Friday, April 28, 2006
Washington politics has come to a standstill as politicians fall over each other in trying to appease voters by expressing outrage over rising gasoline prices. Republicans are considering a $100 rebate to citizens, while Democrats call for a windfall tax on oil companies.
Forgive me if I don't join in the frenzy. Why weren't there calls for rebates to citizens when the price of an affordable apartment doubled over the past five years? Why not take the money and spend it on public transportation? If taxing ExxonMobil would be a solution, what will we do a decade from now when gas is $7 a gallon? (With gasoline up to $7 a gallon in Britain, more people are taking the bus.)
My guess is that the political pressure will force the largest oil companies to rush some more supply to the market to temporarily push away the hounds, but that this will have no long-term effect on the inevitable supply and demand pressures behind higher prices.
Get used to it, Americans, gasoline prices are going up, and we're going to have to deal with it. It is not the end of the world, but it may be end of decades of treating oil as if it were tap water.
A controversy is fuming in Seattle over the future of a homeless advocacy group, SHARE, that takes federal and city money but is criticized for not spending much of it on direct assistance to homeless people. Raising social consciousness is the chief aim of SHARE, which has risked losing government funds by its refusal to comply with a information-monitoring requirement for city-funded programs.
The debate over the Seattle program and others like it challenges some shibboleths of both left and right over social policies to help the poor and the homeless. Leftist theories, informed by Marxism, holds that politicization should be a primary aim. On the right, free-marketers maintain that getting government out the way, and giving people personal responsibility for their progress, is the path to success. A more sober truth, however, may be that many homeless people are best helped by getting direct and firm guidance in finding a permanent indoor bed and taking care of their health, rather than in indirectly "empowering" them.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
In one battle of what should be called America's "Wal-Mart Wars," the retailer recently won a fight to open a new store in an affluent northeast suburb of Phoenix, after losing efforts to build in other areas of the Valley of the Sun.
As I've written before, it makes little sense to try to redress through land use law many of the oft-heard complaints over Wal-Mart's practices, such as its crafty employment policies and their supposedly sharp dealings with suppliers. Questions of labor and trade should be handled by labor law and trade law; the land use decision of a suburb of Phoenix is an ineffective way to legislate on these issues.
The story from Arizona also exposes some curious quirks of the Wal-Mart wars. Some of the quotations from a Wal-Mart opponent, reported in the Arizona Republic (and I know it's sometimes unfair to use quotes from one advocate to assess an entire movement), are quite revealing. The opponent both complains that Wal-Mart won't offer anything that isn't already for sale in the massive malls of east Phoenix and then complains that existing stores won't be able to compete. This is curious double argument often made about Wal-Mart - it's a lousy store and it will take away the customers from other stores. But it can't really be both, can it?
A dilemma for Wal-Mart opponents in places such as Phoenix is that they can't fall back on the argument of preserving the Main Street retailers, as opponents can in, say, New England. Suburban Phoenix, like much of sunbelt America, already contains miles of miles of strip malls and big boxes. So opponents are reduced to complaining, as the newspaper reports, about the supposed drawback of 24-hour traffic and bright lights. Traffic and bright lights? In metropolitan Phoenix? Are we reaching a bit here? Could it be that opponents in Paradise Valley simply don't like the idea of a Wal-Mart in their posh suburb?
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
One of the most popular and influential writers on urban life and policy, Jane Jacobs, died today in Toronto at age 89. (Here's the New York Times' article.) She was one of a rare breed: the non-academician who –- perhaps by her lack of being tied to an academician’s method –- writes successfully to change the minds and hearts of America.
When Jacobs in 1961 wrote her most famous work, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the traditional American distrust of cities had taken on new and ominous turns. Across the nation, urban neighborhoods were being torn down for freeways to speed suburbanites to and from their jobs. Both theorists and officials such as New York’s Robert Moses were planning and building huge new city projects that disdained the old urban grid for grandiose plazas and monoliths, such as those of Boston and Albany. And the city was rapidly descending in social status as a place only for the poor and for ethnic ghettos.
Jacobs played a large role in turning this thinking around. She may not have held many degrees or followed urban theories, but her bedrock arguments had tremendous power. Great cities were not created by enormous construction projects, she argued, but by the variety, spontaneity, and quirkiness of the human urban experience. Density and the messiness that it engenders are what make urban life thrilling and enriching. The details of the corner grocer's display and the flower pots on a tenement landing matter as much as a thousand tons of concrete. Urban neighborhoods, including ethnically identifiable ones, are not embarrassments but unique centers of joy and pride and creativity.
These were radical ideas in the 1960s. Thanks in large part to Jane Jacobs, these ideas are now part of mainstream theory and, increasingly, part of our law.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Traditional liberals are no doubt shaking their heads in dismay upon hearing that Nebraska’s legislature recently passed a law, then signed by the governor, that would divide Omaha’s public schools into three districts – one largely white, one largely black, and one largely Latino. Undoubtedly this is unconstitutional, they may be assuring themselves.
But the Nebraska action also reveals some unusual turns that have taken place in American racial politics. Fifty years ago, it seemed clear to liberals that the practice of racial segregation hurt black students, who almost always received an inferior education and were led to conclude that they were second-class citizens. Today, however, the only African American in the Nebraska legislature was the leading advocate of the school separation measure. Today, the legislator sees giving the black community in effect its own school system not as abandonment but as empowerment.
Many Omaha whites supported the bill because it would decrease the chances of renewed school busing for racial balance in Omaha. The long-term response to Brown v. Board of Education was, of course, that many white families fled integration simply by moving to the suburbs, where they were much less likely to have their kids bused. The biggest era for suburbanization from the central city was not the 1950s, as commonly assumed, but the 1970s –- the era of busing.
Segregation’s renewed appeal saddens many of us, especially those who admire, to some extent, Singapore’s controversial policy that tries to maintain a rough racial balance in housing complexes among Singapore’s ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians. A rose-colored view is that the policy fosters racial understanding and harmony; a more skeptical view is that the majority Chinese use it as a way of avoiding enclaves of potentially disgruntled minorities.
If America is veering further away from racial integration as a policy and towards accepting empowerment to justify forms of segregation, might redrawing municipal boundaries be far off?
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