Monday, August 26, 2013

Policy responses to climate change

Historical trend in atmospheric carbon (Source: NASA)
This week came previews of an upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific group created in 1988 to aggregate climate research and make reports to the United Nations. Drafts of the report include an estimate of 95 percent likelihood that human activities are the primary cause of an undoubtedly warming planet; that overall warming over the next century will be somewhere from 2.7 to well over 5 degrees; and that sea level would likely rise from 10 to 21 inches, depending on how much action is taken to curb emissions. Some scientists interviewed have expressed frustration at what they see as excessive caution by the IPCC.

A complicating factor to the science is that while there are models aplenty, it is impossible to predict with much precision what the impacts of climate change will be on specific areas. Should North Carolina, for example, plan for drought, floods, rising sea levels, famine or pestilence? And how much? (This is at the moment an academic question, because the North Carolina legislature has apparently forbidden their officials from planning for any climate changes at all (Harish 2012). But the Tarheel State is better than their government, and eventually will get serious.) Similarly it is impossible to attribute any single heat wave, or violent storm, or flood to climate change.

That said, getting serious about climate change would seem to be the prudent thing to do now, if not a decade ago. Granted that, as a few dissenting scientists remind us, "global warming" may be manageable, or what warming has been observed in recent decades may be a mere statistical anomaly. Or it may be that the tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our species has put into the atmosphere each year are as harmless as a pop song, and that any climate change is due to something else. Even so! It may not work out the way they suggest; it seems prudent to allow the possibility that climate change could happen. It is pointless to wait until certainty has reached 100 percent, as that doesn't happen this side of heaven. As a recent "Freakonomics" podcast noted, the worst predictors are those that are dogmatic i.e. insist on their chosen outcome without taking into account new data or changing conditions. It also seems prudent to note that virtually everyone who studies climate professionally has found something is up, and it's unlikely to be pretty when it happens. They could all be wrong, or they could all change their minds tomorrow, but it's imprudent to expect this to happen just because it would make our lives easier, and/or because it would serve as comeuppance to that weenie Al Gore.

The main obstacles to climate action are political, not scientific. The public is split over climate change: 65 percent in a recent Pew Research Poll said warming was occurring, but only 42 percent said it was due to human causes. 33 percent said it was a "very serious" problem, 32 percent said it was "somewhat serious." (Polling Report, My sense--no data here, just a hunch--is that these are soft numbers, and that if climate policies were proposed that threatened to impact people's lifestyles those numbers would go down. Anyway, Adam Frank of the University of Rochester noted this week that the proportion of the public that believes the climate is changing has by some measures declined since 1989 despite accumulating evidence (Frank 2013).

It's worth thinking about what options are available to governments in mitigating climate change. Five potential policy instruments, listed in reverse order of intensity, are (a) persuasion, (b) market mechanisms, (c) taxing and spending, (d) regulation, and (e) government management (Kraft and Furlong 2013: 103-107).

Persuasion is providing information, such as through public service announcements or presidential speeches, intending to sway public action. The assumption is that if you knew more about the issue, and what you could do about it, you would stop contributing to the problem and start contributing to the solution. The problem with persuasion as a sole instrument is that most people have heard the information already; it's far from clear that actions by a few persuadable individuals would bend the curve. If everyone reading this blog traded their car in for one that got half the gas mileage, it wouldn't make things that much worse. Put another way: We've run anti-drug ads for decades, but we still use law enforcement too.

On the other end of the intensity spectrum is government management. This is the dreaded "government takeover." There is, in this case, nothing for the government to take over. It can't nationalize every single source of pollution, since there are so many, and anyhow much of the carbon comes from non-commercial uses, like people driving cars or barbecuing on charcoal grills. There's been discussion of geoengineering the climate, and government could operate it, but that's extremely hypothetical at this point, not to mention the cost and ethical concerns. (Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone has written a book on the subject of geoengineering, How to Cool the Planet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); an interview with NPR's Scott Simon is here.)

Which leaves us with three main approaches: regulation, such as requiring certain levels of gas efficiency or types of fuels; taxing, particularly raising gasoline taxes to discourage use of fuels that contribute to climate change; and the intriguing cap-and-trade approach, which is a market mechanism.

Taxes work better than regulations at encouraging energy conservation, whether we're doing it for conservation's sake or for limiting pollution. That's because taxes affect the price of using energy--driving, for example--in ways that make the energy user bear more of the social costs of energy use (Nivola and Crandall 1995). Regulating gas efficiency actually makes driving less expensive. It would reduce energy use, and the carbon it produces, only if people drove exactly the same amount as they did before the regulation. But if regulation forces more gas-efficient vehicles, then the cost of driving per mile goes down, and people may choose to respond by driving more, living farther out, and other ways of defeating the purpose.

Requiring gasoline include ethanol seems to me pointless, at least if we're talking about the 10% blend using corn-based ethanol that most cars can use. Or the point is to create business for corn farming businesses. That is not what we're driving towards here, if you'll pardon the pun.

Increasing taxes on gasoline, electricity, and other forms of energy add to the cost of using them, and hence make the cost-sensitive user use less. Given our experience with demand-driven gasoline price increases since 2007 or so, it would take a whopper of a tax increase to affect driving habits, and even then it would affect them slowly because that's how America has arranged itself. Even small tax increases are politically unpopular. But this is an option if we choose to get serious. (An additional problem is that the tax would fall more heavily on some people than others, like rural residents, traveling sales people, and drivers of old cars who can't afford new ones. This would require some consideration.)

Cap-and-trade is a favorite of economists, and was included by the George H.W. Bush administration in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 to regulate emissions of the acid rain precursors sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, with considerable success (Conniff 2009, Broder 2009). In the 2000s the George W. Bush administration proposed a cap-and-trade regime for mercury, which I opposed at the time, thinking that mercury is so poisonous it probably requires tighter regulation than a cap-and-trade mechanism would provide. Despite its Republican origins, and John McCain's support for the approach in his 2008 presidential campaign, congressional Republicans have derided climate change proposals as "cap-and-tax," and that became an article of faith for 2012 presidential candidates (Good 2011). The Democratic-controlled U.S. House narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill in June 2009, but it was blocked in the Senate.

The 2009 bill, dubbed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would have created permits to emit carbon dioxide. Large and small polluters would purchase tradable permits from the government in an auction that would simulate a market in pollution ("trade"). The total amount of emissions allowed ("cap") would be reduced over time, with the eventual goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 83 percent by 2050 (Kraft 2011: 59-60). Similar approaches have been adopted in Australia, the European Community, and the U.S. state of California.

Politically we seem far from taking any meaningful action against climate change. But given the scientific consensus, and the likely dire consequences of inaction, we can't afford to wait much longer.


John M. Broder, "From a Theory to a Consensus on Emissions," New York Times, 16 May 2009,

Richard Conniff, "The Political History of Cap and Trade," Smithsonian, March 2009,

Adam Frank, "Welcome to the Age of Denial," New York Times, 21 August 2013,

Justin Gillis, "Climate Panel Cites Near Certainty on Warming," New York Times,  20 August 2013,

Chris Good, "Almost Every 2012 Republican Has a Cap-and-Trade Problem," Atlantic, 13 May 2011,

Alon Harish, "North Carolina Bans Use of Latest Scientific Predictions of Sea-Level Rise," ABC News, 2 August 2012,

Michael E. Kraft, Environmental Policy and Politics (Longman, 5th ed, 2011).

Michael E. Kraft and Scott R. Furlong, Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives (Sage/CQ Press, 4th ed, 2013).

Pietro S. Nivola and Robert W. Crandall, The Extra Mile: Rethinking Energy Policy for Automotive Transportation (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1995).

Andrew C. Revkin, "Can Cities Adjust to a Retreating Coastline?" Dot Earth, 22 August 2013,

Sunday, August 25, 2013

New downtown library

Cedar Rapids opened the new main branch of the public library last week in a big way, climaxing with a public ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, August 24. The project was necessitated by the 2008 flood, which severely damaged the building and collection located on 1st St SE close by the river. I understand that is the biggest disaster in financial terms in the history of American public libraries. [Television station KCRG has a brief video of the flood damaged library here.]

While plans were made and financing arranged, the library maintained a downtown presence in a small office in the Armstrong Building. I found that a convenient and interesting place to study during my sabbatical leave this spring.

Meanwhile construction was underway on the new building, located across from Greene Square Park.

On the opposite side of the park from the library is the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which was the library before it moved to 1st Street in 1985. 

See the names of the authors under the roof?

Saturday was the big day, at last. While we waited for the ribbon to be cut...

...there were activities for children in the park, including balloon animals, washable tattoos, face painting, and entertainment by the indefatigable Hip Hop Hannah.

Clifford the Big Red Dog was also spotted.

At 10 there were speeches by local dignitaries, including Mayor Ron Corbett...

...and Susan McDermott, head of the board of trustees, and my next-door neighbor.

The speakers gave due credit to the federal government--there was a representative of FEMA there--and the state government's I-Jobs program (since disbanded by Governor Branstad), without whose financing the new library would not have been possible.

At last we were invited to attack the ribbon, Here local notables Myrna and Jim Loehrlein make good use of their plastic scissors.

The inside of the library has a lot of books, not to mention DVDs and other materials, but those involved seemed proudest of the design elements. Unlike the 1985 building there are lot of windows as well as a skylight. The children's area has a set of attractive climbing gizmos as well as a hole in the wall for an alternative entry option. (I made it through, barely.)

There is a teen den, with comfy couches and tall shelves.

There are two outdoor areas, a deck on the north side that overlooks Greene Square Park...

...and a green roof, with seating for times when the sun is not blazing.

The library has preserved two of the stained glass windows from First Christian Church, near the cafe...

as well as some bricks from the Sinclair meatpacking plant (in the teen den).

The library connects to the Skywalk system via the 4th Avenue parking garage.

I had some reservations: (1) the green roof is accessible only by elevator, though that may change; (2) the computers for searching the catalogue are hard to find and hard to use; (3) the cafe has a drive through that opens at 6 a.m. on weekdays. I'm not necessarily opposed to that, just not sure what it's doing there.

These quibbles aside, it was thrilling to see the new library become reality, and to see so many people of all ages out to see it.

It is more deeply thrilling that the city of Cedar Rapids has made such a solid commitment to building community. A community needs civic buildings, and the library-park-art museum run makes for a civic place that is real, usable, accessible and central. A constant refrain during the weekend, sung by everyone from the mayor to our lovely tour guide, was "It's your library." "No one washes a rented car," quoted Mayor Corbett. Can we instill a sense of collective ownership?

During the campaign for the library, some people noted that for the price of the library the city could buy everyone an electronic reader like the Amazon Kindle. Leaving aside the short lives of electronic reading devices, a bunch of people in a library adds up to more than the same people individually accessing e-books in their family rooms. We become a community only when we interact, and what better, more democratic, more intelligent place to interact than a public library?

[For more pictures of the big weekend, see the Cedar Rapids Gazette photo gallery here.]

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jesus in the polis?

(Aristotle with Plato in a painting by Raphael, from Wikipedia)

One of the joys of teaching ancient political theory is the love of Plato, Aristotle and their ilk for the polis (which translates more or less as "city"). At times it gets a little extreme, as in the 5th book of Plato's Republic where the character of Socrates posits a city of complete justice in which all traces of individualism, including private property and the family, are eliminated. (Was that a serious proposal or merely a thought experiment? Plato's readers have differed for almost 2400 years. Aristotle seems to have thought he was serious. I strongly believe he was not.)

Another problem with getting too far down with the ancients is that, in order to allow the citizens to devote themselves to public life, both Plato and Aristotle assume they will be supported by a platoon of unenfranchised manual laborers and slaves. From an American perspective this is impossibly elitist, though the alternative for ancient Greece was not political equality but aristocracy. "Democratic" Athens represents for us an unacceptable attempt to solve the ever-present obstacle to the participatory ideal: How do we find time to participate in public life to the extent that, say, Benjamin Barber expects us to, when we've got jobs and families and home repairs and stuff to attend to?

So, granted we're not going to find the blueprint of life in Aristotle's The Politics, and certainly not in Plato's Republic. We can still appreciate their appreciation for humans-in-community. Aristotle begins The Politics by arguing that early human beings formed cities in order to achieve a good life. Life's basic functions like eating and procreating could be done in smaller-scale associations (families, farm villages) but to move beyond a rudimentary life, and to live according to reason and not day-to-day survival, required a city (1:2). The city had to be large enough to include all the functions that made for a good life, but small enough that the citizens would all know each other; Plato in The Laws estimated the ideal population at 5040 citizens, though as noted above this would not include women or workers, or children (Book V). Human beings were intended by nature to live the sort of life that community afforded, said Aristotle; hence, political life defined what it meant to be fully human ("teleology"). Anyone who could exist outside of a city, he concluded, was either a god or a beast (1:2). In the city, citizens were engaged in a common project, to wit, the achievement of the good life.

Aristotle wrote, or was compiled, in the last half of the fourth century BCE; he died in 322. By then, the self-governing polis that he and Plato had idealized, and that had dominated Greek life for four centuries, was pretty well spent. The Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great heralded a long, long period of history dominated by autocratic rule and centralized governments. Athenian democracy, limited as it seems from our perspective, was gone forever. Citizens became subjects.

Post-Aristotle, ancient political thought turned sharply inward (with the notable exceptions of Polybius and Cicero). The central question turned from "How shall we create the best city?" to "How shall we live in a state that may crush us like bugs if it notices us at all?" Three prominent groups that emerged were the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans. (Here I rely heavily on Donald Kagan, The Great Dialogue, chapter 11.)
  • The Cynics renounced material goods, and attacked all social values and established institutions, often in shocking ways. The most famous Cynic was probably Diogenes, who lived in a bathtub, survived by begging, and is reputed to have carried a lamp in broad daylight in search of a true man which he never seemed to find. With the state making subjects of people, the only autonomous response was withdrawal-with-anger from the whole thing. 
  • The Stoics sought the happiness of the individual. This meant living in harmony with nature, which in turn required the avoidance of passion and anger, and as much as possible living peaceably with one's fellow humans. They believed in a religious/natural law that governed the whole world, and to which the laws of the state must conform, but if the state was going to go and be evil there was probably not much you could do about it. Aristotle famously concluded that "the good man is a good citizen only in a good state" (Politics 3:4); some Stoics dabbled in politics, but in the absence of true citizenship mostly focused on being good people and didn't sweat the state too much. 
  • Finally, the Epicureans focused on lives of pleasure and avoiding pain, with the additional interesting teaching that the universe was governed by a force called "swerve" that caused atoms to interact in a wholly random way. Think "Hakuna Matata."

It was into this world that, more than three centuries after the death of Aristotle, Jesus was born. The founding texts of Christianity are the 27 books of the New Testament, written between approximately 50 and 150 CE. Jesus, the apostles, and the writers of the New Testament lived entirely within the bounds of the Roman Empire. Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25), but all it seems to have gotten him was a trial before Caesar before he was executed. These were people with zero political influence, subjects all, whose animating passion was religious. Not surprisingly, then, the New Testament has very very little to say directly in the way of political thought.

In terms of their orientation to politics, John the Baptist seems to me something of a Cynic. The Gospel of Matthew portrays him living alone in the wilderness. "John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). Not only did he eschew material goods he was unsparing of the social institutions of his day, calling on all who came to him to repent and prepare for the kingdom of heaven. And when religious leaders came to check him out, he would have made Diogenes proud: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (3:7b). Then he threatens them with Jesus's unquenchable fire.

The apostle Paul comes across as a Stoic, particularly in Romans 13, which begins, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities..." The first seven verses commend getting along with the positive view of the state and its agents, even though Paul found himself in conflict with public officials, getting arrested on several occasions for disturbing the peace by preaching the gospel. Later in chapter 13, he reminds his readers that "you know what time it is," meaning the urgency of living and preaching a Christian life pushed politics, the pursuit of pleasure (take that, Epicureans!), and other individual/earthly concerns to the far back burner. Then he goes back to individual ethics, which dominate the letter. Be good, let government go its own way... sounds like a Stoic to me.

Jesus is Stoic flavored with Cynic. He's no Epicurean, though he didn't eschew earthly pleasures, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his critics. "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking," Jesus noted, "and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Luke 7:34) Through the gospel accounts of his life, besides performing miracles of healing and feeding, Jesus mostly teaches a positive but individual ethic, focused far more on good interaction with others rather than following rules of conduct. Examples abound, including the parables of the Good Samaritan and the sheep and the goats; after listing all the generous acts of the sheep, the king concludes, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

(Jesus healing the man with the withered hand,
 from the Codex Egberti, c. 980 via Wikipedia)

Jesus's ministry was itinerant, maybe super-duper-itinerant (Matthew 8:20), and once underway he was not attached to any place. The only city he specifically mentions is Jerusalem, while on his journey to arrest and the cross: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37) Even here it's unclear whether he's envisioning Jerusalem as the could-have-been good polis or just noting it's the headquarters of the hostile. His only statement on government is the Stoical admonition to pay taxes (Luke 20:25), which in context seems dismissive. "The state? Whatever. Let's feed the hungry and prepare for the kingdom of God." Towards the religious authorities, though, he's a Cynic: openly and frequently critical, even contemptuous. They are the butts of the story of the Good Samaritan. In a dramatic in-your-face miracle, he heals a man with a withered hand after challenging a group of religious leaders to express disapproval of his doing so on the sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6). Even more dramatically, he clears the temple of buyers, sellers and money changers (Mark 11: 15-19); in John's version (2:15) he makes a whip out of cords with which to attack them. He frequently makes comments like "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites..." (Mark 7:6a)

The New Testament focus on individual ethical behavior, while Stoically ignoring or Cynically challenging civic institutions, reflects a time when the state was remote and oppressive. Within a few centuries this presented a challenge, because by 400 Christians were running the Roman Empire. After the empire's collapse in 476, the states of Europe continued to be predominantly Christian, at least in terms of political control. Today, Americans no longer live with an established church, but political power is widespread--short of the ideal, to be sure, but far more widespread than either Jesus or Plato ever saw--and most people are Christians. What does Christianity have to do with the state now that we are part of it? Augustine (354-430) saw government as a temporary necessity to deal with human selfish behavior, but our true destiny was the City of God. He and his contemporaries, writes historian Michael Grant (History of Rome, Scribner's, 1978, pp. 460-461), demeaned the state and civil service. Aquinas (1225-1274), influenced somewhat by reading Aristotle, allowed for a more positive role for government in seeking the common good. But what is the common good? Morality? Relief of suffering? Material well-being? Charity? The diversity of beliefs on this question is illustrated by the plasticity of the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It's been used by states to justify everything from social welfare legislation to the Spanish Inquisition.

Today's New Urbanists are pointing us back to the polis, which takes the forms of economically strong metropolitan regions with thriving local neighborhoods. The five-minute walk, building civic sites, and diversity of housing designs are considerations that never entered the minds of the people who wrote the Bible. But they are oriented to ancient concerns of building and maintaining communities in which all people have the opportunity to live the best lives possible. This is our challenge today, in the face of rampant materialism and individualism, and indeed to repair the damage done by their excesses. That in turn may explain why these days I get more excited reading classical political thought than I do reading the Bible.


Harry V. Jaffa, "Aristotle," in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (eds), History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972.

Donald Kagan, The Great Dialogue: History of Greek Political Thought from Homer to Polybius. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Brian R. Nelson, Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2nd ed, 1996.

George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 3rd ed, 1961.

T.A. Sinclair, A History of Greek Political Thought. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951.

 (Howard Mueller, from the North Central College website)

P.S.: I think this post owes a substantial debt to Professor Howard Mueller, who taught the religion classes I took at North Central College. I remember that he spent considerable time on the Stoics, Cynics, et al., and that I completely bombed the exam question on them. Enough of the lesson must have stuck in my subconscious that when I came to that section of Kagan's book bells went off and associations were made.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Taylor Area Neighborhood

The Taylor Area is one of Cedar Rapids's oldest neighborhoods. It is named for Taylor Elementary School, 720 7th Av SW; its official definition is conterminous with the school attendance area, which runs from the Cedar River to 15th Street, and from 1st to 16th Avenues. It has suffered a number of insults over the years: loss of jobs, the routing of Interstate 380 through the neighborhood, and most recently the 2008 flood which affected nearly the entire neighborhood and destroyed the school. (It has since been rebuilt and reopened.)

Most recently the neighborhood has suffered a crime wave. Last week a Cedar Rapids Gazette article reported on an unusually crowded neighborhood association meeting this week. Data were not adequately presented to make comparisons or provide context, but concerns are clearly widespread, centered on numerous incidents of physical violence and verbal harassment at the school and adjacent Reed Park. Police Lt. Tobey Harrison noted that while such incidents typically increase during the summer, "I think we have seen a bigger spike in a short period of time." The group of offenders has some core members as well as others who appear and disappear (including some as young as 5 years old). Longtime resident Edith Chase told the Gazette reporter crime has gotten worse in the last five years, which would date the origins to the time of the flood. She also said she won't let her grandchild play in Reed Park.

(Reed Park, empty the night I took this picture except for two soccer players)

[A week later, a similar article appeared concerning the east side neighborhood of Wellington Heights, which has seen an increase in police calls. "There's a lot more violence here now," said resident Subrine Northern, comparing the neighborhood today to when she moved there in 2000. Other residents complained of drugs and gangs.]

The Police Department has increased its presence in the area, and paid attention to loitering, which has brought some relief. Those who attended the meeting made additional suggestions; the article listed enhanced curfew enforcement, increased supervision, and holding parents and guardians accountable for their children's behavior.

Law enforcement is an obvious first response, but while it can repress some criminal activity it is not a long-term solution to a troubled neighborhood. The Taylor area has benefited from intensive efforts at social services and housing rehabilitation by the Matthew 25 Ministry Hub. Beyond that, are there public policies available to strengthen the neighborhood in the long term?

At the core of a lot of urban problems is the lack of economic opportunity. William Julius Wilson documented in The Truly Disadvantaged that as jobs migrated to the metropolitan periphery, those left in areas of declining economic opportunity tended towards more anti-social behavior (which then reinforced the desolation of the area as well as the individuals' already poor prospects). Of course, Wilson researched areas that were much more isolated and much more desolate than the poor areas of Cedar Rapids. But that's a matter of degree. Without the motivation of opportunity, there's often little to hold young people to behavioral norms. The jobs future in America looks dicey from a middle-class perspective; you can imagine what it looks like from the perspective of the lower and working classes. Wellington Heights resident Ryan Burrows told the Gazette: "I feel stuck here. I'm living, literally, paycheck to paycheck. One big bill could break my budget for the week. It's heartbreaking because everyone has that same sense of hopelessness around here and you do feel, kind of, stuck" (Earl).

Unfortunately, I don't think there are really good economic policy answers available to governments. The most popular models of state and local job creation are tax cuts--but states like Mississippi and Alabama that have pursued that most vigorously have higher poverty and lower happiness than other places--and competition with other places for existing businesses, which is pointlessly zero-sum. Economic stimulus of the Keynesian variety isn't available to states and localities which can't run budget deficits to begin with; nationally, stimulus might have been pushed farther than it was in 2009-10, but the benefits seem mainly to have flowed to upper income levels with only marginal improvement in employment and wages for the rest.

One possibility is to focus on the physical design of the neighborhood, to improve its attractiveness and more importantly its connections to the rest of the city. Government policies helped subsidize the flight of the economy, and the routing of I-380 about three decades ago took out a huge swath of the neighborhood. Is it too late to bring the horse back after it's left the stable?

The Taylor Area has some assets working to its advantage. It has long-term residents and a strong neighborhood identity. (School district officials were surprised after the flood at the vehement opposition to their plan to close Taylor School.) Most of the area has sidewalks. The streets are lined with trees. There are a few local businesses, albeit most of these seem to be bars. It is physically close to downtown, so that as that area develops there is the potential for connections. Czech Village, on its southern border, has some businesses, though it is not back to its pre-flood vigor. There is some playground equipment at Taylor School and adjacent Reed Park; besides Riverside Park near Czech Village, which also boasts a popular skate ramp, that's it for the neighborhood, though Cleveland Park is across 15th Street. Several pocket parks are now purely green space, but could add some equipment.

The Taylor Area also contains some major facilities and traffic-ways. These come with advantages and disadvantages. 1st Avenue, 15th/16th Avenues, and 6th Street are wide streets that bear a lot of traffic, and are hard to cross, but they do connect cars to other parts of the city, and have the potential to bring outsiders in. 1st and 16th Avenues are regional thoroughfares that appropriately run along the edges of the Taylor Area (see Duany et al. 2010: 8.8). Between Rockford Road and 15th Street are Veterans Memorial Stadium (minor league baseball), Kingston Stadium (high school sports) and the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is on the river at the north end of Czech Village. These are major attractions for all city residents. There seems to me to be much untapped potential for business development around these. (Ditto the skate ramp at Riverside Park, which was crowded the night I was taking pictures of the area, but with people too young to patronize the area bars.) Could they also spur residential development? I wouldn't like to live next to stadiums, but some people might find it exciting. There are few pedestrian or bike routes under the interstate which plows a swath between 3rd and L Streets.

Then there's the matter of the casino, which if all goes according to plan will open in the next two years along 1st Avenue West. I'm dubious about the affect this will have on the neighborhood. It may spur some job-creation and additional business development, but that surely was oversold during the referendum campaign, and it's not clear that, say, a row of pawn shops (or more bars and gas station/convenience stores) would enhance neighborhood economic prospects. Its place between downtown and the Taylor Area has the potential for creating a barrier rather than a connection.

I'd like to encourage some gentle gentrification of both the Taylor Area and Wellington Heights. This would be a first step for Taylor, and a second step for Wellington Heights, whose 2013 plan includes a push for more owner-occupied housing. That's OK, though it assumes continuing high levels of homeowernship, which may be artificially high now. Duany et al. argue for developing "as much housing as the market will bear," to provide a critical mass for urbanism, preserve open space and reduce dependence on the automobile (2010: 5.10). Density also contributes to "natural surveillance," a fancy term for the "eyes on the street" concept first articulated by Jane Jacobs in 1961: "[C]rime decreases when someone might be watching" (10.6).

I'd also like to see bike lanes, at least on 6th Street (8.1), and making 2nd and 3rd Avenues two-way (8.6) which would make them more pedestrian-friendly and possibly accommodate bike lines as well.

Planners should work closely with neighborhood residents to respect and preserve the character and identity of the areas. The goal would not be to push out people living there now, either by tearing down their houses or by making property values and attendant real estate taxes unbearable. Diluting the concentration of poverty in these areas, and encouraging the establishment of compatible local businesses, would increase safety and economic prospects for all. This will require developing the dead zones between the neighborhoods and downtown (roughly 12th to 5th Streets east, and the river to 6th Street west) in ways that build connections and offer further opportunities for business establishment and economic opportunity.

There are some other good ideas for neighborhood-centered development at the Better Block site: (1) Help communities put on authentic events as a means of generating ideas, (2) Create innovation zones especially where there are vacant lots or buildings, (3) 'Hackathon' events bringing visual and media artists together with neighborhood residents to help with visioning.

Finally, and somewhat tangentially, there's the matter of public transportation. The two neighborhoods are close enough to downtown to benefit from intercity rail service. More immediately, our well-intentioned but meandering bus system could add some lines that would go directly up and down 1st Avenue, and directly east and west from Mt. Vernon Road to 16th Avenue. (I am indebted to Ben Kaplan for this suggestion.) These would be easily accessible to residents of these neighborhoods, and more usable than the current lines in getting to jobs in other parts of town.


Andrew Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon, The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010).

Chris Earl, "Wellington Heights Sees Increase in Police Calls," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 12 August 2013, A2.

Meryn Fluker, "Taylor Neighborhood Crowd Shares Crime-Fighting Solutions," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 6 August 2013,

Andrew Howard, "Saint Paul Better Block a Glimpse of Authentic Twin Cities,", 26 July 2013,
 Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Council Endorses Wellington Heights Neighborhood Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 July 2013,

Iowa Public Radio, "River to River" show on new urbanism in Iowa, 12 August 2013,

William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago, 1987

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Post #50: Who's a liberal?

Political discussion across ideological lines would go better, and people with different ideologies would seem more sane and less rigid, if we understood that we are speaking different "languages," according to economist Arnold Kling, who has published an Amazon single entitled The Three Languages of Politics. These languages come with different assumptions and core values, and so give rise to lines of argument that others find incomprehensible, not to mention insensitive to their own core values.

Kling condenses the wide variety of perspectives across American politics into three main strains:
  • libertarian, whose principal concern is individual freedom, and for which the main evil is coercion, particularly from government;
  • conservative, whose principal concern is the maintenance of civilization, and for which the main evil is the barbarism that threatens that civilization; and
  • liberal, whose principal concern is with oppressed people, and for which the main evil is the oppression from which they suffer.
(Note that this suggests divisions among today's right-leaning Republican Party are philosophical in nature [conservative vs. libertarian], while for the left-leaning Democratic Party they are matters of degree [somewhat liberal vs. strongly liberal]. This may oversimplify matters, and to be fair to Kling, he doesn't push it.)

Kling's definitions are redolent of others who have written on political ideology--I thought immediately of David T. Koyzis's book Political Visions and Illusions--with a useful focus on the strains most prominent in America. I'd find Kling's analysis more persuasive if he sharpened his definitions. Even though I try to shun the rabbit holes of semantic arguments that turn on the definition of one disputed word, I think Kling's phrasing is begging for just those semantic arguments. Liberal focus on the oppressed doesn't explain their concern with environmental conservation; conservative belief in economic markets is as concerned about government interference as the libertarians are; and who really likes coercion? So I'd rephrase his definitions this way, probably asking for arguments of my own, but finding it irresistible to alter someone else's draft:
  • libertarian: individual autonomy, defined as freedom from government coercion (removing "particularly")
  • conservative: maintaining traditional values, the alternative to which is chaos (here I'm totally indebted to a felicitously-phrased comment by Chris Wilson on the "Strong Towns" blog)... this allows us to combine support for markets with traditional moral values and a strong and unilateral international presence
  • liberal: individual autonomy, defined as non-coercion of the less powerful by the more powerful... this allows us to include the economically disadvantaged, the socially unpopular, and plant and animal species, and to cast government as potential enemy (spying on dissidents) or friend (enforcing civil rights or environmental regulations)
Does that help? Maybe not. Let us press on.

Kling, like Koyzis, treats ideologies in their pure form. (It is ideological purity that Koyzis, from a Christian religious perspective, compares to idolatry.) But this can lead to pointless "straw man" arguments, not to mention stereotyping. An excellent comment on the "Strong Towns" blog by "Steve S." suggests it might be more accurate to describe people, for example, as "libertarian-dominant" rather than "libertarian," because they are likely to view some matters from conservative and liberal perspectives. Still, libertarian-dominant types are likely to come at issues with perspectives that are so different from conservatives and liberals that they seem incompatible in conversation or debate.

Kling's approach explains how people can look at the same situation and come to very different conclusions. In the interview with "Econ Talk" host Russ Roberts, he uses the examples of policies related to immigration and terrorism. On immigration, for example, liberals concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants might argue for looser border controls and amnesty for undocumented people already here, finding themselves on the opposite side of conservatives concerned about values like the integrity of the border and the laws on the books. They might find some sympathy with libertarians who aren't crazy about borders to begin with.

As the immigration example shows, different languages can lead to similar outcomes on specific issues. At the same time, ideological language does not determine issue positions. Again with immigration, liberals whose principal concern is with low-wage American workers (or with environmental habitats stressed by increased population) might argue for restricting immigration. Your position on abortion is probably less due to ideology than with whose autonomy or which traditional value you're defending.

SO! We're less concerned here with predicting issue outcomes than in understanding how differing perspectives can derail debate. On health care, for example, three years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, conservative objections based in market economics, and libertarian objections to the individual mandate, make no sense to liberals worried about the vast numbers of people whose health insurance is either inadequate, insecure, or non-existent. These liberal worries seem similarly irrational to conservatives and libertarians who tend to see government economic activity as vicious by definition.

Understanding each other's ideological languages can facilitate civil discussion of societal issues. To Parker J. Palmer, civil discussion is essential to effective democracy. It may also help persuade a broader range of people to your desired outcome. In the perceptive post on the "Strong Towns" blog that led me to Kling, Andrew Burleson argues that Strong Towns has had more success than other anti-sprawl organizations because they make their case using conservative language.
I would argue that one of the reasons we've had such rapid growth and adoption of our message is that Chuck [Strong Towns co-founder and president Charles L. Marohn, Jr.] originated this message from somewhere in the Conservative / Libertarian camp, whereas the majority of other organizations that are interested these issues come from a Liberal / Progressive point of view. For many, Strong Towns is the first group that has talked to Conservatives in their own language about the problems with built environment in America today, and how the effects of those problems ripple through into all areas of our life.
In other words, it's not enough to argue that sprawl has terrible effects on the environment and on the urban poor (which it does), if only liberals are speaking that language. Conservatives aren't, and are suspicious of the government regulation and societal change which limiting sprawl is going to involve. Better to make the argument that sprawl has largely been facilitated by federal government irrationality, and subsidizing sprawl as we now do is a profligate waste of taxpayer money. Values-oriented conservatives might be sympathetic to new urbanist efforts to rebuild traditional communities at the neighborhood level.

It's worth a try. Moderate liberals, at least, know how to speak market, even if there core concerns lie elsewhere. Market mechanisms are an important part of the Affordable (Health) Care Act (state-level insurance exchanges) and such proposals that have been made to address climate change (cap-and-trade for carbon emissions). Have they made any friends?

Kling is not naive. Not all the energy in contemporary American politics is being spent on the search for cooperative resolutions to policy conflicts. A lot, maybe more now than ever, is being spent on fomenting outrage which obstructs such resolutions. Kling made a resonant point in his interview with Russ Roberts: Most political punditry seems oriented, not to opening the minds on your own side, or opening the minds on the other side, but to closing the minds on your own side. I don't know that I can achieve a conversation with, say, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), because I don't think he wants one.

Burleson continues in his praise for the Strong Towns approach: Beyond [being able to speak the conservative language], though, we're strongly non-partisan (even anti-partisan) in our approach. These issues are bigger than any one political cohort, they affect everything, and we can't afford to descend into an "us versus them" battle. The hole we're in is deep, and all of us are going to have to work together if we're going to get out.

That is what I would have said about my approach to this blog, Holy Mountain, as well as to my teaching and public presentations. I started my blog in April thinking I could step away from the often-silly, often-irrationally angry, short attention span discourse of contemporary American politics, so I could focus on what's important. I'm not advocating for any political party, and have assiduously avoided getting into issues of personality in my posts here. Yet it's inescapable that when I identify the core obstacles to Americans being able to live together--economic opportunity for all, environmental sustainability, accommodating diversity--I'm pretty clearly speaking Kling's liberal language. I mean, I'm not worried about economic opportunity for the already-well-off, right? I'm worried about the marginalized, of course.

There is the dilemma of how much to acknowledge this in class and on the media. Kling, while acknowledging his own libertarian stance, suggests in his interview with Russ Roberts that it is possible to adopt a pure academic language of, say, economics. I've always advocated this, but am increasingly dubious this is even possible. Kling in his example contrasts a libertarian talking about government coercing him "with a gun to my head" with the economically-grounded discourse of Milton Friedman. I think Friedman is a dubious example; despite his exemplary contributions to economics and economic policy, his biases against any government policy action besides monetary policy, or the very existence of labor unions, were obvious.

While I work this out, I will throw myself upon the mercy of Parker J. Palmer, which seems to be expansive. Palmer, in Healing the Heart of Democracy, lists "Five Habits of the Heart that Make Democracy Possible": (1) An understanding that we are all in this together; (2) An appreciation of the value of "otherness;" (3) An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways; (4) A sense of personal voice and agency; and (5) A capacity to create community. Talking is good. Listening is good. Trying to understand and speak each other's languages is good. There is much each of us can learn from the other, and the conversation likely is more important than the policy outcome.


Andrew Burleson, "The Three Languages of (American) Politics," Strong Towns Blog, 25 July 2013,

"Kling on the Three Languages of Politics," Econ Talk Podcast,

David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003)

Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

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