Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wonks and Words


The world moves beyond our obsolete, racialized rhetoric

Next week in Washington, respected specialists will gather at the Brookings Institution to unveil a set of carefully reasoned recommendations on how, where, and how much the next president should invest in the roads, bridges, transit lines, and wi-fi—in a word, the infrastructure—that will keep our economy going.

The “serious” media will cover the event. Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Barron’s, The Bond Buyer, the Bureau of National Affairs and other journals whose audiences include lawyers, bankers, and the editors of mass-market TV and newspapers will be there. C-SPAN will broadcast the speeches by former senators whose names you’ve heard and by resident scholars whose names not even the “serious” media will often mention.

It’s important stuff. There is a trillion-dollar industry in municipal finance. Thousands of counties, school districts, cities, states, and other governments borrow both private and public money to build and maintain sewers, water systems, and all those other things made out of concrete and steel and re-bar that keep modern civilization, and modern economies, humming along.

And rest assured, the policy advisors to the McCain and Obama campaigns will discuss these proposals—which are centered, as ever, on the need to keep the federal government pumping federal tax dollars back into the economy by keeping roads paved, trains running, and wireless communications networks connecting.

But don’t expect to hear the candidates discuss much of this.

There is a worldwide boom in infrastructure investment underway—so great a boom that there is a brand-new subspecialty in the investment business. Brokerage houses and investment bankers take out full-page color ads in the Wall Street Journal hawking their wares. Their worry about the soundness of many industrial companies has caused what some traders call a “flight to quality,” as capital seeks steady and safe returns by switching out of stocks and into government-backed bonds. The theory is pretty straightforward: governments in well-developed economies (except in Orange County in Southern California) can almost always be relied upon to pay back the money they borrow—in significant part because ever since the Orange County bankruptcy, bond-holders insist on language that says “we get paid first if anything goes wrong.”

At the Brookings Institution next Friday, we’ll hear (well, the wonks will hear, anyway) from extremely smart and successful bankers and such-like about how our national economy is doomed without smart, targeted, adequate fix-up and build-out dough.

But ever since Ronald Reagan equated the term “government” with “welfare queen,” it’s been hard to have a serious national conversation about putting our money to work for our national interest.

American code words versus international realities

In a recent speech in Rochester, Brookings Institution leader Bruce Katz, who is leading the campaign for a metropolitan (i.e., urban) agenda, explained that all Rochester had to do to reclaim its prospects for vitality was to do whatever it takes to attract two percent more people to live downtown.

The two percent solution is what leaders in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other old cities are looking for. What they’re looking for, in other words, is what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Tipping Point—that little incremental change that will shift the dynamic for American cities. If the dynamic shifts for cities, then our national politics will change.

Until that happens for places like Rochester, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, the word city means the following to the vast majority of the electorate:

City is code for decline, which is code for African-American—which, in the racialized psychic geography of the 89 percent of Americans who are not African-American, is, sadly, a geography of threat, failure, abandonment, and avoidance.

This phenomenon of city-loathing—and of esteemed policy specialists beseeching civic leaders for a two percent change—is peculiar to the United States.

This past week in Toronto, mayors from across the industrialized world came together to discuss their common experience, and their shared expectation, that it will be the city-centered metropolis—not the suburb, not the sprawled region, not the undefined network, but the city—that will be the defining reality of the 21st century.

While the business and even the philanthropic elite of Upstate New York rant on about taxes and regulation and the wages of firefighters, teachers, and police officers, it seems that the commercial, political and intellectual leaders of growing metropolises have almost nothing to say about those issues. Why? Because they are irrelevant to growing, dynamic economies.

“Toronto and the Global Century” is Mayor David Miller’s letter about his town and how it compares to its own recent past. Speaking of the enduring importance of infrastructure, Miller writes that “[m]uch of the success that Toronto enjoys today is the result of investment decisions made 30 to 50 years ago.”

Other components of success? Regional planning. Urban density sufficient to keep the per-capita costs of public services under control. A downtown university. Open doors for immigrants; 50 percent of Toronto’s 2.6 million residents were born outside of Canada. Home to the “most cost efficient and 2nd highest volume public transit service in North America.” Tourist destination for 19 million. 400,000 fill-time students.

Miller wants “a business climate that fosters private and public reinvestment.” He wants relief from unfunded mandates forced upon his big metropolis by the province and the federal government, just like any American mayor or county executive—but he doesn’t want to cut taxes to stimulate economic growth. Instead, Miller calls for “permanent revenue streams that grow with the economy…[so that Toronto can] reinvest in productive infrastructure that contributes to sustained economic growth and attracts labour and investment.”

Somebody buy Bob Wilmers, New York’s brand-new economic development czar, a ticket to Toronto, please. Bankers and investors, along with mayors and theorists, all endorsed Miller’s views of the vital, culturally dynamic, diverse, and densely populated metropolis as the way to prosperity.

Obsolete contests, obsolete country?

Fareed Zakaria, the Newsweek columnist and TV news analyst, has a new book about the potential future irrelevance of the United States. It’s called The Post-America World. Zakaria writes of ethnic diversity, ethnic mixing, new boundary-less commerce, and superseded old barriers as the new realities.

It’s like déjà-vu all over again. I seem to have read that book 20 years ago, when Zakaria was a teenager.

The Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Gunter Grass wrote it in the 1980s. Grass’s version is called Call of the Toad.

Here’s its story: An elderly German who was born in what became Poland as a result of World War II wants to be buried in his old home city, but the war between the victorious Poles and the defeated Germans lives on in the hearts of these old enemies. The German becomes obsessed with getting back to what was once his. The Poles try to keep him out. The old German man finds, at last, an old Polish woman, who agrees to be paid to sell off little pieces of her country so that she can survive. Everybody knows what’s going on, but is loath to admit what they’re doing, because the story they tell themselves, in languages that are mutually unintelligible, is that they won. Meanwhile, a newcomer—an Indian with a bicycle rickshaw—shows up in this moribund place and is the only sign of life around.

The moral of that story: eyes that are so tightly focused on the past, when all that matters is the identity of the “enemy,” don’t even recognize the future when it offers them a ride.

It’s a parable, but that’s America.

John McCain and others who practice the discourse of government-as-burden are meeting only a tepid rebuttal from Barack Obama and his formidable array of pro-city, pro-investment advisors.

Why?

Because the people who manage Obama’s campaign know that Obama cannot talk like Mayor David Miller. The Obama campaign pros have to keep a Great Wall between themselves and the policy wonks—because the very concepts of urban life that are a commonplace to civic and political leaders of the world’s great cities are anathema in a country whose estranged cities and suburbs are still fighting to keep each other racially and economically segregated.

We are so tightly focused on the racial and class divisions that have cemented as city-suburb division that we can‘t even talk about how obsolete the racial divide is. Worse, that polarity has infected our economic thinking. It manifests itself in anti-government rhetoric—as if there is a wall between public infrastructure and private enterprise.

Our economic czar swears by this ideological rigidity, though it is just a mask for an intentional oligarchical politics of cash-grabs by the politically-empowered, who will thrive on public funds, all the while ranting about the cost of government’s wasteful “welfare queen” spending.

Too bad our political culture can’t accommodate the global reality of the globally competitive city. If only we had someone to speak truth to power.