Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Envision CR Open House

Cedar Rapids residents discussed the future of the city with city staff and hired planners Wednesday night in the lobby of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. We were met with a series of posters which I mostly found unhelpful if not outright bewildering. There were some good supportive materials, though, and some explanation was available if you asked for it.

I spent some quality time with the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Plan, and came away with the strong impression that the city is interested in using design initiatives to improve neighborhoods. The plan includes discussion of making the roads at the edge of the neighborhood, particularly Mt. Vernon Rd. and 10th St., more easily crossable. From my perspective 10th Street is especially critical, because it is the boundary between Wellington Heights and the emerging MedQuarter district (and beyond it to downtown). People who now live in Wellington Heights must be connected to the opportunities that come from economic development. The plan also includes infill development of housing for the MedQuarter workforce, extended hours for bus service, and taming the one-way streets that now slash across the neighborhood.

I'm all for it. People are raising children along 2nd and 3rd Avenues, but with traffic whizzing by at 40 mph, that hardly seems optimal. But much of past city development has been based on people driving fast through Wellington Heights on their ways to downtown or across town. What happens to that traffic, not to mention the cars that use Mt. Vernon Rd., which is to go on a "road diet?" Can it all be diverted to 1st Avenue? Understand, I'm not happy that Cedar Rapids and the I-380 Corridor writ large have developed in such a car-dependent way, but they have been. (Come to think of it, I didn't see any transportation plans at the open house. I'll have to look for that next time.)

So I'm concerned about that, and where the jobs are going to come from. But I'm pleased to see the city thinking about downtown and the surrounding areas in an integrated way.
(This map goes from St. Luke's Hospital, in blue on the upper right, across the river to the proposed Kingston neighborhood development. No mention of the casino, which will be plopped between the Kingston neigbhorhood and the riverside greenway depicted at left.)

I was intrigued by a series of posters presented by H.R. Green Engineering, which has been hired to coordinate planning for the area around the extension of Highway 100 to the west of the city. I was intrigued in spite of myself, because my preference is that the highway not be extended at all, and that does not appear to be an option. H.R. Green offered three maps (depicted below), which respectively described an "urbanism scenario" (left) with walkable neighborhoods of mixed development and accessible stores; a "standard development practice scenario" (top right) consisting mostly of large lot subdivisions with some commercial buildings along the new highway; and a "conservation scenario" (bottom middle) with more green space.

On the maps, explained their helpful representative, Jim Halverson, yellow is low-density housing, light green is mutlifamily housing, and maroon is mixed-use commercial. The walkable version of the subdivision is indeed intriguing, and came with credit to Andres Duany et al., but it seems to require a sizeable increase in population to support this. It's nice to think that if the city grew substantially, it could do so in a sustainable way, but absent a growth surge isn't this an unnecessary spread of infrastructure? (Which, I should remind you, doesn't come cheap. The highway alone comes to $250 million.) It is possible, however, that I'm just being an old poop.

Two more open houses are coming soon: a draft plan review April 24, and a final plan review June 12. The Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) website is at

"Downtown, Where All the Lights are Bright?" November 10, 2013
"Filling in an Empty Quarter (II)," October 25, 2013
"Downtown vs. Parking," September 29, 2013
"Their Casino, Our Casino," September 5, 2013
"Taylor Area Neighborhood," August 25, 2013
"A Big Ho Hum," May 12, 2013

Friday, March 21, 2014

The gentrification conundrum (II)

(Artist Theora Kvitka lives in Chicago.
Used by permission.)

My last few posts have wrestled with issues of economic opportunity and diversity in America. One strategy for achieving both is to attract businesses and middle-class residents into areas, like central cities and older suburbs, that have long suffered from disinvestment and "white" flight. When things work out, it means life in the ol' municipal tax base, as well as connection and opportunity for poorer residents.

Often, however, the downside of gentrification is that increasing demand for real estate raises the price of housing (not to mention business rents), putting the squeeze on current occupants. San Francisco, where this is happening to an unusual degree because of the technology boom, got some attention last winter, but the issues are more widespread than just the new home of Google.

Denver's Five Points neighborhood, recently profiled in WeCreateHere by local media star Ben Kaplan, is an example of a gentrifying neighborhood. Through the middle of the 20th century, it was a vibrant music center and Denver's most prominent black neighborhood. Through the last half of the century, it went into a dramatic death spiral familiar to many cities with similar stories to tell of working class neighborhoods with no work. More recently, with a combination of federal government, city and private investment, the neighborhood is rebuilding. Population growth has inspired new real estate development, and retailers have cautiously followed, including the formation of a Five Points Business District about five years ago. Statistics for the neighborhood published by the Piton Foundation tell an interesting story, though: Non-Latino white births went from 26 in 2000 to 70 in 2010, while Latino births declined from 125 to 36, and black births declined from 53 to 25. The neighborhood, which is now majority white, seems to have offloaded a good bit of its non-white residents. Where did they go? Gentrification does little for poor residents if it means they have to move to a different neighborhood.

(Note: Ben Kaplan reports the specific development he profiled, Benedict Park Place, consists of rental housing with eligibility capped by income. That may be part of the solution to not chasing the poor away from gentrifying neighborhoods.)

Some cities are trying to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification through public policy. Earlier this month the New York Times reported on such attempts in Philadelphia, where a middle class influx has caused a surge in property values. One man's $45,000 house is now assessed at $250,000; another woman whose house was assessed at $90,000 is now assessed at $281,000. City Council president Darrell L. Clarke said, "We feel the people who toughed it out should be rewarded. And we feel it is incumbent upon us to protect them." Boston city council member Stephen J. Murphy presented a similar perspective: "Property values are increasing exponentially, and longtime homeowners are victims of the success story" (quotes from Williams, cited below).

So Philadelphia is limiting property tax increases for longtime residents. (There is an application process; the eligibility of the two homeowners in the previous paragraph was uncertain at press time.) Boston will allow 10-year residents whose property taxes have dramatically risen to defer payments until they sell their homes. Pittsburgh and Washington face similar issues, and according to the Times article may be considering similar policies.

It's a tricky business, this. For one thing, the targeted nature of the policies seems practically to beg you to look for loopholes. (The whole San Francisco thing blew up because owners were tearing rent-controlled buildings down so they could build new, uncontrolled residences. Loophole.) For another, the story of central cities in the last 50-75 years has been their abandonment by people with money. As Andres Duany and colleagues argue (Suburban Nation (2000), p. 173):
[T]he challenge faced by most center cities today is not to provide affordable housing--which they typically supply at alarming ratios, thanks to public subsidies--but to create a market for middle-class housing. Cities, after all, cannot flourish without taxpaying residents. For this reason, city planners charged with the task of revitalizing a downtown have little choice but to encourage gentrification...
They worry that limiting the rise in tax assessments, as Philadelphia and Boston are currently pondering, "can prevent home and business owners from obtaining building improvement loans."

For the older neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids, such as Wellington Heights and the Taylor Area, I've advocated "gentle gentrification," of which I'll admit I have only the very vaguest concept. But this much is certain: We don't build diverse communities by pricing people out of the homes they own. It's difficult enough to overcome habits of class prejudice and segregation without adding a financial hit.

There's got to be a solution to this. Some possibilities: (1) A metro region-wide tax sharing agreement means towns wouldn't have a financial incentive to pursue only well-off residents and poach each other's businesses; (2) Putting neighborhoods in charge of zoning would enable residents to feel more in control of the process and less like they were being pushed out by external forces; (3) Where possible, allowing more housing construction would ease upward pressure on rental prices (see Philadelphia example cited below).


General Sources
  1. Benjamin Grant, "What is Gentrification?", POV, n.d. but probably around 2003, Basic introduction to the concept and issues surrounding it.
  2. Daniel Hartley, "Gentrification and Financial Health," Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, 6 November 2013, Hartley points out the benefits to long-term residents, including rising home values and credit scores, lower crime and better schools. Of course homeowners have to be able to afford the taxes, and renters have to be able to afford the rent.
  3. Ray Sanchez and Steve Almasy, "Spike Lee Explains Expletive-Filled Gentrification Rant," CNN, 27 February 2014, Lee, a film director in New York City, is principally concerned with cultural clashes resulting from gentrification, which I don't address here.
  1. Jon Geeting, "The Apartment Boom Continues, But Is Philadelphia Building Enough Housing?" This Old City, 21 March 2014,
  2. Timothy Williams, "Cities Helping Residents Resist the New Gentry," New York Times, 4 March 2014, A1, A11. Datelined Philadelphia, discusses policy options and what's driving them.
  1. "Denver's Five Points Neighborhood: 5 Things You Don't Know About the 'Harlem of the West,'" BlackVoices, 25 August 2013, History of the Five Points area.
  2. Alison Gregor, "In Denver, Beat Starts to Pick Up in a Once-Thriving Hub for Jazz," New York Times, 21 August 2013, Positive view of gentrification's benefits, mainly real estate development but some retail is starting.
  3. Ben Kaplan, "Is This Denver Development A Model for Housing in New Bohemia?" WeCreateHere, 14 March 2014, Photo essay on the Benedict Park Place development.
  1. Tim Grant, "Research Disproves Gentrification's Reputation," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 November 2013, Positive view of gentrification's benefits.
  2. Andy Sheehan, "Some Older Lawrenceville Residents Not Happy With Re-Urbanization," CBS Pittsburgh, 14 November 2013, Long-time residents' negative view.
  1. Marc Fisher, "Most in D.C. Say Neighborhoods are Better, But Many Say Gentrification Helps the Rich More," Washington Post, 18 January 2014. Positives and negatives of the Washington experience with gentrification.
  2. Garance Franke-Ruta, "The Politics of the Urban Comeback: Gentrification and Culture in D.C.," The Atlantic, 10 August 2012, Washington resident describing benefits of gentrification she's observed.
  3. John Muller, "Gentrification a Matter of Economics, Not Ethnicity," Greater Greater Washington, 28 June 2011, Class-oriented critique of gentrification.
My earlier posts dealing with gentrification:

"Gentrification in the Mission District," December 4, 2013
"Taylor Area Neighborhood," August 14, 2013

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is there a "natural" minimum wage?

(Adam Smith [right] and David Hume, Edinburgh, from

Reading Adam Smith's 1776 masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, provides an interesting perspective on contemporary debates over the minimum wage in the U.S. He covers "the wages of labour" in chapter 8 of book 1.

By this point in the book, he has already made two key points: 
  1. Humans' innate self-interest lead them to pursue strategies in the economic marketplace that (in most cases) regulate the supply, demand and price of goods more quickly and effectively than an external actor (e.g. the government) can.
  2. The natural price of any good is determined by the cost of the labor required to produce it, profits to reward the risk undertaken by the employer, and the "rental" cost of land and facilities. For a number of reasons, employers and renters are better positioned to command shares of the income from sales of the good, so the wage-earner gets the smallest share.
Smith argues in chapter 8, despite employers' clear advantage in contract negotiations, "there is however a certain rate below which it seems impossible to reduce, for any considerable time, the ordinary wages even of the lowest species of labour." He defines this rate as sufficient pay to maintain the worker, his wife, and a family of four children. This is based on the very 18th century assumptions that (a) the wife will not be working full-time, and (b) only 50 percent of the children will survive to adulthood. Without the ability to bring up new workers, "the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation." This level of wages is "evidently the lowest which is consistent with common humanity."

Who or what enforces this minimum wage level? Smith implies, without explicitly saying so, that it will be enforced by the market i.e. by the self-interest of employers. Employers can't underpay their workforce to the point of starvation, because if the supply of workers declines the price of labor will rise. But while the employers' long-term interest is clear, their short-term interest is not, and Smith is enough of a realist to know that short-term interests come first. Moreover, he was living at a time when the slave trade was legal both in the United States and Britain, allowing slaveowners--who paid their slaves nothing--to purchase more slaves when the ones they had had been worked to death.

The reference to "common humanity" additionally implies a potential role for the employers' conscience, but that would be a novel argument for Smith, who made it clear early in the book that the benevolence of others was not to be relied upon. "[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren," he has written in chapter 2 of book 1, "and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only [italics mine]. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them."

If the market does not enforce the minimum wage, and the employers' "common humanity" can't be counted upon to supply it, does that mean it's up to the state? Smith doesn't suggest such a thing, and given the ambivalence he expresses throughout this work to government involvement in economic matters it's doubtful that was his intention. 160+ years later, anyhow, the U.S. enacted a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour in June 1938 (applying only to workers engaged in "interstate commerce," which is all the Constitution allows the national government to regulate). This amounts to $4.08 an hour in 2012 dollars. The minimum wage hit its purchasing power peak in 1968 when it was raised to $1.60 ($10.59 in 2012 dollars). The current dollar value fell to $5.87 in 2006 before a two-stage increase was passed the following year. In 2012 4.7 percent of hourly paid workers were paid at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25. [Data from The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2013, p. 136, and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics homepage] Most workers who start at or below this level, including your humble author, quickly rise above it, but a notable percentage of minimum wage workers stay around there for a long time (Carrington and Fallick; cite below). Of course, either incremental or dramatic increases to the minimum wage (both have been proposed) would push a larger percentage of wages upward, particularly if it went to $10.10.

Is the current federal minimum wage above or below the "natural" level that would exist if the federal standard were revoked? That's difficult to say, in part because low-wage workers are eligible for a broad array of government benefits that supplement their income, including health insurance, food "stamps," the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing and child care assistance. Their children are eligible for the school lunch program. In this sense, the government has taken the onus off employers of ensuring their workers have sufficient income.

Resting assured that the economic marketplace will provide a floor to wages, and the correct one to boot, means you don't have to think about whether that floor should be $7.25 per hour (about $14,500 per year for a full-time worker), or Illinois' current $8.50 ($17,000), or something lower. But Smith's use of the phrase "common humanity" in chapter 8 points us to consciously considering how much income is actually "sufficient." Efforts to calculate sufficiency, such as the MIT Living Wage Calculator, suggest the floor of sufficiency is a lot more than $10.10 an hour. (For example, MIT calculates a "living wage" for a family with two adults and two children in Cedar Rapids to be $18.64 an hour.)

And sufficiency depends at least in part on characteristics of place: A car is necessary if work is located far from affordable housing. And sufficiency in 2014 surely requires more than was sufficient in 1776, just to keep up with what is expected of a worker or parent. Child care is necessary if we expect both parents to work. Health care is much advanced beyond 18th century standards, but costs a lot more, too. You can't wash your clothes in streams.

I pretty much agree with conservatives like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who told an interviewer in 2013: "You can't [improve working class prospects] by mandating it in the minimum wage laws. Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity." (I don't agree with Rubio and others that an increase will necessarily lead to job losses; historical evidence and economic opinion on that are mixed at best, and there's reason to believe it would have the opposite effect.) Minimum wage laws, overtime rules, unemployment insurance benefit extensions, and food assistance are patches on an economic system that is working for fewer and fewer people. That's the real problem: economic opportunity. Solve that, and you can make the minimum wage negative for all I'll care.

In a society which afforded economic opportunity for everyone no matter where they're starting from, the minimum wage rate would be a mere temporary concern for teenagers working at their first part-time job, and an otherwise "academic" question. But we are far from being such a society. Not only is opportunity far from equal, but the future of work itself is hardly assured. A new book by the economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard, 2014), argues from three centuries of data from 20 now-developed countries that in free markets capital tends to increase its proportion of national revenue, leaving less and less for labor--actually what you'd expect from Smith's observations on the relative power of renters, managers and laborers. And that's counting in the labor portion the stratospheric incomes accruing to contemporary CEOs and financial wizards.

The enormous gaps in wealth and incomes that have opened up in the last 40 years are the historical rule; the spread of wealth in the mid-20th century noted by Simon Kuznets (cited below) was an exception, attributable to an unusual mix of factors including high taxes on the rich. Population growth helped create a bigger pie before, but probably won't happen in the future, at least not in the proportion of the last 300 years.

Economic opportunity will not happen on its own (nor, Piketty argues, by relying only on better education). Something needs to be done. It seems unwise to wait for "nature" to take its course. Addressing the purchasing power of the minimum wage is a tiny step in that direction, but a step nonetheless.


William J. Carrington and Bruce C. Fallick, "Do Some Workers Have Minimum Wage Careers?," Monthly Labor Review, May 2001,

Simon Kuznets, "Economic Growth and Income Inequality," American Economic Review 45:1 (March 1955), 1-28,

Eduardo Porter, "A Relentless Widening Of Disparity In Wealth," New York Times, 12 March 2014, B1, B4, reviewed Piketty's book. Piketty was interviewed by Porter for the Times' Economix blog here.

Rachel Weiner, "Marco Rubio: 'I Don't Think a Minimum Wage Law Works,'" Post Politics, 13 February 2013,

I've written earlier posts pertinent to this subject:
 "The Future is Exciting and Scary," June 24, 2013
 "Poverty and Economic Growth," September 27, 2013
 "The 'New Normal' Economy and Place," November 20, 2013

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Strength through diversity (II)

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled, as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.--PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI (c. 1181-1226)
In my last post I addressed the need to accommodate diversity, one of three critical challenges to our ability to live together in the 21st century. (The others are economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.) A community that accommodates diversity is one where men and women of all ages, social classes, races, ethnicities, religions, languages, sexual orientations and political beliefs (did I leave anything out? oh yeah, modes of transportation!) would live among each other as full and equal members. No one would retreat to a bubble of people just like them; no one would claim a right to discriminate against others based on difference; and everyone would have access to the benefits of living in the community.

In the first post I argued the advantages of inclusion to previously-excluded groups are obvious, and the advantages to the community as a whole are clear if not universally convincing. Now I'm asking why members of advantaged groups in society would find it in their interest to reach out to include the different. Put another way, is there some reason for the socially powerful to reject Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "There is no such thing as society," just a competition among individuals? Some in-group members may see a moral obligation to fairness or equality, but I am wondering about their self-interest. Are there, in a nutshell, self-interest-based arguments for inclusion?

(What follows is in the form of statements, but is really a set of questions.)

Three economic arguments for inclusive communities are:
  • Better towns. A powerful,  inclusive community creates opportunities for all individuals, even the most powerful.  So I reiterate the arguments for community benefits from the first post: Inclusion expands the talent pool (e.g. for entrepreneurship, employment and the military). A broader distribution of wealth allows money to circulate, and thereby to sustain the economy from which individuals and families draw their wealth. The variety of people in inclusive communities make those places more interesting. 
  • Towns that support individual aspirations. The state of the community limits the well-being of an individual or family in other ways. Enforcing barriers, and quelling the unrest that results from having barriers, draw society's resources away from more productive investments. You can't sell things to impoverished customers. You can't keep your children from temptation if the surrounding community is a moral sewer. 
  • Fewer scary places. Urban ghettos, which result from extreme instances of social exclusion, are notorious pockets of crime and disease. It may be that I can be physically far enough away that this doesn't immediately affect me, but there's no guaranteeing those crimes and diseases can be bottled up forever. And even so it limits my ability to move freely around the area.
In a global world, the economic arguments that we're-all-in-this-together-whether-you-know-it-or-not may be weaker today than they were 50 or 75 years ago, thanks to improvements in transportation and communication. So I find myself returning inevitably to an admittedly non-social-scientific domain. Specifically, what does a lifetime of Snarling At The Other do to one's soul? If I exclude, discriminate against, or feel contempt for the Other, do I somehow harm myself?

We can all recognize that difference causes anxiety, if not outright fear. What is the best way to deal with that anxiety? Separation from the Other, discrimination, and feelings of superiority might be our first instinct, not to mention faster, but they can never completely dispel the anxiety that difference creates. To dispel the anxiety requires crossing the divide, and living with difference long enough to recognize that our common humanity is stronger than whatever differentiates us.

Is it counter-intuitive to suggest that personal security can be achieved through openness and inclusion towards others? Well, imagine someone who thinks gays are immoral and poor people are lazy butts. You may be neither gay nor poor, so what does it matter? It matters because, at least subconsciously, you know that the stony finger of judgment or the inflexible verdict of rules will eventually turn on you. The law code you're now so proud of following will eventually bite you in the ass.

Furthermore, exclusion takes effort that could be better spent on something more fulfilling. A healthy soul is an open soul, capable of loving others, consoling others and such. In theory you could love and console some while excluding or feeling contempt for others. But analogizing the soul to a riven community, aren't there opportunity costs to putting energy into keeping apart from certain people, or insisting that society value your life or rules more than theirs? Doesn't it make it more difficult to console, love, &c. anyone? Doesn't make it harder to do things that bring you joy?

Separation from the Other turns you back into yourself at considerable psychic risk. When I read urbanist plugs for diverse communities, they tend to focus on advantages for the poor and otherwise excluded (see Calthorpe and Felton, The Regional City [Island, 2000], 72-87; Duany et al., Suburban Nation [North Point, 2000], 129-133). There may be advantages for social in-groups as well.

SEE ALSO: Allen Vander Meulen, "Refusing to Relate," The Here and the Hereafter, 10 March 2014, Allen is a college friend, now a pastor in Massachusetts, with an eloquent take on the same issue. He concludes:
We cannot avoid relationship with others, no matter who they are. God's gift is that we have the freedom to choose to pursue that relationship, to nurture it to achieve all that it can offer us; or else to refuse to even try, and so limit ourselves, and thereby limit our ability to fulfill God's call upon our lives.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Strength through diversity

(William of Rubruck, swiped from

Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, this week vetoed a bill that would have allowed commercial establishments to refuse service to gays and lesbians. The veto was urged by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which feared the potential economic consequences if tourists and businesses carried through on threats to boycott the state if the bill became law (which is not to suggest that was their only consideration). The last two Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and John McCain, also weighed in against it. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested "This bill instinctively struck people as a violation of individual liberty... The notion that because of your orientation or your religion that you can be denied food service because of someone else's sincere religious belief went too far" (Quoted in Adam Nagourney, "Arizona Bill Stirred Alarm in the G.O.P," New York Times, 28 February 2014, A11, A16).

Brewer won election in 2010 riding a wave of resentment against a variety of groups. The famous crackdown on illegal immigration was accompanied by other laws aimed at non-Anglos, including restricting the official use of languages other than English and the teaching of Mexican-American "ethnic studies" in public schools. (Yet another bill, ending state recognition of "birthright citizenship," was ultimately defeated by the Arizona Senate in 2011.) She is now having trouble reining in these emotionally satisfying but contentious moves. Wednesday she chided her fellow Republicans in the legislature for focusing on hot-button issues instead of her budget and administrative agenda (See Fernanda Santos, "Day After Veto, Arizona Takes Up Abortion Clinics," New York Times, 28 February 2014, A16).

To conservative consultant Nelson Warfield, quoted in Nagourney's column, supporters of the latest Arizona effort were doomed by how the issue was framed. "It became about human rights and human dignity and not religious conscience. As soon as it shifted from a debate about religious conscience to a respect for human dignity, it was a loser." The rhetorical use of religious freedom must be taken seriously, as this is a core American value... even when it's used as a tool for 'in' groups to use against 'out' groups. If the essence of free expression is "freedom for the thought we hate," don't we have to tolerate intolerance? Taking the thought to action, does that mean there is a religion-based right to discriminate?

I like rights, but am concerned that their assertion stops conversations. Sometimes there are conversations that should be stopped, like whether blacks should have the right to vote (1965), but a lot of times we wind up asserting and counter-asserting when we should be discussing. This applies today to a wide swath of issues related to meaningful inclusion a.k.a. the accommodation of diversity.

The importance of inclusion to excluded groups can't be difficult to see. The pursuit of happiness proclaimed as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence is an empty promise unless there is full access to the benefits and opportunities of membership in society. Suffrage is pretty close to universal in America today, but many people live in ghettos physically cut off from economic opportunity. Many people materially suffer because, in the words of Greg Brown, "the color of your skin or who you choose to love" don't match the ideal of the established in group. Now if one crotchety baker doesn't want to make me a wedding cake, I can always go to another baker, but if this is systematically happening it's clear I am not a full and equal member of society. And that feeling matters too.

There are also advantages to society as a whole for accommodating diversity. William of Rubruck, pictured at the top of this post, was a Dutch monk whose 1253 journey to the Mongol Empire made the remarkable discovery that the Khan's strategy for holding his great empire together and maintaining its strength was to tolerate and even encourage a variety of languages, customs and religions.

  1. First, you draw on a broader base of talent. The victory of the basketball team from Texas Western over the all-white team from Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championships was a pretty clear message (and not the first, either) that racist societies that excluded talent were handicapping themselves. This is borne out by Richard Florida's "gay-bohemian index" correlating with local housing values: communities that value diversity are more energetic and ultimately more successful. 
  2. Secondly, you don't spend scarce resources keeping people separated or away. Keeping gated communities gated, and "gated communities of the mind" safe from new ideas, sucks up energy and resources that could be better spent innovating solutions and improving quality of life.

To torment an old metaphor, this is the "salad bowl" vision of diversity, not the "melting pot." The melting pot concept dates from the 19th century, the idea being that America could draw immigrants from far and wide but they had to learn how to be Americans before they could fully play (and we who were already here would be the judge of that). Maybe it's because I like food better than candles, but I see advantages to a society that celebrates difference and draws on a variety of flavor contributions to one based on conformity.

Which brings us to the question I was stuck on last July: "Are there practical consequences for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan area isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying, does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it [harm] the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?"

Where I'm stuck, and would like some help from the blogosphere, is what the advantages are for the currently-enclaved to leave their enclaves and join the rest of us. Maybe they should want to, but why would they want to? I have some thoughts on this, but they're not fully formed, and anyhow this post has gone on long enough, so I think I'll let this question hang.

Maple syrup festival

One of the annual events that brings the community together in Cedar Rapids is the Maple Syrup Festival, held the first weekend of March at the Indian Creek Nature Center, 6665 Otis Rd SE.

Eli had an all-day rehearsal today, so he and I got there as soon as it opened (8:30). It was quite cold, as it has been pretty much all winter, and either that or the early hour held the crowds down. Good for us... because it meant easy access to the pancakes... but not so good for the nature center, or for the people who were missing out, so I hope things picked up as the day wore on.

There were plenty of volunteers, parking cars...

...making and serving pancakes...

...and staffing exhibits.

An event like this requires a lot of different kinds of volunteering. There were workplace groups, as well as individuals who volunteer for the nature center. Everyone looked cheerful and warm, in spite of the temperature. Happily we got to eat inside. The pancakes and sausages were great, and we both had plenty of each. I'm not sure where the coffee came from, but it tasted good too. They typically have live music... we heard bluegrass (and caught a reference to the nature center) but didn't see musicians, so maybe it was recorded a previous year. We didn't stick around long, because Eli was late to his rehearsal, but I hope next year the weather will be more clement and we can poke around the exhibits and chat up the volunteers.I always learn something from the exhibits no matter how often I visit.

Jane took more pictures at the 2011 maple syrup festival, including the one at the top of this post. Her post from that event is at

Cindy Hadish has breaking news of the nature center's new "living amphitheater" at

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...