Cities are for people, not cars

Whenever I see then-and-now photographs of urban streets I’m invariably struck by the difference in the number of pedestrians. There were far more in the days preceding the onslaught of the automobile.

Today, city transportation engineers endeavor to maximize vehicular traffic. So they design for and build wide streets with multiple lanes and signals that facilitate the flow of automobiles and trucks. Pity the poor pedestrian, who struggles to avoid merciless motorists who, understandably, treat pavement as their exclusive domain.

Vox gives us photographs of street locales both before and after the automobile took over. An excerpt from the linked article:

In the early 1900s, “pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn’t last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Cars are now a necessity, since sprawl separated the land into places to live (the suburbs) and places to work (usually cities). City officials mandated more parking spaces, an added expense to private and public businesses caught up in a vicious cycle: either accommodate the car or shutter your doors. The auto-dependent suburbanite rarely enters the city, preferring to shop at malls surrounded by enormous asphalt lagoons.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rooftops generate retail. Build and they will come?


For several years I worked for Dr. Terry Turner in the field of traffic accident reconstruction. He was a physicist, by training, though never an academic. Having spent a career with Boeing as the director of the company’s Flight Sciences Research Lab, he came by his last profession quite by accident via a seat on a Seattle jury. An expert witness testified on a traffic accident case. Dr. Turner knew that he could do better, so he quit Boeing and became a successful consultant, successful enough to hire me.

A piece in today’s New York Times triggered the reminiscences. Charles Townes died. While both were at McGill University, Prof. Townes was Dr. Turner’s advisor on Terry’s thesis in the field of microwave spectroscopy. Townes earned a Nobel prize for his work on lasers, before assuming a spot with Berkeley’s faculty.

Some random thoughts on the conservative mind

Washington state governor Jay Inslee proposed a far-reaching cap-and-trade policy. He would essentially impose a tax on carbon. He also proposes to use the revenues from the scheme to fund public education. However, given that Republicans now control the Senate outright and enjoy a significant minority in the House, Inslee’s plans, whatever their merits, stand little chance of becoming law. The Seattle Times reports:

While Inslee’s supporters have argued climate change should not be a partisan issue, it has proved to be one in the Legislature. HB 1314 is sponsored by 37 Democrats. A companion Senate bill has drawn 20 Democratic sponsors. Not a single Republican had signed on in support of either bill as of Tuesday.

At the public hearing, Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, slammed the cap-and-trade proposal, which would initially affect 130 or so of the state’s top carbon emitters, including manufacturers, fuel distributors, power-plant owners and oil refineries.

I am hardly surprised by the lack of Republican support for any legislative solution to arresting climate change. But I still wonder why.

The reasons proffered for their opposition are the usual suspects. First and foremost, Republicans loathe taxes of any kind. They seem to believe that unfettered free markets, unburdened by governments skimming off the top, will produce the best outcomes for everyone, rich and poor, tall and short. That thinking put into action has proved disastrous, as the people of Kansas are beginning to realize. Nor is it working in Washington state, which clings to the title of Nation’s Most Regressive Tax Structure. Never mind that a cap-and-trade regime has much to do with markets and sending proper price signals.

As for killing jobs, again untrue. There really is a green economy out there that would only expand under either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. Instead of funneling dollars to dirt, they would be redirected to clean, and we’d all be the better for the transfer.

Of course, Inslee’s idea is doomed because it is a government program, and Republicans, despite spending millions to be in Olympia or Washington, D.C., would sooner governments at all levels shrivel to the size of a molecule. Thus, all those public things the Rest of Us value—including education, transportation, health and safety protections—get squeezed so much as to be totally ineffectual, at which point we blame “government.” Ingenious.

Following the Republican’s seizing control of the federal government in 1994, the so-called “Gingrich revolution,” Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff tried to make sense of conservatism, which, he eventually concluded, was unworkable, at best, and otherwise dangerous. At the time he observed that conservatives and liberals failed to communicate with each other. So, we come to this excerpt from the Times article:

At other events throughout the day, supporters and opponents of Inslee’s plan seemed to be largely speaking past one another.

It occurs to me that the conservative mind must have some evolutionary advantage, though I’m at a loss as to what that might be. How else to explain why there are so many Republicans in office? There must be some value in conservatism that appeals to baser instincts.

Lakoff suggested that we can begin to understand the conservative mind through the use of metaphors. I wrote about these in a previous post.

Grossly put, conservatives are imbued with a Strict Father metaphor; liberals, a Nurturant Parent. The former is all about the individual and the need to survive in a competitive world. Thus, the virtues of self-reliance, discipline, and fortitude are both praised and inculcated. Conservatives are more likely to be religious, tribal, and practice tough love amidst a rigid family hierarchy led by a strict father, of course. Governments frustrate this “natural order.”

Is it really all about Rambo?

In the category of “Priceless”…

Ginandtacos rises to the occasion, this time about delivering a response to the State of the Union Address. Bon mots abound, as, for example, here:

Every year I think it can’t get any worse or more ridiculous and almost every year I am wrong. On Tuesday evening we were subjected to Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who has been in the Senate for all of two weeks, giving a speech that made Jindal’s “Kenneth the Page” impression look like an FDR Inaugural. It is clear why Republicans are so over-the-top patriotic, as in any other country someone like Ernst would be a minor bureaucrat at best, pushing papers around at the DMV or night-managing a KFC. In the United States she gets to be a Senator. What a country.

This is a speech written by idiots for even bigger idiots, delivered by a suit so empty that she looks totally unaware of how much she is embarrassing herself. The text is so ludicrous and fake-rustic that she is to be commended for keeping a straight face throughout, and the only question anyone could have at the end is, “Why is she talking to me like I’m four?”

The only logical explanation for this kind of performance art is that the political class is engaged in a concerted effort to make Americans cynical enough to stop paying attention to politics altogether. It’s working.

Pop the bubbas

The fundamental “inclusive capitalism” argument is that business enterprises lose profit-making opportunities when consumers have little money to spend.

But there’s more:

Inadequate purchasing power among the many threatens corporations and poses a direct danger to the top 1 percent, and, indeed, to capitalism itself.

Thus writes Thomas Edsall in his piece for the New York Times. Yet, I have to wonder if the top 1 percent, who are on the verge of controlling as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent, are all that worried about the Rest of Us lacking sufficient income to buy goods and services.

These pages are no stranger to inequality and the relative halcyon days of the first post-war decades, days that now seem to be an anomaly in an otherwise normal state of the Haves getting more while the Have-nots just trying to scrape by.

Edsall is focused here on “inclusive capitalism,” a theme first articulated some years ago that is now emerging in respectable circles in several developed countries and most recently in a joint paper co-authored by Lawrence Summers et al. Edsall:

The most damaging contemporary American trend that the proposals seek to counter is the sharply declining share of national income flowing to labor, and the parallel increase in the share flowing to owners of capital.

He includes a chart produced by the White House.

21edsall-graph-articleLargeThe forces of greed have done a number on the Rest of Us, including purchasing the best Congress money can buy. Our putative legislative representatives can hardly turn down a proffered quid pro quo from their wealthy benefactors, who extract lower taxes, unfavorable conditions for labor, and generally lax regulatory schemain ex—change for pouring dollars into electoral campaign coffers.

However, academic papers and policy prescriptions rarely trigger effective change. Facts and reasoned arguments enjoy little status among the ranks of the bubbas, to use Mike Huckabee’s vernacular. And the bubbas are winning, with the nation awash in red.

Michael Kinsey, writing for Vanity Fair, points the finger back at us. Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ mansions are red because we are red, if you will. We, though not you or I, put these people in power. Moreover, the discord rampant in the halls of Congress, for example, mirror the present state of the body politic. He writes:

Of course, as many have pointed out, the bitterness, ugliness, and stupidity wouldn’t exist if the voters didn’t respond to them. And the bitterness, ugliness, and stupidity seem slightly, shall we say, unhinged from any particular complaint about what the government does and does not do. Americans have turned all their substantive complaints into one big procedural complaint: Washington (or Obama, or Congress) spends too much time bickering. But it takes two not to bicker. People bicker because they disagree, and the voters themselves are the ones who decide how much bickering they want. The politicians don’t bicker for exercise. They do it to please the voters, who have offered no sign that they are willing to give in on issues that are important to them in order to reduce the bickering.

The United States writ large is decidedly liberal, as attested by Obama’s victories at the polls. But there are these things called states and counties, which divide people into political and cultural tribes. There is very little in common between Vermont, say, and Mississippi or Washington and Texas. And, oddly enough, most of the nation’s population resides in urban centers that are socially and environmentally progressive. If we who live in these areas vote, we overwhelm the bubbas on issues decided across political divisions. However, there are more bubbavilles than Seattles and Bostons. So they compose the majority in most states.

The Republican Party has managed to marry the land of “God, guns, grits, and gravy” with the plutocrats. That marriage presently trumps urban progressives.

Ironically, the solution may be found in the hackneyed 60’s expression: think globally, act locally. In the context of this essay, focus on the cities to achieve desired outcomes. Keep urban wealth and production close to home, but make sure that it’s distributed fairly within metropolitan boundaries. Relying on bubbas is a fool’s errand.


And for poor white southern men?

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.

The plantation owners survived the end of slavery, retaining their strong sense of superiority over every one else. But what to do for poor whites? Martin Luther King suggested that they would share in that aura of superiority via Jim Crow laws designed to keep black people in their place and separately unequal.

That shameful legacy lives on across America.