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.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Communication breakdown in politics: busing and democratic socialism in Congress as examples

Probably the song by Led Zeppelin, "Communication Breakdown," is the first hard rock song that I remember hearing (I won't go into the details).  The song dates to 1969, and it was either in 1969 or 1970 that I am first conscious of it (although other less hard rock songs I remember from earlier include "The Israelite" and "I can see for miles" by the Who, both songs were on the jukebox of the restaurant that I lived next door to when I was in fourth grade).

Some of the lyrics:
Communication breakdown
It's always the same
I'm having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!
Two issues in politics right now that make me think about these kinds of communications breakdowns, which are often about "scoring points" and not about trying to work towards the best possible outcomes.

1. Busing. Sen. Kamala Harris scored points on Joe Biden in the Democratic Presidential candidate debates ("Harris takes fresh aim at Biden's debate remarks on busing, calls them 'revisionist history',").

The funny thing is that I participated in busing, in the Pontiac schools around the same time as Harris, when I was in sixth and seventh grade.

Pontiac was signature in that before the start of the 1971-1972 school year, a bunch of school buses were bombed ("Irene McCabe and her battle against busing," Detroit News; "5 Ex‐Klansmen Convicted in School Bus Bomb Plot," New York Times; CBS News coverage of the story and a demonstration").

I don't recall remembering the event at the time, but it's in my consciousness.  (I didn't go to school in the district until the Spring of 1971.)

Jefferson Junior High School has been closed for some time, and Pontiac, a majority black city in a county that is 97% white, continues to languish in the face of suburban wealth, not helped by its legacy as an automobile manufacturing city, of a make that is no longer produced.  

The city's decline in the 1960s and 1970s was a harbinger of the failure of the Detroit-based automobile industry in later decades.

And in my case, my experience was more about the white students bused into "the black schools" as opposed to African-American students being bused to "white schools."

I don't know exactly when busing started there as  there were African-Americans in my classes, and my neighborhood  and the area around the school was 100% white.  I presume African-Americans were bused to my elementary school.

For junior high, it was reversed, and the (white) kids in our neighborhood were bused to school in the city; the Pontiac School District boundaries extended into the small cities, towns, and townships outside of the city.

I was probably as afraid and as concerned about fitting in as Kamala Harris. Not just the race issue. It was a new school. There were older kids too. Etc. After school started though, it was just school.  It probably helped that I was smart, but I was no athlete, which certainly hurt my ability to bond with other boys.

It wasn't just a black-white issue though, it was a suburb-urban divide, an investment vs. urban divestment divide, and a class issue as well (e.g., I remember issues around the poor white girls living in Pontiac versus the non-poor white girls who didn't live in Pontiac), and those conflicts or differences in outlook, attitude, and experience went beyond race.

Probably it was tough on teachers and school administrators too, but at least it never came across as a problem for them in the way they handled us.

One of the things they were smart at doing was during the last week or two of school in elementary school, they took all of us on a "field trip" to the junior high school.  That should be done regardless, because of the transition from elementary to middle/junior high.  I don't know if schools do that these days.

I doubt that the school system did that before busing started.  But maybe they did.

Much of the coverage on the issue calls busing a failed initiative ("The Lasting Legacy of the Busing Crisis," Atlantic Magazine). As someone who was a participant, I don't think it had to fail, that it could have been used as a way to build an integrated school system.

Women and children stand in front of a bus, refusing to let it pass out of the schoolyard, as reporters look on during an anti-busing protest, Pontiac, Michigan, 1971. Many carry placards and appear to be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Photo: Tony Spina (? Detroit News).

But the issue wasn't with the kids at least not in my schools -- then again, my foster parents didn't seem to be racist, and I wasn't a racist white kid and I didn't see such outbursts in the actual school setting but likely it was a problem elsewhere -- it was with parents.  And of course, at that age, I wasn't going to public meetings where I might of seen the kind of attitudes that supported the demonstrations against busing.

2.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the new "democratic socialist caucus" and criticizing your supporters/colleagues (""Nancy Pelosi's renewed attacks on AOC aren't just disrespectful, they're dangerous," Guardian).  From the article:
There have been long-running tensions between Pelosi and the so-called “Squad” of new progressive congresswomen, which consists of Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Things escalated sharply over the weekend, when Pelosi decided it would be a good idea to demean her colleagues in the New York Times. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following,” Pelosi told the Times, referring to a border funding bill the Squad opposed. “They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

To begin with, Pelosi’s disparaging remarks about the Squad seemed like they were probably strategic. Now, however, the sustained attacks feel increasingly personal. “When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post on Wednesday. “But the persistent singling out … it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful … the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
The election of "democratic socialist"/more radical Congressmembers in 2018, in particular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib is causing some grief because challenges from "the left" to Democrats on various policies creates a lack of unity which is tough vis a vis the Republicans but also because not every Democratic Congressperson has the same level of seat security as someone from Queens New York or Boston might have.

While Guardian columnist Arwa Mahadi makes the point that because these Congresswomen are all people of color, it's especially dangerous when they are criticized by leaders.  Although to me -- with the proviso I am an old white guy -- it's more about youth and ideology.

This comes up a lot in politics. People who are elected tend to compromise and be pragmatic, because that's what they can achieve in a reasonable amount of time, while people like me are critical because we're getting less than half a loaf and are not only supposed to be satisfied with it, but ecstatic.

I write about what I call "the issue continuum," something I learned through observation while working for a consumer group in the late 1980s.

The group had Nader lineage and we worked with him from time to time. What I came to recognize is that there are all kinds of positions on the continuum of an issue, from conservative and traditional to very "progressive" or "perfect" and that by staking out hard core positions, you'd likely never achieve that nirvana, but by staking it out you got a lot more movement toward it in the end, than if you had been comfortable with a much less "perfect" solution starting out.

Scatter Plot - Issue continuumThis is applicable to any issue, from support of biking, food labeling, regulation of emissions from power plants, gasoline excise taxes, etc.

And you have to measure the acceptability of reaction to certain outcomes in judging what makes sense.

E.g., President Macron didn't have good sense in pairing a gas excise tax increase with tax cuts for the wealthy.

I suppose my line "if you ask for nothing, that's what you get; if you ask for the world, you don't get it, but you get a lot more than nothing" is a more succinct statement of this observation.

Protesters in Colmar, north-eastern France, in March 2019. © AFP

With experience, I've gotten a lot better at positioning my arguments in ways that are more congruent with more traditional approaches, of outlining a pathway, etc.

But at 29 years of age, like what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, and her staffers are similarly aged and equally driven, I didn't think that way. I was more oriented to achieving perfection, rather than achieving the best possible outcome taking advantage of particular opportunities present at that moment.

For example, with biking, elected officials who push it, get really frustrated when people like me criticize the achievements as inadequate, or why aren't we doing the Idaho Stop. They see any sort of criticism by "supporters" as a kind of betrayal.

That's what I think is part of what's going on with Speaker Pelosi.

Although I am more pragmatic as I age, although I continue to push for perfection -- otherwise I wouldn't still be writing blog entries in the face of plenty of lessons that the powers that be, ultimately don't care and aren't interested in improving practice and outcomes in substantive ways (although they give me plenty of opportunities to continue to hone my understanding of what can be better practice).

But I am driven not by ideology other than wanting the best outcomes on a foundation of informed civic participation and citizen involvement.

People who remain ideologues despite aging are not so similarly situated...

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At 10:55 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Very off topic....Bird (e-scooter) has some information leaks on its finances... (paywalled)

(bird board member)

Basically, big depreciation loss from the old scooters, the claim is the new scooters make 1.27 per ride. Also the the new scooters can last 600 rides. (Doubtful).

I did a rental with a new scooter this week -- almost $6. for a 15 minute rental. The speed limit was painful after using my personal one but I do think you need it b/c of new riders and also reliability issues. The new scooters are less balanced (battery in the bottom?) and I wiped out in 30 seconds.

on AOC, basically you've got some junior members as media starts, which is sort of a new thing. And almost everything coming through twitter dumbs down the conversation.

On Nader, this is where I 100% disagree; the problem is one of silos. Long story, remember Ford Explores and their overinflated tires? Basically Congress mandated automatic tire pressure monitors. PC sued to force auto-makers to put in more expensive (300+) ones rather than using a cheaper solution.

End result -- the actual safety issue was very marginal, the gas savings from the cheaper solution would be far better and now we've stuck the american consumer with $1000 in electronics in every car that constantly fails.

Advocates loose peripheral vision. And the entire problem of regulations -- unexpected consequences.

As i've said before, a giant knot of externalities that can't really be measured or put a price on.

(When you can price an externality that is a great market solution. But 90% of externalities can't be priced.)

PC pushes for more pedestrian safety and other issues on cars, the end result is cars get so sucky that everyone just buys a SUV. End result -- worse for urban pedestrians everywhere. Better issue for urban area to tax vehicles based on size.

(and I won't even go into the coconut oil/popcorn/saturated fat thing ;-)

What we need is more wins for everyone, not AOC style redistribution.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Argh. Too much, too much. Will respond to some later.

WRT siloes, I don't know. I was a very junior person, not involved in making and fomenting policy when it came down to it. We didn't deal with PC all that much (although our boss was jealous that a book PC did on prescription drugs rolled in the dough).

It might be siloes. It's definitely something.

E.g., yesterday I met with a big real estate consulting firm on trying to put together a team for an RFP. It was an awesome meeting. But unrelated one person asked me what I thought of the height limit, and my response was definitely not what a typical advocate would say, especially about how too often people like HT fail to articulate benefits for the people already here, but also that the economic driver of height is in the core, not on the outskirts.

Or then it happens I had a conversation with an old mentor, a semi-wacky 75 year old preservationist about McMillan and why she thinks it could be a park. Her take was absolutely right but impossible. I argued about the poor location etc. She said make it like Central Park, lined with tall apartment buildings for the wealthy.

The problem is that I know only of one instance in DC of an R zoned place being upzoned to high intensity (from two story rowhouses to maybe a 10 story building) in a significant way (half of a block actually), that to get people to agree to this is impossible, but also that one, on two sides you can't do it (hospital, reservoir) and on a third side it's not even a block deep because that side abuts a cemetery.

… but that other advocates would slit her throat. That they wouldn't see getting a park but trading off for dense housing as a win.

(In DC, for the most part, of course you know this, all the intensity development is in commercial and industrial zoned land, in commercial districts and Metrorail stations mostly.)

DK about the car examples, but yes, organizations like PC aren't thinking about all these cross cutting nuances. I wouldn't have when I was 29 probably.

Another good example is Cap and Trade. The right idea, but economically costly in the short run and hard to get people to agree.

your tire monitors and SUVs not only make the cars more expensive but may contribute to the decline of sedans, leading to closure of plants like Lordstown as does cheap gas, etc.


your point for more wins I agree with but I guess I think of it as produced by

nudge oriented policies + certain necessary structural changes in the economy + funding for good programs, programming, focused investments

e.g. I support rent control because high costs are produced by restrictions on supply which benefits owners. But making it easier to add supply would reduce the need for rent control.

Restrictions plus difficulties on adding supply both derive from anti-development residents. And building regulations and approval processes reflect that.

It's not just that government regulation is "stupid" and that government is stupid or misguided generally.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

CSPI was "against" junk food, processed food, dealing with advertising, etc. but an equal focus was that by eating more healthfully (and exercising) you could reduce your risk from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity -- you know, avoidable problems shaped by health-related behavior and choices.

"eat less saturated fat and sugar, eat more fiber and more foods that are less processed, cook your meals" etc.

I don't know if I changed my life. But so far I have lived 5 years longer than my father, uncle, and grandfather.

CSPI's big focus was food labeling, nutrition messaging on the part of the government, restricting advertising, restaurant labeling, etc. Not putting the equivalent of computer tire pressure monitoring devices in packages.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

years ago at a ward zoning meeting convened by Muriel Bowser when she was a Councilmember, people in the 16th Street corridor were complaining about large houses used as illegal rooming houses. (I've mentioned this before.)

I said, legalize it and regulate it. The reason the houses are used that way is that except for the wealthiest, they are too expensive to own and maintain for a single family household, and they are so big that it's better that they accommodate more people.

That's an example of your more wins I think.

Probably DCRA doesn't do enough inspection. But I know/am learning in preparing our house for being rented legally, there's a lot of stuff required that an average tenant wouldn't even notice. We aren't going to be renting our house at market rate 'cause we're more focused on reliability, but the costs of prepping (admittedly, many of these things needed to be done before we even bought the house and they weren't, and we've been here for 11 years!) mean we'll lose money (except that it will be a tax loss) for the first year easy.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I realized I could have also included "The Kids are all right" by The Who.


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