Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Comment taking off from Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land: Building Modernity, the Tough Case of Employment

This is a comment originally written for the discussion of Tony Judt's call for a new Social Democracy which Chris Lydon opened on his Radio Open Source Blog on April 6, 2012.  That ROS posting by Chris was called "Tony Judt's "Social Democracy" in America: A Call for Help."  

I posted this extended comment under the above entry on May 13, and it a little later elicited a warming response from "Potter." I used the material in a email letter to Sherman Lewis in the Fall of 2013, and at that time also edited it slightly and posted it here.

                This is about modernization and gradually shaping a new modernity.
                Tony Judt’s indictment in “Ill fares the Land,” of the intensely capitalist countries, mainly the United States, the UK and others on our model, and his lamentation for the state of their culture are well founded.   
                Judt’s title, with the foreboding it conveys for future if we go on as now, is not exaggerated.   It is a perceptive and humane rejoinder to the hyper-individualistic and mercenary culture and economy, which mainstream social sectors in the U.S. are currently practicing, espousing and politically enforcing on the country as a whole, often in the name of “conservatism.”   Absolutely central to the problem is our unsustainable and damaging concentration of wealth, our economic and social inequality, where Judt makes a strong reference to Wilkinson and Pickett’s indispensable  “The Spirit Level.”  It doesn’t have to be that way, he says, rightly.
                 Chris Lydon, on his blog, Radio Open Source (Spring 2012), said that Judt is raising matters which need talking about in a discussion oriented to action, even action that in some way can come into play in the 2012 U.S. election campaigns.  Fair enough --that’s right. 
                Judt is an historian who sees situations in a path driven, past-dependent, way.  The present picture is for him a regrettable falling away from a better past, one which he refers to as “social democracy,”  fixing the downward political break-point around 1980, the advent of Reagan and Thatcher.  But I suggest that that the postwar social democracy (which strongly favored the very bright young Tony Judt) never really existed quite as he remembers it.  We are faced less with a task of recuperating and reviving an old form of better community and social solidarity than with a job of creating a new one. 
                 Judt’s perspective has two other structural elements in addition to being the frame of a person formed in one period and reacting to a succeeding one.   Another frame operating here is the thinking of a person coming from a still family-focused semi-urban setting with a strong note of social solidarity, moving into a more fully urban setting, seemingly a chaotic whirl of unmoored individuals.  A third shift of setting is that of someone coming from a small, relatively intimate social world into a larger one with necessarily diluted social bonds and very different political dynamics and economic institutions.   Compared with 1950, the world facing a typical American or European is larger now in at least three ways:  communication that can make people present to us is infinitely faster and more extensive,  world population has close to tripled, and also many people who were more or less excluded from the active mainstream of national societies, such as blacks and other immigrants, sexual minorities, and even the half of the population that are women, are now very much more present.   
                Both urbanization and movement toward larger and less intimate social and political worlds are important parts of modernity.  Moreover, both are massive autonomous ongoing trends.   If we are in an action mode, they are not controllable, or “operable factors.”  They can be modified, but not stopped.  They also have values of their own: we do not want to halt the broadening of social inclusion in the effort to renew community.   Similarly, economic “globalization” is not a debatable and potentially reversible choice made by political and corporate leaders, but is based on concrete technical changes: communication and information management by electronic means has come close to eliminating distance and indeed, locality, for everything that is informational and not material (which is a lot), while for concrete physical things, similar if weaker delocalizing advances in transportation (for example, containerized shipping that brings a new car from Asia to America for $200 (1% of its price)), are not going to be reversed.
                So the challenge is not recapturing a lost “social democracy,” but building a new one in new circumstances, which starts with imagining and describing it.   The discussion has to go deeper than politics.   It is about society, and while it is about economic distribution, it goes a good deal deeper than economics, well into culture and the most fundamental values.  Freud said that the two great domains of human life are work and love, taking love very broadly to mean social and community relations in general.  This subject is at that level of depth.    It’s about creating and building a more favorable and humane social structure of modernity.
                There is at least one major asset that we have now, although it brings its own complications.    Even before we get to issues of distribution, there must be something to distribute.   Poverty is not a good thing, and by comparison with the earlier time, we now have a great deal more property or goodness to distribute.  Since the seventies, there has been a great deal of production  of both public and private goods —of houses, roads, buildings, transportations systems, communication systems, even institutions,  factories and factory equipment, tools including the machinery of industrialized agriculture and so on.   Not only have many infrastructural and even social goods been produced, but they are better and more durable than in the past, so that once built, they don’t have to be produced again and again.  Their maintenance takes less work than their production.   And not just fixed products, but productivity itself:  there is a greater capacity to generate intellectual and physical goods and services, and do so using much less labor.  We certainly have issues of distribution, but we have a lot more to distribute.      
                 But this achievement has left us with a big problem:   The traditional mode of distribution of material and social goods has been in exchange for work (thinking of capital as “congealed work”).  This exchange relationship is now deep, deep in our culture.   Work is the basis of entitlement to share in social product and indeed to enjoy, both objectively and subjectively, integration in society’s self-respecting mainstream.   
                Now, partly due to the already achieved stock of property and productive capacity which we have, in contrast to China which is building its stock, there is dramatically less work to be done than in earlier decades.   Purposeful development  and application of specifically labor-saving technology, over decades, has also reduced the amount of work needed, as does the offering of cheaper labor from countries at  different stages of development, and the creation of channels, like “outsourcing,” that bring such workers into competition with those here.   There is not enough work.
                How can we maintain social and economic solidarity and inclusion for  people who would normally earn them through work, but for whom now there is no work.         The long-term and unavoidable dwindling of traditional work, notably physical brawn work, demands that we cut the deeply traditional connection between work, on the one hand,  and income and social entitlement and participation, on the other.    Not only we, but all the developed countries are facing more or less overt crises of employment, falling particularly, and particularly ominously, on their young people.   Our work-based system for the distribution of social goods is thoroughly out of whack.   Although new forms of work, some of them fully meritorious, are emerging continuously, the active broad trend is toward a net loss and increasing scarcity of jobs.  
                The proposition that is offered to young adults now is: “Your must work, but, sorry, there is no work for you.”   That is an impossible fundamental proposition for a society to make to its members.  It is cruel for individuals, but it’s also not a foundation for a coherent. sustainable and reliable society. 
                    There must be a redefinition of the mode of distribution of wealth and social entitlement, a redefinition away from the traditional channel or medium or requirement of work. 
                 One temptation is to preserve work of all kinds, to “create jobs,” without much regard for the genuineness or quality of the work.   But in fact there is a large amount of bad or at least very dubious work which, case by case on the merits, should be ended not preserved, and certainly not created new.   False work has many kinds, from hiring security guards where the better choice is to bring down crime,  the now dispensed-with service station attendants and even retail store clerks,  up to those in the medical insurance industry, or to those pouring brilliant tactical work into strategically bad causes, like soldiering in Vietnam or Iraq.  Some work can and should be automated away.   Some work is being exported to lower cost providers, e.g. China, but that is not straightforward or stable.   Large amounts of work need rethinking when they supply large sectors that should be curtailed rather than perpetuated —for example, the urban automobile, or our current day defense budget, and perhaps even small-holder agriculture.  Better city planning could silently eliminate the immense “work” of commuting two hours per day to a job-site.  But it has to be admitted that, in practice, if we don’t create “make work,”  the dwindling of work will continue and even accelerate.
                How will society adjust?   The pattern of certain successful social groups which go, over one or several generations,  from the hardest of work in enterprise building to more esthetic lives of cultural self-consumption will be seen more often, and be more accepted.
                More broadly, the new remedy to the employment dilemma will come in principle from the left.   A larger measure of social entitlement  will come to be territorial (just being in the country) rather than economic—earning money.   Once a floor level of income is provided for all, many activities which are good human activities but which now are not paid or are not locally socially entitling, will be encouraged, perhaps with stipends, such as local sports, local music and theatricals and other forms of what are now considered hobbies or volunteer activities, and the social treatment of them will be more like “work.”  
                At the same time, the field, and a broad one, has to be left open, and incentivized, for work.   There has got to be room and rewards, for example, for the hardworking teacher of German language that Tony Judt had in secondary school, or for individual surgeons and groups of computer and instrument developers who are bringing us laparascopic surgery—we’ve just had a quasi-miraculous application in our neighborhood -- or true miracle drugs.    What should be the income/wealth differential between those who make the genuine and great contributions, and those who just stay out of jail and maintain a temperature of 98.6°?   Maybe, once a baseline of adequate income exists for everyone independent of work, there could be  a multiple of three or four—Francois Hollande proposed to tax incomes above € 1M at 75%, which could be a useful marker.
                How to revalue work and handle both the distribution both of work itself and of its fruits, is one of the dilemmas in building a more solidary Judtian “new social democracy,” and there are lots more—where to draw the line between the market and the state?   How to delineate roles among other circles and entities as well, such as the non-profit sector, and even among the local, intermediary, national and international spheres of action.    I don’t think either Judt’s nostalgia or Siddartha Mukherjee’s call for innovation on Chris's Radio Open Source really fill the bill—we do need and want continuing innovation, but it is also basically dis-employing, is it not?
                What about applications to the curent political situation?   Some parts of what would become a “New Social Democracy” program are total no-brainers and are already in play: universal access to medical care, more progressive taxation, free tertiary education, a much smaller defense budget, re-election of Obama over Romney, but the penitential note is how much opposition these simple and over- due steps have elicited out—nothing is easy.   Should the existence and undoubted public support and effectiveness of Mitch McConnell stop us from thinking and talking about how the country could be much better?   Probably it should restrain the further flights of idealism, but otherwise, clearly no.  

Monday, September 02, 2013

Replacement Bay Bridge Eastern Span opens, Labor Day, 2013

           After a five day bridge closure, tomorrow morning the first cars will roll over the new Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge, built with an interesting innovation of a single tower suspension section, to replace the old span, a section of which fell down during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.   Unfortunately, construction of the new span did not go well, and in addition to taking 24 years, it was a total budget-buster.  Once it got rolling, regional and state authorities never managed to control it until the final cost came in at $6.5 Billion!   Here's one person's view of why.

September 2, 2013

Despite its gleaming single tower, the East Span of the Bay Bridge from its opening on September 3 is a huge white elephant, a fiasco of public investment.  Leaving aside the 24 years it took to build, at $6.5 Billion the span cost more than three times a reasonable price, and ten times the estimated cost of the simple seismic retrofit that would have handled its transportation and safety functions.  

A blow-by-blow study of this grim epic by Karen Frick has just been published in UC’s ACCESS transportation magazine.  Lisa Vordebruegen in the Contra Costa Times has also covered it well.

In a coherent regional political system at least one executive head would roll for such a misspending of dollars in the billions, maybe that of Steve Heminger, staff chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  But that is unlikely to happen.  With an ever-changing cast of characters, and with big technical issues that themselves proved problematical although they were never at the heart of the public policy question, too much time and too many committees have gone by.  We will have a sunny ribbon cutting ceremony rather than a realistic project post-mortem.   

Still, six and a half billion dollars for one bridge is a lot of money-- for comparison, over four times the cost of extending BART to SFO and Milbrae, an earlier regional transportation misfire.

Spending $6.5B of public funds for an infrastructure element that should have cost less than one billion for a seismic retrofit, or $2B for a reasonable new span, was a significant failure of the Bay Area decision-making process.  It is a $4.5B setback in hard cash, but also an alarm bell, a symptom of a broader deficiency.  If we are smart we will study, recognize, and fix it.   

Ultimately the Eastern Span blowout is a result of the refusal for decades by the cities of the Bay Area to recognize that we are all in one geographic and economic boat and to allow the nine-county Bay Area to live and govern itself--and to plan--as the metropolitan region that it is.   Population growth has been steady and will continue, but serious innovation in our region’s way of living has been turned into a steep uphill climb by the conservative resistance doggedly put up by many localities and agencies against any cooperation they see as weakening their prerogatives.    

The two indivisible sides of regional management and planning are transportation and “land use.”  

The new Eastern Span was shaped in a period, ending only in the last year or so, when transportation was planned by the MTC under an excessive lingering influence of the classic highway-building outlook, serving the automobile and the suburb.  

The Bay Area’s land use planning function (deciding what is to be built where) was jealously atomized and guarded by each of the region’s 100+ cities, represented by ABAG.   Brandishing the hallowed principle of “local control,”  the cities did not much want either to coordinate land use among themselves nor to bring major building and development decisions into a rational relationship with regional transportation planning.  

This impasse, and local resistance to seeing things regionally, gave an extended lease on life to the region’s traditional shape since World War II, based on the freeway, the car and on sending growth to its far outer edges.  That formula is summarized by the expression “sprawl.”  

Even after BART was built, good old sprawl, expensive in time, energy and money, rolled on through the seventies, eighties and nineties under the sway of cultural inertia and the contented gaze of vested interests that saw it not just as the best way, but the only way for Americans to live.  Working planners had the slimmest licence to conceive a different future, and they didn’t much do it, although the Bay Area’s own professor Robert Cervero saw the need for post-suburban growth clearly in his planning classroom at Berkeley and his books had great sway in places like Scandinavia, Canada and the World Bank.

Planning was so balkanized and separated into silos that a transportation project could not be evaluated as an alternative to a land use project, or vice versa. Indeed, land use projects beyond the scale of an individual city, could not really be imagined.  As the Eastern Span’s cost escalated wildly, it was no part of the process or the system to compare it to alternatives, to say, “Is this the best expenditure of billions the region can make in its future?”   

Most specifically, there was no intellectual or institutional way to say: “The region’s central problem is its long-term shortage and high cost of housing.  How does that need compare with its need for a second bridge to compete in sublimity with the Golden Gate Bridge?”  

That’s the sort of question that answers itself -- if it can be raised. Obviously, less costly housing is more important for the region’s people and its economy.   Moreover, a way of investing public funds to lower the costs of both housing and transportation exists in the fostering of “transit oriented development.”

But asking to compare housing investments with spending to add elegance to a bridge is a question that could never be asked under the old dispensation of a Chinese wall between land use decision-making and transportation planning.  The outrageous cost of the Bay Bridge’s Eastern Span was a case of being dragged deeper and deeper, for lack of an alternative, into an investment project that wasn’t working out.  In this case, it was not even a matter of a “shovel-ready” alternative, but just a conceptual one.   

As the slippery slope was carrying regional and state officials working on the replacement bridge past the two billion mark, then the four billion mark and finally to six billion dollars, no one could say a firm “No!”   That was because the region had no vision of the needed different future.   There was no list of future-shaping projects, such as  a serious TOD program, or even “bringing electrified Caltrain downtown,” whose settled merits made it obviously crazy to spend the whole kitty on just a fancy form for one bridge.  

Until the recent passage of California Senator Darrell Steinberg’s SB 375, the Bay Area really had no concept of a purposeful vision for itself that went much beyond more of the same old sprawl with a dollop of BART extensions.  

But now, thanks to California’s newly-required Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), and thanks to the state’s path-breaking anti-carbon legislation, and to the just-completed Plan Bay Area exercise which attempted at long last to integrate land use and transportation planning, we are in a better place.

We can move toward slaying the dragons of high-cost housing, the long family-sapping commute in congested traffic, high carbon emissions, and the $8,000 annual cost for each of a household’s second, third and fourth cars.   More of us will be riding an improved transit system more often, and more of us will be living, working and going to school in a somewhat more urban style that feels a little more like a European city and less like 1970’s Los Angeles.  

Independent market trends, including the culture of our smarter younger people, are moving in that direction.  

If MTC and ABAG can step up their leadership by following this modern crowd from the front, bringing good engineering and sharp pencils, there should be no further wandering into quagmires like the East Span of the Bay Bridge.

P. Lydon, Berkeley