Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Walmart has remade the geography of commerce in the United States in the last 45 years, and it has played a key role in the transformation of labor markets in the U.S. and abroad. This map (thanks to Pittsburgh blogger Null Space) graphically depicts Walmart's conquest of the United States. Any more good maps out there?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I started college in the midst of a serious recession. The vicissitudes of the Rustbelt economy hit my family hard. My parents weren't making enough to pay even a fraction of my tuition. My summer job, working in a furniture store stockroom for minimum wage, barely covered my expenses for books and supplies. Hat in hand, I went to my college’s financial aid office. Fortunately Alma Mater was (and is) a rich institution. Just as importantly, a slew of federal programs, most of them products of one of the more important, less heralded pieces of Great Society legislation, the Higher Education Act of 1965, helped make college affordable. Through a combination of federally-funded work-study, Pell Grants, low-interest National Direct Student Loans, guaranteed student loans, and scholarship support, I went to college for virtually free. (OK, so I did get saddled with $10,000 in debt that I finally paid off sometime early in the twenty-first century, but the interest rates were more than fair, especially the 3 percent on my NDSL). I thank Alma Mater and Lyndon Johnson for making it possible for a kid like me, whose parents were not college graduates, to get a damned good education at one of the world’s greatest universities.

Today, for students from backgrounds like mine, the situation is grim. The value of Pell Grants in real dollars has changed little since the 1970s, but college expenses have risen rapidly, far exceeding the rate of inflation. Recent legislation, sponsored by liberal lions Edward Kennedy and George Miller, upped Pell grant funding. But still, this year's maximum Pell Grants are only $4,310. Pell Grants don't make much of a dent into tuition and fees at most private institutions. Even at relatively affordable state universities, Pell Grants don't go as far as they used to. Complicating the scenario, predatory lenders have moved into the student loan business with devastating long-term effects. Recent college graduates from working-class backgrounds are guaranteed a charter membership in our debtor society.

The result, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a decline in the number of lower-income students at many elite institutions, even at a moment when the Ivies and their peers are making noises about increasing the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies. Thomas Mortensen of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, told the Chronicle that he worries that selective colleges are becoming "class segregated."

I worry about class (and racial) segregation for pedagogical reasons. Most of my students agree with Charlie Gibson that families earning $250,000 per year are "middle class" and find labor history irrelevant and uninteresting. It's hard to teach about class to students who think that their upper-class suburban lives are normative. But for me, the pedagogical benefits of diversity matter much less than opportunity and equality. In our increasingly class-stratified, unequal society, education should provide a way out for poor and working-class kids. But our woefully inadequate system of funding higher education throws up all sorts of obstacles in their already obstacle-strewn path.

Increasing access to higher education enjoys widespread popular support. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities: "Ninety-four percent of Americans think every high school student who wants a four-year college degree should have the opportunity to earn one, but a majority feels that the nation is falling behind in offering people from all backgrounds the opportunity to go to college and in providing financial aid to college students." A majority of Americans support an expansion of need-based financial aid (and are skeptical of the current fashion in many colleges, merit-based aid that often goes to better-off students at the expense of support to needier students). Let's listen to them.

Our best colleges and universities should not be finishing schools for elite students who arrive in their freshman year with a bundle of privileges and a profound sense of entitlement. It's time to open the gates.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Thought of the day: "Common sense can, therefore, be profoundly misleading, obfuscating or disguising real problems under cultural prejudices. Cultural and traditional values (such as belief in God and country or views on the position of women in society) and fears (of communists, immigrants, strangers, or 'others') can be mobilized to mask other realities." So sayeth David Harvey, geographer and critic, in his brilliant, if sometimes flawed, book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). For you wonks, the quote can be found on page 39. Sound familiar? Harvey must be required reading in Hyde Park, though I'm guessing that Austan Goolsbee hasn't cracked the book's spine.


"At the union hall in Gary," writes today's Times, Hillary Clinton "grew so animated in describing the plight of old-line industrial workers that she described them in language from the oft-repeated poem, attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemoller, about the victims of Nazism. 'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,'" etc.

Clinton's version: "They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white-collar service jobs, and no one said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced, and nobody said anything."

Good speechmaking. Props to Hillary's writers for coining some nice phrases. But my question is this. Who is the they? Let's start with steel. It's been on the decline in the U.S. since the late 1950s, its diaspora encouraged by federal trade policies that rewarded off-shore investment. Gary was already a shell of its former industrial self by the early 1960s. And the auto industry? Well its decentralization began apace in the supposedly prosperous postwar years. Detroit alone lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, most in the auto industry and in auto-related production, between 1947 and 1963. Further encouraging the rusting of the Rustbelt: federal defense, highway construction, and tax policies that rewarded job creation in outlying suburbs, small towns, and increasingly in low-wage regions of the South and West. New Deal and post-New Deal growth politics played a key role. The process of disinvestment from the Rustbelt enjoyed bipartisan support.

That process accelerated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in part because of the rise of global competition, but also because of treaties, trade policies, and financialization that encouraged, indeed rewarded, disinvestment. Companies that had decamped for the non-union South now moved even further afield to the Maquiladora region of Mexico, the Caribbean, and increasingly East Asia. Free floating, unregulated international capital flooded into places like Malaysia and China, in search of cheap labor and freedom from environmental regulation.

All of these changes were part of a process that Republicans and Democrats alike presided over. Much of the offshoring of capital and business happened in the 1990s under the watch of none other than the Clinton administration.

Unions and community groups did speak out when they came for the steel and auto companies, but their voices were drowned out by the tidal wave of neoliberalism that remade the economies of America and the world, benefiting the few at the expense of the many. But who was silent? Who was actively complicit in the economic transformation that led to the rusting of Gary? I won't name names, but you know who. There's a lot of blame to spread around.

Friday, April 25, 2008


John McCain has admitted his ignorance on the issue that is at the top of most voters' list of worries. In November 2005, he told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” Then in December 2007, he made the even more candid claim, “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.”

So in the spirit of straight talk, it's my turn to admit my ignorance. I don't understand John McCain as well as I should. The former opponent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday now wraps himself in the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. The man who suffered greatly in one of America's longest and most tragic wars now supports staying in another long and tragic war for another fifty or hundred years. The man who once bucked his party on tax policy now sings the praises of corporate and capital gains tax cuts. The man who grew up in an elite family and married a beverage distribution heiress now lambastes the Democratic front runner as an elitist.

To understand the long and strange political career of the most prominent Arizonan since Barry Goldwater (sorry Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt, and Janet Napolitano), I'm heading off this morning to my local bookstore (doing my small bit to keep quirky, independent bookstores alive and well). There, I'll pick up a copy of Cliff Schecter's The Real McCain. It should be said that the young Cliff studied political history at a major Rustbelt university with an urbanist turned blogger. I hope he learned something useful there.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


John McCain is burnishing his credentials as a compassionate conservative, one who is in touch with the suffering American people, those forgotten, those left behind. From Selma, Alabama, to Youngstown, Ohio, to Inez, Kentucky, then to New Orleans, McCain is filming one great political ad after the next. It's McCain as JFK touring Appalachia. McCain as LBJ allying himself with the civil rights movement and calling for a War on Poverty of sorts.

I think it's more like McCain as OJ, returning to the scene of the crime in a shameless act of opportunistic self-promotion. All three of these places are gory messes, left for dead by four decades or more of failed public policies. The GOP has taken nothing but photos and jobs and left nothing but Bruno Magli footprints and a bloody glove. So hop into your white Bronco and let's go on a roadtrip with the G.O.P.'s presidential candidate.

Selma: this seventy percent black Alabama town has lost one-third of its population since John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to cross its Edmund Pettus bridge in an act of defiance against Alabama-style Jim Crow. Four decades after the epochal protests, Selma has not yet overcome. The town is mired in unemployment. 8.4 percent of Selma's residents are out of work. One-third live in poverty. Here's the testimony of Jean Jackson, a retired schoolteacher who remembers the 60s protests, in an LA Times article published several weeks before McCain's visit. "Dr. King would be terribly disappointed," she says. "We are not doing as well, in some aspects, as we were before the movement. We have all the rights and privileges, but what good is it to have all the rights and privileges if [those things are] not going to feed us?"

But buck up Selma, John McCain has the answer for you: "It is time for change; the right kind of change; change that trusts in the strength of free people and free markets; change that doesn't return to policies that empower government to make our choices for us, but that works to ensure we have choices to make for ourselves. For we have always trusted Americans to build from the choices they make for themselves, a safer, stronger and more prosperous country than the one they inherited." The problem with McCain's history of Selma is two fold: 1) It took "policies that empower government to make our choices for us" to break down the barriers of Jim Crow in Selma. King, Lewis, and the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge were not just exhorting us to "overcome." They demanded--and won--federal policies that forced Alabama to open its voting rolls to blacks. If white Alabamans had been left to "choices they make for themselves," blacks would still be unable to vote. 2) McCain's "free markets" have not served Selma and its residents well. Under Republican and Democrat alike, federal policies have channeled funding, tax breaks, and other goodies to corporations that have not trickled down to the residents of Selma and America's many, many other Selmas. Selma's history is one of market failure.

Off to Youngstown, a poster child for the pathologies of the free market. Most of its once-coveted industrial jobs are now offshore. Its landscape is marred by the hulks of abandoned factories. Its residents are suffering mightily from the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The unions that brought its blue-collar workers into the middle-class are weakening. And McCain's party has consistently supported legislation that weakens the right of workers to organize collectively. McCain offers Youngstown residents a litany of Republican nostrums, most of which call for cutting taxes on corporations. But then there's this: "We need reforms to make sure that employers spend more on wages, and that your health plan is yours to keep." I'm not sure what McCain means by this, but given that he opposed even the modest increase in the minimum wage from a miserly$5.15 to a still inadequate $7.25, I am not holding my breath that he will introduce any wage-upping reforms anytime soon.

Onto Inez, a hardscrabble town that was host to Lyndon Johnson four decades ago. Here McCain offers a re-reading of the War on Poverty that is rather ahistorical. "I have no doubt President Johnson was serious and had the very best of intentions when he declared the war on poverty in America. But the army he enlisted was mostly drawn from the ranks of government bureaucracies." OK, but two problems here. One is that poverty rates in the United States plummeted in the 1960s, in large part because of the War on Poverty. In 1959, 22.4 percent of Americans lived beneath the poverty line. By 1973, that figure had fallen to 11.1 percent. The steepest drops came between 1964 and 1969. Part of that poverty reduction was the consequence of an economic boom (one that happened under two Democratic presidents and was marked by the growing labor force participation of women and African Americans, the consequence of the civil rights movement). But a large part of the reduction in poverty in the 1960s came from the expansion of transfer payments to the poor. McCain's history fails on another count. The War on Poverty took a huge amount of flack at the time, notably because of its Community Action Program (remember Maximum Feasible Participation?), which put the administration of anti-poverty programs in the hands of community organizations and non-profits. One of the legacies of the War on Poverty is that many anti-poverty programs, for better and for worse, are not run by federal bureaucrats at all, but shaped and administered by non-governmental organizations at the state and local levels. Bad history, John.

I'll be listening for what Johnny Mac has to say about New Orleans. I'm not hopeful.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Phil at Poly Sigh offers this important corrective to Bill "I Work in Harlem, so I know what the drums are saying, Bwana" Clinton.

"You’ve got to really go some to play the race card with me,” Mr. Clinton said. “My office is in Harlem, and Harlem voted for Hillary, by the way.”

Putting aside Clinton's assumption that having an office in Harlem is conclusive evidence that he's not a racist, did Harlem really vote for Hillary? Harlem's geographic boundaries are rather fuzzy, but the heart of the area is bounded by 125th Street on the south, 145th Street on the north, Frederick Douglass Boulevard on the west, and 5th Avenue on the east. This area largely overlaps with the 70th State Senate district. Furthermore, Bill Clinton's Harlem office is located in the 70th district. According to the New York City Board of Elections, Barack Obama carried the district with 13,738 votes to Hillary Clinton's 9124 votes.

Oops. I guess Hillary is not on the way to following Bill's footsteps as our next black president.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Thanks to MC for distracting me from the exit polls with this truly appalling set of candidate interviews broadcast on WWE last night. Each is worst than the next. We have "Hill-Rod" (her name, not mine, yoiks), Barack "Adlai" Obama (this appearance makes the gutter balls look good), and the truly frightening "Insane McCain," who looks like he's about to pick up a chair and clobber Hill-Rod or Adlai across the head. My advice: Democrats stay away from the WWE. You can't win this one.


I’m not sure that I’ll have time to make the road trip to the Pierro Gallery in South Orange, New Jersey to visit the exhibition, IS IT POSSIBLE TO MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH OF NEW JERSEY REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE WORLD? Curator Laurel Ptak has pulled together more than 1000 photos (including the one above) by 189 artists. The result is a brilliant compilation of the vernacular, profound, and absurd.

I’m gonna try to take a road trip there in the next few weeks. But for those of you who can’t, the catalogue is online for your perusal. Check it out.


I now have reason to read the Wall Street Journal editorial page for reasons other than sharpening my debate skills. That bastion of elite wingnuttiness has brought aboard Tom Frank, one of the most perceptive analysts of the bipartisan worship of the ostensibly free market. While I don't always agree with Frank (for example, I think he misunderestimated the conservatism of well-off values voters and overestimated the possibility of liberalism in Kansas), he is one of the smartest writers and most perceptive cultural critics of our time. For leftists who believe that a little hip hop or a few piercings put them on the vanguard of revolutionary change, his collection of Baffler essays, Commodify Your Dissent, serves up a series of witty, learned rebukes. For those sixties romantics who get dewy-eyed at their recollections of Woodstock, his Conquest of Cool, traces the short, not-so-strange trip that brought us hippie capitalism.

Frank's first WSJ column skewers those who associate liberalism and leftism with elitism. Denunciations of elites are deeply rooted in American history but were perfected in the populist rantings of George Wallace and Spiro Agnew ("nattering nabobs of negativism.") Anti-elitism found its most recent incarnation in the image of George W. as a man that every American would like to join for a beer and the counterimage of John--or should I say Jean--Kerry, the Francophile windsurfer. Here is Frank on the phenomenon:

It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world – the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes' folks, the most populist fellows of them all.

John McCain's visit to Selma, Alabama yesterday, where he touted the virtues of the forgotten America, is but another shallow moment of symbolic solidarity with the people as a prelude to what he hopes will be eight more years of Republican policies that will protect the interests of big multinationals, preserve capital gains tax cuts for the richest sliver of the population, and starve cities and cut government programs in the name of freeing people to do it for themselves. It's time to say no to "aw shucks" populism and call it for what it is, big bucks elitism.

Monday, April 21, 2008


The majority of commentators with something to say about bitterness in the Rustbelt, including me, have focused on gun-toting, beer swilling, bowling white men. But as we have seen in past primaries, boomer women, especially white, working-class women, have consistently pulled the lever for Hillary. Is this a version of identity politics? Perhaps, but I think there’s something deeper and more interesting going on. It has to do with feminism, its history, and our misunderstandings of it.

Since the 1960s, the right has labeled feminism in extreme terms. Feminists are man-hating and anti-feminine. They are deeply anti-family. They are “Feminazis,” ready to castrate any dissenting man in service of their elitist agenda. The assumption that feminists are anti-male, always radical, and elitist pervades popular culture and shapes the views of even my most liberal students. Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching about the transformations of women, family, gender, and sexuality in mid-twentieth century America. These weeks generate some of the most revealing discussions of the semester. Most of my students are nominally liberal products of privileged suburban households. They see feminism as inherently suspect. Their frames come largely from the political right. Most of my undergraduate women are deathly afraid to be labeled feminist lest they appear to be hirsute, unattractive, castrating lesbians to their male classmates. Most student men fear that self-identified feminists will be sanctimonious and preachy, unappealing sexual partners, and unfit mothers.

Our misunderstanding of feminism (which has analogies in our misunderstandings of the student left and black power) is the result of the media fixation on small groups of theatrical activists and the exploitation of those images by the right. But as Rutgers historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has argued in her important book, The Other Women's Movement, mid-twentieth century feminism was not solely or even primarily the creation of elite women. It differed in important ways from the clich├ęd accounts of feminism that shape our popular histories of the 1960s. Cobble chronicles an important and largely unknown story of working-class feminism. These feminists defined their struggle primarily in economic, not cultural terms. They represented blue and pink-collar women who, by the mid-twentieth century, were entering the paid workforce in increasing numbers, despite the pervasive rhetoric about the normative family headed by male breadwinners. These women were not, for the most part, in the paid labor market because it offered an escape from what Betty Friedan hyperbolically called the “comfortable concentration camp” of the suburban home. They were working because they had to.

The history of efforts to improve the economic conditions for working women, largely led by female unionists, needs to be foregrounded in our histories of the women’s movement. Historians and journalists spill much more ink on the protests at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, where radical protestors dumped girdles, false eyelashes, and copies of Playboy into a "Freedom Trash Can" before crowning a sheep as Miss America. We (erroneously) describe feminists as “bra burners” rather than telling the histories of waitresses and department store workers who organized unions and the women who used Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a tool for fighting against workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. Most feminists and feminist-sympathetic women in the late 1960s and 1970s were not burning their bras. They were getting up at 6 in the morning and putting on their bras and the rest of their work uniforms before making breakfast, packing their children’s lunchboxes, and then heading to work themselves, usually to insecure, underpaid “pink collar” jobs.

For these women that feminism really mattered. Against the odds, working-class feminists raised their wages and undermined sexist hiring practices, even if both victories were incomplete. Working-class feminists demanded better benefits and affordable child care and fought for family-friendly workplace policies. The feminist workplace revolution is still unfinished. And in fundamental respects it has been rolled back in the last two decades by biparisan indifference to the issues that matter most for ordinary working people, male and female alike.

Blue-collar and pink-collar women experienced the promise of feminism and its limitations. Today they have real reason to be bitter. In most states, family leave policies are still appalling, day care is expensive, and working women's wages are stagnant. Women are disproportionately represented in the ranks of part-time and contingent workers, both sectors of the labor market that are volatile and insecure.

This is a working world that is largely invisible to the young and to the privileged. And I think it helps to explain why so many older women gravitate toward Hillary Clinton. Whether Clinton will actually enact policies that will benefit these women is very much an open question. I’m doubtful. Welfare reform, with its mandatory work requirements, is not very family friendly. It’s a Clinton legacy. The Clintons supported a weak family leave policy, one of the worst in the industrialized west. Working women and men deserve better. Most workplaces are still far from family-friendly, especially in companies like Wal-Mart, on whose board of directors Hillary has served.

If Barack Obama wants to expand his base in blue-collar America, it’s time for him to take off his bowling shoes. Rather than hanging out with men in blue-collar bars, he needs to reach out to middle-aged, working-class women who are the backbone of the expanding service sector, who dominate employment in the now-struggling retail sector, and who are the underpaid care workers who take care of the sick and elderly while usually returning home to take care of their own aging parents or children or both. Their votes will really matter in November, given the persistent gender gap in voting between Democrats and Republicans. It is folly to ignore these struggling working women. Their lives are a reminder of feminism’s unfinished business. Their continued economic insecurity is a reminder of the failure of our public policies. Women, carework, and workplace rights should not be a fringe issue. They matter to us all.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Here I am in South Bend, Indiana, one of the rustiest cities in the Midwest, whose heyday ended (except for college football fans and Catholic intellectuals) forty-five years ago when Studebaker rolled its last behemoths off the assembly line. Perhaps I shouldn't say behemoths, since the long defunct auto manufacturer produced one of the more innovative small cars of the era, the Avanti, a futuristic fiberglass and metal creation that was, in many respects, before its time. Alas, there's not a lot of innovation here today. The drive from the South Bend airport into the city today is a depressing landscape of small factories, boarded up storefronts, rundown houses, and vacant lots. It's a pretty typical mid-sized Rustbelt city with many remnants of its once powerful industrial past.

The non-academic highlight of my trip here was experiencing my first ever earthquake. Just after 5:30 this morning, I woke up to a long rumble, almost as if a large train were rolling through the sleepy Notre Dame campus. A few hundred miles southwest of here was the epicenter of a temblor that registered 5.2 on the Richter scale.

Much to my geologically illiterate surprise, I discovered that large parts of the Rustbelt are earthquake prone. (See the USGS map above). The epicenter of this morning's quake, the Wabash Valley fault system, part of the New Madrid fault, lies in southern Illinois and eastern Missouri. It's a part of the country dotted with down-at-the-heels small towns, including the remnants of one of the nation's once great coal mining centers.

Back in 1811 and 1812, when huge earthquakes rattled the New Madrid fault, many believers were convinced that the end of time was at hand. No doubt a few Midwesterners today feel that way too, though the last half century of deindustrialization has done more than even the most severe tremors to devastate the old towns in this region.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I am not naive when it comes to the media and politics, but I was still appalled that last night's Democratic debate wasted nearly forty minutes of our time on Bitter-gate, Reverend Wright-gate, flag pin-gate, Bosnian sniper fire-gate, and ex-Weathermen-gate. I know that these ostensibly burning questions are determined by the narrow preoccupations of the news media and their insatiable desire for a "gotcha" moment. (Since Nixon and Watergate, reporters and readers alike have become incapable of separating scandal from pseudo-scandal.) Personal innuendo passes for political insight. Trivia masquerades as substance. And all too many Americans tune out substantive policy discussions as boring and prefer the "reality TV" politics of name-calling, guilt-by-association, and smarmy apologies.

In my ideal political world, both candidates would have told Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to shut up and change the subject. Obama tried in his cautious way to point out that these issues are a distraction from what really matters. But he was way too much on the defensive to come out strong, for fear of being accused of dodging questions that he's already answered again and again and again and again and again. And Clinton sees these petty flaps as her last chance to grasp the ring and prove her electability. Fortunately, the debates finally turned to matters of substance. What worried me most was the assumptions that both candidates made about taxation and class. Both Hillary and Barack were painted into the corner of pledging not to raise taxes on Americans making less than $200K. But both cling to the dubious, wholly inaccurate assumption that people making over $200,000 or $250,000 per year are "middle class." By any measure, these are not ordinary, middle Americans. They are not just rich. They are, by any sensible economic measure super rich. I'll post more on our strange assumptions about class later.

For now, I'll just keep screaming at my television.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


It's my weekly shout out to a Rustbelt place--not New Jersey, I promise. And since I'm blogging from the Center of the Political Universe, home to elitists, Annie Oakley wannabees, and bitter blue-collar workers alike, I'll spare you a Pennsylvania post for a day or two. Thanks to Rustbelt readers Julia and Jonathan for playing the St. Louis Blues. Once the gateway to the Mississippi, the granary of the Midwest, a major shipping center, and a belt of heavy industry, St. Louis has lost most of its warehouses, its industrial base, and more than half of its population in the last fifty years. But thanks to some immensely talented historians, St. Louis is one of the best documented cities in America. Joseph Heathcott (a Rustbelt Intellectual if there was ever one) gave me an extraordinary tour of the Gateway City a few years ago, ending up on the grass-covered ruins of Pruitt-Igoe (see its depiction in Koyaanisqatsi above),the infamous public housing project whose demolition is the subject of his book in progress. Colin Gordon, best known for his innovative histories of business and the New Deal and national health care policy, has turned his formidable talent to the study of the long, tangled history of race, political economy, the real estate market, land use, and municipal division in his new book, Mapping Decline. Check out his whiz-bang GIS maps. And straight out of Urbana, Clarence Lang explodes the simple dichotomies between black power and civil rights in his study of local black activism in the 1950s. Rutgers urbanist Alison Isenberg (props to my first teaching assistant ever) is author of the justifiably acclaimed Downtown America. Worth the price of the book is her revealing discussion of the shockingly fast rise and fall of St. Louis's Gaslight District, one of the earliest "success stories" in downtown revitalization whose quirky outdoor cafes and trendy restaurants inspired downtown developers before they vanished away in the late 1960s. And let's not forget Maire Murphy, sometime co-author with Heathcott, has explored the long history of deindustrialization in the city and planning historian Eric Sandweiss who offers as rich an account of St. Louis. And my list has just begun.

Thanks to my Gateway City readers, I've linked to some great St. Louis sites: Vanishing St. Louis, Built St. Louis, and B.E.L.T. Also worth a visit is Ecology of Absence , maintained by one of St. Louis' most active preservationists, Michael Allen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


This morning, I walked down to the corner, put my children onto their school bus, and then made a quick stop at the mailbox. In my hand were three envelopes containing checks to the Internal Revenue Service, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia. I don't want to sound hokey, but I feel a sense of pride every April 15. I am fulfilling one of the central responsibilties of citizenship. My checks will provide some of the funds to pay for my children's trip to school (part of the way on a road that is being rebuilt with federal funds). And more importantly, my modest tax payments will help other people's children, and their parents, and grandparents too.

For those of us who groan and moan that our tax dollars are being wasted, watch this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Even if our tax dollars are sometimes wasted or misdirected, it’s time to talk about what our local, state, and federal governments are doing right. What has Uncle Sam ever done for us? Social Security. OK, but other than Social Security? Subsidized medical research...OK, but other than subsidized medical and scientific research and Social Security? Well we have the National Park system. Other than Social Security, medical research, and National Parks? Well you get the idea. I could go on.

It will forever bar me from running for political office to say this: We don’t pay enough. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Our schools, especially those in inner cities and declining Rustbelt towns, are struggling with budget cutbacks when they need more to recruit and retain teachers and serve some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. Our public transportation systems deliver a lot, especially given how underfunded they are, but for those of us who depend on regional rail and Amtrak, the consequences of funding cuts have been devastating. And, yes, the National Institute for Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes for Medicine underwrite a lot of critical research. But we’ve allowed too much of our scientific and medical agendas to be dictated by the private sector. And don’t get me going about what our taxes aren’t going to, including an inclusive health care system, better environmental and workplace safety regulation, and urban redevelopment.

It is a cliche to say that anti-tax sentiment as an essential part of the American political tradition. It is, but not in the way that we usually think. American Revolutionaries railed against “taxation without representation.” We pay a lot of attention to the first word, but not as much to the second two. The protestors who joined the Boston Tea Party didn’t throw the principle of taxation into Boston Harbor. They demanded more democracy, the freedom to determine the fair rates of taxation and the uses to which tax dollars would be put.

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn has written a brilliant study of the origins of Americans’ aversion to high taxes. I recommend reading her book, American Taxation, American Slavery. Here are some of her insights:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.

America's anti-tax tradition, she argues, is one of slavery's many strange fruits.

[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces ("slave patrols") to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.

Her sobering conclusion:

The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack "elites" in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of "liberty," constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of "equal rights," and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the "common man." In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien "government" to oppress "the people."

If we throw off the yoke of slavery, we might recover the lost promise of the Boston Tea Party: that taxation and liberty are fundamentally compatible.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


In my basement, along with my Brunswick Black Beauty bowling ball, is a ratty old t-shirt given to me by a friend in graduate school, emblazoned with a picture of Karl Marx and the slogan "Earn Big Money, Become a Historian." It's one of the many things that I just can't throw away. The humorous slogan aside, I'm fortunate that I am not one of the army of adjuncts who dominate our profession. That I get paid for speaking and writing about things that I care about is great remuneration. But my comfortable existence is nothing compared to Bill Clinton's.

Between 2001 and 2005, our former president earned $31 million dollars in speaking fees. With a few exceptions, he charged between $100,000 and $300,000 per speech. It's quite a roster of speaking engagements. I'm sure that Bill's sponsors at Oracle, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Goldman Sachs and dozens of other banks, corporations, and business groups had no problem coming up several hundred grand to lure Bill to their events. Many CEOs lose that much change in their couches each year. But non-profits, including religious congregations, colleges, hospitals, and universities, also ponied up big bucks for a few hours of Bill's time. Salem State could have hired two assistant professors with full benefits and change to spare for the $125K that Bill charged. Tufts could have covered tuition, fees, room, and board for three needy Rustbelt-born history majors. And UC Davis could have increased the stipends for a hundred teaching assistants by $1000 dollars per head. OK, I know that bringing in marquee speakers can enhance an institution's reputation, persuade proud alumni to open their wallets and donate to alma mater, and maybe even attract a little favorable press attention. But six figures is an absurdly high price to pay, even for a golden-tongued former denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No speech is that good.

I don't have anything against remuneration for hard work. Out-of-town speaking gigs are time consuming and exhausting, even if they are also usually invigorating. But when the fee for a single afternoon's talk puts someone into the top tier of income earners, then I have a problem.

Inspired by Bill, I'm upping my own speaker's fee. (Reality check: that tattered t-shirt keeps me honest. My fee is on a sliding scale, to each host according to his or her means.) Alas, even if I double or triple my average fee, it will take me tens of thousands of talks to reach Bill's $31 million. But I've given my share of barn burners. I promise you'll get your money's worth. And Oracle and Credit Suisse: I'm waiting for an invitation. I'll take your $200K any day.


“Late Friday evening, the Indiana Republican Party accused Mr. Obama of belittling ‘Midwestern values.’” Barack’s sin: in response to a question at a fundraiser in San Francisco, he noted that those white, working-class voters who have been left behind in the Bush and Clinton years have been embittered by their experiences.

There are two parts to Obama's comment: the first that Rustbelters are bitter, the second that their bitterness has attracted them to the divisive cultural politics.

“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” stated Obama.

Hillary’s response: “It’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter: well that’s not my experience.” Well maybe if Hillary actually took a few minutes to talk to some Rustbelt voters rather than pretending to be one by dusting off old pictures of her parents’ summer cottage near Scranton, telling us that her father taught her how to use a gun, or donning her bowling shoes and pretending to enjoy the Reagan Democrats’ sport of choice, she’d think differently. But then again, pulling in over a hundred million dollars in household income over the last several years and living in Chappaqua, the land of hedge fund managers and deer-proof shrubbery, doesn’t exactly put you in touch with the working-class and their resentments.

I’m loathe to besmirch the reputation of Hubert H. Humphrey by comparing him to Hillary, but it sounds to me like she’s resurrecting his hapless 1968 slogan: “The Politics of Joy.”

And John McCain, tribune of the Rustbelt working-class? Steven Schmidt, McCain’s senior advisor, accuses Obama of “an elitism and condescension toward hard-working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.” That from the spokesman of a candidate who blames the home foreclosure crisis on personal irresponsibility rather than on predatory lenders. The very premise of G.O.P. social policy for the last forty years has been to blame poverty on the poor, unemployment on the unemployed, and hardship on the hard-hit.

My friend Liz, who, in her capacity as a policy advocate and organizer, has been to more small and mid-sized Pennsylvania towns than Obama, Clinton, and McCain combined, tells me that Obama's diagnosis of bitterness is "truthy," even if she concurs that it was not particularly artful.

Putting the issue more more artfully is Lancaster, Pennsylvania mayor Rick Gray. “I don’t think he’s demeaning religion or guns,” Mr. Gray said. “He’s saying the use of those issues as wedge issues plays on the bitterness that people have and diverts attention from the real economic issues, like the disparity between the wage earner and the rich.” Amen.

By nearly every measure, working-class Midwesterners and Pennsylvanians, black and white, have been left behind for the last thirty years. They were failed by Clinton and Bush administration policies that allowed major corporations tax breaks for sheltering their money in offshore havens. They were stiffed by a wild-West subprime mortgage market whose collapse has forced many blue-collar homeowners into foreclosure. They lived in places that have been ravaged by sixty years of systematic federal disinvestment. They were left behind by the Republican evisceration of labor laws that once protected the rights of workers to organize. They have watched their wages have stagnated, as their pensions and benefits have been cut, and as their once decent jobs have been replaced by McJobs.

And the hits are coming especially hard this year. Check out the three maps above from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy is tanking everywhere, but has been hitting the Rustbelt particularly hard, as the first map shows. The second two maps, of Pennsylvania, give a good sense of the geography of bitterness. The second shows current unemployment rates by county in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is the dark blue spot in the right hand corner. The dark blue arc passing through the left hand third of the state corresponds to Pennsylvania's real Rustbelt, the old mill towns, steel manufacturing centers, and coal mining communities that have been laid waste by decades of disinvestment, places like Johnstown and Altoona. To the far Northeast (the upper right) are the exurban counties about two hours west of New York City whose residents are catching pneumonia from New York's sneeze. And to the far left (geographically, not politically) are the counties that border down-and-out Ohio. The third map shows 12 month trends in unemployment rates. A few counties excepted, most of Pennsylvania has seen unemployment rise steadily in the last year.

An even more revealing indicator of economic distress is rising joblessness--not to be confused with unemployment. The unemployed are actively seeking work. The jobless are no longer attached to the formal labor market, as either workers or jobseekers. Unfortunately, I don't have maps of joblessness by state or county, but the aggregate trends are not heartening.

As the Times reports in an important article buried in Saturday's business section,:

In the latest report, for March, the Labor Department reported the jobless rate — also called the “not employed rate” by some — at 13.1 percent for men in the prime age group. Only once during a post-World War II recession did the rate ever get that high. It hit 13.3 percent in June 1982, the 12th month of the brutal 1981-82 recession, and continued to rise from there.

It is noteworthy that white men are particularly vulnerable to joblessness this year.

The government breaks down the figures by race, and those figures show that over the last year almost all the jobs lost by men in the 25 to 54 age group have been lost by whites, with most of those losses affecting men ages 35 to 44. There have been just a small number of losses by black men in the 25 to 54 age group, and employment for Hispanic men is still growing, albeit at a much slower pace than it was a few months ago.

Good reason to be bitter.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Like every self-respecting white Rustbelt kid of a certain age, I grew up bowling. I’ve never been good at another sport. My Little League batting average never rose above .100, because one in every ten times ball and bat will randomly connect. My high school intramural basketball team had a 1-5 record. We lost our first game, yes it's true, 49-0. The only game we won was a forfeit. But on the hard, polished maple of our local lanes, brandishing my own monogrammed Brunswick (I still have it, somewhere down in my dusty basement), I ruled. My high school intramural bowling team, Impending Doom, made it into the league championship, even though one of our teammates, a Ricky Schroder look-alike, dragged down our stats quite a bit, even if he did attract the attention of the girls.

But don’t accuse me of being overly romantic about bowling. I don’t toss and turn at night fretting that the disappearance of bowling leagues is a symptom of America’s civic decline. No one marched to freedom wearing bowling shoes sticky with spilled beer. More than that, bowling reflected the everyday racial segregation of life in twentieth-century America. In the 1940s, the United Automobile Workers led a successful struggle to integrate bowling leagues. They succeeded in busting ten-pin Jim Crow in Detroit, Buffalo, and elsewhere. But newly integrated bowling alleys did not do much to undermine shop floor discrimination or housing segregation.

During my Rustbelt childhood, bowling alleys remained unbearably white. And as proud as I am about the only sports trophy I won or will ever win, I didn't learn any valuable lessons of citizenship from my bowling experience or any of my other mostly hapless forays into athletics. I just don’t think that all of the overblown rhetoric about the social benefits of sports stands up to close scrutiny, though I can’t say that I’ve seen any good social scientific studies one way or the other. While data are not the sum of anecdote, most of the hardcore jocks I knew were jerks, politically conservative, and all too militaristic for their own good. Paeans to competition be damned. The hyper-competitiveness of most sports does not provide a compelling model for a just society. Don't get me wrong. Sports can be fun, even for Anti-Jocks like me. And the health benefits of regular athletic activity are well-documented.

One last bit of gutter sniping. As a Rustbelter and a erstwhile bowler, I have to say that the sight of Hillary and Barack bowling was at best a silly spectacle, at worst an insult. It’s a sign of how out of touch with ordinary, Rustbelt Americans the two leading Democratic candidates are that 1) they believed that carefully staged visits to bowling alleys would demonstrate their common touch and 2) that they couldn’t stay out of the gutter. I want a President who will solve the mortgage crisis, who will restore investment in our cities and public transportation, who will deal with the ongoing hemorrhage of well-paying jobs, and who bring America's health insurance system into line with the rest of the (post)industrial world. I don’t care if they can hit a strike or a spare or if they bowl together or alone. I just want to get America out of the gutter.

Footnote: Afro-Netizen Chris Rabb suggests that Barack drop the bowling ball and pick up the b-ball. Says Chris:

"He can spend the rest of his campaign through the Democratic Convention working on his form. But no matter how much he improves his bowling game, it will still be bowling. And say what you like about what White working classfolk are into. The simple fact remains that White guys do not live vicariously through professional bowlers -- be they White or Black (assuming there were Black professional bowlers)."
As for Hillary: Come next year, she and Bill will have a lot of time to golf, when they aren't collecting six-digit speakers' fees. Fore!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


OK, I solemnly swear to write about some place other than Jersey...after this post. But once again the Garden State serves as a case study of something quintessentially American. This time: economic inequality. Eileen Appelbaum, a Rutgers economist, directed a study of the problems that working families face in one of the richest states in the U.S. The Garden State has a median family income of $75,311, second only to heavily suburban Connecticut. But twenty percent of Jerseyites are members of low-income working families, making less than is necessary to meet the basic costs of living--even in inexpensive parts of the state. Many of them, nearly 70 percent, surprise, surprise, are minorities. The result: low rates of upward mobility and high rates of indebtedness. New Jersey's real estate market is among the nation's most expensive, in part because of the state's proximity to New York City. The fact that New Jersey is sprawling and suburban makes things even worse. As in most Rustbelt states, New Jersey's most rapid job growth is on the fringes of metropolitan areas. The result is that most low-wage workers are heavily dependent on cars and have been socked by rising gas prices. The state's public transportation system is better than most, but it's still far from adequate. Appelbaum and her colleagues offer a sensible set of recommendations: increase the minimum wage, bolster education and job training programs, and use state subsidies (which have done a lot for the suburbs and exurbs) to target investment in low-income areas.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Kathy G over at the G-Spot is my favorite new entrant into the crowded blogosphere. Though I couldn't pick her out of a lineup, anyone who writes knowledgably about economic inequality, Joan Crawford, and Republicans who barbecue dogs all in the same week deserves the widest readership possible. Even better, Kathy G shares my perverse fascination with New Jersey, arguably the most interesting state in the U.S., politically, economically, socially, spatially, ethnically, and racially. And I say this as someone who was not born in the Garden State, who watched the Sopranos on bootleg videos way too late, and who attended his first Bruce Springsteen concert just three years ago, in the best venue ever, the Atlantic City Convention Center, thanks to the inveigling of the uber New Jersey historian and over-caffeinated cultural critic Bryant Simon. Though I wouldn't want to live there, NJ is a great place to spend an afternoon. Last summer, I traipsed through Newark with my kids (yes, they liked it). Admittedly we had the whole New Jersey Historical Society to ourselves, but it's well curated and worth the stop. We rode the subway, ate ice cream to the tune of Brazilian drummers, and had lunch in one of the dreariest diners that I have ever set foot in. For those accustomed (like me) to blasting through the Garden State at 70mph (alas, I got a ticket for speeding there last summer), I recommend veering off the Turnpike for a lunch stop in Plainfield, a marvelously diverse town home to Jim McGreevey, but better yet some of the best Guatamalan food in el Norte. And for a romantic getaway (yes, that's possible in New Jersey), check out Frenchtown, an old mill village along the Delaware about halfway between New York and Philly, a low-key alternative to nearby Lambertville and New Hope.

Monday, April 7, 2008


PHOTO: Homestead, Pennsylvania, US Steel Plant. Library of Congress. HABS.

I don't usually finding myself in full agreement with libertarian urban analyst Joel Kotkin. But in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, he offered a solid analysis of the differences between two Rustbelt states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is larger and far more economically diverse than Ohio. And, as a result, it has not witnessed the economic devastation that has turned the Buckeye state into the black eye state.

Kotkin's best quote:

I'm insulted when people compare Pennsylvania to Ohio," says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, himself a native of Allentown. "It's not a Rust Belt state, but a lot of it is like New Jersey."

OK, we are Exit 4 on the Jersey Turnpike. Tony Soprano phone home. Frey is an excellent demographer, but a quick trip to North Philadelphia or Johnstown or Altoona or Pittsburgh is full of remnants of Pennsylvania's rusting industrial past. A ride along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains--if you can afford one--takes you past the now vacant, overgrown brownfields once home to the mighty engines of industry.

And New Jersey is a garden of post-industrial decline. Look out the train windows at Trenton (Trenton Makes, the World Takes--no more), Newark, and Camden. Or for the deskbound instead of the Penn Station bound, check out Camilo Jose Vergara's eyeopening photo essay on Camden, Invicible Cities)

Of the three states, New Jersey's geography is probably the most fascinatingly diverse. From Philly or New York, drive fifty miles and you'll find country horse farms, wealthy and blue-collar suburbs, rusted milltowns, Virginia or Carolina style Pine Barrens, outrageously expensive shore towns, cranberry bogs, truck farms, and quaint, New England wannabe artists colonies. You could say it's a little Pennsylvania, a little Ohio, a little Connecticut, a little New York, and a little North Carolina, all rolled up into one.

The lesson: rust and its alternatives come in many forms. And Pennsylvania is no New Jersey is no Ohio. But they are all landscapes shaped by industry and metamorphosing in countless, unpredictable postindustrial ways.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Ari, one of the non-Rustbelt Intellectuals out there at the Edge of the American West, offers another take on high price that America pays for replacing the radical Martin Luther King, Jr. with a plaster saint.

He puts it well:

Collective memories, ephemeral though they may be, have consequences. Our common understanding of the past helps to shape our behavior in the present. It matters, then, that the MLK of American memory is, as I’ve suggested before, too simple and too safe. It matters that this deracinated MLK is a byproduct of corporate sponsorship. King’s critique of American imperialism, racism, and, most of all, capitalism have all been replaced by cuddly calls for unity, for Christian fellowship, for reconciliation. Those are, to be sure, pleasant memories. But they may forestall discussions of what divided us in the first place; they might stand in the way of King’s goal of social justice for all people.


Yoiks! Nicholas Kristof is a racist. At least if racism can be measured by the millisecond. The Times columnist participated in a little computer game constructed by University of Chicago psychologist Joshua Correll. It's the sort of game that my nine-year old would really enjoy. 120 photographs of ordinary landscapes (a street, a shopping mall, a cemetery, a grassy knoll, etc.) appear in rapid succession. Superimposed on the otherwise nonthreatening scenery is a young black or white man, one per picture. Some are armed with handguns, others holding cellphones or wallets. You have a choice, fire or not. Kristof was a quick trigger. He shot armed blacks in .679 seconds; armed whites in .694 seconds. The gap between the two: 0.15 seconds. In those 0.15 seconds, Kristof has found irrefutable proof of his racism.

I took the test. For those who are counting, my score was -2010 (In other words, I reacted slowly and was killed several times).

My Average reaction times:
Black Armed:1434.08ms
Black Unarmed:1477.44ms
White Armed:1292.48ms
White Unarmed:1056.16ms

Well one thing is for sure. I'm not about to challenge Kristof to a duel. I'm slow to the trigger. Second, I reacted more slowly to blacks than whites. Perhaps I'm a "reverse racist." Or maybe I spend too much time with Quakers and other non-violent types. Or maybe I thought too much rather than letting my reptile brain take over.

So what is racism? And does this test really teach us anything?

Racism is the use of phenotypical classifications to allocate power and resources in society. Rather than measure racism by asking people to play silly little computer games, a few hard statistics will suffice. Where do you live? What color are your neighbors? Do blacks on average attend better schools, live in safer neighborhoods, and have greater economic status than whites? I'll post some answers later, but what I can say is that my statistics are a lot grimmer than Kristof's fifteen millisecond racial gap. Racism is not the blink of an eye. There are better metrics.

Studies of neuroracism are not just measuring the wrong thing, they are sending the wrong message. Kristof offers the disclaimer that "biases are not immutable." But the implication of neurological studies is precisely the opposite. Racism is hard-wired in the brain. That's ultimately a politically disabling finding.

Racism IS a serious problem. It IS deeply entrenched in American life. But as the last eighty years of civil rights history teaches us, what gains blacks have made are the result of activism, legislation, and litigation. The causes of racial inequality--and the solutions--are political and economic not neurological.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


The Motor City is still shrinking. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimates that Detroit's population will fall to 705,000 by 2035, a loss of more than 20 percent of its current population and a drop of more than one million from the city's 1.85 million peak in 1950. My friend Kurt Metzger, a Detroit-based demographer doesn't believe it. "I'm perfectly happy to accept slow growth across the region," Metzger told the Detroit Free Press. "The economy is going to continue to drive people out, but I don't believe Detroit will empty out to this degree," he said. "They're still leading in building permits in the region. I suppose it could all fall apart, but the city is just on the precipice of moving forward."

Even if his metaphor is more than a little mixed, he might be right. Demographic projections are infamously inaccurate. Even if the prognosis for Detroit seems grim today, there's nothing inevitable about the trajectory of urban growth or depopulation. After all, in the early 1970s, a Brookings Institution study ranked Boston and Detroit as two of the nation's most distressed cities. Ten years later, they were only half right.

Detroit's hope might be in its bankable land. Much of Detroit has reverted to nature, but that means huge tracts of open land, ripe for the reuse.

Friday, April 4, 2008


Every year, in January and April, we commemorate the extraordinary career of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.

Last week, in preparation for a public lecture on 1968, I re-read the most important book on King and his politics to come out in the last decade: Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Jackson, a former researcher with the King Papers project at Stanford, has read King’s every last sermon, speech, book, article, and letter. What Jackson finds is that from the beginning of his ministry, King was far more radical, especially on matters of labor, poverty, and economic justice than we remember. In media accounts, King was quickly labeled the “Apostle of Non-Violence,” and, by the mid-1960s, portrayed as the antithesis to Malcolm X. While King adhered to nonviolence for his entire career, the single-minded focus of the media on the horse race between Malcolm and Martin led reporters to ignore King’s more radical pronouncements. They simply didn’t fit into the developing story line. Black power advocates also distorted King, focusing on his ministerial style and arrogance (members of SNCC called him “de Lawd”). They branded King as hopelessly bourgeois, a detriment rather than a positive force in the black freedom struggle. White liberals, fearful of black unrest, embraced King as a voice of moderation, hoping that he could stem the rising tide of black discontent that exploded in the long hot summers of the mid- sixties. The representation of King as mainstream left observers unable to make sense out of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his call for an interracial Poor People’s Movement, and his increasingly vocal denuciations of class inequality in America. King, they contended, had been radicalized or, perhaps, was more calculating in his leftward move, changing his rhetoric to remain a legitimate leader in the eyes of younger, angrier blacks. But as Jackson shows, King was anything but a milquetoast racial liberal or a radical-come-lately. Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anticapitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left-wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy. King, in other words, was a radical well before he offered his prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967 or joined the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.

King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King, Jrs: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.

First is the commemorative King. Only fifteen years after his death, King won an extraordinary recognition---he became the only individual (unless you count Presidents Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays have been unceremoniously consolidated into President's Day) with his own national holiday. That a man who was berated as un-American, hounded by the FBI, arrested and jailed numerous times, was recognized by a national holiday is nothing short of amazing. To be sure, the King holiday met with significant opposition, particularly from southerners like Jesse Helms, who contended that King was a tool of the Communist Party, and from John McCain, Evan Mecham, and other conservative Arizonans. But the King Holiday legislation was signed into law after overwhelming congressional approval by none other than President Ronald Reagan, who began his political career as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who repeated his act by launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia Mississippi, a tiny place whose only claim to fame was that three young civil rights activists had been murdered there twenty years earlier. But if there was anything at all subversive in King's life, it is lost in the feel good celebrations of King Day, which has become a day for picking up litter and painting school classrooms. Not that community service is a bad thing, but it's a long, long way from King's vision for social change.

The Therapeutic King: In American iconography, King is the great healer, the man who called America to be true to its “creed” of equality and opportunity. King’s message, bereft of its hard-hitting political content, is so anoydyne that we can all support it, Republican and Democrat alike. The feel good, inspirational message of King’s life has moved front and center in our memories of King. A popular school curriculum intended to build student self-esteem, for example, calls for children to express their dreams. King's message is to hold hands and join our voices together, ebony and ivory, in perfect harmony.

The conservative King: Devoid of the political content that drove his message, King has also become an icon of racial conservatism. Today's most unlikely King acolytes are critics of civil rights policies such as affirmative action. King is the prophet of meritocratic individualism. The most articulate proponent of this version of King (and there are many) is Ward Connerly, the leader of nationwide anti-affirmative action campaign who drew from King's own words to call for a dismantling of race-sensitive admissions. Only one King speech—King’s address to the 1963 March on Washington, matters to Connerly-type conservatives. And only one line in that speech matters: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King speeches should be judged by their content. And there’s a lot in the “I Have a Dream” speech that would make McCain and Connerly squirm. King celebrated the “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community.” And, speaking of the “fierce urgency of Now,” he encouraged the 250,000 strong gathered on the Mall to take more aggressive action. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” At a moment when conservatives (and many liberals) were denouncing the movement for going “too far, too fast,” King sent a clear message. Go further, faster. King went on to support aggressive enfocement of civil rights laws including affirmative action itself. And more than that, he demanded the fundamental reordering of the American economy.

Finally, in perhaps the most American of twists, we have the commodified King---efforts in the last decade, largely spearheaded by the King family itself--to market the words and image of the Reverend King. In classic American fashion, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a consumer good. King's family has engaged in an aggressive effort to market the image of the Reverend King, including a multi-million dollar deal with Time Warner for the rights to King's speeches, writings, and recordings. The King family sued to prevent companies from using King's image on refrigerator magnets, switchblades, and on "I have a Dream" ice cream cones. But they quickly turned to their own business in King kitsch. In the mid-90s, the Reverend King's son Dexter King, who administered the King estate, took a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of another King, “THE KING,” Elvis at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to pick up some marketing lessons. Since the mid-1990s, King's estate has authorized, among other things, commemorative pins for the Atlanta Summer Olympics with the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., porcelain statuettes of King, and, my favorite, checkbooks bearing King's likeness.

Whether commodity or conservative icon, suffice it to say that each of these visions of King is flawed. The commemorative King, celebrates heroism and courage, but risks the creation of a one-dimensional character that glosses over King's subversive, challenging, and upsetting messages. The therapeutic King stands in sharp contrast to a political strategy that demanded the overthrow of American apartheid and demanded great sacrifices from blacks and whites alike. The conservative King is based on a very selective appropriation of King's words--largely from a single speech--in service of a cause that King found abhorrent. And the commodified King creates comforting images that are wholly drained of their ability to provoke and challenge---and, moreover, stand in sharp juxtaposition to King's penetrating critique of American capitalism and his deep-rooted anti-materialism. Above all, King's contribution was to unsettle power, to challenge the status quo, something that a porcelain statuette or an Olympic pin or an anti-affirmative action law will never do.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I opened up my morning paper to discover that, counter to all of my intuitions, the recession is good for us. Really good. Neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang summarize their self-described “pioneering study” to argue “that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals.” The end result of the consumer credit crunch, rising oil costs, and the collapse of the real estate market will be an improved “ability to resist impulses and delay gratification.” It’s a new version of the old saw that poverty can be ennobling. This time though, it's not couched in moralistic Victorian prose. It’s wrapped in the mantle of breakthrough science.

Social scientists are in love with neuroscience. Although the study of the brain is still very much in its infancy, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and even a few historians have embraced neural determinism. Over the past several years, we have learned that voters’ reactions to candidates can be divined by showing subjects political ads and then scanning their brains. Social psychologists, testing the physical reactions of people viewing photographs of people of different races, have updated race relations scholarship by arguing that prejudice is not a problem in the “hearts and minds” of Americans, a la Gunnar Myrdal, but rather a problem in the amygdala. Pity those who believe that we have finally entered a “post-racial age” when they discover that our reptile brain is Jim Crow’s hideout. Even historians, who are more immune to determinism than most social scientists, are now dabbling in neuroscience.

Economists are even further out on the neuroscientific frontier. Over the last few years, a growing movement of neuroeconomists have jettisoned their faith in rational choice theory for what could be called irrational choice. Jettisoning rational choice is not a bad thing, for it is so reductionist that it ultimately explains everything and nothing. Any self-respecting historian will tell you that human behavior cannot be reduced to simple calculations of self-interest. But what is replacing it—a new unified field theory of homo economicus—is scarcely better. Simplistic psychological tests, framed narrowly (or, as the economists would prefer to say, “parsimoniously”) and the use of brain scanning technology puts a scientific patina on the study of the obvious. I recently heard a cutting-edge economist present a paper, based on elaborately constructed, two-player computer games, that offered the paradigm-shifting challenge to reductionist arguments about economic actors’ “utility maximization.” His finding: people’s altruistic preferences are heterogeneous. Wow. Now I know that for the last several centuries, historians have been right.

Anyhow, thanks to my encounter with neuropolicy this morning, I’m hoping that we will have a long, deep recession and then, in a few years, another. And then another. A recession every few years will toughen my frontal cortex, improving my ability to plan, and help develop my anterior cingulate cortex to bolster my cognitive control. And then, finally, I will find Aamodt and Wang’s holy grail: “success in life.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Check out the lively discussion on Obama's Philadelphia race speech at TPM Cafe, with contributions by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Glenn Loury, and the Original Rustbelt Intellectual, John Skrentny, who can be found roaming the deserted streets of Hammond, Indiana or schlepping on the subway in Flushing, Queens when he's not basking in the San Diego sun. It's not too sunny over at the Left Business Observer, where Doug Henwood (who called this recession a long time ago) rains on the Obama parade along with my ever sharp-tongued colleague Adolph Reed.


It's now months into the primary season, but Hillary and Barack have little to say about urban issues. Why? The Clintons never put urban affairs high on their list, because of the DLC fears that any "targeted" programs (read urban, black, Hispanic) would alienate white suburban voters, keeping them forever locked in the embrace of the GOP. And anyhow there are more deer than people of color in Chappaqua, New York, even counting the army of domestics, gardeners, nannies, and day laborers that descends on upper Westchester every day. (According to the US Census, only 89 blacks live in the Clintons' suburb--only 0.9 percent of the population.)

Obama, from Chicago's South Side, trumpets his work as community organizer, but not early and not often. Even yesterday, on the stump in Pennsylvania, appealing to white working-class voters, Obama kept it vague and non-threatening, so Michael Powell tells us in today's Times.

He often mentions his background as a community organizer but in passing, a parenthetical. Not this time. “I got into public service as an organizer,” Mr. Obama told these 1,200 mostly white Pennsylvanians in a local high school gymnasium. “There were a group of churches, mostly Catholic parishes, and they hired me for $12,000 plus car fare.”

But the bouquet to Catholics and low-wage workers aside, it's not likely that we'll get more specifics on Obama's short career in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, lest he start sounding like Jesse Jackson. So for now, even as the campaign buses head into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, expect more silence. Urban voters matter for the Dems but urban issues are still a third rail for candidates playing to white suburban voters who would rather sing "We Have Overcome" than admit they are part of the problem.