When a disaster like “Frankenstorm” Sandy strikes, we mouth a whole lot of cliches about how we all come together as a community and show our best selves and remember what’s important and so forth. And when someone suggests we haven’t done those things, or at least that some of us haven’t, well, it pisses us off. I know I’ve been pretty annoyed at Rod Dreher for his Sunday post on the subject, which is a pretty good example of the genre.
But it is interesting to consider the ways in which these sorts of things pull us apart – how they are doing so already, and how they are likely to do so in the future.
The big political uproar in my hometown of New York has been the whole business over the New York Marathon, which for days the Mayor insisted would go forward before he finally bowed to pressure and canceled it. I’ve talked to friends on both sides of this particular subject, and there were some strong objective arguments against holding it. In particular, with the subways still largely out of commission, and the tunnels not all cleared for vehicular traffic, it was a tall order to shut down many of the bridges that were the only remaining avenues for transportation to and from Manhattan.
But the anger wasn’t about these practical matters but about symbolism. How could you start a race walking distance from people who were homeless and, in some cases, still missing? How could you celebrate when some of the citizens haven’t even gotten a chance to mourn? Anger about generators being used for the marathon rather than for providing electricity to those still without power, or about police guarding the marathon route when there was still rescue to be done, still looting to be prevented, wasn’t a rational dispute about the proper allocation of resources, but about what was or wasn’t seemly.
Which, in turn, revolves around whether you view the marathon as a collective event in the life of the city or a disruption thereof done for outsiders – whether the marathon is “us” or “them.” Nobody said it’s outrageous to reopen the Stock Exchange, or Madison Square Garden, or Broadway theaters, or any other part of the normal life of the city. The marathon was viewed by many – likely most – New Yorkers differently, not as a sign of the city getting back on its feet but as a sign of the city ignoring those who were still drowning. Which suggests it wasn’t being viewed as part of “our” life.
But I suspect it’s not so much that the Marathon was “foreign” as that, as a quintessentially SWPL event, it was a convenient symbol of all those other things – the Stock Exchange, the Broadway theaters – that represent Manhattan, against the Outer Boroughs (and no, it doesn’t matter that plenty of people from the Outer Boroughs planned to run). No place in Manhattan suffered the kind of devastation that hit Staten Island or the Rockaways. but Manhattan is the economic heart of the city, and it makes all the sense in the world to get that heart beating again as fast as possible. But so what? Aren’t we all equal citizens of New York?
I can understand the perspective of a Staten Islander who feels their borough is being – relatively – ignored, even though the suffering has been worse there than just about anywhere. And people are already speculating about a revival of secessionist sentiment. But if Staten Island seceded from New York, would that mean more resources for Staten Island? Yes, its leadership would have more local authority – they’d an address for their grievances to that was their address, not a weak executive like the Borough President. But would that leadership actually be able to respond? Or would the real address just move from Manhattan to Albany?
Meanwhile, if I look at the big picture, I see a world where these kinds of storms are going to become more frequent. There has been a video making the rounds highlighting Mitt Romney’s mockery of Obama’s grandiose claim that his election (actually, just his nomination) was the moment when the seas slowed their rise. Romney – and, more to the point, his party – deserve every bit of that mockery. But the fact is that Obama’s nomination did not materially slow climate change, and not just because of GOP opposition to his agenda, but because climate change is a problem that isn’t amenable to easy fixes, or even simple ones that are hard.
Even if we passed a massive carbon tax, and even if that tax cut resulted in a substantial improvement in our energy efficiency, both the carbon already in the atmosphere and the increases from the increasing industrialization of China, India and the rest of the developing world mean that the climate is going to continue to change. Even if we take the optimal actions for preventing the worst long-term scenarios, we’re still going to need adaptations to the changes in climate that, at this point, are inevitable.
For a city like New York, that means the twenty-first century version of Holland’s system of dykes and sluices. MoMA had an interesting exhibit on some ideas for rethinking the waterfront in an age of rising sea levels a couple of years ago. It’s an interesting topic I want to learn more about. But whatever we wind up deciding to do, and we’re going to have to do something, it’s going to cost an awful lot of money – tens of billions, certainly. Who’s going to pay for it? And how?
New York isn’t the economic heart of America in the way that Manhattan is of New York (and thank-God for that – take a look at the UK’s economic troubles if you want to see what we’d look like if it was), but it’s pretty important, to the point of being a net payer of Federal taxes. And a project of the scale we’re talking about is almost certainly the sort of thing that the Federal Government would be expected to be heavily involved in. But I confidently predict that, if and when we get around to actually talking turkey about adaptations to climate change, New York is going to be fighting tooth and nail against other jurisdictions demanding their “fair share” of whatever money is appropriated for the purpose, even though the economic case for their spending is far from clear (not to mention dealing with non-geographically-based interest groups angling for a piece of the pie).
This sort of dynamic shows up all over the place, and inevitably so, and the natural role of the conservative party, it seems to me, is to be the ones who say: we’ll run these projects more efficiently. We’ll stand up to interest groups with weak claims and get the project done on time and in budget. And at the gubernatorial level, you see that all the time – Republicans and Democrats both have to get roads and bridges built and repaired, have to improve the public schools (not just posture about them), and get graded based on performance, and Republicans do a fine job competing on that playing field. But at the Federal level, you increasingly see an ideological aversion to sensible cost-benefit analysis and to the notion that the government has an important positive role to play in economic development. Resentments against the “elites” – against Manhattan writ large – become an excuse for opposition to the very idea of the national government as the proper local for collective action (other than to kill people overseas). Questions that will have huge economic and social implications like how we are going to deal with climate change get treated as symbolic questions like whether a marathon is a thumb in the eye to people who have lost their homes. And that’s a tragedy, for our politics and for our society.