popular with the white Manhattanites who remain the mayor’s main supporters. But they’re reasonably popular with other New Yorkers, too. In fact, the elderly, who are least likely to use them, are the only group of which a plurality opposes parking docks for the rental bikes.

Yet mere popularity is not the best argument in favor of pedestrian-friendly transport policies. It’s that heavy auto traffic is a nuisance and a menace in “legacy” cities like New York.

Trucks, taxis, and other commercial vehicles serve vital economic functions. Emergency vehicles need fast and unobstructed access to roads and buildings. But private cars are in most cases a luxury, and should not be given priority in public space, particularly in dense neighborhoods that are easily reached by public transportation. Although they are unlikely to pass any time soon, demand-based pricing for street parking and a congestion charge for most of Manhattan are obvious next steps in restoring the urban balance.

This logic doesn’t apply with the same force in new-style cities like Houston that have been built around the car. And even New York will never be Amsterdam or Stockholm, where bikes dominate the streets. But Bloomberg deserves credit for restoring more of the city to people moving under their own power. Despite the stifling heat, it’s a good summer to be in New York.

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The Institute of Peace Suddenly Cares About History, After Burying It

There’s really nothing you can do but laugh at this:

News4 learned that the institute is requesting a section of the roadway be moved about 150 feet farther away from the building to “reduce noise and vibration.” According to documents listed in the District Department of Transportation’s Transportation Improvement Program, a proposal is on the table to shift Constitution Avenue NW, between 23rd Street and the outbound Roosevelt Bridge. But, DDOT is cautioning, this discussion is still in a very preliminary stage.

Documents from the DC Department of Transportation state that one of the reasons to shift Constitution Avenue is to give folks better access to a historical landmark:

the project will provide historical and recreational use – Braddock’s Rock is located immediately south of westbound Constitution Avenue with poor public access. Realigning the road south of Braddock’s Rock will allow for better public access to this National Landmark

It’s funny, though, nobody was concerned about the area’s history when historic preservation laws were flouted in the process of constructing the thing. Institute staff stopped responding to emails after telling the District’s archaeologist that they hadn’t budgeted for surveys. Last fall I wrote about the history of the site and the USIP’s shoddy preservation compliance:

Citing previous construction–the Institute of Peace was built atop a parking lot–the final pre-building environmental report released in 2006 said it was “unlikely” that archaeological remains would have been present at the site. The report focused on how the USIP design was a fine aesthetic match for the Mall, fitting in with the building lines along 23rd Street, and not overshadowing the Lincoln Memorial. No test pits were ever dug, and it was assumed that there was nothing of historical or archaeological value on the site.

After Clark began construction, they started finding things. According to Jan Herman, historian at the Old Naval Observatory and author of a book on the property, construction workers uncovered glass and metal objects, which they removed, placed in boxes, and stored in a trailer. … Eventually the construction company turned over what was found–primarily bottles and metal objects–to Jan Herman. But we’ll never know what was carted off in trucks like so much dirt, buried under the new foundation, or taken by construction workers.

What’s so puzzling about this development is that the planning surveys focused largely on aesthetic matters like light pollution and how the building design might fit into the skyline—rather than the site’s history—so you’d think they would have considered noise too. Apparently not.

If we’re lucky, DDOT will deny the request, USIP staff will find the building so inhospitable they can’t bear to work there anymore, and we can demolish the whole pointless thing. Sadly, I doubt that’s going to happen.

(The USIP is not to be confused with Ron Paul’s new foreign policy institute, which launched today.)

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Gov. Bob McDonnell Really Is Kind of a Liar

I’m generally unmoved by the kind of polemical thunder Erick Erickson unleashed on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell:

Bob McDonnell is a perfect example of the worst kind of Republican. He has no principles that he won’t sell out if he thinks the situation demands it. He is interested in the praise of liberal editorial pages for his balanced leadership, which is really just selling out the people who got him elected. His policy legacy will now be trading higher taxes for a massive entitlement expansion. How pathetic.

That’s how Erickson ended his broadside.

He began it by calling McDonnell a “liar.”

And he’s got a point.

McDonnell’s problems with conservatives (including the Republican lieutenant governor who hopes to succeed him) are twofold. He is on the brink of signing a massive transportation bill that could, when fully implemented, raise taxes on Virginians by $6.1 billion over the next five years, according to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. And he issued a statement in support of a bicameral commission on reforming Medicaid, which Erickson predicts “will be nothing but a speed bump towards expanding the program.” (Jennifer Rubin, with characteristic credulity, said “the state can be assured Medicaid isn’t expanding anytime soon.” I’d say the smart money is with Erickson in this case.)

Against the backdrop of the fractious fiscal situation across the Potomac River, McDonnell’s transportation deal might appear to be the work of a sane, well-functioning government. Yet the fact is that McDonnell didn’t merely promise not to raise taxes in a general George H.W. Bush sense—although he did that, too. McDonnell explicitly promised not to sign a transportation bill that had new revenue.

What we’ve got here is a granular, issue-specific about-face.

I would add, as an aside, that state politicians with national aspirations should avoid taking Norquist-like pledges that any politician of consequence in this fiscal environment will need to wriggle out of. But in McDonnell’s case, that horse left the barn four years ago.

Conservatives like Erickson are right to be pissed.

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Republicans Won’t Compete in Cities

Republican candidates lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. If the GOP is to survive as a national party, it needs to appeal to new constituencies. Could city dwellers be part of the solution? The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser says yes (with an echo from Aaron M. Renn):

The Republicans’ abandonment of the city is good neither for their party nor for urban America. The GOP clearly needs a heftier percentage of the urban vote, but winning it by means of fiscal pandering or redistribution isn’t the way to go—partly because such a strategy would cost rural and suburban votes and partly because it would be wrong. A better approach is to offer the good ideas that cities desperately need. Republicans have plenty.

The ideas Glaeser identifies as especially promising include data-driven policing, school choice, contracting out city services, congestion pricing for driving and parking, and the removal of regulatory obstacles to housing construction. And he’s right that these are appealing reforms. Contrary to what many conservatives believe, urban policy is not necessarily a transfer of wealth from makers to takers. Metropolitan areas are the country’s economic engines–and good policies will make them even more productive.

But there’s little chance that Republicans will seize the opportunity. The most basic reason is historical. The Democratic Party has dominated America’s cities since the Age of Jackson. And while individual Republicans have occasionally succeeded in urban constituencies, they have rarely had much influence on the national party.

Glaeser cites the “Crisis of the Cities” section of the 1968 platform as evidence that the GOP used to care about urban issues. But platforms are notoriously insignificant. The real story for the Republican Party in the ’60s was the capture of the Sunbelt and the rural South. Republican interest in cities during this period had more to do with signalling to suburbanites that it would not allow urban blight to spill over into their communities than with a real electoral strategy.

Moreover, the social conservatism that defines the Republican Party is anathema to urban voters. A party that is loudly opposed to gay marriage and abortion will never be competitive in America’s cities. Glaeser dreams of a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicanism that might win in New York and its inner suburbs. But there aren’t enough votes to make this an appealing strategy on the national level: any gains in metropolitan areas would be wiped out by losses in the so-called base.

The problem for Republicans, then, isn’t that they’re ignoring chances to expand their coalition. It’s that they’re trapped by a dynamic in which serious outreach to new groups alienates existing supporters. As Daniel Larison has argued, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Don’t expect Republicans to take Manhattan any time soon.

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TSA Report Pulls Punches on Privacy

Woman enters full-body scanner at airport. CRozeman / Flickr.

Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL) should be commended for raising two issues near and dear to civil libertarians in the majority report on the Transportation Security Agency’s performance since 9/11, released Tuesday: the troublesome increase in intrusive security measures, i.e. “enhanced” pat-down searches, and the pervasive deployment of so-called full body scanners for the traveling public:

In many ways, TSA has become its own worst enemy by underestimating the privacy impact of its operations, and limiting lines of communication and the flow of information to the public.    The American people could be more supportive of TSA if they understood why TSA was implementing a particular policy or procedure and what threat or vulnerability it was addressing. Instead, in the last eleven years the American people have become increasingly more critical of TSA.

That is an understatement. For the last 11 years the TSA has been besieged by a litany of scandals and bad news stories that it brought upon itself, all concerning passenger rights and its inability to treat fliers as customers and human beings and not criminals or worse, cattle being prodded to the slaughter:

  • Last summer a 95-year-old woman suffering from late stage leukemia and in a wheelchair was told she had to remove her Depends diaper or not fly home after an enhanced screening at a Florida airport. TSA defended the screening. She certainly isn’t the only elderly or disabled person to have been humiliated by these inconsistent and let’s face it, unjustified, draconian searches. Links here, here and here.
  • In March, a three-year-old boy in a leg cast and wheelchair was given a physical pat-down at O’Hare Internation Airport in Chicago on his way to Disney World with his parents and siblings. He is just one in a string of appalling reports and You Tube videos of small children — including babies! –being touched and prodded by screeners to the shock and disbelief of their parents. Links here, here and here.
  • In 2010, an experienced flight attendant and breast cancer survivor was forced to show screeners her breast implant in an aggressive pat down. Supposedly, outfitting female suicide bombers with bombs in their boobs has been a problem. The result, a rash of complaints by horrified cancer victims who showed no other signs of being a flight risk other than carrying the prosthetic reminders of their painful illnesses.
  • In 2008 a woman was forced to remove her nipple rings with pliers before she could fly.
  • In 2002, a women was forced to drink her own breast milk before she could fly.
  • A 31-year-old New York marketing executive was charged with “obstructing justice” but disorderly conduct charges were dropped after this disturbing incident, caught on tape, in 2010. Makes one wonder why four beefy security guards were necessary to constrain her, slam her into a chair and then onto the magnetometer, handcuff her and eventually throw her into the clink. Needless to say, she missed her flight.
  • Sen. Rand Paul engaged in a brief “stand off” with TSA screeners in January after he refused a pat-down. He wasn’t the first lawmaker to feel the indignity of post-9/11 airport security. I remember talking to Rep. Bob Barr several years ago after he mixed it up with screeners at a Washington airport.

As chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rogers has had a front row seat for all of the agency’s bumps and scrapes since it was created in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist hijackings. While there has been no similar attack on U.S. soil since then, TSA has maintained a mixed to dismal record across a number of key metrics, which the report duly points out. The agency spends and wastes too much money (its budget at this point is $8 billion a year). Oversight of its most critical job — screening passengers and cargo for explosives, weapons and contraband — is constantly missing the mark. TSA invests too much in lame technology that doesn’t work ($29 million for “puffer” machines that ended up in the garbage) and not enough in the tactics that do work (canine units). Its attempt at behavior screening has been a joke, and it has not implemented promised programs that would expedite checkpoint security for frequent travelers.

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On Your Dime: Panetta’s Personal Travel

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has made 37 personal trips home to California since he was confirmed in July 2011, costing the American taxpayer an estimated $1.1 million in travel expenses.

According to a flurry of news reports last fall and spring and a confirmation with the secretary’s spokesman last week, Panetta is required to pay back at least the price of a coach round-trip ticket for each personal excursion. As of April, he reimbursed the government $17,000 for his 27 weekend and holiday trips home to Monterey, California, where his family owns a 12-acre Walnut farm in Carmel Valley. If you include the 10 trips he made since April, he would owe about $6,700 more, leaving the taxpayer with a $976,300 bill.

The cost is so high because unlike other cabinet heads, Panetta is required — under government rules established by President George W. Bush — to fly on military aircraft outfitted with secure communications equipment that keeps him in touch with the President, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs, combatant commanders in the field, and the Pentagon, according to his spokesman. He typically flies in a C-37A, which his spokesman says is the lowest cost aircraft for the specifications required. Panetta also brings with him each time a small staff, including a military aide and security.

According to an Associated Press report in April, each trip costs $3,200 per hour, or about $32,000 each time. For his part, Panetta is said to be working, not resting, when he goes home, and has often “coupled” his trips with stops at military bases. For example, a few timelines have found Panetta making remarks about the defense budget from Monterey. By Friday, press reports had him popping up at an air reserve base in Niagara Falls, assuring there would be another mission and the base would not be subject to closure due to budget cuts (the visit, or at least his remarks to the reserve personnel on hand, had the air of a campaign whistle stop).

Either way, Panetta has made no attempt to mislead the media about his personal travels, but he has tried to downplay the expense. In fact, when pressed about this last spring, he maintained that although he “regretted” the elaborate cost to the taxpayer, he thinks “it’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight.”

“I regret that it does, you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up,” Panetta said during an April Pentagon briefing. “A taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense. But having said that, I am trying to look at what are … the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and, at the same time, be able to fulfill my responsibilities, not only to my job, but to my family.”

But these trips as reported are not “periodic,” they occurred nearly every weekend when the secretary wasn’t traveling across the globe on DoD business. His spokesman confirmed 10 trips since April. In the intervening months, Panetta has traveled to Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan on official duty. Given the numbers, it sounds like Panetta was telecommuting from Monterey quite a bit this summer. While those of us who live here would agree that time spent outside of Washington during these months is certainly “healthy,” Panetta seems to be overextending himself.

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Is Obama Planning to Stop Us from Rockin’ the Suburbs?

Matthew Cantirino throws some much-deserved cold water on Stanley Kurtz’s latest hysterical ravings:

Rather than fantasize about losing our natural right to three-acre lawns, those on the right ought to be embracing calls for more modest and—yes—traditional forms of living. We can certainly debate the most efficacious ways of going about things like combatting wasteful, atomizing land use; I even suspect the specific policy Kurtz critiques does tend toward bureaucratic know-it-all-ism rather than genuine community engagement (the proposal to scramble municipal tax revenues around a region could certainly be a localist sticking-point). But it’s rather baffling for people who profess to be concerned about culture to jumpily exempt large swaths of its constitutive elements (like, say, the physical arrangement and daily routine of peoples’ lives, jobs, and commutes) from any sort of real criticism.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to deny that for many younger people, a summons to restraint in architecture and urban planning goes hand in hand with other attempts to preserve and reinvigorate our neglected cultural inheritance, revive of the importance of aesthetic considerations, and even, for some, return to orthodoxy in religious matters. There is a growing realization that the way we live their lives, the practices and habits we daily undertake, and the way they ultimately manifest themselves in the political realm, can no longer be conceptualized as dissociated points on a Cartesian plane. And defenses of gluttony ring less and less convincing.

Amen, brother.

To Cantirino’s rebuttal, I would add that market preferences — quite apart from those nefarious urban planners — are blurring the vision between “cities” and “suburbs.” Christopher Leinberger wrote last year at the New Republic:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb” — neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment. … The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

Similarly, Ryan Avent noted at the Economist:

[S]uburban areas are increasingly adding new housing capacity by copying urban development forms. Here in the Washington area, the two largest suburban jurisdictions are Virginia’s Fairfax County and Maryland’s Montgomery County. Both are in the process of redeveloping major jobs centres from an automobile orientation to tall, dense, walkable, city-like development patterns based around transit.

Suburbanisation in America was the norm for over a generation, so it’s a little early to conclude that these trend breaks represent a new development paradigm. But the data from the past decade are consistent with an increase in demand for city life relative to suburban life.

Kurtz isn’t merely paranoid. He’s behind the times, too.

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The New Utopia: Aerotropolis

In the 2009 film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a traveling businessman on the road so many days a year that he finds peace in the transit hubs most of us experience as a kind of dull purgatory — airports, frequent flyer clubs, and runway-adjacent hotels. Striding into the chaotic, noisy terminal he tells us that “All the things you probably hate about traveling are warm reminders that I am home.”

In a new book Aerotropolis, Tom Friedman-like prophet of globalization John Kasarda and his co-author Greg Lindsay embrace the placeless-ness felt by Clooney’s character, telling us that like it or not, it’s “The Way We’ll Live Next.” While previous generations built giant metropolitan areas enlivened by the veins of rails and freeways, the new era will witness urban centers so dependent on next-day air connections across the globe that their physical infrastructure will be centered around the airfields. And the inhabitants of the aerotropolis will live in a kind of void, with Lindsay conceding that “One of the great luxuries of the 21st century will be a sense of place.”

Aesthetics will suffer too, with “speed, efficiency, generic ‘world-class’ architecture” becoming the primary concerns of urban planners.

If this vision sounds like a nightmare, you’re not alone. In this fortnight’s London Review of Books, critic Will Self finds the spectacle of Aerotropolis somewhat horrifying: Read More…

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