Tuesday, February 24, 2009


This op-ed, from Sunday's Detroit Free Press should be of interest to Rustbelt Intellectual readers.

Obama Must Rise to Urban Challenge
Thomas J. Sugrue

For the first time in three decades, we have a president who has pledged to put urban and metropolitan issues at the forefront of the national political agenda. Given the current economic crisis, and its devastating impact on metro Detroit, it's not a moment too soon.

For the past three decades, American urban policy has been a shambles. Beginning in the Reagan years, the federal government steadily cut spending on cities, while industry fled, infrastructure crumbled and populations grew poorer. Federal tax, housing and transit policies subsidized helter-skelter suburban growth, leading to the loss of farms, forests and wetlands, and to the rise of costly long-distance commuting. Meanwhile, cities were left to fend for themselves.

Without government support, cities turned to the private sector to address the most pressing urban problems. Urban development took two paths. One was splashy downtown revitalization geared to tourists, professionals, artists and well-to-do empty-nesters that gave downtowns a new lease on life. But the benefits of upscale development did not trickle down to the working-class majority of city dwellers. And the downtown bubble burst in cities from Las Vegas to Detroit, leaving an aftermath of vacancies and foreclosures.

The other path was forged by small-scale community development organizations, which grew out of the civil rights and black power battles of the 1960s and 1970s. With foundation grants and government support, they built affordable housing, community centers and, occasionally, stores. But overall, they did not transform the city. Community groups had the will but not the capacity to stem the massive urban disinvestment and depopulation.

Barack Obama -- the first president from a big city in more than a century -- comes to the White House with hands-on experience in urban issues. As a community organizer on Chicago's ravaged South Side, he saw the possibilities of community participation and empowerment, but the limitations of small-scale redevelopment.

As a budding politician, he attended fund-raisers in the city's gentrified North Side neighborhoods and worked closely with major downtown developers. And as a resident of one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, he saw the corrosive effects of the balkanization of Chicagoland into two metros: one mostly white, with good schools and public services, the other mostly minority, with failing schools, a decaying infrastructure and rising taxes.

President Obama's first urban policy steps have been promising. He announced the creation of a White House Office of Urban Policy, a signal that cities will be a federal priority for the first time in decades. The nearly $800-billion fiscal stimulus package does not target cities specifically, but provides funding for school renovation and infrastructure improvements, public transit improvements and disadvantaged students and workers. The stimulus will certainly provide much needed jobs and help cash-strapped municipalities deal with years' worth of deferred maintenance.

And, though it has not been heralded as an urban program, the stimulus package's $3-billion appropriation for medical research will provide a lifeline for the research and teaching hospitals whose viability is essential to city economies. Detroit, like Obama's Chicago and nearly every other old industrial city, depends on its "meds and eds" -- that is, hospitals, universities and schools -- as an alternative to lost manufacturing jobs. They are the bulwark of today's urban economies.

But the success of the Obama administration's urban policy won't simply rest on its ability to solve the economic crisis. American cities and metropolitan areas are at a crossroads. Obama's urban policy has the potential to do much more than bail out cash-strapped municipalities. The new administration has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent cities and metropolitan areas.

That will require thinking outside the box. Downtown redevelopment has a place -- but it cannot be the cornerstone of a new urban policy, unless it is directly tied to job creation. Community economic development is crucial, but it needs to be done on a much larger scale -- and must include building affordable housing where the jobs are -- in the suburbs.

And, most important, planning needs to be regional, not just local. So long as neighborhoods compete with downtowns, cities compete with suburbs, and suburbs compete with each other for scarce resources, our metropolitan areas will remain divided by class and race and be economically inefficient.

The federal government has the power to provide incentives for regional collaboration. President Obama has long talked about unity -- about transcending the divisions that separate Americans by race, religion and party. It is time to include our metropolitan areas in that vision of unity.

The current crisis is a metropolitan one -- and the solution will come in policies that are appropriate to the scope and scale of the economic and social problems that we all face together.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Kyoto On My Mind

The little town of Yellow Springs, out here in rural Ohio, is a pretty funky place and it is filled with some pretty progressive people. A friend of mine is expanding his small electronics company and doubling the size of his building. The addition is going to be so energy efficient that even with twice the square-footage, his energy bills will remain the same.

He is following some of the super-tight building designs that have been developed in Germany. And as he has worked on this project he has had to buy many of his materials - super-efficient windows, for example - from Canada. It's become a familiar story. Indeed, the Times ran a story today noting that roughly 70% of the wind turbines and solar cells in use in the US today are imported.

And as my Yellow Springs friend pointed out, this situation is the result of our refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocols.

Roughly a decade ago, the world came together to draft this international environmental treaty. The Clinton administration participated in the process and signed the document, but the Senate refused to ratify it. Under the Bush regime, needless to say, the treaty languished entirely.

The press largely covered the treaty's headline goals: targets for emissions reductions, carbon trading and so forth. Those targets were ridiculed for being unrealistic - and they probably are. The Senate and the Bush administration insisted that strict limits on emissions would kill the American economy and cost Americans jobs. Our economy burns fossil fuels, dammit, and putting less carbon in the atmosphere means less economic activity

But what politicians and the press failed to notice was that abiding by the protocols has been a stimulus to new industries, like making solar cells, and the high efficiency, triple-paned, solar-sensitive windows my friend now has to buy from Ottawa. So our refusal to ratify Kyoto resulted in the loss of future jobs. And that future has now arrived. Many of us are ready to embrace alternative energy in our homes and businesses, and at least at the moment, we will have to rely on imported technology to do it.

Over the last ten years, thanks to our inaction on Kyoto, European and Canadian companies have taken the lead in alternative-energy manufucturing while American manufacturers kept adding cup-holders to SUVs. Ten years ago, Americans laughed and sneered at the pie-in-the-sky-ism of Kyoto, but now that Canadian window company is having the last laugh.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles and Abe


This is cheating a bit. The following post is an op-ed that has appeared in several newspapers around the country, but on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln I thought I'd share it here. Think of it as a form of recycling. So on their birthdays lift a glass to the two great emancipators of the 19th century.

Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, has been much on our minds recently as Barack Obama moved into the White House. Exactly 200 years after Lincoln's birth, Obama's presidency is one fulfillment of the work Lincoln started.

Lincoln shares his birthday with Charles Darwin, the other Great Emancipator of the 19th century. Though in different ways, each liberated us from the traditions of the past.
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were exact contemporaries. Both were born on February 12, 1809 -- Darwin into a comfortable family in Shropshire, England, Lincoln into humble circumstances on the American frontier.

They also came to international attention at virtually the same moment. Darwin published his epochal book, "On the Origin of Species," in 1859. The following year, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and in that very year Harvard botanist Asa Gray wrote the first review of Darwin's book to appear in the United States.

They initiated twin revolutions: one brought by Lincoln -- the Civil War and the emancipation of roughly four million African American slaves; the other initiated by Darwin's explanation of the natural world through the mechanism of natural selection.

Lincoln's Civil War transformed the social, political and racial landscape in ways which continue to play out. Darwin transformed our understanding of biology, thus paving the way for countless advances in science, especially in medicine. With this powerful scientific explanation of the origins of species, Darwin dispensed with the pseudoscientific assertions of African American inferiority.

In this way, Darwin provided the scientific legitimacy for Lincoln's political and moral actions.
Both revolutions share a commitment to the same proposition: that all human beings are fundamentally equal. In this sense, both Lincoln and Darwin deserve credit for emancipating us from the political and intellectual rationales that justified slavery.

For Lincoln, this was a political principle and a moral imperative. He was deeply ambivalent about the institution of slavery. As the war began, Lincoln believed that saving the Union, not abolishing slavery, was the cause worth fighting for.

As the war ground gruesomely on, Lincoln began to see that ending slavery was the only way to save the Union without making a mockery of the nation's founding ideals. This is what he meant in his address at Gettysburg in 1863 when he promised that the war would bring "a new birth of freedom"; he was even more emphatic about it in his second inaugural address in 1865. Slavery could not be permitted to exist in a nation founded on the belief that we are all created equal.

For his part, Darwin was a deeply committed abolitionist from a family of deeply committed abolitionists. Exposed to slavery during his trip to South America, Darwin wrote, "It makes one's blood boil." He called abolishing slavery his "sacred cause." In some of his first notes about evolution he railed against the idea that slaves were somehow less than human beings.

For Darwin, our shared humanity was simply a biological fact. Whatever variations exist among the human species -- what we call "races" -- are simply the natural variations that occur within all species. Like it or not, in a Darwinian world we are all members of one human family. This truth lay at the center of Darwin's science and at the center of his abolitionism.

That understanding of human equality, arrived at from different directions and for different reasons, helps explain the opposition to the revolutions unleashed by Lincoln and Darwin, and why many Americans, alone in the developed world, continue to deny Darwinian science.

For their part, many white Southerners never accepted Lincoln's basic proposition about the political equality of black Americans. In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction they set up the brutally baroque structures and rituals of segregation. All the elaborate laws, customs and violence of the segregated South served to deny the basic truth that all Americans are created equal. For their part, most Northerners didn't care all that much about the "southern problem."

No wonder, then, that many Americans simply rejected Darwin's insights out of hand. Slavery and segregation rested on the assumption that black Americans were not fully human. Yet Darwinian science put the lie to all that.

Lincoln insisted on equality as a political fact. Darwin demonstrated it as a biological fact. In their shared commitment to human equality these two Great Emancipators, each in their own realm, helped us to break free from the shackles of the past.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


President Obama swept into office three weeks ago with a swell of good will. And he spared not a minute in addressing the major issue of the day, the economic crisis. We now have a weak stimulus package, garnished with lavish tax cuts that will have little direct effect on the economy. The stimulus package also includes a shockingly generous and costly give-away to wealthy homeowners, a $15,000 tax credit for people who flip their houses. In the meantime the stimulus package has been shorn of funds for smart programs that provide jobs and improve infrastructure (and lift the financial burden of cash-strapped states and localities) like rebuilding schools.

Why? Because President Obama has a faith-based delusion that he can somehow overcome the partisan divide and, in the process, heal America. Obama's belief in unity makes sense when it comes to the divisions of race, religion, and ethnicity. But it makes no sense when it comes to partisan politics. Bringing together Democrats and Republicans in a Kumbaya moment isn't going to happen. Invitations to the White House aren't going to soften Republican resolve. A few cookies won't do the trick. Only hard ball politics will.

And now we have Part II of the Bush administration's bank bailout, which James Galbraith has aptly named BARF--the Bad Assets Relief Fund. Give the banks bags of taxpayer dollars but with few strings attached. This too is the result of a failure of leadership. President Obama has surrounded himself with neoliberal economists, beginning with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who are steeped in the very culture of the big banks that they are now bailing out. Read this, from today's New York Times:

As intended largely by Geithner, the plan stops short of intruding too significantly into bankers' affairs even as they come onto the public dole.

The $500,000 pay cap for executives at companies receiving assistance, for instance, applies only to very senior executives. Some officials argued for caps that applied to every employee at institutions that received taxpayer money.

Abandoning any pretense about limiting the moral hazards at companies that made foolhardy investments, the plan also will not require shareholders of companies receiving significant assistance to lose most or all of their investment.

In other words, ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you. This is not change that we can believe in.