Sunday, April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith’s Advice to Young Bloggers (and some older politicians)

It was just yesterday that I found myself reflecting on the recent deaths of Jane Jacobs and William Sloane Coffin, and the death, five months ago, of Eugene McCarthy, and wondering, “who’s left of the left?”

My thoughts devolved a bit as I contemplated “old left” vs. “new left” or something in between, but I really knew what I meant. I was thinking about those big names, names I had heard since my youth, names that actually had some influence over the evolution of social thought. These were people whose words I always read when they showed up on the op-ed page, and whose voices I always listened to when they were interviewed on the radio.

I thought about George McGovern, and how right-on but frail he had sounded the last time I heard him, and I thought about Tom Hayden, and that, while I have been wanting to reread the Port Huron Statement lately, Hayden didn’t have the same gravitas or charisma as the great trio that had got me to thinking about all of this in the first place. I did not think about John Kenneth Galbraith at the time, but the minute I heard of his death, I realized I had forgotten one of the biggest of those big names.

And I was very sad.

It is not that the likes of McCarthy, Coffin, Jacobs, and Galbraith didn’t lead long, productive lives, and it is not like all of them hadn’t been acknowledged (to a greater of lesser extent) for their work, thought, and import during their lifetimes. But, I am saddened again, this time by Galbraith’s death, because at a time like this, a time so full of bluster and bloviation, so full of people who talk the talk without ever walking the walk, or even worse, at a time when so many are so quick to discount the so-called “failed policies of the past” and insist on rhetorical baloney like “triangulation” and reclaiming the “center,” we have lost another voice with the rare combination of weight, perspective, experience, and rigor.

To me, one of the great things about Galbraith was that he was so good with words, but didn’t hide behind them. He was witty (some would say to a fault—though not me), but was rarely so just for a cheap laugh. He wrote educated prose, but he eschewed jargon. After writing The Theory of Price Control in the early Fifties—which he thought was his best work—he said:

The only difficulty is that five people read it. Maybe 10. I made up my mind that I would never again place myself at the mercy of the technical economists who had the enormous power to ignore what I had written. I set out to involve a larger community.

It was, perhaps, because he sought that larger community that Galbraith was often dismissed by others in his field as a “social economist” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it was his genius for explaining economics in the context of history and culture that made him so much more important than his wonky brethren. While it is popular today to gather around the altar of Alan Greenspan, the former Fed Chair’s purposefully obscure language will never be more than the stuff of impulse-buy paperbacks. Meanwhile, Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is read, taught, and revered almost half a century after it was written, with its ideas so internalized, that its prescience is taken for granted.

Galbraith had the ears of Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, and is credited with shaping LBJ’s Great Society—perhaps America’s greatest unrealized domestic policy initiative. He was something that seems almost like a platonic ideal today (or a joke, depending on your point of view), an advisor sought because he was a deep thinker with an intellectual paper trail.

And, yet, Galbraith, though not known for his humility, was also not content to be in the good company of the powerful.

Unlike so many in today’s punditocracy, John Kenneth Galbraith was not given to noblesse oblige. Though he accepted JFK’s appointment as ambassador to India, Galbraith let it be known that he thought he was being kept at arm’s length from the new President, and Galbraith had a very public falling out with President Johnson over the war in Vietnam. He enjoyed his place of privilege, but he did not make it his mission to preserve it. Rather, Galbraith tended towards an adage he helped popularize: Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.

It is a theme that runs throughout Galbraith’s life and work, and one that seems to have inspired his famously large literary output.

One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read.

And therein lies not only his typical wit and an atypical moment of modesty, but also a very important reality check for all of us who hope by word or deed, by pen or keypad, to afflict the comfortable or, maybe even, comfort the afflicted.

John Kenneth Galbraith, like Jane Jacobs, was a person of deeply held beliefs. Both were outspoken and articulate, and strove to reach beyond the boundaries of their supposed expertise, and, so, both were often criticized by the alleged experts for not exactly knowing what they were talking about. Both opposed the Vietnam War and stuck to that opposition in spite of some hard choices that it engendered.

Most importantly, at least right now, to my mind, Galbraith, like Jacobs, wanted his ideals to be popular because he wanted to see them come to fruition, and, so, he sought to communicate his beliefs to a broad audience with engaging and accessible language. However, in an effort to be inclusive, he (as was so with Jacobs) never tried to fudge where he stood. He was able to cast a broad net without being all at sea. He was able to communicate a position without compromising it. Galbraith and Jacobs, and Coffin and McCarthy, actually meant what they said and said what they meant. They stood fast, stood tall (in Galbraith’s case, very tall), and, this is critical and rare, they were able to explain why.

Let us all win by being so winning. Let us all be so winning that we might win.

—Cross-posted over at Daily Kos, where I go by the
nom-de-blog “Red Wind.”

Friday, April 28, 2006

If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is getting set to release its entry in the summer reading sweepstakes, an 800-page report titled Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.

Leaving aside the semantics issue (since Katrina hit eight months ago, and we weren’t prepared then, well. . . it’s kind of like saying “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead”), I think we can all pretty much agree at this point that FEMA and Feds fucked up. . . and I think most of us know why.

Most of us, that is, except committee Chair, Republican Susan Collins (ME) and ranking member and nominal Democrat Joe Lieberman (CT). “FEMA is discredited, demoralized, and dysfunctional,” said Collins with Tail-slapper Joe by her side, “It is beyond repair.”

The two then proposed dismantling FEMA and replacing it with a new organization called the National Preparedness and Response Authority (yes, NPRA. . . or, as I’m sure we’ll all love saying, “nipra”), an agency that would remain inside DHS, but somehow gain direct access to the President during a crisis (like that would make any difference).

Well, without tarrying too long on how another bureaucratic reorganization won’t make a bit of difference because everything the Bush Administration does is PR (instead of POLICY) driven, let me just say this: FEMA isn’t beyond repair!

Sure we could say “FEMA is broken,” but it’s not broken like a thing gets broken. To go a step further, as someone recently said (and, forgive me, I can’t remember where I heard this), FEMA is not like a firehouse; there aren’t guys sitting around reading the paper and flipping burgers waiting for the bell to ring so they can slide down a pole.

Indeed, FEMA is an agency, and, what’s more, it’s a coordinating agency. They are there to work with firehouses, and local authorities, and charities, and, if need be, the National Guard, and other governmental organizations, like the SBA. . . . Yes, the list can be long—which is why we have FEMA, and why FEMA has to fully funded and staffed by people who know what the hell to do when there is a disaster.

And we don’t need an 800-page report to tell us this—all we need is a memory. Back in 1992, there was a Bush in the White House and a massive hurricane crossing the gulf. That hurricane was called Andrew, and that Bush Administration’s FEMA did, by all accounts, an awful job responding.

Andrew, and Hugo three years earlier, probably cost George the First votes, and Bill Clinton was smart enough to realize that. When Clinton took his seat in the Oval Office in 1993, he didn’t rename or rip up FEMA, he simply appointed James Lee Witt, a veteran emergency manager, as its new head, and gave him cabinet-level access and a real budget.

When the Clinton-era FEMA was confronted with the Northridge Quake and the Oklahoma City bombing, most say it responded well. Leadership and real policy work “fixed” FEMA.

So, FEMA isn’t beyond repair any more than the presidency is beyond repair. All it takes is leadership, competence, responsibility, and (in FEMA’s case) a little money.

It is clear that every Representative and Senator up for re-election is under pressure to do something—anything—to show that they haven’t forgotten Hurricane Katrina; this would be my suggestion:

  • Restore FEMA’s status as an independent agency outside of the Kafkaesque Department of Homeland Security.
  • Stop playing games with FEMA’s budget—calculate what it really costs to staff this agency with professionals, and give them the tools to do their jobs.
  • Restore the Clinton-era chain of command during crisis periods.
  • And, as Senators, exercise your role of advise and consent to make sure that whomever is appointed to head FEMA is actually qualified before you vote to confirm him or her (Michael Brown’s hearing for Deputy Director of FEMA lasted all of 42 minutes and was attended by only four senators—there was no hearing at all when he was promoted to the top spot).

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Well, it shouldn’t be. . . or wouldn’t be if there were competent, responsible leadership in the Senate, House, and White House. And, it would be cheaper and less time-consuming than holding hearings, writing reports (or reading them, for that matter), reordering the boxes on an org chart, or scraping off those four letters from all those buildings.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Importance of Being Urban

Jane Jacobs, writer, thinker, urban preservationist, and social activist died Tuesday in Toronto. She was 89.

Jacobs is most famous for her 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she critiqued mid-century urban planning and proposed new, more organic ways of approaching the evolution and rebuilding of urban environments. The New York Times called Death and Life’ as “radically challenging” as two other groundbreaking works from the early ‘60’s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Those of us in New York City credit Jacobs with helping save the West Village from a nightmarish highway plan that would have destroyed one of the City’s most beautiful, vibrant, and historic neighborhoods.

Jane Jacobs advocated short blocks, mixed use, diversity, and density. She liked seeing people out in the streets and living their lives in the public sphere. “A jumping, joyous, urban jumble,” as the Times calls it. I like that, too. Street life makes a big city human, livable, vibrant, and safe (“Whether neighbors or strangers, people are safer because they are almost never alone”—NYT.). When your neighborhood is densely and diversely populated, and your daily errands and diversions can be pursued on foot or via public transportation, you can’t help but come face to face with some of the randomness of life. You are occasionally “forced” to deal with things that are not pre-screened or self-selected. Sometimes that’s unpleasant, but sometimes it’s a revelation—and most always it is educational and view-expanding.

I credit great cities with being small “d” democratic—diverse and a bit unpredictable—I think Jacobs did, too. And, Jacobs understood that this kind of democracy is what inspires creativity, innovation, excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of the commonweal. There is a sharing of ideas, a cross-fertilization of cultures, and a building of connections that helps the residents of a successful city realize that we are all in this together. . . and all better for it.

Cities are not utopias, of course, but vibrant urban communities are where new utopias are dreamt of. It was the natural heterodoxy of cities that made Jane Jacobs fight so hard to save them—and it is that same obstreperous energy that has so many in government and business hell-bent on the great American city’s destruction.

In fact, many of what are pegged as the problems of the urban environment are the direct result of anti-urban policies. Cities are the economic engines of our economy, but city residents pay more money in taxes than they get back in equivalent aid and services (NYC, for example, pays $11 billion more in state taxes then it gets back, and $13 billion more in federal taxes). With the willful ignorance of government regulators, an eye on the bottom line, and a foot in a racist past, banks, insurance companies, and big businesses consistently redline neighborhoods, and, so, perpetuate the economic and social inequities that are too often dismissed as “urban strife.” With public school funding based on property taxes in most of the country, suburban children benefit from higher per-capita spending on education, while urban schools are forced to rely on gimmicks (like no child left behind, for example). And, urban transit systems are forced to operate at a loss, cut services and worker benefits, and raise fares while suburban residents get tax breaks for buying Hummers, and Congress funds bridges to nowhere.

Is it mere coincidence that our largest metropolises trend big “D” Democratic in federal elections, or is it more of a chicken and egg conundrum? After all, Democratic presidents and Democratic Congresses have also foolishly and purposefully discriminated against American cities. It seems that while Jacobs extolled the virtues of the unpredictable and somewhat uncontrollable urban world, it is that very unpredictability and independence that makes cities anathema to those that try to govern and those that try to market to their residents. How much easier is it to rule and sell to a population that leads an insular, cloistered life—from private home-as-castle to private car to cubicle and back, maybe private-schooling or home-schooling their kids—evaluating most of the rest of the world through the filter of a few carefully chosen cable channels?

Jane Jacobs, in a lifetime of writing and activism (she was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, moving to Canada because of it), spoke to the dangers of living in isolation and the policies that promote it. She encouraged the regulation of economic forces while praising the chaos of social ones, and saw the great North American cities as the wealth of our nations and the wellsprings of our culture.

Today, with American politics grasping for direction and American culture gasping for inspiration, we would all do well to embrace the city the way Jacobs did. With so much money (four of the nation’s top five zip codes for political contributions are in Manhattan, and one, on the Upper East Side, was the top donor to each of the presidential campaigns in 2000) and so many voters situated in our cities, you’d think a pro-urban agenda would be a no-brainer for some ambitious politician—but that would require someone willing and able to feed off of the energy and unpredictability along with the money and votes. That someone would need vision to buck what has become the conventional “soccer mom” and “NASCAR dad” wisdom of political strategists—a good place to look for that vision would be in the life, work, and writings of Jane Jacobs.

—Cross-posted over at Daily Kos, where I go by the nom-de-blog “Red Wind” (there was another guy2k over there).

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Likely

With yet another poll (in this case the AP/Ipsos poll) showing support for the President—and for his party—dropping to historic lows, Republicans in Congress, and their strategists, are getting nervous. As I mentioned over on guy2k, Tony Fabrizio, one of those strategists, finds these poll numbers “scary,” but Fabrizio also mouths what has become the semi-official take on the situation that Democrats face: “The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one.”

Rather than buy in to that meme (as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and too many in the establishment media have), I think it might serve Democrats better to evaluate the good and bad news a little differently.

First, the poll does seem to be filled with good news:

  • Bush’s approval rating—36% (62% Disapprove; only 2% have “mixed feelings”)
  • Right Track/Wrong Track—28% / 69%
  • Approve/Disapprove of Bush on the Economy—39% / 59%
  • Approve/Disapprove of Bush on Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism—40% / 58%
  • Approve/Disapprove of Bush on the situation in Iraq—35% / 63%
  • Congressional approval rating—30% (67% Disapprove)
  • Who would you like to see Control Congress—Dems 49% / Repubs 33%
  • Who do you trust to do a better job protecting the country—Dems 41% / Repubs 41%
  • Who do you trust to do a better job handling Iraq—Dems 42% / Repubs 39%

The bad news? Well, maybe it’s just my cynical nature, but I’m getting a ”be careful what you wish for” feeling. These numbers raise expectations—and it doesn’t help that Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is quoted as saying “Everything is moving in our direction, If it keeps moving in our direction, it's very reasonable to say there will be a Democratic Senate and House.”

I know voters love a winner, but I don’t want to “win” too early. Maybe I’m crazy, but if Bush and the Republicans fall too low in the polls, I fear Democrats will lose their challenger status—that they will be perceived as somehow in control. I know, it sounds overly pessimistic, but I want the Democrats to have a strategy that extends beyond getting excited by poll numbers.

Rather than telling voters that Democrats are going to win back Congress, why not tell them what will happen when they do? I’m not talking about promising everyone sunshine and sausages. (Or, maybe I should say, they should promise more sunshine than sausages. . . hang on, you’ll see what I mean.) President Bush will still be in the White House, and there will still be plenty of obstreperous Republicans in Congress—it will still be hard to craft legislation that will survive the amendment process and also earn a GWB signature. However, while it will still be hard to legislate, it will be much easier to investigate and appropriate.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence could resume its oversight role, for instance. The Senate could demand hearings on transgressions of the FISA law by the President and his DoJ. The Congress could investigate the ever-changing cock and bull story that lead up to the invasion of Iraq; they could investigate the strategic leaking in the summer of 2004 that was designed to discredit Joseph Wilson and manipulate the electorate. The obstruction of justice—by the President and Vice President—during Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation surrounding those leaks, would also be fair game. They could investigate the disaster that has been shorthanded as “Hurricane Katrina”—that would be the bad preparatory work, the failed response, and the wholly mismanaged recovery “effort”—as well as all the other disaster preparedness and security shortcomings during the last five years. The list, as you know, goes on and on.

The Democrats could give hope to all those Americans who have seen their privacy and civil rights disappearing under an increasingly rightist Federal Court system by saying “enough is enough” to radical Republican court-packing. And, of course, there are ethics issues inside the House and Senate to look into, as well.

And, Congress has that famous power of the purse. With Democratic majorities, maybe the exploding deficit could be managed with something other than more tax cuts for the super-rich. Maybe states could be appropriately reimbursed for Medicare and Medicaid outlays. Maybe all the money pushed in the direction of Iraq could go to properly equipping the troops and responsibly rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure instead of lining the pockets of private contractors. Maybe veterans’ health plans could be fully funded.

Oh, and, maybe we would stop having to beat back attempts to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every session. And maybe the new Democratic Congress could put the breaks on the systematic gutting of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Yes, imagine the possibilities. In fact, I like that as a slogan—or, if not a slogan, at least a mantra or a mission statement: Vote for a Democrat. Imagine the possibilities.

Of course, you have to lay the groundwork now in order for the possibilities to become probabilities or, yes, even, realities. The poll numbers are a nice start, and tying Republican congressional candidates to their unpopular President (read as: why lining up behind censure is a very good idea) is a fine tactic. Contrasting a possibly brighter future with a palpably gloomy present is the strategy that could provide for a satisfying finish.