14 August 2011

The Cities as a Source of Public Policies

Two news stories from US cities over the last week are worthy of  notice.  New York City announced that it would require sex-education in both middle schools and high schools, in an effort to reduce both teeange pregnancies and STD rates.  And Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that his city would no longer participate in the Federal government's so-called "Secure Communities" program, arguing that this program (which ostensibly targets undocumented persons who commit crimes) has "negatively impacting public safety." 

These are just two data points, but together they suggest that it is our cities -- far more than either the Federal or state goverments -- that are a source of informed and responsible public policy-making in the United States at this moment.  Other examples one might cite include the impressive long-term planning that has been started by Chicago to deal with the impact of climate change and the slow-but-steady expansion of public transportation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area over the last two decades (specifically the building of the Metrolink and Metro systems).

All of these initiatives fall short of progressive ideals: the Metrolink and Metro systems are neither sufficiently extensive or sufficiently subsidized to provide a practical way for most working-class persons to commute between homes and jobs, for example.  But without question, the building of the Metrolink and Metro lines is a fruitful beginning, and what is more, because these rail lines are now in place, and because they are being used by the middling classes, there is at least a possibility that they can be made more socially useful over time.

The case of NY City example is particularly revealing, given its often egregious Mayor.  As an individual, Mayor Bloomberg is anti-democratic and imperious, and in many cases, he has proven to be a person of extremely bad judgment (his public school initiatives have a track record of steady failure, for instance).   Yet despite his considerable flaws, he has often pushed for responsible transportation policies, in addition to this new and worthwhile initiative to have the public schools be honest with teeangers about sex.

A full analysis of why our cities are emerging as a more responsible loci of policy-making than other levels of government would require more than a blog entry (even more than a slow blog entry).  But one point is almost certainly relevant: in our cities, the dominant classes are not entirely isolated from the working classes and the under-employed poor: Central Park has not been privatized, and it is pretty hard to get to a Broadway show, or to a performanc at Lincoln Center, without having some exposure to the city as a shared space.  For the rich of NY to isolate themselves in the way, say, that Dick Cheney does in Wyoming, they would have to give up many of the pleasures that lead many of them to want to live in New York in the first place. 

As a useful point of comparison with the policy-making that is emerging from NY City, consider the single best policy initiative to emerge from NY state since Andrew Cuomo was elected governor.  Cuomo's one genuinely progressive accomplishment (and it took real political skill on his part) has been overturning the NY state law that had kept lesbian and gay couples from marrying.  This merits celebration, but it is worth noting that this involves the removal of a legal barrier to the pursuit of happiness, not a positive use of the government to improve lives.

One does not need to overstate the virtues of policy-making in our large municipalities to conclude that, for all their flaws, these governments are doing better than either the states or the Federal government in trying to grapple with contemporary social problems -- and even to conclude that city governments provide some glimmers of hope in our time.

follow up on "The Debt Ceiling Deal and Progressives"

The composition of the bipartisan Debt Ceiling Panel bodes ill for there being serious cuts in the U.S. military budget as part of any "second phase" deal to reduce the U.S. deficit.  Put simply, the states with large military contractors are fully, if not overly, represented on the Panel.  

Of particular note on the Democratic side is Senator Patty Murray of Washington.   Progressive commentators have generally responded favorably to her appointment (and conservative voices have singled it out for criticism), but Boeing is a major employer in Washington (with some 30,000 workers in the state) and its PAC is a major source of campaign funds for Murray.  Almost certainly, for example, the cuts in military spending that would be triggered if the panel reaches no compromise would hit, and perhaps eliminate, the 35 billion dollar contract awarded to Boeing this past February to build roughly 200 new refueling "tanker" aircraft for the military.

Murray no doubt will be concerned about higher unemployment in her state should the Panel not reach a compromise and trigger the cuts in military spending that are built in to the debt ceiling bill passed in early August.  And of course, she's right.  Indeed, the best thing one can say about U.S. military spending is that it (to some extent) functions like both an economic stimulus and a jobs program.  

But this also points to one of the problems with "growth" per se as an economic goal (a topic of a forthcoming post).  As Keynes argued, any and all government spending -- even paying people to dig and then refill holes -- provides an economic stimulus and thus can promote growth during a recession.  Yet, while this is true, it does not follow that there are not other very good reasons to prefer some spending over other spending, some forms of growth of other forms of growth, and some sorts of jobs over others.  The problem Murray faces, however, is that so many of the jobs that currently exist in her state are directly or indirectly tied to military spending.

But my immediate point is that the composition of the Debt Panel -- including, as it does, both Murray and Republican Senator Toomey from Pennsylvania, to cite just two notable expamples -- means that the threat of triggered military cuts will loom particularly large in its deliberations.  This may well lead the Panel to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, but almost certainly, if such a compromise is reached, it will not include robust cuts in military spending as part of longterm deficit reduction.

"Desert of Forbidden Art" -- some brief comments

I spent Saturday evening at the renovated Fox Theater in Pomona watching (for a second time) the very good new documentary, "The Desert of Forbidden Art," and then moderating a panel discussion with its co-directors, Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev.

The movie tells an extraordinary story about an eccentric art lover, Igor Savitsky, who, during the Soviet era, managed to establish a museum of "forbidden" art in the very-out-of-the-way desert city of Nukus (check the map!).

Along with providing a nuanced and appreciative portrait of Savitsky's defiance and commitment to art, the film explores the relationship between aesthetic value and the processes that transpose aesthetic value into monetary value (or to invoke an old-fashioned Marxist term, into exchange value).  In addition -- like Herzog's recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- this is a film in which the camera both appreciates and guides our appreciation of works of visual art.

This film is a real achievement; I highly recommend it.