Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I really want to like Post columnist Charles Lane, but ...

Charles Lane was the editor of The New Republic Magazine when Stephen Glass fabricated stories for it.  There is a movie about this and Charles Lane was portrayed by actor Peter Sarsgaard, and I think Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor...  but still, TNR is a conservative, although somewhat centrist, publication so given my political proclivities, it's hard for me to believe that Lane's writings would appeal to me, even if I think that the guy who portrayed him in a movie is a great actor.

These days Lane writes a column for the Washington Post and today's column, "Common interest rarely wins the day," illustrates the point.  I've been meaning to write a not dissimilar piece but from a completely different foundation.  Lane argues that academic writings on "collective action" (citing the work of Mancur Olson) demonstrate that it's really really really really hard to get people to agree on a big scale which is why big government programs tend to fail.  (I would argue this problem actually derives from something else, bureaucracy and a way of looking at the world, and is better explained through the writings of people such as Max Weber, Robert Michels, John Friedmann, and James Scott.)

I would argue that some types of services within society, be it providing for national security and a military to protect the nation from other nations, overseeing the financial system, providing for an integrated road network, welfare, social services, and health care, etc. are best provided when organized and funded and delivered at a very large scale.  (There are other services too, that should be "national," ranging from railroad service, coordinating air travel, dealing with the airwaves, national parks, etc.)

You can call providing these services "collective" in order to scare up ideas of say the failed "collectivization" of agriculture in the Soviet Union, but the reality is that for example with social welfare, to me the economic and other problems that result aren't the "fault" of the locality where the people live, but are the responsibility really, of all of us.  That is the justification for not expecting only localities for having to fund and address resulting problems.

That doesn't mean that you should nationalize industries like the British did (such as with the coal industry) or own companies outright like British Petroleum or British Airways.

But it probably means that if you want to have a postal service serving every household or a health care system focused on outcomes rather than private sector profit, then organizing, funding, and delivering services at the national scale makes the most sense.

Similarly, rather than encouraging states and localities to sell off their assets to the private sector for cash today, it would make more sense to create a National Infrastructure Bank, not unlike how the Bank of North Dakota operates at the state level, so that more of the value of public assets is capured by the public as opposed to the private sector.

While Lane discusses how special interests or organized interests ("Small groups") are particularly good at acting collectively, I would argue that they aren't acting "collectively" so much (although Olson would have disagreed with me) as they are acting "selfishly" to best represent and to shape, in particularly favorable ways if they can, their interests.

While this explains the success of special interests and the failure to change what "government" does because often those organized interests interfere with doing the "right thing", Lane's column doesn't really address broader questions about scale and appropriateness and how best to deliver programs and services.

Basically the small group acting "collectively" to represent their own interests isn't analogous to the large group ("the people") acting collectively or on a national scale.

This is a different issue from whether or not "entitlement funding" (Social Security, Medicare) needs to be rightsized according to future demographics and funding realities.

Lane writes:

Obama was surely right to maintain that there is such a thing as a public good: infrastructure, social equality, national and global security. He was also right that government is better suited than markets to provide some of these — contrary to the most simplistic Republican rhetoric.

But the president’s paean to collective action lacked Olson’s realism. The question is not just how much more government we need or want, if any. It’s also how much more government we can afford, in light of its purposes and given the risks Olson identified — which have already materialized in the form of unsustainable but politically untouchable entitlement programs.

But I would argue that Lane isn't thinking broadly enough about what the "public good" and "infrastructure" mean in the context of the 21st Century rather than as expressed in the 18th Century writings of Adam Smith.

While Lane argues that realists oppose the "collective" because it won't work, I see instead special interests cloaked in "realism" organized to maintain their special privileges, access, control, and rewards.

Health care is a perfect example.  (Although I wouldn't argue that the legislation setting up what is pejoratively called "Obamacare" goes far enough, in large part because the legislation was designed to preserve the ability of the private sector to continue to profit from this system.)

Interestingly, the arguments about the collective today and the opposition doesn't appear to be very much different from the opposition to the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, as painted by David Brinkley in the book When Washington Went To War.

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At 11:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I am pretty sure nobody would say TNR is a "conservative" publicantion. Isreal-first -- at least under the last owner -- and the new new TNR is certainly moving away from that.

Back to your point about national scale, I'd say to a large degree it is how much you value the margins of society.

And I think you're right it is more about the ways of looking rather than collective action.

ALso, it goes back to employment levels and growth. Take banking -- should be nationalized (essentialy, it almost was) --or broken back down to a 50 state regime. Certainly, if we had 50,000 bank vs 5, employment would be much different and also far less efficient.

And in terms of growth, a scaled up system can grow quickly, but again is that really the best idea? Sometimes slower growth is better as well.

At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the WaPo article comment section:
Jan Sobieski wrote:
1/29/2013 5:29 PM EST
"Charles Lane, you've never played on a team i(n) sport or in work have you. You've never been anymore than an Ivy League educated air headed knowledge worker. moving the hypothetical crap around in your head, babbling about it with your friends, and then writing about it. Too bad you will never understand what a real collective is. You will never understand a minor or major collective action and what it can accomplish. Watch the Ravens or 49ers this weekend and you'll get a glimpse. One will wi(n) one will lose. But all 47 suited players on each team will have participated in something bigger than themselevs. It is called a team.

Did you know Americans invented project management to deal with big collective projects?"


At 9:45 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not to add to Richard's load, but it would be interesting to get his thoughts on SF's Ed Lee and his process message. I see a lot of similarity with Mayor Gray although conditions are obviously different.

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

also this

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I'll try... lately we've been getting longer lunch breaks, so I run to the LC.

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